Relocation and The Art of Speed-Reading Cities

A lot of the people I talk to about LinkedIn branding and resume design for Hit Interview are seriously considering relocating to a new city.  If your local job search has stalled out, taking a look at other locations is an excellent option.  One of the biggest mental barriers to relocation is simply: How do I pick the right city?

During my 20 years as a recruiter, I helped hundreds of candidates relocate for a new position.  Taken step by step, I believe finding a new hometown is straightforward and exciting.  Recently, I took this knowledge to a new level. Over the past six years, I’ve moved six times, living in five cities, across four different states.  It was an incredible experience and this is what I’ve learned.

Set Some Basic Criteria

First, put down all the details that define where you want to live and work. Here’s some of the big ones for you:

  • Region of the country
  • Climate
  • Terrain
  • Population density
  • Local economy/job market
  • Commute (i.e., car vs. train) 
  • Shopping and dining
  • Outdoor activities
  • Professional sports
  • Arts/music scene
  • Museums

Make Your Initial Cities List

Take a large paper map of the country, one that you won’t be afraid to mark up. Start by eliminating regions or states that you know won’t work—just cross them off. Take a step back and assess what’s left. Start thinking about the individual cities that remain. We’re going to keep this map handy, and thoroughly marked up, all the way until we pick our final cities.

Based on the basic criteria you already set, cities will go into three groups:

1. No Way – These just don’t fit, end of discussion. They get an X on the map.  At this stage, knowing what you don’t want is more useful than knowing what you do.

2. Maybe – They seem to fit your criteria list but more research is required.

3. Top Picks – You might have already visited these places or heard good things from family and friends. These places will receive the big share of your focus and research.

Refine your ‘Maybe’ list with some fast initial research, on criteria alone you’ll quickly find many places don’t make the cut. If a city is a borderline case, put it with your ‘Top Picks’ list for now. Be careful not to throw a town out too early. It’s helpful to be more inclusive at first, get more critical as you move forward.

Research in Depth

Our goal here is to take the ‘Top Picks’ list and work it down to a handful of cities that you will visit in person.

People are Talking – Dive into online forums like Dig into the posts and look at what people have to say about the city as a whole or certain parts of it. Realize though, many towns have a number of highly vocal “born and raised” types, they will quickly jump in and come to the defense of their city. They will reason, “You didn’t see the real Fargo, the other side of town is not like that.” They will attack, “Nobody ever said that before about Tulsa- you must be the problem, go back to where you came from.”  It can get nasty, so for some cities an emotional local reaction to comments should be taken less seriously.  Remember, no matter the response, if you keep seeing the same comment over and over, it may be a good clue.

Search Autocomplete – Use Google’s search autocomplete for insights.  As you type in a search string, what pops up?  This method quickly lets you see what people are searching for about a place or the residents.

Example autocomplete search strings:
[why are people from Dallas so]
[why is Massachusetts so]

Keep in mind, what you often find under autofill will be skewed highly towards the negative.  Every place is complained about, especially online. Use this step simply to get clues about what you might want to watch out for.  It’s good to know about issues now and not six months into your relocation.

Radio Stations – Listen to streaming online radio stations for your target cities using something like iHeartRadio. The music itself might be a consideration for you but the best impressions about a place will come from the commercials, DJ chatter, traffic reports, news and the commentary in between.

Traffic – Pay attention to rush hour and weekend traffic especially around the areas you may live and work. Sites like Google Maps can show both live and average traffic conditions for many major cities.

Crime – Get familiar with crime statistics at the city level paying attention to trends over time. Are the numbers improving? Are there major redevelopment plans or initiatives to revitalize these areas? Every major metropolitan area has isolated areas that don’t have a lot of bearing on that city as a whole. It’s important to understand where they are. As you zero in on places to live, check out crime report maps to get current info right down to the neighborhood level.

Bugs and Bears Report – Figure out what pests you can expect to find where you will be living: ticks, mosquitoes, snakes, lizards, spiders, bears, mountain lions, etc. Smells and noises fit here also.  Will you be living near an Air Force base or a garlic factory?  Doing a quick Google Image Search like [Las Vegas airport noise map] for airport impact is a huge help.

Depending on your background, everyone has their own idea of ‘normal’. If you grew up in North Dakota, the critters in South Louisiana will be shocking. Don’t freak yourself out and into paralysis, just get the info so you can decide what your personal threshold is.

Disasters/Severe Weather/Geologic phenomena – Check historical records for large events and patterns for wildfires, floods, earthquakes, etc. If you’re not a fan of tornadoes, Fort Worth, Texas isn’t  the best pick. If you have a big fear of earthquakes, stay clear of Los Angeles or the Midwest’s New Madrid Fault Line.

Seasonal Weather – Enough with the gloom and doom research—let’s look for some sunny days and BBQ weather! First, get into the habit of monitoring the weather daily in your target cities. A good way is to add these new cities to the weather app on your smartphone. Next, find those neat bell curve charts with your target city’s average daily seasonal highs and lows. Temperature is an obvious first stop, but also look at precipitation, humidity, the average number of sunny days and wind conditions. Some places contradict the data and feel cooler from steady breezes, especially on the coast. Is there a rainy season? Can you expect several crippling snow storms in March?

Newspaper sites – Look for local news reporting on the major issues facing your potential city. Get an understanding of what’s important there and also try to determine what the people are like. Look closely at photos from local events—what impression do you get of the people in this town? The news is important but you’ll learn even more from op-ed pieces.

Whenever you read an article, always check out the reader comment section beneath it. These comments give you some great insights, good and bad, about the people living there.

City Magazines – These free weekly publications are great for getting in tune with local events, music, entertainment, food and the arts.

Make a Neighborhoods List

A good way to break down the parts of a city is to find an MLS map. At the same time, even if you don’t have school age children, look at school district boundaries for the city.  Both MLS and school district maps will really split up a city into distinct areas that have their own qualities, lifestyle and feel.

If you regularly pursue outdoor activities, base your search in neighborhoods with parks or trail access. If you can’t do without a certain store, Whole Foods for example, search neighborhoods around their store locations in your new city.  Retailers spend a lot of money on demographic research- odds are if they opened a location in a certain area, you’ll find it’s a nice fit for you.

Take Your First Trip

After you get past all the fact and figures about a place, in my experience only two things will determine if a city perfect for YOU. One is the people. Even if a city checks all the criteria boxes for you,  the people can make it unbearable. You need to see what residents are like and how you might fit in with them. Two is what I call the ‘X-factor’. It’s that first impression, it will be very fast and intuitive. You’ll either instantly feel like you’re home or you just want to get back on that jet.  If you ever get a strong sinking feeling heading into town the first time, even if you deny it, I can almost guarantee you’ll feel that way six months in.

Try not to get stuck in the ‘vacation bubble.’ Theme hotels and Bubba Gump popcorn shrimp might be wild fun but they can’t show you anything about living someplace. Run your visit in the same way you want to live. As you visit local grocery stores, ask the employees a question and attempt to make small talk with other shoppers. Observe what happens. Go to a mall, coffee shop patio, or movie theater lobby and people watch for an hour. What are people like and how do they interact with one another?

Avoiding the vacation bubble is closely followed by: Don’t get stuck in the friend/relatives bubble. Remember, unless you suck, these people will want you to move there. They will beg, plead and show you a great time. Enjoy their company but remember you’re in town to seriously pick a good place to live and work. You have to break out of the familiar and evaluate the city head on. Do the work and remember, local friends and family are just a bonus if you do decide to move there.

Take your list of possible neighborhoods and drive them first. To get beyond the major roads, make a route using addresses for available homes or rentals in these areas. If it’s a weekend, you can learn a lot by also stopping at open houses and garage sales.  Drive around and form some general impressions. Some places you will quickly cross off. Others might take a few passes to compare areas and ultimately choose the best one for you. When you’re done go back to the top two or three neighborhoods and really look at them critically.

It can often be difficult to find the perfect neighborhood even with a week or two on the ground. It can take months of learning, exploring and multiple dead ends. Sometimes you get the wrong initial impressions about a section of town, other times the things you want change as you get to know your new city.  If possible, arranging a shorter term living situation for 3 to 6 months gives you time to remedy this. After you’re on the ground for a while, it’s easy to zero in right down to the perfect street or block. It just takes time. A few months in is a good point to pick a more permanent place to buy or rent.

After Your Move

When you first arrive, there will be a honeymoon period with your new city. This usually lasts to the 3 to 6 month mark. Anything that might be a negative hasn’t hit your radar yet. Everything is new and exciting, even the gunfire. One day some things may creep up that really start to bug you. If you picked a bad city, these things will drive you insane. You will find yourself reading your lease in detail at 3 AM. In most cases, only harmless annoyances surface (if you did your homework), but six months in you’ll have a better understanding of where you live.

Stay active and engaged outside of your new job, getting to know your new city and its people. Activities based on common interests are perfect for this: art, sports, classes, lectures. Check out Meetup, various social networking sites and weekly/city pages type magazines as great sources.

In the end this isn’t life and death—relocation doesn’t even come close. Get out there and explore something different, live something new. Even the worst possible city pick will be an adventure and memorable experience. The best part—after you do it once, you can do it again. It’s even easier the next time. No matter what happens, remember there are always roads heading out of town in at least four different directions.

Carol Sosalla