The comments left about this post over at Julia's have got me thinking about where I live, and why, and where we'd like to go, and why. This is actually a hot topic over here right now, because we do recognize that we have to move sometime within the first year or so of this baby joining us. The first year he will sleep with BigDaddyFish and me (we hope - Little Man actually didn't, because in spite of his nursing he slept through the night fairly early on and wasn't comfortable sleeping with us like his sisters did - we all slept better once he moved), but then once he needs to move we have no place to put him except maybe the family room, and that just seems weird. Or the basement - and that's a whole nother problem. So we have been examining long and hard what we need, what we can afford, and where we'd like to live.
We live in the DC burbs on the Maryland side. The burbs has a lot to recommend it - in fact, I grew up here in the burbs. We are close enough to the city to have the benefits of it within reasonable reach, but far enough out that we have fewer problems, though they are not all gone. Family and most of the only friends we've ever known live here. We have a comfortable, quiet neighborhood, good schools, a great library and public transportation system, wonderful recreation opportunities, and still have some open spaces for the kids to play. If it weren't for this newest baby, we would be here for quite a while.
We live in a 3-bedroom, 3 full and one half bathroom townhouse. It has a a loft over the master bedroom that houses our computer/office equipment, as BDF is a contractor that really lacks a "true" office - he has space on client site, and a cube available offsite, but it is more of a "hotel" space than an actual office. We have a large kitchen that is bright and airy, with skylights and a bumpout area over our full deck. The deck overlooks the forest, because we live on the edge of a large park and lake, which happens to be a drinking water reservoir, and so will never be developed like most of the county here. We have a full basement that was useless until recently due to the water leak; we are slowly trying to dig out of the mess (we've kept far too much stuff for far too long), and use the space as a playroom or family room rather than the storage room it has been for years. It is a really, really nice house, for a townhouse.
But it does have its problems. The two bedrooms that are not the master bedroom are really, really small. Little Man's room really cannot hold another child - it was clearly sized to be nothing other than an office or a nursery. We've got a reasonable solution for him with a captain's bed with drawers underneath it, and his dresser with shelves over it, but the closet is practially nonexistent, and he can't keep many toys in his room. The girls' room is larger, but once Sunny needs a big kid bed (she's in a toddler bed now) the space just will not work without compromises I'm not willing to make. We could bunk them, but in order to do that we'd have to get rid of Trout's bed, which was my bed when I was a kid, and matches the rest of the bedroom furniture. It is an heirloom quality, four poster bed with canopy. We have the canopy removed until the girls are older, to prevent anyone from hanging on it and destroying it, but it is a lovely bed, and Trout loves it. It is just a twin size, so it doesn't take up that much room, and I'm just not willing to let it go. We could find a different solution, but the windows in the room come down to within 2 feet of the floor, so we can't put a bed in front of the windows because someone will end up falling through a window, and that would be bad. Since we are the end unit, we only have neighbors attached to one side, but that's still neighbors attached to one side that we have to work hard to be considerate of, which is a bit of a challenge with so many kids in the house. Our yard is so small it can be cut with scissors.
As far as the area is concerned, it has its cons, too. Commutes are insane. It is really hard to find affordable housing near where you work. The subway system was designed to get commuters into and out of the city from the burbs every day, but the reality is that now people are going burb to burb more than into and out of the city. And due to housing costs, people have had to move further out than where the subway reaches. Crime is higher here in the DC burbs than in many other similar suburban areas.
Then there's the expense. It is costly, costly, costly to live here. Average home prices are $650,000. Taxes are crazy. Commutes average something like 45 minutes each way, and the cost of gas is higher here than most of the country (as I've witnessed first hand on many road trips). BigDaddyFish's commute is currently 45 minutes from here to his client site, and about 45 minutes to one hour to the main office in Virginia. If he tried to do it during the rush time (I can't say rush hour because it's more like 3 hours), it takes twice as long, if he's lucky. Flex time is great, but it still means he doesn't see much of the kids during the day during the week. It is more expensive to move closer to his office, and the client site is in SouthEast Washington. Go ahead, google it. 'Nuff said.
We bought our house at a good time, back in 99, for about $180K. Our property taxes alone are $3500/year, and climbing right now due to higher assessments. If we had sold this house six months ago when the real estate market here was still hot, we would have gotten $450K for it. So why didn't we do it? No place to go. We want to move up to a single family house, the next logical step from here. BigDaddyFish would really like to have a little land so we can have a garden. That will cost us at least $575K. We've looked at plenty of single family houses that are less, but they are smaller than this house, including the bedrooms, with yards not much bigger than this one. The other option is going further out. BigDaddyFish's commute is already too long, and we really don't want to make it worse.
Having gone to rural western PA this past weekend, we really got to thinking about how that area compares to here. The air was clean, the rolling countryside was beautiful, and prices were way way lower (1.39/lb for red grapes, vs. $4/lb here - why?? truck has to go just as far...). It was a slower, more peaceful way of life. The people weren't pretentious and stressed out like they are here. There was a sense of freedom that was intoxicating. But...
But. There's always a but, isn't there? There isn't much of an economic base. You have to drive a couple of towns over to find a grocery store, and there isn't much competition. Here, if you don't like a particular grocery, go a couple miles away, and you'll find another. The lack of resources for things like medical care was astounding to me - BDF picked up a phone book and some other literature, and he said "You know, there's an OB in XXX town." One. OB. For who knows how large an area. I love that I have many choices in my medical care available, that if I didn't Iike my OB (who I love, incidentally), or my pediatrician, or thought they were incompetent or giving me care that was lacking, I have hundreds of choices to find a new, better one. I like that I have an emergency center 3 miles away, and a full service hospital within 10. If I didn't like that one for some reason, I have 3 more within 15 or so miles, and a bunch more slightly further away, including specialized services for cancer. They didn't have much in the way of libraries. And for the teenagers, there isn't much to do, which I think directly correlates to the fact that around there, people get married right out of high school and have kids right away, and can't take advantage of many of the opportunities that life has to offer. I was a WAY old mom out there, and I'm only 36.
I'm certainly not saying that there is anything wrong with living that kind of life. But BDF, who has been bugging me to chuck everything and become farmers, realized that we'd give up so much that is important to us if we did that. We like our libraries. We like the quality of our medical care. We like the fact that Target is nearby, and bookstores, and clothing stores, and shoe stores. We like the abundance and quality of our schools, and the fact that preschool is available if you want it. We like that there are lots of parks and playgrounds and pools and movie theaters and museums and things to do. He is a bit on the antisocial side, so he doesn't feel the need to have people around, but I do. He needs broadband (frankly, I do too, but not like he does), and UPS delivery. He needs maps that aren't line drawn, and actually include ALL the streets, not just the bigger ones.
Then there's what we want for our kids. We want our kids to make the most of the educational opportunities that are available in life. Not just college, but recreational, life-learning education. I think it is more likely that the kids will become more educated if they are surrounded by more, highly educated people. But we don't want them to become pretentious, or stressed out because they lack the freedom to just be. We don't want to put them at a disadvantage economically because it is so hard to get started in such an expensive area. We don't want them stuck here struggling because this is where their parents chose to be. We'd like something more in between. It's a tough balancing act.
So where does that leave us? Right here for now. We are investigating other places, trying to find a fit that is better for us. BDF makes his living as a computer programmer, so that does limit us somewhat to markets that can support that. I would be happy to go back to work, but I work as a writer/editor type person, so my work is more flexible as far as location, and my earning potential isn't as good as his. So, what about where you live? Do you think you live in an area that we would find to be a good fit? If so, let us know. Post your location and what it means to you. Both of us have always only lived here, except for brief stints in college, and we don't have the resources to go everywhere to see for ourselves. Can you help us narrow our search? I know the right place for us is out there - it just may not be where we are now.
P.S. Where the hell is my brain? DIVERSITY. I can count on one hand how many people of color, any color, we saw in PA. It is more diverse in my row of townhouses. Diversity is VERY important to us - we want our children to know many kinds of people and cultures.