Last year, on the first hundred-degree day of June, we loaded up our family of four, two dogs, two cats, and a few houseplants I was determined to save, and set out for a new life in RVA.
All of our belongings had started the journey two days earlier on a semi-truck driven by a guy named Fasto. He assured me we’d be reunited on Wednesday. Moving to Richmond wasn’t something we’d been planning for years – or at all, in fact. A decade earlier, my husband and I had chosen to leave San Francisco’s overpriced rat race and return to the quaint Middle Georgia community where I had grown up. Maybe we’d move again one day, but not until our boys were out of high school.
What’s that saying about best-laid plans? I think it applies here. I was sure James, my husband, was kidding last January when he announced that he had been promoted to a new position closer to his company’s home office in D.C.
“No way!” I responded incredulously. I mean, we had just gotten our kitchen redone. But, in the game of life, job promotions trump granite countertops every time. We were given a generous five months to sell our house and buy a new one in Richmond.
My family hasn’t been the only one migrating to Richmond in recent years. With a healthy job market and low cost of living compared with other parts of the country, the area is showing impressive growth. In fact, nearly 40,000 people moved here between 2010 and 2013. That’s according to studies conducted by the Greater Richmond Partnership.
And RVA has also been racking up the accolades. Last Year, CNN Money listed Richmond as one of the country’s top ten housing markets and the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that people here are the most content in the country. In 2013, Forbes Magazine ranked Richmond number five on its official list of ten best cities for jobs. And Kiplinger named it one of the top ten most affordable cities for renters.
Job transfers like my husband’s are the biggest reason people move to Richmond, but once they’re here, they don’t want to leave. Nichole Thornton, who returned to the area thanks to her husband’s job transfer, hopes to call Richmond home for good. “We’ve got all the amenities of a large city, but without the congestion. There are amazing restaurants, theaters, museums, the symphony and so much history all over the region. And you couldn’t ask for a better location. I grew up in Texas. You could drive six hours and you were still in Texas. Here, you can get in the car and be at the beach, the mountains, or our nation’s capital in just an hour-and-a-half, depending on traffic.”
In preparing for our move last year, I made it my mission to learn all there was to know about the area. With so many community choices, it can be difficult to pinpoint the right area. For example, 95 percent of Hanover County’s residents rated the overall quality of life there as “excellent” or “good.” And Chesterfield County’s Midlothian was listed as one of the nation’s hundred best places to live in Money Magazine.
However, as with all metropolitan areas, home prices, crime rates, traffic, and school rankings can vary widely from section to section. That’s why it’s essential to do your own research and not rely solely on your realtor’s input.
Between work and school getting in the way, I knew we wouldn’t be able to visit Richmond until April. I gained a wealth of information reading the newspaper and other area media outlets online (including RFM, of course!). Reaching out to the locals on Facebook and Twitter, and yes, using the old fashioned phone, I gathered intell from new friends who patiently answered my barrage of questions, which were comically all over the map (pun sort of intended).
Here’s a week’s worth of my actual forum postings:
“Which middle school has the best baseball team? Asking for my 12-year-old.”
“I can’t figure out how y’all do cities and counties up here. Colonial Heights is a city, but Mechanicsville is just an area even though it has ‘ville’ on the end of it? What the heck?”
“Does Lake Chesdin have good bass fishing? Asking for my 9-year-old.”
“How do you pronounce Powhite Parkway? It sounds like a derogatory name to me.”
“What churches in the area have strong youth programs?”
“What are the most popular dog parks? Asking for my border collie.”
“Looking for a good pediatrician in the area. Any recommendations? Oh, and what about dentists, optometrists, gynecologists, and hairdressers?”
“Do we need kayaks to enjoy the James River or will our inner tubes work?”
While arming yourself with information is normally a good thing, sometimes, it can lead to more conflict than clarity. My husband calls it analysis paralysis.
After speaking with my dentist’s cousin – who lives in Atlee – I was convinced that historic Hanover County was perfect for us and immediately began scouring real estate listings there. A week later, a new friend from Glen Allen had me sold on the West End for its great shopping and proximity to downtown. Even my co-workers were weighing in on the debate.
“Angela, I can totally see you fixing up a house in the Fan or Carytown. Y’all would loooooove the architecture there,” lobbied my officemate, Penny.
And then there was the week in March I decided that we should buy a farm in Goochland or Powhatan Country. Maybe we’d start growing and selling organic vegetables. This revelation came after reading an article about RVA’s abundance
of farmers’ markets.
It became evident that the feedback game was getting out of hand as my husband and I embarked on our April house-hunting trip.
James: “We should check out Midlothian. People keep saying it’s a good area for newcomers.”
Me: “No way! My great aunt Hilda said that no self-respecting Richmonder would live ‘south of the river.’”
James: “Well, things might’ve changed over the past fifty years. And when did you start considering Aunt Hilda to be a credible source on anything?”
On arriving in Richmond, I quickly learned that no amount of research or second-hand opinions are an adequate substitute for seeing a place through your own eyes, with your own family’s needs in mind.
I also recommend hanging out with some realtors. You’ll benefit from their expertise.
“Home prices in this area are quite reasonable, around $225,000 on average. But don’t start looking at houses until you can narrow your search to a particular area,” advises Richard Buckingham, a realtor serving the Richmond market for over thirty-five years. “People sometimes make the mistake of falling in love with a specific house without being sure that the neighborhood is a good fit for their family or that it’s a reasonable commute with access to the schools they’d want.”
That said, if you’re in the midst of your own family relocation – whether you’re leaving Richmond (sorry, we missed each other!) or moving to the area – be sure to have these questions answered before starting the home search. An experienced realtor can help tremendously.
Where will you be commuting to work daily? And realistically, how much time are you okay spending in the car?
“Proximity to work should be at the top of your house-hunting criteria,” suggests Buckingham. “A few years ago, I was working with a client who had transferred here to work at a hospital in Henrico. He and his wife wanted to look for a home in Chesterfield because he’d heard you can
get more square footage per dollar there. But after realizing it [the house] would
come with a 40-minute commute twice a day, he decided the extra space wasn’t worth sacrificing time with his family. So we directed our home search closer to his work in the West End, and wound up finding a place they were really happy with.”
In our case, commute wasn’t as big of an issue. James would mostly be working from home – in what would have been our dining room. (But who needs a dining
What type of setting or environment best suits your family? Where will you have most of your needs met?
“When you’re checking out neighborhoods, look for signs that the area is a good fit for your family,” advises Becky Parker, another realtor I spoke with. “If you have children, look for play equipment in the yards. A good way to find out how many kids are in a neighborhood is to drive around in the afternoon when they’re walking home from school or getting off the buses.”
Moving away from all our friends and family, we’d need to live in a place where we could meet other, like-minded people, somewhere with lots of neighbors, close to parks, and recreational sports leagues. That quickly ruled out my farm-out-in-the-country idea.
Housing developments, sometimes called communities, are a popular option for families these days because many of them have pools, tennis courts, walking trails, playgrounds, and even organized activities. As James and I drove around with our realtor, we made a game of trying to guess what each community had to offer based on its name.
Some were kind of vague. “King’s Charter. Do we need to be royalty to live here?” While others were more obvious. “Woodlake. I bet it has lots of woods – and a lake.”
Next question: Have you done your homework on schools?
Families in RVA are fortunate to have access to excellent private and public education. With that said, it’s still necessary to know the pros, cons, and individual offerings of schools in the areas you’re seriously considering.
School districts here vary widely and may be completely different from your last school system. For instance, my older son eats, breathes, and sleeps baseball. He was disappointed to learn that our local district doesn’t offer middle school baseball. My younger son was in the gifted program at his old elementary school. The same scores that qualified him there fell short of gifted standards at his new school.
And finally, what do you NOT want?
From freeway noise to steep staircases, most of us can list a few things from past living experiences that we’d rather not deal with again. It’s important to keep these in mind so you can avoid the same situation next go round.
Area mom and PTA vice president, Wendy Learn and her husband were delighted with the natural, woodsy setting of their new neighborhood after getting a little burned out on life in the city of Richmond. “We’d had our fill of big box stores, traffic congestion and the pleasure of listening to the train every day. We just wanted to be farther out and enjoy a little more of nature. It’s great to be able to have that and still be so close to good shopping and other conveniences.”
Though you might wind up having to compromise on a couple of things, it’s important to do your research and know your family’s needs when house hunting in a new area.
As for us, we’ve been calling RVA home for nine whole months now. Everyone has settled in nicely, except the houseplants, which would’ve probably died anyway. As newcomers, we’ve had to put ourselves out there and not be shy. But it’s paid off. We’re making friends in the neighborhood and have found a great church. Our boys are thriving on their new travel baseball teams and at school, which is a pleasant 10-minute walk from our new house (something I didn’t even know I wanted for my kids!).
I still haven’t figured out the correct pronunciation of “Powhite.” In schools here, 9-week quarters are called “marking periods.” My younger son doesn’t understand why the fire trucks are yellow instead of red. And I had to explain to him that ABC Stores do not sell school supplies.
These little novelties and quirks, along with a million other things, are quickly endearing RVA to us. This is definitely a place I’d be happy calling home for a while. But not before I get new granite countertops.
Our Favorite Online Relocation Resources
It’s hard to imagine packing up and moving far away without spending hours and hours online beforehand to learn about the new place you’ll be calling home. Here are a few super-helpful sites to check out when doing your homework.
This site offers an easy-to-read overview of your new city’s neighborhoods, crime rate, cost of living, amenities, weather, employment, and education. My favorite feature was its liveability score calculator. Even if you’re not planning a move, it’s a fun site to explore.
Before you get too excited about that job promotion 2,000 miles away, use this site’s cost-of-living calculator to make sure it won’t turn into a pay cut once you get there.
Here, you’ll find a huge compendium of stats on most every city in the U.S. Learn the average demographics of a neighborhood you’re looking at or the property tax rate of the county you’re moving to. And there’s a lot more to this site. I especially liked the nationwide discussion forum for honest opinions and advice from real people.
If you’ve got kids, then this site will be your go-to reference for ratings and information on the schools in your new area. Greatschools.org provides current data on public and private schools as well as places for parents and students to share their own experiences.
Google Earth (street view)
While you’re viewing real estate listings online, enter the addresses into Google Earth. You’ll feel like you’re actually driving down the neighborhood streets. It’s second only to being there yourself.