“It’s too expensive to live downtown.” Fact or myth?

Many people love to come downtown to “play”, enjoying the  entertainment and dining choices that a city has to offer, but when considering where they call home, they assume that urban living is too expensive.  Let’s take a closer look.

You don’t need the same size house if you live downtown. 

It’s true that the cost of living downtown is in most cases higher on a per square foot basis, but that should not be surprising.  Raleigh is no different than most other urban centers where land values create a higher density environment. Buildings go up instead of out.  The benefit is that active areas within urban centers are in close proximity to each other, allowing people to walk or use public transit to get with ease from place to place where they live, work and play.

More people today are willing to sacrifice space for a walkable neighborhood.

Compared to the suburbs or smaller towns, you would likely need to be relatively wealthy to live in a similar size house downtown, if you could even find one.  Yet many are beginning to question traditional “outsized fantasies” about a big house being a symbol of success.  According to recent surveys, Most Americans want a walkable neighborhood, Not a Big House.  And More Proof.

Do you really need all that space?

You can buy more house for the money in the suburbs, but if you don’t need all the extra space, the overall cost to live downtown may be the same or less.

Consider these factors.  Younger people looking to keep maintenance costs low are happy to live in a multi-unit settings like small apartments, townhouses or condos.  Imagine not having to need a garage full of lawn and garden equipment to maintain a big yard.  And look at utility costs. Multi-unit living provides a much more efficient interior space for heating and cooling.  Living in a condo, my average electric bill is less than $100.00 per month.

It can undoubtably be a challenge to downsize for people who have collected lots of stuff in a bigger house, but many empty nesters have found the freedom that city living offers.  My wife says downsizing “means getting rid of all the extraneous things and noise in your life that are not contributing to your happiness”.  Her advice is to “get rid of the clutter, and everything around you becomes the things you love”.

Reconsider the value proposition for living downtown.

Living downtown offers a vibrant, unique lifestyle with benefits that add value beyond a simple comparison of cost.   These include:

  • Healthy lifestyle from walking places rather than driving

“3% of Americans live in walkable neighborhoods, though 40% report that they wish to, including 77% of Millennials.”

  • Not having to worry about parking

“Downtowns can’t compete with suburbs for convenient parking.  Instead, convenience must come from walkability and proximity.  You don’t need much parking when people are living nearby, in desirable, walkable places.”

  • Better social experience and networking 

Downtowns facilitate the need and want for social and economic exchange, where convenience and proximately aren’t at odds.”

Finally, I would make the case that downtown living is likely to offer the best long term investment opportunity when compared to suburban areas, as more people choose to make do with less space by living smaller, working closer and shedding excess.

So the next time you hear someone say it’s too expensive to live downtown, you might agree on a per square foot basis, but also suggest that they might want to consider sacrificing some indoor space for the full range of benefits that comes with urban living.  When adding in the positive factors to the environment from less cars on the road, the physical benefits of walking, the social impact of neighbors meeting each other face to face, rather than waving from behind windshields, I’d say that it’s a bargain to live Downtown!


  1. Still too expensive. would love to live downtown. Prices were too inflated, and still are. Grew up downtown, just cant cut the prices. 🙁

  2. Brilliant. Great breakdown and it’s definitely more than an anecdote! Urbanization is on the rise—and for great reasons!

  3. allaboutdowntown

    May 6, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Great blog Jim, Thanks! I recall when we lived in Wake Forest, NC we always ended up at the big box retailers picking up something for the yard. I estimated about $100 a weekend……..plants, fertilizer, soil, replacement crap for the lawn equipment…..always something. Monthly we were looking at $400 per month and $4,800 a year. Not only the expense, but working in the yard all weekend was fun, but absorbed a ton of time…….a ton of time. Put a price tag on your time and I bet you find that living in an Urban environment will be worth it.

  4. Great blog, Jim. I have this debate with many people. I agree with your points about clutter, size, walkability, social connections, and healthy lifestyles. My downtown house was very affordable, has low monthly utility costs, I use my car occasionally, and I love everything in my home! Thanks for writing this!

  5. For people who also work downtown, living close to work can result in considerable savings in transportation costs. Not to mention the extra time and lack of stress from not having a long commute!

  6. Building on what Jenna said about transportation, it was my experience that my total driving miles was cut significantly after moving downtown. Even with a DT to suburb commute, my total miles driven dropped because I found my non-commuting driving was significantly reduced. All in all, I drive about 6000 miles less per year. So, let’s do the math….. 6000/25 (MPG) = 240 X 3.75 = $900 per year savings. If I drive my cars until 100,000 miles and I was driving 15,000 miles a year, I would be buying a new car every 6 years 8 months. At 9,000 miles a year, I can drive my car just over 11 years and avoid over 4 years of car payments.
    So, over that 11 years, I have saved $10,000 in gas and (assuming a $500/month car payment) delayed $24,000 in car payments. In total, that’s enough money to buy a very nice car in cash.

    As for utilities, mine are less than $60 a month on an 1100 SF two bedroom condo.

  7. Prices are absolutely not too high. Just if you look in the wrong place. You can be a mile from the center of downtown and close to Seaboard, etc.. with access to the beltline, Wade, 40. See this house for example, just think outside Five Points and you’ll be amazed!


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