Extreme Commuting: Is It For You?

By Lisa Smith AAA

The trip to work is a true journey for some 3.4 million commuters that travel at least 90 minutes each way to and from their jobs on a daily basis. Pundits call it "extreme commuting" and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2004 report Journey To Work, trips of 90 minutes or more are the fastest growing category of commute since 1990. Why do people go to such extremes? Primarily, it's for the money! Read on to find out the financial pros and cons of living farther away from where you work.

Big City Salary, Small Town Living
There are two major issues driving the growing trend of extreme commuting. By far, the leading issue is money. The real estate boom that has taken place in the United States in recent years has seen housing prices soar. Today, particularly in the immediate suburbs of major metropolitan centers such as Los Angeles and New York, many people simply can't afford to live near where they work.

This reality is forcing an increasing number of people to move to what is being called the "exurbs," which are basically the suburbs of the suburbs. As a result, the national average commute time has increased and the number of extreme commuters has nearly doubled since 1990. In 2000, the average daily commute was 25.5 minutes - extreme commuters came in well above that average, driving in excess of 90 minutes to arrive at work each day. This may seem like a long time to spend on the road, but the tradeoff for extreme commuters comes in the cost of their housing. In fact, it is not uncommon to see price differences of more than 50% between housing near major metropolitan centers and that in the exurbs. This is a huge factor if you consider that housing is the largest single expense for most households and, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the prices for new homes have nearly tripled over the past two decades. Extreme commuters also benefit from other cost breaks. Car insurance, for example, tends to be lower due to the lower traffic volumes and less frequent accidents in the exurbs. Tax rates may also be lower, as outlying areas aren't required to support the aging infrastructure and social services programs required in the city. (For related reading, see Shopping For Car Insurance.)

Along with the lower cost of living, the exurbs also offer what some people see as a better quality of life. Large homes with large lawns, low crime rates, no poverty or traffic-clogged roadways and fewer people are all part of the appeal of life in the exurbs. In general, living farther away from core metropolitan areas is believed to provide the safe and unhurried lifestyle that is usually associated with small-town life.

The Other Side of the Coin
Although extreme commuting can provide financial and quality of life benefits, the more time that is spent commuting to and from work, the less time commuters have to spend at home with their families. While the average commuter spends more than 100 hours per year on the highway, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an extreme commuter can rack up those hours in just a little over two months. Additional detractors include the relative lack of cultural institutions and shopping opportunities that exurbs provide compared to their metropolitan counterparts.

While most people escape to the exurbs for financial reasons, many of them fall into a trap when it comes to housing. Instead of buying a modest, affordable home, they instead cave in to the temptation to buy a big house and stretch their budgets in order to do so. Once this choice has been made, these people are locked into the extreme commute for the long haul, since most jobs in small towns don't come with the big city salaries required to support large homes. While a financially cautious commuter could spend a decade doing the drive, pay off any outstanding bills and then trade in the commute for semi-retirement (or least a lower-paying job closer to home), the people in the big houses often can't afford to stop working in the city. (To learn more, see Paying Off Your Mortgage and Mortgages: How Much Can You Afford?)

Long commutes also result in higher maintenance costs for cars and trucks, as well as big gasoline bills. While few people keep a car long enough to make vehicle replacement an issue, racking up more miles on your automobile does mean that you will need to change your oil, replace your tires and buy brakes more often than your city-based friends. (For more insight, see Getting A Grip On The High Cost Of Gas.)

To Drive or Not to Drive?
The decision to make extreme commuting part of your lifestyle is largely a matter of personal choice. Will cultural opportunities and fine dining offset the need to live in a small apartment or an overpriced, undersized house? Or will wide open spaces and family-friendly places offset the hundreds of hours you will have to spend on the road? These are decisions that each person must make for him or herself. However, with the continued high costs of housing in metropolitan areas, it is likely that the 3.4 million extreme American commuters will continue to grow as more workers decide to hit the highway. Extreme commuting may not be for everyone, but for those who accept the tradeoffs, using a hefty city-based salary on exurban expenses can provide good value.

For related reading, see Wheels Of A Future Fortune.

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