Check out these photos and try to guess where they were taken. If you thought Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, or a dozen other Rustbelt towns you’d be mistaken, although your confusion is completely understandable. It’s actually Portland, Oregon – that bastion of liberal, crunchy, hippie, yuppie, hipster, eco-friendliness. Go figure. I’m not putting down Portland. Portland is great. I love Portland. I’m making a point about the reputation of some cities and how we perceive places differently based on a lot of vague stereotypes. If the only images we ever saw of Portland all looked like this it would be hard to persuade people to migrate there – even if the photos don’t portray the complete reality on the ground. To be perfectly honest, Portland is a small blue collar city out in the sticks with a fairly recent trendy overlay. Its economy is fair-to-middling. Stable, but nothing to write home about. It’s primary source of dynamism comes from inflows of cash, talent, and people from other more expensive west coast cities who seek out a higher quality of life at a lower price point. That migration is fueled by the popular image many people have about the city more than the reality on the ground. Over time this branding becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now check out these next photos.
When you look at these pictures what do you think of? Portland? Seattle? Boston? Chicago? It’s actually Cincinnati.
How about these photos? San Francisco? Maybe a cool part of LA? Nope. It’s Pittsburgh.
How about these photos? Brooklyn? Chicago? Boston? How about Buffalo? Yep. Buffalo.
Are you looking for a great walkable vibrant neighborhood, but really want a single family home with a patch of garden to go along with all the cool nearby shops and fun stuff on Main Street? Maybe something with a bit of historic charm instead of a cookie cutter tract home? Well, for north of $500,000 you can get one of these great places in Portland. Or…
For about $200,000 you could get something like this in Buffalo. Don’t have $200,000? If you’re willing to work on a fixer upper in a transitional neighborhood really close to the areas that have already been revitalized you can find something for $50,000 or less.
How about one of these in Cincinnati in the $50,000 to $150,000 range?
Will you make as much money in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo as you might in Seattle, Chicago, or Brooklyn? No. But when your housing cost has been radically reduced you really don’t need nearly as much cash. It isn’t how much you earn that matters. It’s how much you have left over at the end of the month that determines how well you live. Personally I spend 90% of my life within a five block radius of my apartment in San Francisco. Do I love having ready access to the rest of an amazing city? Absolutely. Could I afford to enjoy most of what San Francisco has to offer if we hadn’t bought our place a million years ago when the Mission was still a cheap funky neighborhood? Not even close.
Here’s my advice to both young people who are just starting out as well as older people who are struggling to manage in a tough economic environment. Stop fighting expensive housing markets. Stop trying to wedge yourself into an overpriced shoe box apartment in a mediocre neighborhood in a top tier city. Stop driving an hour and a half out to an isolated subdivision just to hold on to your status in a big metroplex. It’s not worth it. The interior of the country is absolutely full of amazing places at a price you can comfortably afford. Give yourself and your family a big raise and leave the coast behind.