I haven’t been this excited in a very long time. Due to the coronavirus and tremendous media hype about the death of big cities, the time is ripe to focus on big city living again.
Try and use the media to your advantage. For example, if you want to sell something, highlight the most absurdly bullish article you can find to the potential buyer and vice versa.
Since 2003, I’ve highlighted articles from various negatively predisposed sites to help me buy real estate at a discount. The strategy has been effective because people tend not to do their due diligence. Instead, they tend to just read headlines and assume it to be true.
Here’s the thing though. By the time you read things in the news, the trend is sometimes stale. For example, I’ve been writing about investing in the heartland since 2017. Only now is there full-blown mania about buying in and relocating to lower-cost areas of the country.
To build wealth, you must constantly try to predict the future. Because of this, you may often get beaten to smithereens by the masses for thinking differently. However, thinking differently is how you can build enormous wealth.
It is now my belief that the death of big cities is completely overblown. We’ve got roughly a two-year window to take advantage of big city opportunities before they disappear.
Excited About The Future Of Big Cities
One of my biggest worries as a father is that my children will have a difficult time competing in this ultra-competitive world.
Every agro person seeking to create a fortune tends to migrate to big cities like New York City and San Francisco. This includes people from other countries as well. Big cities have historically provided the most opportunity and will likely continue to provide the most opportunity once the pandemic is over.
Many of the biggest and most innovative companies are headquartered in big cities. Therefore, many of the highest-paying jobs are also in big cities.
Once you develop a network of successful friends, your chances of great fortune and opportunity for your children also go up. After generations of wealth-building, it is very difficult to pull roots.
The problem has always been that it is difficult to get a great job paying big bucks at a great firm in a big city. Given my wife and I are average people with average intelligence, our children will likely turn out to be average as well.
Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, Liar’s Poker, highlights a running elitist joke that you never want to get stuck doing “equities in Dallas.” I’ve got nothing against Dallas as it’s one of my favorite heartland cities. Equities in Dallas is just a saying Lewis coined if you don’t land a role at a bank’s headquarters.
Big City Living Can Be Tough
I’ve already gone through the meat-grinder of trying to make it in a big city. I did two years in NYC and 11 years in SF before negotiating a severance.
After 13 years, I just couldn’t hack big city work anymore because the hours were too long and the pressure was always intense. That’s what happens to average people. We get weeded out. At least I was able to make and save enough to generate enough livable passive income.
Now with two kids, after eight years of trying, I’ve stated that I’m failing at early retirement. If I don’t figure out a way to generate more retirement income within the next three years, one or both of us may have to go back to work. Our monthly unsubsidized healthcare cost alone is $2,400. This cost will likely continue to increase no matter how healthy we are.
It is outrageous to have to make $300,000+ a year to live a middle-class lifestyle in a big city nowadays. Families are burning out just to run in place. When the March 2020 stock market sell-off hit, it really put a damper on my motivation to earn more to provide.
Therefore, the only other logical solution besides making more money is to relocate to a lower-cost area of the country or world. But thanks to the pandemic and the media, maybe we won’t have to!
How The Coronavirus And Big Media Is Helping Big Cities
Let’s look at all the positive effects the coronavirus and the media hysteria have had on big city living.
1) More opportunities for newcomers.
Out with the old, in with the new. If it is indeed the case that more people are “fleeing” big cities, then this clears the way for more opportunity for folks who’ve tried to get a choice job in a big city but were rejected. More people leaving also means recent college graduates have more opportunities as well.
For those of you with children, the death of big cities should get you very excited. It means that your children won’t have to compete as ferociously because competition will be more spread out across various cities.
2) Less traffic and congestion.
One of my top reasons for wanting to leave the San Francisco Bay Area was traffic. One time during rush hour, getting across the Bay Bridge to pick up my parents from the airport took 1.5 hours, a distance of only about 20 miles. Now, it is a joy to drive anywhere at any time!
The more people who move out, the higher the chance you can find an empty public tennis court. The same goes for getting tickets to a show, getting a reservation at a restaurant, and so forth when the coronavirus is better under control.
City officials are also helping make cities safer for bikers and pedestrians. With fewer cars, some big cities have shut down formerly busy streets to make room for only pedestrians. Bike lanes are being installed on more roads. Old infrastructure is also getting fixed.
3) Less competition for schools.
Our family got rejected by six preschools partly because demand was too fierce. If more families move to the suburbs, new families will face less competition for preschools. There should also be less competition for private school. If we go the public school route, we’ll have a better chance of winning the lottery to go to a well-rated neighborhood school, instead of across town.
There will also likely be less competition for universities located in or near big cities. Competition to get into UC Berkeley or Stanford might go from ludicrously competitive to simply competitive. The same goes for other big-city schools such as Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Columbia, NYU, UCSF, Johns Hopkins, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown.
Just remember, you could still go to Harvard and end up a nobody. So please don’t overly stress about having to get into the most prestigious school possible. No matter where you go to school, most people end up doing the same thing and making the same amount of money.
4) More housing affordability.
Instead of having to live an hour away, it may be easier for teachers, social workers, non-profit workers, and holders of other middle-to-low-paying occupations to find more affordable housing in the big city. I tried my best to help two preschool teachers with their housing situation but failed.
When we have a more socioeconomically diverse city, everybody wins. Who wants to live in a city like Monaco where only the very wealthy can afford to live? I certainly don’t just want to hang out with techies and bankers all day.
5) More opportunities to upgrade housing.
In the past, you might have been only able to afford to rent a dark room in a three-bedroom apartment shared with two other roommates in a so-so neighborhood. Now, you might be able to get your own studio or one-bedroom.
In the past, you might have only been able to afford a median priced home, which could cost well over $1 million. But with more supply online, you now have the opportunity to buy a much nicer home for better value.
6) More opportunities to buy more rental properties.
With rents down and supply up, the price of rental properties should go down. If you’ve been looking to build a rental property portfolio, you can get in at more affordable prices.
When there is the inevitable rush back to big city living, you can raise rents and generate a higher return.
7) More creativity to generate more income.
We’ve all learned we can’t just rely on a day job to survive and retire anymore. Therefore, we will be more creative and find more ways to make money. We will take on more side-hustles. The website we’ve been putting off starting will finally launch. The consulting business will finally start with your first cold e-mail pitch.
Working in a big city can be tough. However, living in a big city when you don’t have to work a regular day job is actually amazing. Once you have more time flexibility, the number of entertainment options throughout the week are incredible. I’ve experienced the joys of big city living without a job since 2012, and it is great.
There is a reason why tourists from all over the world flock to your big city. There’s just so much to do and see. In the past, people were too busy grinding away to appreciate their own city. Now, things are changing.
8) More relative income.
If you stay in a big city, you will keep earning your salary. If you move away from a big city to work remotely, the chances are high that you will get a pay cut.
For example, Palo Alto-based VMWare Inc. joined Facebook in announcing salary reductions for employees who relocate. For example, if an employee relocates to Denver, the employee must accept an 18% salary reduction. If an employee relocate to Los Angles or San Diego, the employee must accept an 8% salary reduction.
Let’s say you made $200,000 a year working at VMWare Inc. in Palo Alto, CA. Would you accept a $36,000 pay cut and only make $164,000 to live in Denver? I wouldn’t. Not only would you make less money, you’d lose your network, remove yourself from the power center, and have to go through the pain in the butt process of moving.
Instead, it’s much easier to stay put and keep on making 100% of your salary. It’s easier to achieve financial independence by making more money than saving more money.
9) You will be viewed as more loyal.
Nothing brings people together like hardship. Whether you’re competing on a losing sports team or living through a terrorist attack, hardship tends to bond people for life.
Rightly or wrongly, the powers that be who remain in a big city through the coronavirus may look down upon those who leave. They will feel a sense of abandonment, which conjures up feelings of disloyalty. A manger is always stressed about employees leaving to competitors.
Leaving a big city when times are tough may be an indication that an employee won’t be able to stick things through with tough clients, tough business cycles, and other hardships.
Therefore, it is only natural for managers to want to promote and pay those employees who stay. Loyalty may be rewarded.
10) Better natural disaster defense.
Climate change is likely here to stay. With consistent wildfires ravaging the suburbs of California, some people have started thinking twice about moving to the suburbs or farther.
City codes have made urban environments safer, and in the face of wildfires, it is easier to create safety perimeters around dense urban locations. You very seldom see situations where fires in a big city spread across multiple blocks. Usually, fires are contained between a few homes.
With regards to other natural disasters, again, city codes such as stricter building requirements for earthquakes have made city living relatively safer. Further, with more first-responders and hospitals available, help should come quicker.
11) Less stress overall.
Once you combine less congestion and less competition with more professional and personal opportunities, more schooling options for your children, and higher affordability, you should feel less stressed overall.
One of the biggest problems about big city living is feeling like you’re always on this never-ending treadmill. Now, you can enjoy the city more given your cash flow and time have gone up.
12) Coronavirus positivity rates are way down.
After initially hitting big cities like New York City, coronavirus positivity rates are way down in most big cities. Residents in big cities tend to focus more on health and safety over the economy. Perhaps part of the reason is because big city residents have more work from home job opportunities.
Conversely, smaller cities in the heartland are seeing coronavirus cases surge. This is mainly due to heartland states emphasizing more the importance of the economy versus safety.
Nobody should judge how people want to live their lives. But at the margin, due to higher coronavirus positivity rates, there will be less relocation and less capital chasing heartland real estate. In fact, there should be more people who migrate out of the heartland and to the coastal big cities.
12) A return to power for Democrats.
With Joe Biden winning the presidency, big city residents are feeling very hopeful again. You can simply do a search on Twitter for the Biden celebrations. Residents in big cities largely vote Democrat. Key cities such as Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas were critical for Biden’s re-election.
Meanwhile, Kamala Harris is from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her rise to power should be a net positive for her home city.
Are People Really Leaving Big Cities Faster Than Normal?
The more people who leave San Francisco, the more I want to stay in San Francisco. Of course, there is an inflection point where if too many people leave, then the value of my San Francisco real estate might start suffering.
The irony is, I would pay MORE for San Francisco real estate and other expenses if more of the population left. Many of my friends feel the same way, which is why we are all looking for real estate deals.
One friend is buying a property for each member of his family and extended family. We’re talking three properties for his three kids, one property for his wife, one property for himself, and two more properties for his brother and sister.
He’s using this time period to build a real estate empire for his family to increase the chances they’ll all stick together over time. He’s seen too many families have to scatter due to cost of living issues.
But are people really leaving big cities faster than normal? Based on what I’ve seen here in San Francisco, it doesn’t seem that way. I know there was an initial exodus at the end of March 2020 and April 2020. However, it seems like the city has returned to normal.
In fact, I just got an e-mail from one of my tenants who asked if she could use the garage. She bought a new car and is driving back to San Francisco from a small town in Massachusetts. I didn’t even realize she left for three months because she has been paying her rent on time through electronic autopay.
A Poll Regarding City Dwelling
In a May 2020 Harris poll, only 60% of city dwellers said they wanted to stay in their city. But predictions of a mass exodus from urban areas due to the coronavirus pandemic may have been overblown, according to a new Yahoo Finance-Harris poll.
As lockdowns lifted, 74% of city dwellers said they are not likely to move out of the city due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only a fourth say they are somewhat or very likely to move, according to the survey of 1,020 Americans from July 31-August 3, 2020.
“As the risk of catching COVID-19 subsides, city dwellers are reminded of why they love city living,” said Will Johnson, CEO of The Harris Poll, a New York-based market research company. Johnson attributed the improved sentiment to the reopening of city amenities like restaurants and nonessential retail.
Let’s Look At Some Job And Demographics Data
Below is a chart that shows most big tech companies have concentrated their layoffs outside their Bay Area headquarters. The data is from the California Employment Development Department.
Below is data from Apartment List that shows a 4% quarter over quarter INCREASE in searches for apartments in higher-density cities. Conversely, there was a 3% QoQ decrease in apartment searches in lower-density cities.
Below shows a big difference in searches by San Francisco residents looking to a nearby city like Sacramento versus a 30% decline in the desire to move to a different state.
This makes sense given the proper geoarbitrage strategy is to first look for lower housing within your existing city, then state, then different state, then different country.
Based on the data above, it sure doesn’t look like there is a big city exodus just yet. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a movement from larger metros to smaller metros.
Therefore, the wise investor has to figure out whether the trend is accelerating or not. When you read the big media headlines, it sure seems like everybody is leaving big cities. However, the data says otherwise.
A V-Shaped Recovery In Big City Living
My bet is that just like so many other economic indicators, there’s going to be a V-shaped recovery in the desire for big city living.
The problem is, once you leave, it may be difficult to get back in. Your job and existing housing will have been soaked up by newcomers or the faithful who never left.
Hence, if you are planning on leaving a big city, you should hedge your bets.
You can hedge by telling your company you are always open to moving back if needed. You can also hedge your bets by maintaining your big-city social network. Keep in touch with them regularly. Finally, you can hedge your bets by holding onto your lease or property.
For the majority of you who choose to remain in a big city, then you can hedge your bets by investing in 18-hour cities.
Tech Stock Riches
Personally, I’m using this opportunity to buy more San Francisco property and also look for distressed commercial real estate.
My mission is to buy as many ocean view single-family homes in San Francisco as I can afford. I believe they have the most price appreciation upside. Besides, homes with views are great for working from home.
I haven’t been able to find deals under $2 million, but I am seeing more opportunities at higher price points.
With tech stocks on fire, I plan to use some of my gains to upgrade our home. I don’t have a huge position in tech, but it is enough to help us buy a nicer home.
My concern is regarding the 10s of thousands of actual tech workers who have seen their net worths surge during the pandemic. When some of them finally come around to converting funny money into real assets, I’m afraid my opportunity to upgrade our home will disappear.
For the many of you who work at Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, and so forth, please think about the rest of us. Give us a chance at improving the quality of our lives so we can better take care of our families!
Staying Put For Longer
Sometimes, the best course of action is to do nothing.
For so long, I’ve been planning on escaping San Francisco because it was too competitive, too crowded, and too expensive. With some people leaving and the media instilling fear of a mass exodus, I can now stay put for longer.
To have all the benefits of big city living without the high cost and the crowds would be ideal. Relocating a family is a PITA.
The coronavirus has ironically made big city living better. The key is to take advantage of fear so that when the inevitable recovery occurs, you and your family aren’t left behind.
Diversify Your Real Estate
Although it’s time to focus on big city living again, it’s also good to diversify your real estate investments in smaller cities with lower valuations and potentially higher growth. You can do so surgically with CrowdStreet or you can invest in a private eREIT through Fundrise.
CrowdStreet specifically focuses on 18-hour cities and enables investors to invest directly with the sponsor. Fundrise has various fund products that gives you broader real estate exposure with lower volatility. Both are free to sign up and explore.
Readers, what are your thoughts on big city living? Do you think the demise of big city living is overhyped? Are you using this opportunity to look for real estate deals or plan for a new business in big cities? When the pandemic is under control, how do you foresee big city living to be like?