Sunday, 20 January 2013

Process for deciding where to live

Several friends have asked us about the process we used for making our decision on where we might want to move (moving to Sheffield if you haven't seen the other posts!) to in order to try out new work and ideas. It has been suggested to us that it would be useful for others to read. Even if you have different political affiliations to us(!), the process itself should be useful, whatever your persuasion.

1. Get out map of UK. Start listing all the possible places you think you might like to live. At this point, don't have any preconceived ideas about a place or budget etc, just go for it. We listed places including:
Carfiff, Bristol, Swansea, Caernarvon, Durham, Derby, Langley Mill, Newcastle, Glasgow, Lincoln, Darlington, Chesterfield, Alfreton, Garforth, Falkirk, Dumbarton, Todmorden and Leeds. Our list is of places is predominantly in the Midlands or North England, plus parts of Scotland and Wales that also interested us.

2. Now you need to do the serious budget bit. Work out what your mortgage (or rent) is, your monthly/yearly expenses are, etc. Include everything from mortgage and council tax, utility bills, food and transport costs (car, bicycle or public transport), to things TV licence, clothing and garden budgets, plus funds for holidays if they are important too. Don't leave anything out that matters to you. If you love gardening, you'll need a bit of a gardening budget, so make sure you include it. If you like buying video games (apparently some people do...), include a budget for those. The point is to try and made a lifestyle change, but continue to do the things that matter to you most and that keep you happy.

3. Once you have worked out all your costs, you need to work out what you will have left once you sell off your current house and pay off the mortgage. If you rent, you will need to work out what costs there are to end your lease.

4. With what you have left, draw up a budget that lists all the things in 2 above so you have your monthly/yearly costs. Because you are aiming to move somewhere that is hopefully cheaper to live, whether mortgage free or cheaper rent, you need to know what your basic monthly/yearly expenses are in order to work out what is left to see where in the country you can actually afford to live.

5. Draw up a list of criteria for where you want to live. Clearly you need to list living costs first, but then list all the things that matter to you. Ie. are you going to try and live without a car, making good access to regular public transport essential? We wanted to be close to trains as much as local buses. Does politics matter to you? If so, if you are a greeny-lefty type like me, you would hardly want to live in Tory heartland, and vice-versa. If you're not a political person, this might not be on your list of criteria. Other things that we included were: flood risk (having previously lived in a high flood risk area, we were keen to make sure we didn't go through that experience again), easy access to national transport links so we can get to and have visit us, friends from Oxon, London and Cambridge. Community green spaces and activities, specialist plant nurseries (me), active Green Party (Kevin).

6. List the key things about the area that you would like to live in. For us this was:
a) Green/eco/leftie community;
b) Good local public transport access;
c) Not too hard to get to national public transport.

7. List the key things the house/flat should have. These are the essential things that are largely non-negotiable. You can add things that are 'nice to haves' as a reminder, but it is being clear about what really matters that is most important here. The list of our essentials included:
a) at least 2 bedrooms, with room for study (working from home) and to encourage friends to visit;
b) house in good condition. Don't mind doing painting, general maintenance, but not interested in major renovation work;
c) Suitable for our cat, Merlyn;
d) Decent kitchen - because cooking is important so don't want tiny galley kitchen;
e) Under cover place for our bicycles;
f) a garden where both vegetables and flowers/trees can be grown. Doesn't have to be large, but enough to mean this activity can easily take place.

It is at this point that you now want to bring your list of possible places (1 above), together with your criteria (2-7 above). You know need to research each place to see how it matches with your criteria.

8. We always started with: can we even afford to live there? This will knock some places off pretty quickly. We didn't just look inner city, but suburbs too. Because we wanted to live close-ish to town (within a couple of miles), we looked at those areas for each city/town on our list to see if we could afford them.We would have loved to live in Bristol, but there was no way we could afford to buy a house outright on the budget we had (£90,000). The same with Durham, Lincoln, Derby, Todmorden, Leeds and others. Note: for us, any place had to have a choice of houses to choose from. Not just 1 or 2, which means you could be looking for months and months for something that you both can afford, and actually like, but a regular supply of houses in our price range.

9. Once we had a list of places we could afford, when then looked at flood risk. The Environment Agency's flood risk website was essential for this. Any town still on the list was checked with that. Anything that had a high flood risk (Langley Mill) was immediately crossed off for this.

10. Next was  access to public transport. Using National Rail enquiries we looked up train times to/from the urban area/suburb that we could afford. We checked how often the trains ran at peak hour, and on weekends. If they only ran once per hour at peak hour, they were crossed off the list. Because if one train was cancelled, you could have a 2 hour wait for the next one. This quickly got rid of a lot more places.

11. By now we were down to a few towns: Chesterfield, Sheffield, Glasgow. We seriously considered Glasgow, as we love Scotland and the politics in Scotland. In the end, the two things against it for us, was a) it was just too far from anyone else we knew. You couldn't just catch up with a friend in a day, it would be a weekend trip at least; and b) because I get SAD, it would just be too far North and even with my lightbox, my health could struggle.

12. So Chesterfield & Sheffield. Ironically close to each other. Not too far from Oxford and London, can be travelled too/from in a day. In the North, but not so far north that they would have a massive impact on my SAD. It was now we decided to go and visit them both and get an idea of how we felt about them as places to live.

13. We had never been to Chesterfield so didn't know much about it apart from what our research had brought up. In paper it looked good: green/eco stuff going on, good transport, affordable houses etc. We did like Chesterfield, but in the end, decided it was just a little too small for us. We could end up travelling to Sheffield regularly for work, so it made sense to actually look at Sheffield.

14. Sheffield. We had visited only once before, for a great WDM conference a couple of years ago. We read up quite a bit about it, and could see that lots was going on, it met all of our criteria, from house prices and transport to politics and garden nurseries. But what was it like? As soon as we arrived in Sheffield, we felt at home. Maybe having trams helps (we come from Melbourne), or maybe the tree-lined streets. Seeing a mosque from a hill we sighed - diversity, that's good. Driving and walking around, we just enjoyed ourselves, felt comfortable and could easily see us living there. We visited Heeley City Farm, which reminded me a bit of the lovely Barracks Lane Community Garden in Oxford. Norfolk Heritage Park, Manor Lodge, all great green spaces. In town is the beautiful Winter Garden, the Botanic Gardens, the excellent Museum Sheffield, wide city streets, lots of public transport and what seemed like a cheerful population. We felt excited about the idea of living in Sheffield and it met all of our criteria and more. Sheffield it was. We returned to Oxford and put our house on the market.

This is the process we used and how it worked for us. It may or may not work for others and obviously would need adapting to individual circumstances, but hopefully the key ideas of how you might go about deciding where you could move to, is of use.

For us, the Oxford house has been sold, we've had an offer accepted on a place in Sheffield, and are getting ready to move mid-March. A little scary at times, but mainly an exciting new adventure and a chance to try living and working a different way to meet our own needs and dreams.

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