How We Decided Where to Live, and Chose An Unexpected Place

January 6, 2020

If you don’t want to read the story behind this personal decision, here’s a TL;DR version. 

These five steps are how we decided where to live. Maybe this framework will work for you, too.

  • Identify what you need in your next town, plus what you’d like to have
  • Create a spreadsheet matrix that assigns values to those needs and wants (examples below)
  • Add your dream towns to the matrix and see how they score
  • Visit towns that score well on your matrix
  • Pick one and move there, even if you’re not sure. You will never be sure.

In search of the perfect place to live

My husband Ben and I have spent many weekends and vacations visiting small towns for their hiking trails. 

Places like Halls Gap in Australia for the Grampians; Luray in Virginia for the Shenandoah; Te Anau in New Zealand for the Kepler Track; and El Cercado on La Gomera, in the Canary Islands.

Each time, we’d look around at the mountains and the quaintness of the town and say to each other, I wonder what it’s like to live here.

It was just a fantasy during our first few years together. We wouldn’t actually move to a small town in the mountains. We were used to cities and their amenities, having access to diverse restaurants and yoga studios and tech scenes. And we both needed to be self-employed, or at least have the freedom to work remotely, to live in a smaller town without worrying about finding a job there.

But over the last couple of years, we started to get serious about giving ourselves better access to mountains. We wanted to hike and bike and run on trails in our daily life, not just during vacations.

Our desire became more acute when we moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida, so I could help grow a company there. While St. Pete has lots going for it — beaches, warm weather, family-friendly, hip restaurants — it was about as far away from the mountains as we could get. Between two all-encompassing full-time jobs and two kids under three years old, our trips to the woods were few and far between. We desperately missed that terrain and the outdoor adventures it brings.

We began to scheme on a move that would take us closer to the outdoors. We planned to stay in Florida for at least another year or two, so it was a slow exploration, no urgency. But as my husband’s business grew, we became more excited by the prospect, so we made a spreadsheet to evaluate our options. 

Yes, a spreadsheet. I’m married to a Google Developer Expert who specializes in Google Sheets, so our entire life is organized there. 

Here’s what happened next.

How to answer the question, Where should I live?

Once we started looking for the “perfect place,” I realized this was a search a lot of other people were doing as well. Friends shared that they, too, were looking for the ideal town to get settled or raise their kids. Vox even launched a podcast, Nice Try, dedicated to the topic.

I wondered whether this was the phase of life we were in, with young kids, or because we’d lived in cities full of professional transplants, or maybe because my generation is rarely satisfied, always looking for the next best thing.

The challenging part — or perhaps the fun part — about this question is there’s no one right answer. The answer is different depending on what you want from your life. Everyone has their own idea of what the perfect place looks and feels like. 

So you can ask all your friends and family and the Internet late at night where you should move, and it’s quite possible none of them will give you the right answer. 

We relied heavily on online lists for ideas: lists of best outdoor towns, best cities for outdoor enthusiasts and most liveable hiking towns.

But get this: the place where we ended up was not suggested by a single person or list.

I can’t remember whether it was Ben or me who threw this small town into the running, but it was the spreadsheet that helped us realize it was truly worth considering.

How a spreadsheet helped us decide where to live

Those “best of” lists did, however, help us populate our spreadsheet.

We built a simple matrix in Google Sheets that included all the things we wanted in our next home: 

  • Walkable to hiking and biking trails
  • Walkable to restaurants
  • Walk/bike to school
  • Walk/bike to coworking space
  • Startup scene (for networking and learning opportunities)
  • Warm weather (well, this was my wish. Ben likes cold)
  • Affordable housing costs
  • Good public schools (we’ve got two kids)
  • Close to an airport (to easily visit family overseas)
  • Nearby university (for the learning atmosphere)

Then we assigned a possible total value to each of those items based on how important it was to us. The more vital it was to our lifestyle, the more points it could earn. 

For example, housing costs had a possible score of 15, while warm weather could earn up to five points. If a town was less than 30 minutes from an airport, it got 10 points; less than 60 minutes, five points; or less than 90 minutes, 1 point.

This scoring system was not mathematically sound. It was entirely made up by us, and yet it was incredibly helpful in making this big decision.

We added a bunch of cities and towns to our list, mostly pulled from those “best of” lists. Here are a few of the places that were on our list:

  • Boulder, CO
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Arlington, VA
  • Boone, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • Boise, ID
  • Park City, UT
  • Asheville, NC

We went through each category for each town and assigned a score as best we could without visiting, leaning on online research and what we’d heard from friends. Then we added up those scores to get a total score for each place.

Here’s what our spreadsheet looked like:

Spreadsheet matrix on how to decide where to live

Our No. 1 criteria was easy access to hiking and biking, and in an ideal world, that meant not having to drive to hit the trails. We wanted to be able to walk to trails from our house.

The hard part, though, is that we also wanted to walk from our house to restaurants and shops or some sort of town center. This combination, we realized pretty quickly, was a lot to ask. In fact, there was a period when I wasn’t sure that unicorn of a place even existed.

Once we had our totals, we used those scores to decide which towns to visit.

First up was Asheville, North Carolina.

Should we move to Asheville?

We get together with my extended family for a week every summer, and that summer the destination happened to be an hour from Asheville… so we drove to the city one day to visit. Asheville ranked high according to our matrix, and we also had friends living there who had picked it after going through a similar process.

During our short visit, we saw Asheville as a nice town, but it didn’t hit us as the right place for our family. It felt too suburban, and we couldn’t picture ourselves there.

Our experience in Asheville taught us a valuable lesson: no matter how good a place looks in a matrix, it takes a visit to really feel the vibe and figure out whether it’s what you’re looking for. A spreadsheet can provide insight, but what feels right trumps all the numbers.

So we moved on. Next up, our spreadsheet told us, was Boulder, Colorado.  

Should we move to Boulder?

My parents stayed with our kids so we could turn the long weekend into a mini-holiday. 

And oh my goodness, we LOVED Boulder.

We loved the views, we loved the hikes, we loved the walkable downtown, we loved the outdoor vibe, we loved the tech scene. We could absolutely see ourselves living there.

But then we looked closely at the housing market. And the prices were crazy high. Higher than DC. In the part of town that was walkable to hikes, a home that was big enough to comfortably house our family and offices (because we envisioned both of us working from home) would’ve easily cost $1.2 million. 

That wasn’t the commitment we wanted to make when I was hoping to work less for a while. We did consider more affordable areas outside of Boulder, but that would’ve gotten us away from the walkable item on our checklist.

Boulder got tagged with a maybe. And then we kept looking.

Should we move to Charlottesville?

Next we tried Charlottesville, Virginia. Going into the trip, Ben was certain Charlottesville was the place for us. According to our spreadsheet, it ticked all our boxes.

But in the end we had a similar experience as Asheville: we liked the city as visitors, but it didn’t feel right as our home. The layout of the city, with trails circling it, made it difficult to visualize how we’d find a neighborhood that allowed us to walk both to those trails and to restaurants. 

Then we tried a town that wasn’t on any of the “best of” lists, one that felt like more of a gamble than the others.

How Harpers Ferry, WV, made it onto our list

We’d visited Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a few times when we lived in Washington, D.C. It’s just an hour and 15 minutes from the city, and we’d gone there for hiking and biking.

We’d enjoyed the quaintness of the town, but we’d never considered moving there. Why? Because it’s tiny. Just 280 people.

When I mentioned that to a friend, she said, “you mean 280 thousand, right?”

Nope. 280. 

But I added it to our spreadsheet anyway, just to see the tally. It scored high, one of the highest on our list.

It had lots of hiking and biking accessible from town, some homes were walkable to restaurants, it was less than an hour from an airport, and an hour from a city. As a bonus, the Appalachian Trail headquarters was based there, which brought lots of thru-hikers to the town.

So I flew there for a long weekend, leaving Ben with the kids. If nothing else, it was an opportunity to visit with family that lived in D.C.

Our approach whenever we visited a town on our list was to go beyond what we might do there as a tourist, and explore it with liveability in mind. That’s what I did in Harpers Ferry, scouring the area for grocery stores, preschools, co-working spaces and yoga studios, all the pieces we’d need to create a life.

It turned out that while Harpers Ferry proper was tiny, several other towns are nearby, and altogether they offered all the amenities we needed. It’s at the junction of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, and the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. It’s surrounded by park land, yet also has a train to D.C. 

I hiked the trail the town was known for, and it was magical: the woods, the snow flurries, the deer, the views, the quiet.

I returned to Florida feeling refreshed, but not sure Harpers Ferry was the place for us. So much about it called to me, but living there would also mean more driving, colder weather, and fewer poke bowls. It would be a huge lifestyle change.

Lucky for us, we didn’t have to make a decision right away. We were still planning to stay in Florida for the foreseeable future.

Then, just a few weeks after my Harpers Ferry trip, something unexpected happened: my company made changes that opened the door for my graceful exit

Ben and I realized this was our chance. Our chance to live in a place that offered mountains and trails at our doorstep. But we still didn’t know exactly where that would be.

How we chose where to live

That night we pulled out a whiteboard, and did a pros and cons list, pitting Boulder against Harpers Ferry.

Both towns offered hiking, but beyond that they were so different. Boulder was a far bigger town with a tech scene. Harpers Ferry was a historic community with a more affordable cost of living and proximity to my family on the East Coast.

We could picture ourselves in both places. But the image of us in Boulder included stress and unease about the cost of living. After a few years of growing babies and companies at the same time, we both knew we didn’t want that pressure. We wanted our next phase of life to be as stress-free as possible.

So we decided on Harpers Ferry. We moved a few short months later, and while we felt good about the decision, I can’t say either of us felt certain we’d made the right choice. We’d spent so little time in Harpers Ferry that we didn’t really know what it would be like to live there. Making a big life change was scary, especially with two toddlers in tow.

Yet eight months later, I almost can’t believe how lucky we were to choose this place. It is a better fit for us than we ever could have imagined. 

It didn’t happen overnight, but we have built a new life, one that includes hiking a few times a week before we start our workday.

Sometimes when I’m on my own on the trails, I think about what would’ve happened if we hadn’t taken the chance to pursue this dream. Would we still be in Florida? Somewhere city that felt like a safer bet? Would we still be visiting towns on our list, looking for the perfect place?

I never envisioned myself living in West Virginia, but I’m happy it’s home.

A framework for making your own decision on where to live

If you’re trying to figure out where to live, here’s one way of doing it.

  1. Identify what you need in your next town, plus what you’d like to have
  2. Create a spreadsheet matrix that assigns values to those needs and wants
  3. Add your dream towns to the matrix and see how they score
  4. Visit towns that score well on your matrix
  5. Pick one and move there, even if you’re not sure. You will never be sure.

The last part is the most important: You will never be sure. You will never be ready.

You will never be ready, and you should make a choice anyhow.

The easiest way to make a big change in your life is to take small steps in that direction. You never know where those small steps might lead.

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    38 Replies to “How We Decided Where to Live, and Chose An Unexpected Place”

    • Yes to all of this! These are the same steps we followed in our own process of choosing a mountain town, and while it’s scary, #5 is so important. Worst case, you move again! Moving isn’t the most fun but it’s also not the end of the world. I’m so glad you’re all feeling good in your new home!

    • Kellie says:

      Loved this! I appreciate that you clearly waited and took the time necessary to visit, contemplate and not make a hurried decision. I’m in the process of weighing the same idea. Bravo for dreams!

    • Jessica Mayo Pike says:

      I am glad to know I am not the only one who manages my life on spreadsheets. We are making a less difficult decision to stay in our current house and neighborhood that we absolutely love, OR to move 10 minutes away to be in a different/better school district. I will keep this methodology in mind to help us in the decision making process! PS- My brother lives in old town Alexandria and says Harpers Ferry is beautiful.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Hey Jess! Oh, interesting conundrum! The school piece makes things a lot more complicated. It’s so hard to make long-term choices around that when who knows might change in the future.

    • carissa says:

      Love the spreadsheet! We just did this 2 years ago. We jumped ship from CO because of housing costs. We ended up in NorthWest Arkansas. Our first town was not a hit…too far from the trails and pretty depressing. So we moved an hour north and it’s terrific! We were not as meticulous with a spreadsheet and all, but we gave ourselves 2 years and visited several places to see how they felt. Good for you guys for making the leap…the town sounds adorable! Kind of Stars Hollow-ish. 🙂

    • Karen says:

      This is great! I *just* asked a friend of mine about her little town as a potential for a retirement burg for me and voila, she sends me your blog link–that just HAPPENED to arrive in her email the day after I just HAPPENED to contact her after a 2-year gap in our communications. So, I see the hand of God in all this–blessings! And I can’t wait to set up my spreadsheet! Thanks again and BTW, I was born and raised in Maryland, so I hear you about Harper’s Ferry–lovely little town. Warmly, KN

    • How useful your article regarding living! Love the spreadsheet!

    • Angela Lim says:

      I loved your process. It was so great to read all of your criteria. I live in Boise and we love it here (in case you ever need a change!).

    • Sonja Lovelace says:

      Thank you for this idea. I’ll try it! I live in Los Angeles, and the housing market is is way beyond what I can afford, so I’m looking for someplace else, a smaller town surrounded by nature.

    • Patricia says:

      Just love your process. We moved to small town Ohio after living in Atlanta. I hate it with a passion! Not a cold weather person. I’m looking for the next place to go in a few years so your method is perfect for me to start pulling together now. Thanks a million!

    • Christy says:

      Thank you so much, this was very helpful and reassuring. I’m planning an out of state move all by myself and needless to say, I haven’t yet felt confident and ready to decide. I’m gonna visit a couple more places and just pick!

    • Stefan says:

      Quite a good guide, and I think I’ll be using it in our search for a place that not just feels like home, but meets more easily defined needs.

      Especially intrigued by your thought that “you will never be sure”. I think you mean you will never be sure till you move there?

      I also think that if you rent out your own house if you have one, and rent out one in a new town, you have a fallback positioning case you don’t like it: sometimes places that that look great have local people dynamics that can only be discovered after a while. Then you need to decide if they matter or not.

      Stefan, Australia, and not that far from the Grampians 🙂

    • Penny says:

      Very helpful post. I’m living in northern France and considering a move but bewildered by the options. I’ve similar goals to you, but an older age bracket. Thanks Alexis!

    • Katherine says:

      Lol, I was reading your list of wants and immediately thought it Harper’s Ferry (I have family that lived there). You are so right that there are many places that won’t make a list in a magazine but could work perfectly for your own family. Curious if you’ve been able to meet other likeminded people know that you are there and settled in.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Hi Katherine — Good question! While the pandemic put a hamper on meeting people, I think the answer here is still yes. I’m not running into other people who run online businesses, but to be honest that barely happened to me in cities either; I tend to find those connections online.

        Our neighbors are all lovely, and we’ve met other families with young kids, some of whom appreciate the outdoors like we do, and that’s something we didn’t always have in cities. Career-wise, I’ve connected with local business owners, most of whom run brick-n-mortars, but business owners nonetheless. There are a lot of transplants here from DC and elsewhere who had or have interesting careers. Reflecting on that now, I think that has helped: there’s a combination of locals who grew up in the area and transplants. Maybe that’s something to look for. While we are in West Virginia, we’re not deep into the state, but on the very corner and in a relatively affluent area, which ends up adding to the diversity of residents.

        So while there’s no startup scene here, I do find that for this stage of my life, I enjoy the people! Pre-kids I might have felt differently.

    • Chip says:

      Love the spreadsheet approach. Have considered Asheville, Park City/SLC, and Nevada-side of Lake Tahoe as retirement locations. Our focus is mainly driven by costs, but things like walkability, proximity to a college, taxes and, sadly, politics will also influence our decision. The spreadsheet provides a tool to address all those things rationally. Thanks for sharing your insights!

      PS – Even though I live in CA, I am a proud West Virginia U grad and completely understand your choice of Harpers Ferry as a landing spot!

    • Michael Withrow says:

      First, thanks for this article. I do exactly the same thing with a spreadsheet. It is alot of work. The only part of the process I have not done is actually visit. During covid it is just too dangerous. Second, I am seeing that everywhere I want to go is where everyone else also wants to go…not good. Finally, I wouldn’t advertise where you landed, as now 5,000 people will now pack the place. Then you’ll have to start over! Once again, thanks for this inspiration!

    • Kathleen Lee says:

      Love this! Congrats on your new home in Harpers Ferry. A very cool town. Also, didn’t know about the $12k to move there so will check it out. We love the outdoors and hiking, too, and living in MD affords us lots of opportunities for both. While we’re on the topic, I’d like to throw in a couple of other compelling destinations from my visits with family: Fort Collins, CO, a less-expensive alternative to Boulder, CO and Colorado Springs, CO. Both worth considering!

    • Kevin Wallen says:

      We’re just across the river in Purcellville!! We’re looking to move away from NoVa and are having trouble deciding! I’ll show the wife the matrix.

    • Kate says:

      We’re in the process of doing exactly what you did and in a very similar stage + interests (just 1 young kiddo instead of two). I’d really love to know how you found towns to put into your matrix in the first place? Thanks!

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Hey Kate! We scoured online lists like “best towns for outdoor lovers” and just checked out places we’d heard about from friends. Unfortunately, I think some of the gems — especially if you’re looking for a small town — aren’t on a list. Like where we ended up! We’d heard of Harpers Ferry just from living in DC; we’d visited here once.

    • Right now I’m in Leesburg and wanting to make the same move, somewhere small and affordable so I can chase dreams without going into debt. This was a great read, thanks for sharing!

    • Walter Bernal says:

      I am thinking in smoothing my life, always been an urban guy with lots of interests and the time has come, I think, to look for a quieter place to live. I live in Chile, with no family or siblings, what should I do . I´ll be 71 at the end of march. I am very healthy and love bicycle riding. I actually ride my bike everyday and do 50 kms per day , 5 days a week. I wold also like to start a small Gourmet coffee place. Any suggestions?

    • Have you considered moving to Bansko in the mountains of Bulgaria? I think it is the perfect place for your criteria as it has beautiful nature, cheap housing and very fast internet 🙂

    • Malinda says:

      Hello Alexis,

      Great article. I’m curios to know what pushed Boone, NC out of the running. I’ve only visited there once.

    • James Cummins says:

      Excellent article and excellent analysis. One factor though that deserves more consideration. A senior partner at a law firm I was interviewing with told me, go where you like the people. Best advice I’ve ever received.

    • Bethany says:

      My husband and I have been contemplating a similar decision for a year or two, and it feels like we’re stuck in analysis paralysis! We both work remotely and sometimes it feels like that almost opens up TOO many options! But I’m going to set up a similar spreadsheet and see if that helps us narrow down the options. We’re specifically looking in the Pacific Northwest/Puget Sound area. We live in Seattle now but would like to be in a smaller town, closer to nature, with other outdoorsy families. We have one toddler with a baby on the way, and it feels more overwhelming than I expected to also factor in figuring out childcare since it can be so difficult to find before preschool. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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