City vs. Suburb – That is the question!

Rob Carrick (@rcarrick) of the Globe and Mail wrote a very interesting article titled The Real Cost of Living in Suburbia comparing the home ownership costs of living in the suburbs versus living in the city. His thoughts were spurred on by David Hughes, an Ontario based mortgage broker, who created a spreadsheet to help his clients understand the overall costs of the suburbs vs. city choice.

The article talks about the fact that city homes cost more than suburban homes, but that this added cost is offset by the added automobile expense of commuting with two cars if you live in the suburbs.

Mr. Carrick correctly points out that Mr. Hughes uses some “contentious assumptions” regarding the choices that each homeowner might make. For instance, inner city buyers would forgo owning a car altogether and instead would utilize transit, taxis and car shares exclusively. This may be realistic for cities such as Vancouver or Toronto but not so much for Calgary or Ottawa. I believe that in Calgary it might not be realistic for a couple to be completely car-less. However, it is very likely that the inner city owner of car would be driving far less, perhaps as much as 80% less, because the car would effectively only be used on weekends or the occasional trip outside of the city core. There was another important point that wasn’t contemplated in Mr. Hughes example; the fact that monthly parking costs for suburban commuters could be in the hundred’s of dollars each month.

As someone who has had the opportunity to live both lives (while living in Kelowna my wife, three kids and I lived in the suburbs, owned two cars and drove to work. In Vancouver we lived in the inner city, only owned one car and I walked or bicycled to work daily.) I can attest to the cost savings of owning only one car. I can also confirm that we were rarely inconvenienced by only owning one car.

The article and spreadsheet really only focus on the financial facts but there is one very important, highly subjective, point that is not discussed: living in the city it healthier for you. It is healthier for your body and your mind. I base this comment on what I experienced while living in the city:

– I walked more, a lot more, than I did when I lived in a car centric (we had to drive to everything) neighbourhood.

– Driving is stressful! I was excited to drive when I was 16. At 44 I find it a pain-in-the-butt; a necessary evil to avoid whenever possible. Take note of this quote from Kael Greco who led an MIT project that studied the links between driving and stress “We found that certain driving situations can be one of the most stressful activities in our lives.”

– Owning a multi-family property (condo or townhome) in the city can make your life easy. The maintenance and upkeep of a single family home can be stressful and takes time.

– Living closer to work reduces the size of your “triangle”. This triangle, described in the 2007 Annals of Transport – There and Back Again article published in The New Yorker, refers to the distance between the following three points: where you sleep, where you work and where you shop. Generally speaking the article talks about the theory that the smaller your triangle (the closer in proximity each of these locations are to each other) the happier you’ll be.

So what value can be placed on the easier, stress reduced and happier life that you may experience by living in the city? I’ll leave that for you to ask yourself as you ponder this article “Stressed Today, Sick Tomorrow” from the Mayo Clinic.

Shane Styles – Bucci Developments