Cost of Living: Stone Oak vs. Downtown

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By Michael Girdley

What’s really stopping more families from moving into inner city San Antonio?

San Antonio has a population of young professionals, but they’re a small minority. San Antonio is a town of families. As a group, we all want a vibrant downtown full of residents, arts, nightlife, businesses, and kids. However, our population — especially parents — seem to keep buying in the near and far suburbs.

I spoke to a number of parents over the past year who say they would love to move into Southtown, my neighborhood, but they tell me finances are keeping them out. So, I looked into it. I learned it costs a bunch more to live in our inner city than the suburbs.

Here’s the Zillow.com search for downtown in the Bonham Academy area and a similar search in Alamo Heights and Stone Oak. Take a few minutes to look through the listings. For example, here’s a listing for a 2,117 sq. ft. home priced at $209,000 for a 4 bedroom/2 bath on .16 acres in the 281 north/1604 area. Now, I don’t think anyone would argue that this property has about as much soul as a character in True Blood, but compare it to a representative Southtown option in Bonham Academy’s draw for a 1,800 sq. ft. 2/2 plus in-law on 0.06 acres for $255,000:

 

For a family comparing the inner city to the suburbs, the gulf between living in the suburbs and downtown is huge (data according to zillow.com):

  • List price per square foot in Stone Oak: $92 / sf
  • List price per square foot in Lavaca: $148 / sf
  • List price per square foot in 78209 (Alamo Heights) zip code: $165 / sf
  • List price per square foot in King William: $195 / sf

Yes, you can buy a cheaper home in or near downtown than in the Bonham school area. However, for a family comparing downtown to Stone Oak, the deep west side or Alamo Heights, an apples-to-apples comparison requires limiting downtown to areas with equivalent school quality to those in AHISD or NISD. Bonham Academy is one of those. Unfortunately, the word has gotten out about Bonham and this year the lottery to get in was oversubscribed. So, going to Bonham Academy if you live outside its draw isn’t automatic.

Looking at the other costs of owning a home: taxes, financing and maintenance. For maintenance, your century-old home is going to break down on a regular basis. Many historic home owners say a historic house owns you. They’re right.

The property tax rates are very different (our Lavaca home has taxes 18% higher than our NEISD example house and 14% higher than our AHISD sample:

  • SAISD Home Total Tax Rate (for our Lavaca home above) per $100 in value:2.635384
  • AHISD Home Total Tax Rate** (for a randomly selected Alamo Heights house) per $100 in value: 2.315756
  • NEISD Home Total Tax Rate (for our example home above) per $100 in value: 2.226626

Financing your urban home is often very difficult. Many real estate agents avoid downtown for this reason. Deals fall apart because often appraisers can’t find enough comparables to justify a loan.

Finally, unlike other urban areas, a family needs at minimum one car to acquire groceries, visit doctors, and so on. So, you can’t expect the savings that a resident of New York, San Francisco or downtown Austin can realize by avoiding car maintenance, operation and insurance.

Realistically, there’s no way our society is going to stop subsidizing sprawl. Some people just like the suburbs. That’s okay. However, if we want families to move into our inner city, there’s got to be a compelling reason for them to want to pay more to do so. In a subsequent post, I’ll talk about the different opportunities for San Antonio to get families to move back into town.

** Alamo Heights recently announced an increase in property tax rates.

Michael Girdley is a businessmanangel investor and father of two.  He lives in Southtown San Antonio in a house that’s 121 years old. Follow Michael Girdley on his blog, in which he regularly asks questions he attempts to answer himself.

24 thoughts on “Cost of Living: Stone Oak vs. Downtown

  1. This is one of the struggles I have about San Antonio. I really want to live downtown or close to it; however, SA doesn’t make it easy to live there without a car, unlike in Austin or larger non-Texas cities. If the city can ever get its streetcar up and running, that would definitely be a game-changer, in my opinion.

  2. A lot of essential things for new families aren’t located downtown. Dunno if its a priority for anyone right now.

  3. There are several good non-public school options outside the Northside bubble, in downtown San Antonio, but of course that adds cost as well.

  4. Great post Michael. You’ve hit the nail on the head. My wife & I have been considering moving into the city for a few years but it’s tough since we have 10 & 12 year old kids & housing is expensive. If we make the move here’s how we’ll be able to do it.
    1. The Education Issue – My wife will home school our kids to ensure they get a great education. She is a former school teacher & is totally capable. We can also send them to classes at Say Si & enhance their experience. If they get weird & start wanting to make their own clothes & watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie we’ll send them back to public school.
    2. The Housing Issue – We’ve looked at homes in Monticello Park & they’re affordable & historic/cool. Every once in a while something affordable will pop up in Manke Park, Tobin Hill or Alta Vista. As much as I’d like to get into Lavaca it’s getting out of our reach price wise.
    3. Friends & Sense of Community – There are a group of our friends from citychurchdowntown.com who are moving into the inner city. Two families have already moved into the Monticello Park/Jefferson Area. Others are in Beacon Hill, LaVaca, Tobin Hill, Olmos Park Terrace, Cadillac Lofts, 1221 Broadway & Manke Park. It’s a really cool group of friends most of which are young professionals. We had a wine party together last night in the city & it was a blast! I’m hoping to move there soon to hang out with these friends all the time. Many of us have kids the same age so our kids can hang out together too.

  5. This is a similar issue Downtown Dallas had/has. It is slowly coming together up in Dallas, but it has taken a lot of private investment to draw people in. Even then, the growth is inching in from uptown/oak lawn and south/oak cliff/fair park. Apart from the private investment draw, downtown Dallas has huge sprawling towers that house JOBS, which San Antonio is lacking. When my husband and I moved to San Antonio we desperately wanted to live in or near downtown. However, other than the river walk and other tourist stops, we didn’t see the draw. We settled on a place north of 1604 for now and we are taking the next 12 months to find a more permanent place to live withing San Antonio proper.

  6. My husband and I love Southtown/King William and walkability in general. However, the cheapest home we found in our search last February listed at $208k would have needed a complete regutting due to it’s age and lack of maintenance, and literally had no kitchen! So we finally purchased a home near Tycoon Flats between Mulberry and St Mary’s, just south of Trinity. I’ve found that this little pocket of Tobin Hill is just affordable enough for us 30-something young professionals. We love it! We are surrounded by the St Mary’s strip, Brackenridge park just a short bike ride under 281, Monte Vista and Olmos Park. We have ridden our bikes all the way down the riverwalk several times. It only took us 15 mins to ride back to our house from The Friendly Spot.

    That being said, you make some great points. Unfortunately, most people can’t afford to live downtown in Austin, NY, etc. It’s supposed to be expensive which means it’s desirable. However, there are many people who could afford to live downtown- help turn it into a buzzing source of suburban-envy, but don’t. I agree that school districts are definitely a cause of this. We have no children so this is not an issue for us yet. But to your point, we also had no idea that there are so many great charter schools in the area! We plan on our children going to Hawthorne Academy right down the street.

    As for high school, the cost of a $10k per year ($40k total) private school is actually a cheaper option than moving into Alamo Heights and buying a house for $400k+ versus a $200k home in Monte Vista. I can’t say the same for King William, but there are several downtown condos more affordable than a home in Alamo Heights. Also in our area of Tobin Hill, there is a school called Travis Early College High School that has a score of 10/10 on greatschools.org, higher than Alamo Heights! This score is based on test scores in all areas of study.

    I’ve really enjoyed the whole process and will probably never move back into a suburb again!

  7. Is it really just an economic question?

    How about asking your friends questions like: “what is better for my health: to walk/bike places or to ride in my car?” “how do i want my kids to grow up: isolated in cul-de-sacs and surrounded by others with similar economic backgrounds or in a diverse mixed-income environment learning from others?” “speaking of environment, what is better for the world: traffic, energy consumption and destruction of our natural resources or living in a more densely populated community utilizing public transit?”

    there is definitely a premium to pay for living in downtown (and that is true of all major cities) – but the quality of life and the how we leave this earth is the reward.

    Perhaps policy can start to change the economics but it will always cost more to buy and build in infill properties than it will in the ‘burbs.

    In the meantime I would encourage to explore this question outside of just economic reasons…after all, everyone you know doesn’t buy goods for just economic reasons (think about car buying)

    • I agree Omar, this is a really narrow view of how you should base your choice of a neighborhood. He doesn’t factor in the price of gas and proximity to things young families enjoy. Our neighborhood is near downtown and walking distance to more than 15 good restaurants, the Witte Museum, Brackenridge Park, the Zoo etc. Living in town means you don’t depend on a car for going everywhere.

      My husband’s commute to work in the Medical Center area is no different (and probably much shorter) than commuting from the suburbs to downtown or from one suburb to a suburb on the other side of town. My commute to work is 8 minutes. SAISD offers more than just one great charter school and if parents looked beyond the name of their school districts and looked at schools individually they would probably be more inclined to dismiss SAISD.

      Home buying choice should be based on more than economics. It should be based on quality of life. I for one am willing to sacrifice square footage (which is the reason many people I know base their decision on why to buy in the suburbs) for quality of neighborhood.

  8. I’m sure once they approve all the new housing downtown, they’ll focus on the surrounding needs for a typical neighborhood.

  9. That was said somewhat jokingly since I don’t know what city council or the mayor thinks. Its not been addressed publically as far as I know.

  10. Michael makes a sound argument – for the typical suburbanite for whom size is most important. Cost of living is higher in some places than others, that’s normal and to be expected if these places have what’s desirable. For those that live in the suburbs and want to live in a new 3000SF house on a cul-de-sac, no amount of affordability downtown will make a difference.

    While I can say this comfortably from my home in Lavaca because we bought years ago when it was cheap (could not afford it now), and yes, cost is an issue, but compared to other cities, living downtown in SA is incredibly affordable. Yes, you pay more per SF than you will outside 1604, but you’re getting so much more. Unfortunately, what you aren’t getting are the elements of daily living within walking distance.

    In the end, though, suburbanites are never going to want to live downtown. And, along with realtors who scare newcomers away from downtown, transplants are going to hesitate. So we need to focus on what downtown/southtown/inner loop living has to offer. Prices aren’t going to change, much.

  11. A vibrant downtown environment would add to the quality of life in San Antonio. However, while living amidst buses and traffic might be stimulating not everyone is after that lifestyle. We need to remember that more and more people are working outside Loop 410 and increasingly Loop 1604. My personal business calls for me to travel so access to the airport was important. I also enjoy the quiet streets, room to garden and easy access to shops and entertainment. And, while I am sure Michael has a nice house and didn’t mean to disparage anyone, I think my house has as much “soul” to our family as Michael’s does to his. Such comments smack of elitism and does a disservice to those families who have struggled to purchase their suburban homes.

  12. This is a good question…
    15 years ago, we purchased a beautiful home in Montcello park built in 1932. (at that time was a whopping $50.sf) Our daughter was 7 years old at the time and attending St. Peters in AH. We decided to put her in public school in the neighborhood.. (Woodlawn Elementary) great school, excellent teachers. She went on to Horace Mann Middle school and attended high school at ISA. We love our neighborhood, we are proud of the choices we made to have our daughter attend public schools. She is attending college, rides a bus to work on Hildebrand and volunteers several days a month at the children’s shelter on Woodlawn. I believe her ability to embrace the diverse inner city community is a direct result of the choice we made 15 years ago.

    Viva Intown Living!

  13. I can’t imagine why downtown residential real estate prices are higher than suburban. The only possible reason mught be the expectation of appreciation from downtown commercial expansion. But the downtown footprint of SA has remained the same for a decade.

    • You hit the nail on the head Bill.
      Downtown is not going anywhere, but the new homes of 10 years ago are now looked over for the new homes of today, which, in 10 years, be looked over for something newer and nicer. Expansion is the problem that keeps suburban prices down after they appreciate for 2-3 years (usually inflation) and then stagnate once new(er) homes are built. The lack of a true “location” in the location that people think that they are buying into is part of that problem.

    • “I can’t imagine why downtown residential real estate prices are higher than suburban.”
      Shhhhh…nobody who lives Downtown should tell Bill why. It’s our little secret.

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