Millennials go “surban”

As young families expand, real estate agents are helping them
find the sweet spot between city living and suburban space.

Photo credit: Caroline Ghetes

Surban is the new suburban

Mike and Kari Nakayama had no idea they were part of a nationwide real estate trend among millennials. They had been living a fairly dreamy romance—the two met growing up in Chicago’s broad suburban shoulders, dated in high school and went to different colleges, but stayed close. Kari moved to Chicago—the big city—after school. She convinced Mike to come, and for seven years they lived in Bucktown, a vibrant neighborhood of boutiques and pubs filled with young people like themselves.

Kari and Mike loved the choices the city gave them: restaurants, bars, shops, music, ball games and movies—not to mention their many friends who lived there too. There was always something to do.

But soon their fun friends started pairing off, having children and leaving Bucktown for more affordable spaces outside the city. In fact, this is not unique to Kari and Mike’s social circle. Millennial buyers nationwide are seeking less expensive homes outside cities because many of them are repaying student debt and raising their growing families, according to a recent generational trends survey from the National Association of Realtors®.

When Mike and Kari married at age 27, they considered moving to another cool urban Chicago neighborhood, but ultimately decided against it. “We felt like we didn’t utilize the city like we had four or five years earlier,” said Mike. “It was nothing urgent or instantaneous. We were just ready for the next chapter in our lives.”

Ready for more space, but not willing to give up what made city living so interesting and lively, Mike and Kari set sights on a new kind of place—one that was not urban, but not the strip malls and chain restaurants of the suburbs, either.

Mike and Kari were looking for someplace surban—a blended type of neighborhood on the rise among today’s millennial buyers that combines urban energy and walkability with the space and affordability of a suburban neighborhood.

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We felt like we didn’t utilize the city like we had four or five years earlier.— Mike Nakayama

When Mike and Kari married at age 27, they considered moving to another cool urban Chicago neighborhood, but ultimately decided against it. “We felt like we didn’t utilize the city like we had four or five years earlier,” said Mike. “It was nothing urgent or instantaneous. We were just ready for the next chapter in our lives.”

Ready for more space, but not willing to give up what made city living so interesting and lively, Mike and Kari set sights on a new kind of place—one that was not urban, but not the strip malls and chain restaurants of the suburbs, either.

Mike and Kari were looking for someplace surban—a blended type of neighborhood on the rise among today’s millennial buyers that combines urban energy and walkability with the space and affordability of a suburban neighborhood.

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“Millennials are always checking four or five different communities around Chicago that have that urban feel,” said Michael Gobber, a real estate agent with Century 21 Affiliated in Westchester, Illinois, and a Realtor®—a member of the National Association of Realtors®. “What a real estate agent can do is find the neighborhood within those communities that is up-and-coming.”

Gobber says his job is to keep an eye on the downtown centers of communities like Naperville, Oak Park, Elmhurst, Geneva and La Grange. He watches commercial real estate prices—he wants to see them high—and wants to see few vacant storefronts.

And he looks for signs of liveliness in downtown sections of these communities. “Pubs, microbreweries, sushi restaurants and Trader Joe’s populate surban centers,” said Gobber. Celebrity chefs open restaurants there, or successful city restaurants open new spots.

Retail is vital, but not the big-box kind. Millennials want boutiques and mom-and-pop shops stocked with unique fashions.

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Mass transit is another determining factor in attracting young homebuyers to a surban location. These buyers want homes a short walk from public transportation. They want their own downtowns to be bike-friendly. Gobber said when he guides millennial buyers, he’s looking for communities that are developing relatively new housing projects near a town center.

Millennials are good at spotting some surban characteristics on their own—such as the prevalence of summer festivals, street fairs and concerts—but agents notice more subtle indicators. Surban towns almost always seem to have a college or university nearby, and up-and-coming neighborhoods tend to feature ancillary businesses that cater to young families. New daycare centers, bounce towns and upgraded playgrounds may indicate a neighborhood undergoing turnover. Families that made the neighborhood trendy in the 1990s have raised their kids and moved on, leaving room for a wave of millennial homebuyers looking for value.

“Millennials aren’t moving to their job location,” said Gobber. “They’re moving to places they like.”

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Kari and Mike settled on—and ultimately in—Elmhurst, a city of about 45,000 people near the crossroads of I-290 and I-294. Either of them could take a train to work, but they both like to drive. In that regard, they are not perfect surban millennials—though both said work had little bearing on where they decided to live.

Mike’s sister, Kelly Deschamp, a real estate agent with Exit Real Estate Partners in Downers Grove, and a Realtor®, helped them narrow their search.

“Talking to Kelly really opened our eyes,” said Mike. “We were pretty reliant on her. We didn’t know the specific areas of Elmhurst and looked to her to find the amenities and details we were looking for.”

Millennials aren’t moving to their job location. They’re moving to places they like.— Realtor® Michael Gobber

Kari and Mike settled on—and ultimately in—Elmhurst, a city of about 45,000 people near the crossroads of I-290 and I-294. Either of them could take a train to work, but they both like to drive. In that regard, they are not perfect surban millennials—though both said work had little bearing on where they decided to live.

Mike’s sister, Kelly Deschamp, a real estate agent with Exit Real Estate Partners in Downers Grove, and a Realtor®, helped them narrow their search.

“Talking to Kelly really opened our eyes,” said Mike. “We were pretty reliant on her. We didn’t know the specific areas of Elmhurst and looked to her to find the amenities and details we were looking for.”

Kelly helped them purchase a three-bedroom, three-bathroom ranch on Elmhurst’s up-and-coming north side.

“We love what we found,” Kari said. “We have a gym and a grocery store and a coffee shop just around the corner from our house. We can walk or bike downtown. Elmhurst has a lot of cool restaurants. You can see it’s a happening place.”

“Downtown Elmhurst is not too much different than what you see in the city,” Mike agreed. “You walk down the street in the evening and it’s active. It’s a really attractive place for people our age, a really good alternative for when you’re done in the city.”

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Moving Midwest

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A shiny and new Rust Belt

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