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Suburban life not really cheaper than city living

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Local,Transportation,Liz Essley

Housing may be less expensive far beyond the D.C. border, but that doesn't mean it's cheaper to live there.

While D.C. and its close-in neighbors are home to heftier home prices, the cost of transportation in the suburbs and distant exurbs -- not just for commuting to work but also for getting around generally -- is making those once more affordable areas even pricier to live in, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Suburban families who saved tens of thousands of dollars on the price of their homes can pay $15,000 or more a year just getting around, according to the center. People who live in the District or just outside the city are paying half that much for transportation, even less in some cases.

Lowest annual commuting costs
1. New York, $10,158 
2. San Francisco, $11,980 
3. Los Angeles, $12,154 
4. Chicago, $12,311 
5. Philadelphia, $12,365 
6. Boston, $12,394 
7. Denver, $12,662 
8. Washington, $12,664 
9. Miami, $12,822 
10. San Jose, $12,914
Highest annual commuting costs
1. Birmingham, Ala., $14,928 
2. Nashville, Tenn. $14,854 
3. Raleigh, N.C., $14,630 
4. Rochester, N.Y., $14,624 
5. Riverside, Calif., $14,421 
6. Charlotte, N.C., $14,375 
7. Oklahoma City, $14,310 
8. Atlanta, $14,305 
9. Jacksonville, Fla. $14,193 
10. Memphis, Tenn. $14,182
Source: The Center for Neighborhood Technology

The average Dupont Circle resident spends $636 on transportation every month. In College Park, the monthly average is $1,246. In more distant Damascus, Md., the average resident spends $1,447 a month, according to the center.

The story is similar in Virginia. The average monthly cost of traveling from Mount Vernon is $1,269. It's $1,015 in Arlington, but just $829 on Capitol Hill.

"Neighborhoods with expensive housing may prove affordable thanks to a compact layout and multiple travel options that keep transportation costs low," the center said in a new study. "Places with seemingly inexpensive housing may in fact be unaffordable due to high transportation costs that come form having to use a car for most trips."

And Washingtonians are starting to realize that.

"People are saying, 'Get me close to the city, get me close to transportation, put me in a position where I might be able to use my bicycle,' " Prince George's County Realtor Boyd Campbell said.

Washington-area residents spend an average $12,664 on transportation, according to the center. And with gas prices approaching $4 a gallon, transportation costs are starting to play an even greater role in Washingtonians' decision on where to live.

"We've had a big swingback. Before '05, a lot of people were moving further out to get a bigger bang for their buck," said Alexandria Realtor Traci Rochon. "[Now] a lot of sellers are selling to move closer in."

Ballston resident Gus Malarcher said the cost of commuting prompted him to settle in Arlington.

"While it's more expensive to live up here than it is to live outside of town, it would have cost more in gas and everything else for me to drive in, along with traffic," he said.

For others, the decision to live closer to the city isn't about the pocketbook. Brett Huhman and his wife bought a house in Gaithersburg in 2005, but are now renting it out at a loss of about $500 a month just so they can rent a house in Alexandria, closer to where Huhman works.

"I've been doing the three-hour-a-day commute for seven years," Huhman said. "I'm frankly getting tired of it."

Want to see how housing prices and commuting costs add up in your neighborhood? View the study's maps at htaindex.org. To see the average transportation cost for your address, check out abogo.cnt.org.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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