On Memorial Day 2007, my sister called from suburban Maryland shortly after I had returned from my early-morning run along the lakefront path. I didn't have any plans for the holiday, so I was looking forward to a relaxing, uneventful day.
That hope faded as soon as my sister, a single mother with three young sons at home, began talking. “The apartment leasing office sent me a letter. The rent is going up again! We can't afford to live in this area much longer.”
I nodded sympathetically. She knew that I had moved to Chicago less than two years before in part because I had never been able to rent a one-bedroom apartment in a safe neighborhood. In my 14 years in the D.C. area, I had lived in relatives' homes, boarding houses, a group home, a basement apartment and studios in high-rise buildings. Even though I was a 35-year-old professional, I was still living like a college student.
Upon arriving in Chicago, though, I paid only $5 more in monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment than I had for a suburban studio near the D.C. border. The size difference was so noticeable that one of my movers, after taking two steps into my new home, exclaimed, “I see why you moved!”
Since my relocation, my sister had occasionally peppered me with questions. How did you do it? How much money did you save? How did you adjust to living in a new city? In those conversations, I could tell that she was nearing her breaking point, and I silently vowed to help her when she reached it. The leasing office's notice had taken her there.
“Where are you thinking about moving?” I asked.
“Well, anything west of the Mississippi River is too far, and the northeast is too expensive, so I'm looking south,” she replied.
I frowned. She had initiated the call to a 773 area code, which was used in the only part of the U.S. that she hadn't mentioned. “Have you considered the Midwest?”
“No,” she admitted. “A lot of people around here are going to Raleigh, so I may move there, too. I really want to buy a house.”
Time to make an impromptu pitch, I thought. “You could buy that house in Raleigh, but, with so many people settling there this decade, purchase prices are much higher now than they were several years ago. The housing bubble may burst soon. And the infrastructure hasn't kept up with the growing population. If people keep crowding into Raleigh, where will all of these children go to school? And how will everyone shower?”
My sister chuckled. “I hadn't thought of it that way.”
“Thirty years from now,” I continued, “many of this decade's boom cities could be environmental and transportation disasters. On the other hand, many Rust Belt cities had their population peaks in the '50s and '60s, so they don't need to have land cleared for homes, roads and schools. The spaces are already there, waiting for new residents to fill them. Today's best real estate investments are in these ignored cities, especially the ones with access to Great Lakes water.”
“Now will be a good time to look at other areas,” my sister conceded. “I can pay the rent from this new lease, so I'll have a year to study as many places as possible before making the move.”
“I'm not telling you not to move to Raleigh,” I clarified. “I simply want you to know all of your options before you make a decision. If Raleigh is the best place for you, then you should go there. But don't relocate there just because everyone else is. If you want, I can make a list of additional cities for you today.”
“I'd appreciate that.”
That afternoon, I e-mailed her that promised list. Ten months later, my sister and the boys boarded a Greyhound bus for a one-way trip headed not south, but west. Last February, she bought her dream house in Akron, a city once dubbed “The Rubber Capital of the World.” Her adopted hometown is now the center of the Polymer Valley.
Three months after the purchase, her home's value increased.