Life in Austin

The following are some random notes about moving to Austin; previously, I’d spent 11 years in Redmond, Washington working for Microsoft. I grew up mostly in Maryland, except for a three year stint in Michigan. I’m sharing my thoughts here mostly to avoid retyping them each time a friend says they’re thinking about moving to town– something that seems to be happening more and more frequently as the rest of the country notices what a gem Austin is.

We moved to Austin 1207 days ago (October 2012); I’d meant to write a post a thousand days in, but I’m just getting around to it now.

tl;dr and just want to look at Austin? Check out this amazing “Austin by Air” video by former colleague Gerard Juarez.

Housing
The city is a great one for the young and young at heart and TX in general is definitely very much a place for young families. Families with three or more kids aren’t unusual. The area is growing rapidly with very low unemployment and tons of construction, both downtown and in the ever-expanding suburbs. Housing prices downtown are extremely high, but they fall off exponentially as you get further away from the core of the city. Real estate prices are much better than Redmond overall, but are very tightly tied to distance to the city center. In Redmond, we had a 1560sq foot house 0.5 miles from Microsoft; the house was built in 1968. We basically traded it for our house here, built in 1993 and almost 3k square feet. If we were willing to go another 15 miles out, we could have added another 500 square feet and saved ~$100K on a house five or ten years newer.

We live in the northwest in a neighborhood called “Jester”; it’s a nice neighborhood of wide streets and sidewalks built mostly in the early 1990s.

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The east is pretty underdeveloped and historically the cheaper place to live. But it is starting to build out with new planned communities and amenities. The west, south of Lake Travis is the hot area for middle/upper middle class… Tons of huge new neighborhoods in the $300-600k range. The north (toward Round Rock) tends to offer significant savings on housing with the tradeoff of (typically) longer commutes.

Finding a house? Kevin Bown was the agent we were recommended when we were pondering a move here. He helped us get up to speed on the different areas and tradeoffs and whatnot. He did a good job of helping us find our house (which we love) in just a few visits, and he works really well over email, which was very helpful since we only visited Austin twice before we moved.

Traffic and Driving – Your perspective on traffic largely depends on where you’re moving from. If you’re coming from a major metropolitan area like D.C. or New York, you’ll laugh about how light it is, but it can be one of the bigger hassles of living here. For many years, the city tried to constrain its growth by refusing to build roads, which only would’ve worked if folks weren’t coming from places with worse traffic congestion. Roads are slowly getting widened and tolling is starting in some areas.

Mass transit is nearly non-existent, although there is a very limited rail service from Leander (in the north) to downtown. Before I started at Google, my commute to the Telerik office (downtown) was ~12 miles; the drive took 23 minutes best case and around 50 minutes at rush hour. Drivers are generally polite and less aggressive than you’ll find on the East Coast, but there are some crazies out there.

Cars are big; roads, lanes, and parking spots are wide. Gas is cheap; my last fill-up was under $1.60 a gallon. You will have tinted windows and daydream inventions to rapidly cool parked cars.

Tech Jobs
Job wise, Austin is super-hot. While tons of tech companies are building major offices here, Austin is mostly getting used for sales/support/marketing/recruiting outposts. The market rate for Senior Developers here seems to be about $110k or so, although the range is very wide, with most startups on the low-end, while remote devs for companies headquartered in more expensive locales can be quite a bit higher.

Tech
Seem to get good 4G LTE coverage around town. Cable internet is widely available from several providers; we pay ~$80 for 30mbps. Fiber (via Google Fiber or Grande Communications) is available mostly in the south side of the city, but it’s (slowly) spreading northward. We have a Fry’s Electronics. Three HDTV towers are about 3 miles from our house, so we don’t have cable and on the rare occasions that we watch TV (e.g. the Super Bowl) our tiny HD antennas work great.

Weather and Environs
Weather is pretty awesome for about 8 months, bearable for 2 months, and hot as hell for 2 months. In 2012, there were 100 days over 100F. By my recollection, in 2013 there were 30. In 2014 there were 5. In 2015, there might’ve been one or two. It’s currently late January and around 80 degrees, but it’ll be around 60 later in the week.

If the goal is to make Austin look as good as possible, come in March/April; if you want to make it look as bad as possible, come in late August / early September. Unfortunately, many festivals (SxSW, etc) take place during the best times, so airline ticket prices can vary wildly.

People may try to tell you crazy stories about Texas wildlife/bugs/etc. Generally, that’s because such incidents are rare but can be memorable. (We’ve had two scorpions and two tarantulas in our 3 years here). Last year there were a ton of mosquitoes during the summer which was pretty nasty, but that seemed to be an outlier and we didn’t have issues our first two summers. Fire ants are a real problem if you like going barefoot or in sandals.

Hurricanes are east of Austin, tornadoes are north, so the only interesting thing we have is periodic thunderstorms which are intense but fun if you’re inside. Oh, and periodic flooding (only problematic in a few places), drought (when we’re not flooding), and damaging hail storms (even when it’s well above freezing at ground level).

Activities and Surroundings
Nightlife in downtown Austin can be wild (due to the University, and Austin’s goal to be the “Live Music Capital of the World”). The river/lake running through Austin is fun for boating and water events.

Sports are a big deal, particularly college football. On our first trip to the doctor’s office, my wife and I both happened to be clad in maroon; this got us pegged as fans of the “Aggies” (Texas A&M) and led to some amusing misunderstandings.

Texas is stupid big (“the size of France” as the bumper sticker boasts), but San Antonio is only around 75 minutes away and has tons of stuff (SeaWorld, Six Flags, etc). you can drive to beaches (Galveston / Corpus Christi) in 3 or 4 hours. Neither is as nice as most east coast/California beaches but they’re nice enough for a few days in the sun and sand. Caribbean Cruises leave from Galveston and are pretty cheap. Austin’s airport is growing fast, but many destinations require a quick stop in Houston or Dallas. Flights to the various resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean are pretty cheap. We haven’t taken advantage of either of these yet (due to young kids) but we hope to in a few years.

Kids Activities
We have a 2.5 year old and a 2 week old; we haven’t discovered most of the activities in the area, yet.

There are lots of parks around town, some with splash pads for the summer. There’s a smallish Zoo south of town. There’s a kids’ museum out near the airport. Seasonal events like the holiday Trail of Lights and the spring kite festival take place in the enormous Zilker Park adjacent to downtown.

Food
Food choices are decent; great BBQ, lots of good Mexican. Okay Chinese, about what you’d find in Redmond. They haven’t seemed to have figured out Thai food yet, to my disappointment (we have heard some good things about Chada Thai in Cedar Park).

Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Torchy’s Tacos. Our favorite taco spot. It’s not fancy or pretentious at all, but their tacos are, as they say, damn good. Breakfast tacos are a thing here, and if you’ve not had them before, you’ll soon wonder why not.

2. Mandola’s Italian. It’s an Italian grocery store with sit-down dining. Tasty.

3. The Oasis. Wide menu; nice view of Lake Travis.

4. Chez Zee. Fancier food without attitude.

Taxes
No state income tax. Sales tax is 6.5% outside the city, 8.5% inside. Real-estate taxes are wildly variable and a big deal; they’re as low as ~1.5% to almost 3%, all significantly higher than we experienced in Redmond.

Politics and Vibe
Austin is more of a county than a city, really; it’s spread over a huge area. The neighborhood / area makes a big difference in both prices and vibe.

Politeness quietly reigns supreme here; strangers will ask you how things are going and care about your answer. People apologize. You’ll quickly notice that, without regard to convenience, doors are almost always held, and women are always the first to get on and off elevators, an unspoken rule that seems to have almost universal compliance.

Austin is a bit of an oasis inside the craziness that is Texas… it definitely has the Seattle/Portland/California feel with plenty of hipsters and tattoo-bearing twenty-somethings.

The rest of Texas tends toward hardcore conservative, but avoid discussing politics, religion, and world events and we all get along just fine.

 

Life in Austin

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