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September 7, 2010

Where to move? Two-city couple tries to decide

Beth Green and fiancé Pete Jenior have a housing dilemma -- one that many folks in this region have faced.

She works in Washington. He works in Baltimore. Where should they live?

D.C. is off their list -- not only for price reasons, but because Jenior works longer hours than Green.

"He can't have a really long commute because he'd never be around," said Green, 29, an attorney. "So the two options are, I have a long commute or we live in the middle."

They'd really like to hear from people who have been there, done that. What upsides and downsides do you see for a D.C./Baltimore couple living in Baltimore or its southern suburbs?

For Green and Jenior, 27, it's not just about commute. They like city life -- he lives in Federal Hill and she's in Ridgely's Delight. But they're thinking of starting a family during the five years or so they plan to live in the home they buy, and they wonder if they'd be better off in the suburbs.

It's another oft-tread subject in the "where should we live" discussions that people around the region have every day, so I figured some of you would have thoughts to share.

Green and Jenior, who hope to settle next summer, are looking for a home that's $300,000 or less.

One way they considered the two options -- Baltimore or 'burbs -- was cost. For instance, Jenior walks to work, so a move out of the city would add $150 a month in parking to their bills. But the city's property tax rate is so much higher than, for instance, Anne Arundel's, that it's "kind of a wash," she says.

They're looking seriously at Locust Point in the city, which strikes them as a good neighborhood for a young couple on the verge of having kids. They're also looking at Savage in Howard County, which has a MARC train stop.

"It's just like a nice little community, and Savage Mill is so cute and historic," she said. Also: "It's got the Howard County schools."

The other consideration: Green's commute. Right now, she drives from Baltimore to Greenbelt and takes the Metro in. That's an hour and 15 minutes to D.C. and an half and a half back home. "It's grueling," she said. 

"There's a part of us, because we're both in our 20s, that wants to stay in the city," she said. But, she added, "My long commute is kind of impeding my quality of life. So it's like, do you want to be young in the city and have me tired all the time, or [in] the suburbs, and kind of out of the younger crowd and move already into the young-family mode? So we're sort of conflicted. It's a tough call."

Advice? Suggestions?

The Baltimore vs. 'burbs debate can get ugly, so just for the record, this isn't meant to be a debate about what's "best." Merely what worked (or didn't work) for you, and why. Most decisions about where to live involve trade-offs.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (29)
Categories: From home to work, Moving


Wow, my wife and I are in a very similar situation. We live in the city and one of us works in Baltimore and other in DC. We have been in the city for 6 years and are ready to move. The commute from Baltimore is pretty bad. We are looking around the Odenton, Columbia, Crownsville, Laurel areas. For one they are decent areas with relatively affordable houses and it is pretty centrally located. Close to the metro as well.

As for the city/county debate it's all in your preferences. People get very worked up about the discussion, but it really only matters what you want more. For us, the allure of proximity to everything and walkability has taken a back seat to wanting parking, less crime, better schools and more space. That's just us though. Two years ago we would have said city 100% but it gets old and I guess so are we. Best of luck in your decision.

There is no "answer" to this dilemma, you need to find your own path. I wish you luck!

While dating, my future husband and I both lived in downtown Baltimore (he in South Baltimore, I, in Mt Vernon) and loved it. We wanted to stay in the city and ended up in Mount Washington, because we loved the neighborhood and decided that loving a house to come home to was the main priority for us. Nevertheless we BOTH commute to DC and we now have a child. It is extremely difficult Many people would well balk at our choice, and we have often been given unsolicited advice to move closer to DC. Other factors you need to consider should you have a child and grueling lengthy commutes: how you would work childcare issues into that mix (it isn't easy having to travel back to Baltimore 1.5 hours if your child is sick, for example). We spend a lot of time in the city during our off days and weekends and our family has adapted to the commuting issues (it helps that my husband and I stagger our day, he works 7-3, I work 8-4).

We have a similar commute situation. I work in Baltimore, my husband works in Greenbelt. I take the 310 commuter bus into downtown, which saves on parking, gas, and insurance costs. A monthly pass is $119/month.

He carpools into work at Greenbelt, but there are also a number of commuter buses that go from Columbia to downtown DC as well.

We moved to Columbia out of convenience due to our two work locations, but ended up really liking the parks, the pathway system that spans a lot of Columbia, and the "village center" concept. After renting for about a year and a half, we bought a townhouse in a great, diverse area within walking distance of our village center (i.e. grocery store, restaurants, dry cleaner, liquor store, etc.), the local elementary and middle schools, and the library. My husband often does our errands via bike.

We're both under the age of 30 and originally wanted to live in the city, but it just didn't work out for similar reasons. I know different things work out for different people, but we're very happy with our decision.

I'd give a close look to catonsville if I were in their shoes. Its older, quaint, close to Baltimore, but a good 10+ minute head start out of the city on anyone's trip down to the DC area. The price having to be under $300,000 is really going to be the biggest limiting factor for many places between the cities, as there is a major location bonus to any of those tweenie communities.

I work in Virginia and my husband works in Baltimore. I commute 80 miles a day vice his 2 miles per day (he works in our neighborhood). Pros - despite the long and sometimes grueling commute (I drive and have 1 rider who shares the expenses) the money, job security, and growth potential was far greater for me than my husband. We made the decision that he would shoulder the responsibilities for our children (now grown) and everything else that being closer to home would entail such as a heavier load of household responsibilities to compensate for the "sacrifice" of time it took for me to commute to another State for work. Cons: being so far from home does cut down on time spent with your spouse/family and sometimes requires using more leave in order to go to appointments, etc. Though I must say that you can manage anything you set your mind to as I have coached little league and basketball, attended school functions, held multiple positions in our church, and performed community service too. The ideal arrangement would be to live smack in the middle of both jobs but for us we chose a neighborhood in SW Baltimore County that we fell in love with and have never moved. Good Luck with your decision.

Once you buy a house you find yourself in the suburbs every weekend anyway, eating at Panera. :)

It kills me to say this, but moving closer to DC means that you might be able to reap the benefits of entertainment options in TWO cities while you're still young --- especially if Baltimore worker drives into the city and therefore could also drive to DC/Greenbelt metro on weeknight evenings. And it would make the drive to the DC area that much easier to enjoy on weekends.

I second the recommendation on Catonsville. A very friendly community where everything you need is easily within reach, and much more affordable housing than you can find in Howard County. If you are dead set on HoCo, Savage is probably your best bet. It's much less "trendy" than Columbia is, so housing prices are a bit cheaper and you don't have the extra CA fees.

A third yes vote, definitely look at Catonsville, it was the first place we looked as well when we were starting out.

Pros: good public schools, nice older houses, affordable, not far from the Halethorpe MARC station, county property tax rates

The Cons for us (in other words, a highly personal list): not a ton of things in walking distance if you don't actually live off of Frederick Road and you actually want to walk to places (I am a New Yorker still unaccustomed to being tethered to a car, this doesn't bother most people); no public transportation in walking distance (again, most people aren't bothered by this); the older houses we liked were surprisingly expensive (though this was back in '07)

Great discussion, guys. Keep it coming!

Anyone who buys before they try with a split DC/Baltimore commute is really asking for it.

There are so many wrinkles to this commute, many of them not favorable over the intermediate term (specifically, infrastructure projects, which if one judges by the President's announcement yesterday, will only have a greater affect on traffic over the next decade).

This couple should really rent before buying, unless they truly believe home prices are going to go up in the next 12 months.

I have done this commute before, and the strain it puts on a relationship and on yourself can't be understated. I wouldn't want to be tied to a home before I was certain the commuting worked for everyone.

If you have a regular work schedule that's 9-5 then the MARC is generally pretty good (compared to DC beltway traffic anyway). If your work requires you to occasionally stay late or work off-hours then the trains become really infrequent. My wife and I lived in Mt. Vernon while she worked in DC and I went to school in Baltimore. It worked out pretty well for us, we'd both be home by 7-7:30pm on weekdays, which is as good as many people these days (esp. for those working in DC).

She now works in downtown Baltimore, but if she ever took up employment in DC, we'd do it again.

I'd recommend looking at a house in Charles Village that's within walking/bicycling/bus to Penn Station. The schools are getting better (charter and non-charter), you can have small front & back yards, restaurants, groceries, and other amenities are all walkable. There are some houses that have big back yards and the Charles Village Parents group, Greater Homewood, and other groups are doing more to keep families in the area. There are tradeoffs, but our family has decided it's a good option for us and there are lots of MARC commuters living in the area.

This a great discussion -- thanks. I'm seriously considering moving to Baltimore b/c I cannot afford to buy in DC, and I just really like Baltimore. My job is just north of the 355 Beltway exit... I know it's going to be a painful commute - but I plan to work from home 2 days a week, and maybe one of those 3 days I have to commute, take the train (we're looking at house close to Penn Station). I'm nervous - - b/c everyone I talk to tells me how awful the commute will be... But I hope that by limiting it to 3x a week and maybe adjusting my hours to miss the peak of rush hours (work is very flexible) - I'll be able to deal. I also hope to escape my mundane Federal gov't job one day and open some sort of business in Baltimore! So I'm hoping this all pans out!! But yes - - it's a very difficult decision to make - - and some people are more tolerant of long commutes than others...

For all its downsides (scheduling inflexibility), the plus side of the MARC, compared to driving, is that you can read, talk on the phone, and catch up on things on a train which aren't possible while driving in heavy traffic...if you can handle the regular train schedule, 1.5hrs on the MARC/metro is probably easier than 1hr driving in rush-hour traffic.

My fiancee and I will be moving into my house in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood early next year (for a few years) and selling her condo in Catonsville. I agree Catonsville is in a great location - easy to hop on I-95 or MARC for DC or Baltimore and a nice area in general. We are going to do the city life for a few years and might find ourselves back in Catonsville.

My wife and I had the same decision to make. She lived and worked on DC and me in Balto. We chose Annapolis after considering all of our options. Reason - its a great small city with lots of cultural/nightlife and outdoor activities and the Bay is your back yard. If you like boating, its mecca. Finally - it is exactly 30 miles from our front door to downtown DC or Baltimore.

The Baltimore worker is a transportation engineer. He knows the road situation.
Good luck.

I live in Baltimore and take the MARC to Union Station and the Metro to Crystal City. It is long sometimes but I would prefer the train to driving because of the eat/sleep/read reason, and traffic. Yes, the MARC is messed up sometimes, but it's much better than driving. No matter where you go I would suggest the MARC. Parking at BWI is free with a MARC monthly.

We bought in the city this spring, and I was pleasantly surprised by the homestead tax credit that the city applied to our tax bill without us even requesting it. It lowered our taxes to within 10% of what we'd be paying for a comparably priced house in Baltimore County.

As parents of two young children, my husband and I wanted to stay in the city in part because of the exciting choices available through Baltimore's many strong charter schools. We are really impressed with the strides that City Schools have made in the past few years. Plus we both grew up in Baltimore County and we were bored bored bored! We love living in a walkable neighborhood...

Finally, I'd add that jobs may change but hopefully your house will be a place where you want to stay indefinitely, so I think finding the right neighborhood is more important than its exact location.

So my vote is to buy in the city, but you probably figured that out by now ;)

THANK YOU for posting this. Very timely as we have just now begun looking for our "next" home. We have lived in the city for close to 6 years (Fed Hill) and have loved every minute of it. But we need more space and want a yard, etc.

We've pretty much narrowed our location down to the Catonsville area. I commute to VA and my husband works in Howard County. It's a good location for us because it keeps both the DC and Baltimore markets open for future employment opportunities. Unfortunately, the options for this price range (similar to ours) is limited but Catonsville seems to have some good options. It's great to read the positive feedback on that area.

My recommendation is to rent especially if they really only plan to live in the house for the next 5 years. On a 30 year mortgage, 5 years of principal payments will hardly make a dent in their mortgage balance. Plus they will have to pay the 6% broker fee when they sell the house. And there is no guarantee their house will increase in any significant value in those 5 yrs to even cover the selling broker fees and their house could even decrease in value.

As was mentioned as a possibility, I'd recommend the Columbia (and Savage/Jessup) area right off MD-32. It's exactly 11 miles between either Beltway, and you're in Howard County. Might want to consider even a little bit farther south near MD-216. That way, you get the best of both towns, and it's easy when you want to visit.

I think the best way to reduce our carbon footprint is to change our commuting habits. Either to use commuter transit systems if available or to form a carpool. I tried the driving cost calculator of the carpooling network ( ) and they suggest huge savings for carpoolers: up to 2000$ and 1,5 tons of GHG per year.

It's something to think about prior to buy a new house.

Anyone suggesting Annapolis is out of their mind. I live in Annapolis, and I worked in DC (Penn Avenue) for a number of years. The sign may say 35 miles, but the commute was never shorter than an hour and a half, and often was two hours (and I ended that commute in 1998, and its only gotten more congested since).

If you want to have kids, forget it- live in Annapolis and work in DC and you'll never see them. I took a pay cut and took a job in Baltimore just in order to see my kids after work (I was leaving at 5AM and getting home at 8PM, or later).

Also, live in Annapolis and you'll pay city AND Anne Arundel county taxes.

I vote for Arbutus. Small town community. Leave-it-to-Beaver- ville. Close to Marc, BWI, Light Rail and a bus to Greenbelt metro. Can be in Fells point or DC within a half hour. Has one of the last neighborhood theaters, good schools, lots of community involvement. Taxes maybe higher than the City, but that is because the City puts sewage on water bill and the County puts it on your property taxes. Where else can you pay $13.00 a quarter for water, vs. $90.00?

People should take caution in the people suggesting living near Penn Station and walking to the MARC in your commute to DC. Two stabbings, one of which was fatal in a months span should get your attention. This is why I am moving. There are some great neighborhoods that are being ruined by patchy areas with people that stab others over $5. Do yourself a favor and leave the city. Live close enough to drive in to the restuarants you like.

We have a similar situation, and Bolton Hill works great for us. Walk to MARC and take the light rail or metro downtown. That means two carless commutes, which has allowed us to sell one of our cars. Money saved can offset the higher costs of the homes (although I've seen smaller ones in the 300k range). Plus, there are lots of families and green spaces, as well as a great community organization.

Great post. This is very common amongst two family income households. Born and raised in MD, now living in FL, I work in Tampa and my wife works in Orlando. It's about a 45 - 60 minute commute between the two, but to make life easier we decided to call Lakeland home. It's slightly closer to Tampa, but it's works out good for us. But we might be moving to Orlando since we're looking for bigger city living.

So glad someone mentioned the crime concerns in certain areas. Not sure I would recommend Charles Village or Locust Point to anyone with kids. CV's problems are well documented; Locust Point requires some scrutiny. One of my issues when I looked there was it was often impossible to park near your home, so unloading/loading had to be done while double-parked with hazard lights flashing. Not the best scenario for car seats, etc., IMO. In Balt now for 8 years, I lament not being further south to take advantage of more jobs. The thing about Balt is, this is where you will always work unless you want a long commute. Every other quality employment option is south of the city. I would consider AA County or Howard County - something in between - and preserve options for your future.

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About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
Baltimore Sun articles by Jamie

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