The rent-or-buy debate is typically limited to financial questions. Will my mortgage payments exceed my current rent? Should I wait for interest rates to drop a little further?
Recent years have demonstrated that there are no longer dependable answers to these money questions — and that maybe they weren’t the right ones to begin with.So we’ve shunted them aside to examine what we consider to be the more significant points of the debate: Does every man still need his kingdom, even if that kingdom’s value plummets from month to month? And how will a 25-year debate limit future opportunities?
In the rent-or-buy debate, as with most big life decisions, a single, concrete answer is elusive. The most important thing you can do is make sure you’ve asked yourself the right questions.
Shifting gears from last week, when I talked about the pros and cons of country living, this week it’s all about the opposite — or is it? While most of the world’s population resides in metropolitan areas, for a long time it was conventional wisdom that downtown living was the domain of the young, interesting and bleeding edge. If you wanted to move to the adjacent suburbs, that meant you were probably older, boring and risk-averse. You had a choice to make: Did you want loft apartments and cultural relevance, or did you want a backyard and strip malls?
These days, I don’t think the distinction is nearly as clear. I don’t think anyone views the suburbs surrounding major cities as places where fun goes to die anymore, and maybe more importantly, I think the definition of a suburb is evolving. The push to live a “greener” existence and our insatiable hunger for cultural capital has had a noticeable effect on the way communities are designed and constructed. No longer does crossing a bridge or set of railroad tracks lead you into an environment directly out of The Stepford Wives. Likewise, the creative and/or artistic communities are no longer confined to cities, and, if anything, the improved accessibility and appeal of the suburbs draws them away from the cities and toward the lower rents and larger spaces of the outskirts.
My experience to this point seems to support the hypothesis. I live in Arlington County, which is the first township in Virginia across the Potomac from Washington D.C. For a very long time, D.C. had a (deserved) reputation for being a gritty, dangerous place to live. Gentrification is happening at an alarming rate, but even now, the rent prices anywhere you’d actually want to live can be staggering. Most 20-somethings who move to the area wind up in Arlington (or its Maryland counterparts) because rents, while still high, provide a better value. The buildings are nicer, the apartments are larger and the city is easily accessible by bus, bike or Metro (when it decides to work).
In terms of nightlife, depending on your preferences, there aren’t many reasons to trek into the city. I’m not a big nightclub or music venue guy, so for me the bars and restaurants in Arlington provide all the entertainment I could ask for. What’s more, due to our culture’s demand for higher-quality, stylish nightlife options, new venues pop up all the time. The business community is thriving as well, because as more companies find the D.C. area attractive, ultimately the tax benefits of setting up shop just across the river in Virginia outweigh any cache that comes with having an address on K Street.
For a more concrete example that maybe more people can relate to, look at New York City and its surrounding boroughs. Manhattan might be the greatest city in the world, but unless you’re willing to pay out the nose, it isn’t necessarily the “hippest” place to live. Across the river in Brooklyn, however, resides a vibrant community rich in the arts, fashion and technology. Yes, there are hipsters, but being a hipster in Williamsburg has become such a cliche that the real bleeding-edge types packed up and fled for farther-out enclaves like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. What you’re left with, then, is something not unlike how I described my Arlington County stomping grounds: A little less expensive, a little more green space and a thriving nightlife and cultural scene all its own. Yes, Brooklyn (even Williamsburg) has and will probably always have a certain edge and grittiness to it, but it’s also got some amazing brunch spots.
As I said, our ideas of what constitute cities and suburbs are changing. In fact, I don’t think many people living in their respective cities would describe Arlington or Williamsburg as “suburbs.” Walking around either destination feels just as cosmopolitan and in some ways as urban as the cities they grew up beside. I think it has to do with the ever-fluid idea of what’s “cool.” Nowadays, it’s a lot cooler to have access to farmers markets, space to cook your food in and ample outdoor options for leisure activities. Having a $3K/month sh*thole of a studio in SoHo will always be its own kind of cool, but a lot of today’s men would see that as nonsensical. I mean, why sacrifice so much when the only benefit to you is being able to throw out a posh address if someone asks?
Our cities will always be vibrant, high-energy cultural epicenters — nothing’s going to change that. But in terms of where we actually choose to live (and in some instances work and play), why pay more when we won’t necessarily get more? It’s a question a lot of men are asking, and the “suburbs” are an increasingly appealing option for anyone who doesn’t feel like he has to be at the absolute centre of it all. Besides, with the economy still iffy, I’ll take lower rents and cheaper groceries any way I can get them.