Sunday, October 24, 2010

Living Close to Where I Live

Something that has long irked and confused me is the cultural move toward the suburbs. That looming question mark comes from a lifetime of living IN the city limits in a moderately sized one-story house, within about 15 minutes of anything I could possibly need or want. I did live outside of the outer loop for about 9 months of my life right after I got married, and I tried my hardest to convince Ryan that we should find an apartment closer to our families and workplaces before he signed the lease (which he did a few months before we got married... sneaky bugger). He was unconvinced until he saw our monthly toll-way bill and our monthly gas expenses! At that point we were locked into a 1-year lease, though, and committed to look closer in for the next place.

What shocked us was how much more the apartment ended up costing us out on the beltway than an apartment inside of the inner loop! Factoring in the travel expenses for work and visiting our families, we could have lived somewhere pretty ritzy in the city or paid a whole mortgage payment each month from the start! I had to commute daily on the toll-way and the commute took between 20 and 35 minutes each way... longer than I had ever driven to get to work or school in my entire life. It may be hard to believe, but we were spending between $150 and $250 each month on the toll-way and the same amount on gas money as well! EVERY MONTH! It was uncanny how much money we watched leave our account unceremoniously on a monthly basis!

The second crazy side-effect of living way out there (shockingly, still in the "city limits") was that I was wasting 5 hours a week on the freeway. Ryan would spend 2 hours a week commuting (since he works 24-hour shifts). 7 hours of time wasted away from the love of my life a week! Over the course of 9 months on that schedule we spent 10.5 whole 24-hour days on the road. TEN POINT FIVE WHOLE 24-HOUR DAYS ON THE ROAD!!!! Shout it with me!!!! No wait, I have to run to vomit! WHAT THE HECK?!?!

I could have spent those 10.5 days doing any of the following activities: catching up on my DVRed TV because we used to watch TV back then, going on dates with my husband, taking a long vacation to ITALY with the money we could have saved in travel-to-work-expenses, sleeping, learning how to sew, coming up with ways to be thrifty, cleaning our apartment that was always a mess (probably because we never had time to clean it because we spent so much time sitting on our hineys in the car!)... etc... etc... etc...

We started house hunting. The hunt started in the heights... still a 20+ minute commute from where we were both working, and 20-45 minutes away from our families. We quickly got real and started looking in SouthWest Houston, where we work. We found a house that is 7 minutes from my work with no freeway time, and Ryan works about 12 minutes away from our house with no freeway time. My family is about 8 minutes away and Ryan's family is about 25 minutes away. The days of the longest commutes are the days that Ryan works because I have to pick up Dominic from his favorite nanny in the afternoons: his NaNa. So now we spend 1.5 hours a week in the car to and from work and none of that time is spent on the freeway. SO over a 9-month period... for comparison's sake, we spend 2.25 days in the car. LESS THAN A QUARTER OF THE COMMUTE WE USED TO DISDAIN!!!!! Oh, and the money? Well, we don't pay for the toll-way any more, and the gas bill is probably a quarter what we were paying in gas expenses when we drove 4 times as much! So that is about $400 a month that goes toward our mortgage payment (which we will eventually get back in equity when we are ready to move). The time and money savings alone are enough to encourage me to sell my soul!

Then there is the ever-popular rebuttal: "but the houses in the city are old and gross" or "but you can get twice the house if you buy in the suburbs." Twice the house, four times the commute?! What?! Pass. I will definitely agree that it is easier to move into a house that is new, but the trade off seems ridiculous. It definitely took some sweat and tears to get our 65 year-old house up to our standards, but we gained the luxury of 8.25 additional hours every week to work on the house or spend time as a family!! Knowing my taste, we would still need to make a TON of modifications to a "move in ready" house in the burbs in order to meet my standards... and we'd have to make those modifications without that extra 8.25 hours a week!

Additionally, the size of our house works beautifully for us. We can work in the kitchen with Dominic playing in the back yard or take a little nap with Dominic playing in his room. In the mornings we can set him up with some breakfast and run back to our bedroom to get dressed to take him to school without needing a monitor or without undue worry that he might endanger himself while we are down the hall. Our JBL speakers can pump tunes to our whole house without difficulty, and there are no unused nooks that get dusty and need lots of cleaning attention despite their lack of use. BRILLIANT. This is a pretty sweet deal. We have less cleaning to do AND more time with our family?!? File that under "awesome."

Maybe this is related to the American sense of independence, but we seem to have a cultural attachment to having loads of personal space. There isn't any time to spend with the family because the time is spent on the road, and then when the family gets home the goal is to get to the most secluded personal spot in the house to spend time decompressing and watching a personal TV with my own TV shows or time updating my facebook status and checking in on people that live across the country (even though I haven't seen the people down the hall all day). I am SO GUILTY of this. It is so simple to hop onto the electronics and isolate myself from my husband and my son. It is also simple to admit that we have WAY more fun when we choose to do something as a family: step out to the back yard to listen to the High School band playing in the distance, turn on Pandora and listen to the funk station, go for a walk through the neighborhood, drive a couple miles to a fun family activity, etc.

Oh, and that is without even mentioning the benefits of living really close to everything we like! With the zoo only 15 minutes away from the house, we can pop over with our zoo membership (that costs less than one month of driving on the toll-way) and spend 30 minutes bumming around. Maybe we'll see a few animals while we're there or maybe not, but we definitely won't be sticking around in a bunch of crowds. This is TOTALLY guilt-free and hassle-free, zoo-tripping! Since it is so close to our home we can easily pop over to the zoo and change our mind about staying without any worry that we've wasted a trip or wasted money on the visit. We also enjoy loads of parks, museums, and nature areas within the city that do not strain our budget and that keep us entertained without having to make a big production out of a trip. It is easy to just say "hop in the car, we're going to the art museum," and head out. No diaper bag, no problem... it is only 15 minutes away... huzzah!


  1. What about schools? This was the only aspect of inner-city living not covered in your post.

    (Glen, from 68's)

  2. Good question, Glen! Beyond going to private schools (which is what Ryan and I did), I imagine there are charter schools or magnet schools that would provide more palatable public options. Since I have my Montessori certification, I intend to work at a private Montessori school to help with tuition (the public options for Montessori don't meet my standards from what I've heard). Another option is home-schooling, which I've started to consider after realizing how expensive Montessori education that meets my standards would be; I know several families that have opted for home-schooling, and their kids seem more well adjusted than many children in traditional education by my estimation. I'm sure that is an inconvenience for many (although there are reputable private schools all over the city, reputable Montessori options are scarce). I recently watched the documentary "Race to Nowhere," that takes a hard look at the pressures of our current educational climate in the US. I highly recommend it for every parent, educator, and student (high school and older); it encouraged me to take more action in my choices for my children's educations and to advocate for better learning conditions, namely child-focused learning (Montessori, in my eyes). Another consideration is that the neighborhoods within the city are changing as new families move into town (and have children) the public schools could change in our children's lifetimes. That said, "no (every) child left behind" needs to be repealed and there needs to be a focus on children rather than semi-arbitrary numbers and letters in both public and private schools.

  3. Great response and I think it rounds out your entire post. Speaking for myself, our children's future education 100% determined where we were going to live.

  4. I think that is a noteworthy consideration to make while choosing where to live, actually. The decision to go with a private Montessori school that is in town (7 min from home) made the decision much easier, and also allows us to spend the majority of our time with our family instead of the highway, which I love. Home-schooling would allow even more time with the family, but that is still a difficult leap to make! Thanks for commenting!

  5. I agree about the highway. What's nice is that where we are now, although in the "suburbs" we're both less than 20 minutes from work (and closer for everything else) using surface streets so its very manageable. The only amenity that we are furthest from would be the Museum District. However, to take a trip down there is always a largely planned and coordinated effort due to both kids, and we use the Westpark Toll, so time/distance never seems to be an issue.

    The downfalls we ran into for housing in the city (because we both wanted to stay close to the city's core) were affordable housing in a moderately low crime neighborhood that doesn't directly border any neighborhood with a higher crime rate, decent public education, and access to daily living amenities like grocery stores.

    Unfortunately for us, when we purchased in 2005, the housing market was still riding high, leaving us with limited and somewhat forced options. We decided from there that if we must live in the suburbs it must not be in a neighborhood where it takes longer to get out of the neighborhood than it would to get to the store from the entrance of the neighborhood (eg: Grand Lakes down in Sugar Land), it must be at least 10 years old with trees beginning to mature and establish, and it must be close to at least two different major thoroughfares for daily commuting.

    All that said we landed in West Oaks Village, a 10 year old neighborhood just off of FM1464, south of Westheimer and the Westpark Toll. We're only five minutes from Highway 6, and can access shopping in either Cinco Ranch/Katy, Memorial City, or First Colony Sugar Land with in 15 minutes by any route.

    Now, when it comes to schools, I am very stubborn in my old fashioned ways that in this great nation our public education, that I pay for, is more than adequate. Yes, I know that logic is flawed, but I just can't give up the notion of basically paying for school twice. My compromise is that it will be my job to ensure my child's teacher has all the proper tools to teach them, my child has the discipline to be taught, and that the school understand I will not tolerate failure from either party.

    Yes, this means I will be that father that some will hate, but I will always be the first to run to the store if the teacher tells me the school won't buy her new dry-erase markers, etc and then will proceed to waste the rest of my five days off harassing the principal until the situation is remedied. One of the many perks of being a fireman I suppose. Yes I drive a mini-van. Yes, I love it. (lol)

    As for private education and even home education, I easily recognize that each parent has their own personal beliefs, and also their own method of raising a child. So I guess my formalized opinion is that there is no wrong answer as long as the parent is involved.

    **As a note, when Kim was work downtown, she used the Park and Ride with great success. Its shameful that an MSA as large as Houston doesn't have commuter rail, but the Park and Ride certainly made up for it.