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Realities of Real Estate: Why we live where we live

As part of our profession in real estate, we’ve seen and sold a wide variety of homes, everything from a $14,000 double-wide to multi-million dollar waterfront estates. The diversity in how and where people live never ceases to amaze us. No matter how humble or elaborate, we’ve found that for every Jack there’s a Jill. So, regardless of what the house looks like, or where it is, there’s always someone out there who’ll think it’s just the right place for them.

The human spirit and ability to adapt to one’s surroundings is indeed boundless. Globally, people live in places that you might think are nearly incapable of supporting life. For example, consider the Atacama Desert in Peru, possibly the driest place on earth. On average, it rains only 4 out of every 1,000 years. The place is sweltering hot during the day and freezing at night. Yet, nearly 1 million people call the Atacama Desert home.

Or, try living on the Pitcairn Islands. With only 50 inhabitants, who are descendants of mutineers from the HMS Bounty, this extremely remote part of the South Pacific has no air strip or harbor, but it does have high-speed Internet. Then, there’s Tristan da Cunah, population 297. Located almost 1,500 miles from the tip of South Africa, it’s considered to be the most isolated land mass on the planet. Plus, it might be one of the most unfriendly. The locals have passed a law prohibiting immigration.

Closer to home, the living conditions are obviously far less extreme. Nevertheless, it makes one wonder why we live where we do. In an article written by David Quilty for MoneyCrashers.com, the author identifies what we think is a fairly comprehensive list of 14 factors most people consider when deciding where to live. That list includes: Affordability, Taxes, Employment Opportunities, Real Estate Values, Crime Rates and Statistics, Proximity to Family and Friends, Climate, Culture, Education System, Commute Time and Public Transportation Options, Food Options, Town or City Size, Healthcare Facilities and Proximity to an Airport.

Clearly, not all of these factors apply to everyone, and depending on your stage in life, individual preferences, and/or financial wherewithal, how these considerations are prioritized will vary substantially from one person to another. Those approaching retirement age are much more likely to be influenced by the local climate, taxes and proximity to family. Conversely, young families just starting out will be more worried about affordability, the education system and employment opportunities. Other considerations can cut across all age groups. Everyone wants to buy a house that will hold its value and appreciate over time, and no one wants to live in an area where crime or personal safety is a problem.

For most, the initial, and probably most defining issue, is affordability. If money is no object, there’s a lot more flexibility in selecting a location that addresses many of the 14 factors. Adequate finances also allows a homebuyer to overcome issues like the education system by creating more options, such as private schools. But, for the vast majority of us who aren’t in those upper-income brackets, it’s not possible to get everything you want, hence the need to separate the “must haves” from the “like to have.”

At times, this can be a difficult choice. We see it all the time with buyers. Often, they’ll find a house that they like, but the location is all wrong. Or, the location is just right, but the house isn’t what they had hoped for. In most cases, we counsel them to opt for the better location. It’s always possible to change the house, but you can’t change where it sits. Like they say in the real estate business, it’s all about location, location, location.

Beyond the more practical elements noted above, there is another aspect of how we choose where to live. The psychological issues of self-image, sense of belonging and well-being are also powerful motivators. To a large extent, many home buyers seem to prefer a place that resembles where they grew up. Although there are exceptions, it is natural for people to be attracted to surroundings that harken back to pleasant past memories. We also feel more at home with neighborhoods that have a familiar culture or social environment. Not only does this produce a self-selection process by which buyer gravitate toward certain communities, it is also reflected in how new communities are created.

Take a look at relatively new developments like Bowie Town Center or Waugh Chapel Towne Center in Crofton. Essentially, they’re trying to recreate the small-town atmosphere many of us grew up with. Sidewalks, rows of small shops and parks have replaced the megamall surrounded by acres of asphalt. It’s all designed to address the psychological needs of today’s home buyer. Newer housing stock has followed suit with community and commercial areas. For a while, the car was king, and front facades were dominated by the driveway and garage. Now, we’re seeing a return of sidewalks, front porches, and where possible, the garage is now out back. As in the Rascal Flatts song, the Mayberry effect is back in style, a popular choice for those baby boomers who remember the days when they’d sit on the front porch swing, drinkin’ an ice cold Cherry Coke. When the younger crowd starts moving out of mom and dad’s basement, they too will begin to drive house design. You’re likely to see homes packed with technology where you can run everything from a smart phone.

So, whether it’s the more mundane consideration of what you can afford, local taxes and where the closest commuter route is located, or the more interesting and ethereal notions of how a house makes you feel, there’s a lot that goes into deciding where we want to live. That’s a big part of why moving to a new home is exciting and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a lot on the line, both financially and emotionally. Just know that, unless you’ve got unlimited funds, you’re probably not going to get everything you want. As a result, stay focused on aligning your priorities and you’ll maximize your chances of knowing exactly where you want to live.