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Moving to Seattle and making housing decisions using virtual tools

by Tom Johnson on Dec 11, 2020 •
categories: technical-writing

Many people and companies are moving out of California right now. For example, Tesla, Oracle, HP, Palantir, and others are moving headquarters to other locations (mostly Texas), as are many tech workers. Reasons for the migration include high state income taxes, government regulation, constant fires, and more. Also, the high cost of living is hard to justify during the work-from-home model of the pandemic. You can read many articles about an exodus from Silicon Valley. This post isn't about the merits of California but is instead a more personal post about moving to Seattle and how to look at areas virtually. When you're moving and trying to decide about locations, can you make informed decisions using virtual tools alone? These tools could include mapping tools as well as VR tools that offer immersive street views of the areas. What information can't you gather through virtual explorations of an area?

A little backstory

I’ve lived in various places in the world. I grew up in Burlington and Tacoma Washington. Then moved to Utah for college, then Japan for a summer, then New York City for graduate school. After New York City, we moved to Cairo, Egypt, for a couple of years before returning to Florida, where my sister and family were living. In Florida, thinking we would stay a long time, we bought a house and lived there for several years before moving due to safety issues. (A stray bullet ended up in the bedroom our six-month old was napping in, and the house next door was a drug-drop.) We sold the Florida house at a loss and ended up paying back the difference over the next couple of years.

After renting for a year in Utah, we bought a house in Eagle Mountain, which is a suburb about an hour south of Salt Lake City. The basement wasn’t finished, as is common with houses there, and we spent a good year trying to finish that basement. I realized that I wasn’t any sort of handyman and dreaded working down there. But, as in Florida, it was nice to be near family, this time my wife’s. Eventually, though, the organization I was working for had a huge layoff and sent the whole tech comm team packing. We decided to move out of state to a better job market.

We had three locations we were considering: Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Austin. Because I’d grown up in Washington, I still wanted to see the world and experience other places like California. I made a trip out to California to meet with a few companies and soon after received a job offer. A couple of weeks later, we loaded up a Uhaul and drove out to California. We were once again unable to sell our house for what we still owed, but instead of taking a loss this time, we decided to rent it out, contracting with a management agency to handle the renting, repairs, and other details.

Arriving in California with our Uhaul and trailer, we stayed at a motel for a week in the Bay area as we looked for a place to rent. (Nowadays, sites like AirBnB would make this part of the process much more feasible.) This all happened pretty quickly — the layoff, move, packing, and Uhaul trip out west — and we were naive about how competitive the rental market was in California. We were surprised to see lines of people and stacks of applications for nearly every property we visited. We thought having a large family would make us less desirable renters (because kids can be rough on a house), so we often had the kids wait in the car. But it turns out families signal stability, and we luckily found a single-family home to rent in Santa Clara. (My wife also made a pleading case to the landlord, who seemed to have a soft heart for families.)

Santa Clara is a beautiful area, close to many big tech companies and opportunities. I biked to work my entire time here for the three companies I worked for. California’s weather allows you to ride year-round, and the Caltrain line (combined with the bike) allows you to get almost anywhere in the Bay. The price you pay for living in California, though, is the challenging housing market. We rented the entire time we lived here. Most houses in Silicon Valley cost over a million dollars (far beyond our reach).

Moving to Seattle

When you have four kids, you tend to sink deep hooks in an area. In California, our children made friends, joined sports clubs, got enmeshed in schools, and so on, which made it more difficult to move. But in the switch to employment with Google, we also decided to relocate to Seattle. Unlike the move from Utah to California, though, this time we had a lot more preparation and experience in making the move. We had lots of time to explore different areas and make better decisions. There were many aspects to consider about the location, factoring in commute times, schools, budget, and other details, such as being near a soccer club for one of my kids.

Browsing Zillow is fun, but it’s hard to evaluate a house without knowing how close it is to all the amenities that we ranked from “nice-to-have” to “essential.” I used mymaps.google.com to start adding points on a custom map. Here’s my map with all the custom points added:

(Here’s a static image of the map.)

Commute lines include the Link Light Rail and Sounder, for the most part. (Bus routes are everywhere but too complicated to add.) I also added in bike trails (which I pulled from maps like Trailfinder). The soccer clubs are all the “premier” clubs as listed on Washington Youth Soccer in the Seattle area.

Adding single data points on a map is easy, but adding school boundaries is much more difficult. Schools don’t often have a boundary file (in KML file format) that you can download and import into your own map. Zillow gets its school boundary data from Pitney Bowes, which isn’t a free site. Although it’s tough to get these school boundaries, the information is crucial when you have several children.

To add the school boundaries to my custom map, I took a screenshot from the district boundaries identified by Zillow, then superimposed the image onto the same area in Google Earth Pro, traced the area with the polygon tool in its own layer, and then saved it as a KML file. I then imported this KML file onto a layer on my custom map. At first this method seemed cumbersome, but I soon became good at it.

With the areas and other features identified on our custom map, we could then add any address from Zillow (or other sites) and immediately evaluate it based on proximity to our requirements. Browsing Zillow is both fun and addictive, so this filled many evening hours and family discussions. Each time our children would wander in to see us browsing Zillow, it filled them with dread and they said “We’re not moving!” But eventually, they warmed to the idea and started to get excited about it. Even my second oldest child, who is in the middle of high school and has many friends, said she was excited about the move.

Exploring through VR

To get a better sense of Seattle, I also explored some of the potential places using virtual reality (VR). With my Oculus Go headset, I opened up the Wander app, said the address I wanted to see, and then explored it in 360 degrees. (BTW, some houses on Zillow also offer VR tours of the inside, which are interesting and provide a better sense of size and space, but most listings do not.) Exploring the world through VR turns out to be quite an experience, especially when there are different timelines available for a house. Seeing the same house at different points in time, such as 2008, 2011, and 2018, can be eye-opening. You can also see the general areas as you traverse up and down the streets (e.g., proximity to other houses, degree of green canopy, closeness to busy streets), which isn’t something you can easily assess with a static map. (I can’t believe that Zillow doesn’t partner with Wander or some other app because it would make for a killer app experience.)

The one problem with the VR exploration is that getting the address required some painful context switching. Zillow doesn’t have a VR app, so I had to constantly take the headset off to read an address on Zillow, and then put the VR headset back on to say the address in Wander. One evening, this switching on and off made me sick and I felt nauseated for hours. The headset is immersive, and constantly taking it on and off is jarring on the brain. Even so, I loved exploring the world in VR and would often click the Random button in Wander and try to guess where I ended up in the world. Street view is not available all over the world, but it’s ubiquitous enough that you can pretty much visit anywhere.

I’m not the only one to fall in love with the immersive experience of street view in VR. In this Reddit post, Wander is one of my favorite apps! I’ve never been able to “travel the world” from the comfort of my chair before. It’s awesome and I love every second of it, here are a few similar experiences people share after using Wander:

I’ve done a short review on Wander in the past, but I just wanted to express my amazement even more, now that I’ve been using it for nearly five months. I’m always quietly amazed each time I put on my headset and open Wander to find myself standing before the Great Pyramids at Giza or at the base of the Empire State Building (where you can really get a sense of the massive scale of the thing) or even simply on a random road in the middle of a field. I love the fact you can also bookmark places you’ve visited and then pull them up immediately later on….

I am always finding new things to do with Wander. Nowadays I am looking though all the address of famous artist, writer, composer, etc. It’s really awesome that we can do all this things virtually without leaving the house….

I always run out of battery when I fire up wander. I just can’t put it down….

Love this app! It was an emotional experience wandering around my hometown in Ireland where I grew up. The sense of presence moved me in a way that the same imagery on a pancake screen never could….

You really have to experience Wander in VR to grasp how awesome it is. Here’s a video I found on YouTube (Oculus Go - Oculus Quest: Wander app review - part 1) with someone showing their VR experience with Wander:

With these VR experiments, I started to wonder if it’s possible to gather the same info about a remote area using VR as it would be to visit the place in person. VR gives you a 360-degree view and lets you move about in a somewhat free way. It really does feel like you’re there. Is that virtual representation enough to make a decision about where to live? Maybe.

Physical visits

Although the info gathered from maps and VR was helpful, we decided to make an actual trip out to Seattle to visit the potential areas that we identified. (This was before the tighter lockdown, and we were as cautious as possible.) Some of the top area contenders were Shoreline, Edmonds, West Seattle, Wallingford, Kent, Puyallup, Sumner, and Silverdale. We spent four days driving seemingly around everywhere in Seattle.

The first day, as we were driving around downtown Seattle in a rental car, it became clear to me that downtown areas like Wallingford and West Seattle would not work for us. Driving in the narrow, one-way streets filled me with anxiety and tension. Parking a minivan in these areas would be nearly impossible. Even in places that offered garage parking, the gymnastics required to get in and out of these spaces required more driving agility than I possessed. The only feasible way to live in the city would be to mostly walk everywhere and take public transportation, but I didn’t see how this would work with a family, e.g., commuting to soccer practices.

The next day we drove out to Kent and I felt like I could breathe again. Beautiful, tall trees with autumn-colored leaves dotted the landscape, as well as spacious single-family homes. We also explored Puyallup and Sumner, which also seemed great but more farmland-y and more disconnected from Seattle (not just a bedroom commute area). I realized that the essential dilemma about housing is all about location: the nicer houses all seem more distant from the commute stations.

During our Seattle trip, we also explored Silverdale, which is across the Puget Sound in the Kitsap Peninsula and requires an hour-long ferry ride. The idea of living on an island and commuting by ferry seemed appealing, but when we got out there, Silverdale seemed to consist of chain stores and franchises, and was about three blocks in length. The houses were either staggered on a hill (for the views of the Sound) or deep in the woods (for privacy). I also realized that while I like more drivable, suburban areas, I didn’t like to be so remote that the roads transitioned into single-lane dirt roads winding around dark woodsy corners. Also, I noticed that the farther out you go, the more Trump-Pence signs you see. And much of the wilderness areas are actually restricted zones from the nearby naval base.

On the last day, we drove again around Kent and Renton and tried to get a feel for the areas. I did a test drive from a place we liked to the Sounder station to gauge the time. In conducting these experiments, I realized that biking to these transit stations (like I did in California) probably wouldn’t work. Few roads had shoulders, and the rainy weather wasn’t great for riding, and some hills were massive. (In VR, the weather looks sunny most of the time.)

While visiting one house, an agent told us that during the past two weeks, she had met 8 different couples from California. She said they almost all wanted places with a lot of privacy (like a house secluded by trees). Hearing the agent tell us about the droves of Californians was unnerving. The fear that everyone was moving from California into this area dawned on us, and we started to panic a bit. What if coronavirus trends continued and more people moved out of California? What if we ended up being among the last people left in California, still paying high rents only to show up to a mostly empty office (in the spring) with everyone else working virtually? What if the thousands of new Amazon hires — who are initially remote but then commit to relocating to Seattle post-pandemic — all make the move to Seattle at the same time, causing a housing shortage?

It’s hard to make predictions about life after the pandemic. Many WFH-champions hope that this period spent working from home will help tech companies realize how successful and productive they can be in this model. Others dread working from home and long to return to the office. Others argue for more of a hybrid model. Personally, I’m in the return-to-work camp. I like the rhythms of going into an office in the morning and returning in the evening, even if the commute is tiring. But I also think a more balanced schedule between on-site and home is more likely.

After Seattle, we returned to California and continued our hunt virtually. Before long, we found a place that suited us in Renton, which is near Kent and will probably involve an hour-long commute to work. It’s a beautiful house, as far as we can tell. We still have never seen it in person, but we’ve looked at the pictures on Zillow countless times and explored the exterior and surrounding area again and again on different maps and in VR and FaceTime. Will it be our dream house, or will we arrive only to be disappointed and stuck in a place we dislike for years? Only time will tell. And I likely won’t experience the full reality of the commute until next summer.

Conclusion

Overall, this experience caused me to reflect on virtual versus physical experiences. As we WFH, we learned that we can work virtually and be just as productive, interacting with people we’ve never actually met in person. Tech companies are thriving in the pandemic. But can you also make large decisions about moving too? How much can you infer through virtual tools (especially VR) about an area without actually visiting it? What’s the difference between visiting a place in person versus exploring it in 360-degree street view using VR?

Looking back, I think virtual exploration got us about halfway there, but it wasn’t until we toured the areas that we could make more definitive decisions. I hope that in some future point in time, VR experiences become more dynamic and real-time. Then decision-making will be even better. And at some point, maybe we’ll just leave the VR headset on full-time because it will be more preferable to the real world.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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