3 economic variables to consider before relocating

Inman News

Suppose you are a teacher living in Tampa, Fla., but get a job offer in Philadelphia that will include a higher salary.

Being very diligent, you consider whether the workplace opportunities are better in the new city than the old, and whether your personal interests are amenable to the cultural and lifestyle changes you would be making.

Although you are going to be getting a salary boost, the one thing you are probably not considering is whether Philadelphia is economically a better place to live than Tampa.

Most of us assume the costs of residing in one city are probably similar to that of another. After all, once you get past the cost of renting or buying a house, all other expenses are probably equal.

Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy, would like to dispel you of such notions.

I had given Lubell a call after coming across a study he wrote, "Losing Ground: The Struggle of Moderate-Income Households to Afford the Rising Costs of Housing and Transportation."

The title alone was enough to give one the willies: While the increase in our household income since 2000 has been modest, basic living expenses have gone, pardon the pun, through the roof.

"What gives?" I exclaimed to Lubell once I got him on the phone.

Knowing he had an excitable reporter on the phone, he started with the basics. From 2000 to 2010, household income climbed 25 percent. That sounded decent until he added that housing costs (including utility costs) over the same period of time rose 52 percent, while transportation costs (not just gasoline prices but cost of car ownership, public transportation and expenses in doing local errands such as shopping) rose 33 percent. Add them both together and combined housing and transportation costs jumped 44 percent.

It didn't take me long to figure out I was losing ground economically.

Lubell's study looked at 25 of the country's largest metros and what he discovered was the extreme variance in income and housing costs.

I live in the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metroplex, and I had a little bit of reason to be unhappy. Over the past decade, average income in my area rose 16 percent, but household/transportation costs jumped 35 percent. The ratio between the two was 2.13, one of the weaker-performing metros in the country. Other cities in about the same range: Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Miami and Dallas.

There were two cities much worse: Atlanta, where the ratio was 2.72, and Detroit, which was off the charts at 4.54, where income for the decade dribbled upwards at 8 percent while household/transportation costs vaulted 38 percent, the study found.

In case you're wondering, the best-performing cities in this matrix: Baltimore at 1.35 percent; Pittsburgh at 1.24 percent; and Seattle at 1.16 percent. For the latter city, income jumped 28 percent, just slightly behind household/transportation expenses at 33 percent.

One of the purposes of the study, Lubell said, was to see what the effect of the changes were on moderate-income households, and it's here where Lubell said there were surprises.

Basically, the metro areas where moderate-income (national average income is $44,566) families spend the greatest share of their income for housing and transportation costs are not where we might expect, and this is because higher incomes offset the higher costs of housing/transportation expenses.

Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston, San Diego and Los Angeles are, as one could guess, five of the most expensive areas of the country to live just considering housing expenses. However, when transportation costs are added to the mix, some metro areas such as New York and Chicago where there is good public transportation and density puts services in walking distance, the cost burden is lessened.

On the other hand, in cities such as Riverside, Calif., Minneapolis and Atlanta, higher transportation costs make these metros relatively more pricey places to live.

The real eye-opener in the survey, Lubell said, was when he compared the cost burden (share of household budget spent on housing and transportation expenses) of all the cities in the survey. Then all expectations were blown apart.

In this graphic, Miami becomes the most expensive city in the country because housing and transportation costs consume 72 percent of the income of a moderate-income household. The next six cities were Riverside, 69 percent; Tampa, 66 percent; Los Angeles, 65 percent; San Diego, 63 percent; Atlanta, 63 percent; and Sacramento, 62 percent.

I pointed out to Lubell that the most expensive cities on his list were, except for Atlanta, either in California or Florida.

It was only coincidental, he assured me. "Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego are expensive places to live, but where average incomes don't justify the expense. Tampa, on the other hand, in terms of household/transportation costs is the second most affordable of the all the metros in the study, but it also has the lowest income."

In case you're wondering which cities are the most affordable, using this matrix, it's Washington, D.C., at 51 percent, and that because despite very high housing costs, incomes are higher for moderate-income households. Close to D.C. were Philadelphia at 52 percent; Baltimore at 53 percent; and three cities at 54 percent, Minneapolis, Boston and San Francisco.

For that teacher considering a move Philadelphia from Tampa, economically it would be a good move.

"People who are trying to decide where to live need to think about what the costs are going to be for transportation as well as for housing, and that is often hard to quantify," Lubell said. "A place might seem affordable if you look at the housing costs alone, but if you have a second car or drive longer distances it is not going to be that much more affordable. You are also going to be spending more time in your car and less time with your family."

Secondly, Lubell added, "A place that seems more expensive in pure dollar terms may not be as expensive because you are going to make more money. You might be spending more for housing and transportation, but it is a lower share of your income."

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "The Death of Johnny Ace," is now available for sale on Amazon.

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