Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Choosing your Neighborhood Wisely: The Hidden Costs of Location Efficiency

One factor that is often neglected in discussions with potential home buyers is the concept of location efficiency and affordablity. Changes to urban design paradigms are increasingly popular topics for journalists and news outlets, but they remain a big picture topic that doesn't entirely trickle down to those immediately searching for a home. When you begin your search, you probably have a pretty good idea of what basic criterea you need -- the number of bedrooms, the architectural styles you favor, whether you need to be in a certain school district. There are a few other factors to consider, however, that might not be so immediatly recognizeable. For example, have you factored local taxes, relocation costs, or utilities into how much home you can afford to buy? Will you have to pay extra for security measures like an alarm system, building a fence, or adopting a big dog? And, of course, there is the oft-overlooked question of of location efficiency.

It is important to honestly assess your commute style and habits when picking out potential neighborhoods as you narrow your home search. Do you tend to spend your personal time at home or out on the town? Do you mind a long commute in exchange for more room and greater privacy or do you prefer to be downtown, able to step out to the corner store or a community event at a moment's notice? These questions aren't only a matter of life style, but also of economic cost. Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, has done significant research into the concept of location efficiency, which Atlantic Cities writer Emily Badger describes as "a rough analogue to the idea of energy efficiency that captures the extent to which your job, your grocery store and your favorite pub are all convenient to you" in her article "Debunking the Cul-De-Sac."

His research brings to light aspects of location that are harder to add in to your monthly budget. It isn't terribly hard to estimate how much you'll spend in gas or on a bus pass to get to work each day, or to assess how often you like to go out for leisure. But what about the incidentals that can nickle and dime your finances? As Badger writes,
"What is harder to measure is the value of simply being connected - to where we want to go, but also to each other. Bernstein's location efficiency data speaks to some of this. He's even found that foreclosure hotspots tend to be focused in places with the least location efficiency - in spread-out subdivisions, where a family already stretched to the limit can go broke driving 10 miles each way for a gallon of milk."
This is an especially prescient concern as the problem of "food deserts" grows and gains more media attention. From Baltimore, to the midwest, to Chattanooga, people are having to travel farther and farther to get daily necessities. While the phenomenon is especially problematic and pervasive amongst poor, innner-city, and minority communities, it is increasingly a problem for the more affluent as well. As urban revitalization brings more young professionals and the middle class back into downtown areas, they frequently find they have moved into food deserts. The difference is that these individuals and families are better able to make long trips to the grocery stores and shopping centers than those limited to public transit and on a tight budget.

Keep location efficiency in mind as you contemplate the pros and cons of suburban vs. urban living. Do you need more frequent and easy access to work, play, or shopping? With rising gas prices affecting the cost of both driving and some types of public transit, how will transportation factor in to your cost of living? As you narrow down your home search area to a few favored neighborhoods, look at where you would get groceries, drop your kids off to play dates, and eat out with friends, or pick up your morning train. Whether you had your eye on a cul-de-sac property in a gated community or were dreaming of an urban loft, you may be surprised at the hidden costs the come with going to and fro.