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The Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Best Place to Live

Ready to move but aren't sure where to go? These questions will help you figure out the best place to live for you.

By Jamie Birdwell-Branson on March 30, 2021

In an era of being encouraged to remain in our living rooms night after night, ironically, Americans are loading up their couches in a truck and moving more than ever. According to Ipsos, 42% of US adults moved or considered moving since March of 2020 (compare this to 2019, when an estimated 10% of the population moved).

Many of these movers are doing so out of dire necessity – they can no longer afford their rent in an expensive city, their dorm closed or they need more space to suddenly work from home – but some are moving for a literal change of scenery or to be closer to family. Not to mention the millions of office workers who may have been tied to a cubicle in a downtown office for years, who are now free to choose the place where they live, as permanent remote work becomes more widely available.

But when you’re suddenly faced with the potential of finding a new place to live, how do you choose? And in a time where our sense of place is temporarily warped due to the necessity of staying safe (and therefore staying home), how do you evaluate a city that seems like it might be a good fit from afar?

Need help on your journey to find a new home base? Here’s a comprehensive list of questions to think about before you start scrolling Zillow.

1. What kind of access does it have to the great outdoors?

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Twin Falls / Brayden Weeks

If there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout this pandemic, it’s that easy access to nature isn’t just a nice thing to have. It’s an absolute necessity. Being outdoors is not only safer when we’re gathering with friends and family, but it’s also one of the only activities that’s truly unrestricted as we’ve watched movie theaters shutter, restaurants close down and bars seen as an unsafe place to gather. In fact, states with great outdoor activities like hiking and skiing have seen a considerable increase in relocations “” with New Mexico receiving a 44% influx of movers and Idaho receiving a 194% influx of new residents.

When evaluating a potential new city’s access to the outdoors, look at its number of parks in relation to its overall size and population, or even look straight at a Google map to see where it is in relation to natural amenities like rivers, oceans and mountains.

Some great cities to consider:

2. What’s the climate like?

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Daytona Beach / New Smyrna Beach Area Visitors Bureau

Are you miserable in the hot sun, or does the idea of facing a brutal midwestern winter make you want to put every single jacket you own on at once, Joey Tribbiani-style? If you’re lucky enough to choose where you get to live, climate is a big consideration, as it will inevitably affect your energy bills, your access to outdoor activities and, most importantly, your mood.

The easiest way to settle this score? Search for the average monthly temperature for your potential city and see if this is something you can live with.

Are you miserable in the hot sun, or does the idea of facing a brutal midwestern winter make you want to put every single jacket you own on at once, Joey Tribbiani-style? If you’re lucky enough to choose where you get to live, climate is a big consideration, as it will inevitably affect your energy bills, your access to outdoor activities and, most importantly, your mood. 

The easiest way to settle this score? Search for the average monthly temperature for your potential city and see if this is something you can live with. 

Some great cities to consider:

  • Head to Tucson, AZ, for sweltering summers (averaging about 100 degrees) and temperate winters (only dipping to a downright lovely 66 degrees). 
  • Craving even-keel weather all year round? San Luis Obispo, CA might just be calling your name, with an average temp of around 65 degrees. 
  • Daytona, FL, which gives you beautiful beaches to enjoy in beautiful weather, yes, but also so much more.  
  • Ann Arbor, MI, where residents enjoy all four seasons in their full glory (and which Livability named one of the country’s best bike cities!).

3. What kind of house do you want to live in?

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Did the pandemic make you yearn for a backyard of your very own for the first time in your adult life, or would you much prefer a city that has access to sky-high buildings and your favorite take-out place downstairs? Or, is interesting architecture more your main priority?

When choosing a city, don’t forget to factor in the type of house you prefer to live in. The best way to evaluate this is to look at various real estate websites to see what the offerings are – whether that’s primarily single-family homes, apartments or if it’s a city filled with condos that have HOAs. You can also search for a city’s most popular neighborhood to get a good glimpse of what type of home is most sought after in the area.

Some great cities to consider:

4. Is the city walkable?

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Boise / Louis Ruth Photography

You should absolutely walk a mile in your potential city’s shoes and see where it’ll take you – and luckily, it’s easy to do this without even having to visit. The ability to walk to restaurants, bars, art exhibits and parks within a matter of minutes from your front door is an extremely valuable item on many people’s checklists of their perfect place because it means the city is lively and easily accessible.

To determine good walkability in a city, you can check out the city’s walk score or you can count how many different core business areas there are within the city – is there only one main walkable area in town, or are there multiple neighborhoods where this is a possibility?

Some great cities to consider:

  • Walk along Freak Alley in Boise, ID, which is thought to be the largest outdoor art gallery in the Northwest.
  • Chattanooga has carved out a reputation as an outdoor adventure hotspot. Still, it deserves points for walkability, too: the city’s downtown and many of its neighborhoods are well-connected and easy to navigate on foot or bike.

5. How’s the affordability?

Whether you’re leaving an extremely expensive city you can no longer afford or you’re looking for a place to get more bang for your buck, affordability is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a new city.

Some great cities to consider:

  • For affordability, it doesn’t get much better than Meridian, ID, and Pueblo, CO, where you can get 1,800 square feet of house for less than $300,000.
  • Looking for a welcoming, growing city in the South? Check out Warner Robins, GA.
  • Grand Forks, ND combines an affordable cost of living with an incredible array of job opportunities and a stable economy. Win-win-win.

6. How was the city’s economy before the pandemic?

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Madison / Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison/Bryce Richter

Of course, right now might not be the best time to evaluate a city’s economic health, but with any luck, we’ll all bounce right back just as soon as the pandemic has slowed down to a trickle and life gets back to normal. To get a good idea of what a city has to offer business-wise, head to the respective city’s chamber of commerce page to check out what industries are the most prominent and what kind of Main Street activity it has.

Some great cities to consider:

7. What is the city’s library system like?

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Photo by Susan Yin via Unsplash

Free access to reading materials, entertainment and the internet has never been more important than it is now – and libraries are pulling out all the stops to meet the needs of their communities. Whether you like to browse, need help with your taxes or would like to participate in community events, the library in your city is the best place to start.

Some great cities to consider:

8. What access does it have to the arts?

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Pueblo / Jeff Adkins

Though live shows are temporarily on pause, theater, art museums, orchestras and dance troupes take a city from a stack of concrete buildings to a place that feels very much alive with all the best things that we human beings have to offer. While you’re scoping out towns, take a peek at the city’s art commissions, museums, historical centers and performance halls. Chat with locals about their favorite creative outlets or quirky subcultures.

Some great cities to consider:

 

9. How are the schools?

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Courtesy of Oxford City School District

If you have little ones (or plan on having them in the not-so-distant future), it makes sense to see what the public school system is like before you commit. Although many sites rank schools, it almost always makes more sense to have a personal conversation with local school principals and teachers, who could give you a complete picture of the school system. School rankings are based on achievement tests, which are correlated with poverty rates (or lack thereof) and not the students’ ability or the quality of the instruction.

Some great cities to consider:

10. Is it near friends and family?

For thousands of Americans this past year, it just made sense to go home again. Home was not only a welcoming place during such a scary time, but it also likely saved many countless dollars when they were short on rent or gas money. During times of crisis, being near the support of friends and family – even six feet apart – can often make more sense than living thousands of miles away.

11. What are your hobbies? (And are there fellow hobbyists in the city?)

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Boise / Photo courtesy of Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau/Chad Case

Whether you picked up a hobby during quarantine or strengthened an old one, being in a city with fellow knitting nerds or amateur ukulele players can feel more welcoming. Getting the scoop on the local groups is easy to do with sites like Meetup.com or even just browsing Facebook groups to see what’s available. Don’t see your particular hobby represented? An excellent way to make new friends is to start your own.

Some great cities to consider:

12. Is it easy to find a spiritual home?

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For many, finding a new home means finding a new spiritual home in the community “” where they can worship or meet like-minded folks. Whether you’re looking for a place to take communion every Sunday or looking for a Mosque to pray in, the best way to seek a new spiritual home is to do a quick internet search for your chosen denomination or religion and then reach out to the Ecclesiastical leaders of the place of faith.

13. Do you have any special health issues? Can the hospitals/providers support them?

It’s fair to say we’ve never been so hyper-aware of the state of our health than right now. And if you’re planning a move, one thing you shouldn’t overlook is the amount and quality of healthcare facilities in the area, especially if you have any particular health care issues that need regular attention. Though it’s wise to ask your current doctor for a recommendation of a specialist in a new city if you have specific needs, a good way to get a sense of the overall healthcare offerings is to do a quick search on the American Hospital Directory, which will list all of the hospital systems in town and what facility type they are.

Some great cities to consider:

  • With 15 percent of the population employed in the healthcare industry, the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area is a good bet if you have any highly specialized medical needs or if you’re interested in getting into the healthcare field yourself. 
  • Daytona’s Advent Health provides top-quality care to patients (and top-quality career opportunities to healthcare professionals). 
  • Rochester, MN is a diverse, welcoming community that has been shaped and bolstered by the legendary Mayo Clinic.

14. What kinds of foods do you like? Are there good restaurants/grocers for that?

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Iowa City / Photo Courtesy of Tim Carty

What would Pittsburgh be without its pierogies and Austin without its queso? Part of the fun of exploring a new city is to try all of the new foods that come along with it, but checking out the local restaurant/specialty grocery scene can also make you feel more comfortable diving into the foodie scene headfirst. Looking to see if your prospective city has good vegan dining options? The best place to check out first is Instagram, which will provide a breadth of appetizing photos and locations for you to try.

Some great cities to consider:

15. How is the coffee scene?

Would Lorelai Gilmore have stayed in Stars Hollow if not for Luke’s famous diner coffee? We’re not betting on it. Before you move, you should check to see how much of a caffeine buzz you can get in your potential new city – scouring sites like Yelp, Google and doing a deep dive on Instagram to see which coffee shop has the best latte art.

Some great cities to consider:

16. How has the city worked to show empathy towards its citizens during these trying times?

We’ve gone through some unprecedented events in the last year, and although it’s been an incredibly dark time, it’s also shown us the resilience and kindness of the human spirit. When searching for a new place to live, don’t forget to look at the heart of its citizens – whether they are caring for the sick in the hospital or they are putting together teddy bear performance art to entertain their neighbors.

Some great cities to consider:

  • The Iowa City Errand-ers proved that with just a tweet and some hand sanitizer, they could come together to help the most vulnerable populations in their city. 
  • Tennessee’s Williamson Inc held frequent webinars during the pandemic to help small businesses navigate PPP loans and other resources. 
  • The Robins Regional Chamber was on the front lines assisting local businesses and residents find resources, help, and hope. 

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