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Realty Vs. Reality: Americans Moving to the City, Dreaming of the Suburbs

While more Americans are moving to the city, the white-picket fence in the suburbs or country hasn’t gone out of style.

A new survey that asked Americans to describe their dream home found that 54 percent of prospective home buyers still favor the suburbs or countryside. Only 8 percent said they would rather live in the heart of a major American city.

The American Dream Survey of 2,026 Americans in late May 2015 by the real estate website Trulia found the preference for suburban and country living was true for all demographic groups, defying the trend – even among millennials -- of fleeing the suburbs for the steel beams and exposed brick of urban lofts.

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“I think the reality is oftentimes more constrained than what people are saying in research, especially with millennials,” said J.P. Ackerman, president of real estate data analytics company HouseCanary. “There’s been enormous research done on this idea that the millennials want all this urban living. (But) when you actually use the data to understand the details of what they’re doing, their lifestyles don’t support that.”

Millennials did offer some backing for the popular view in the survey, which was published Wednesday, with more saying their dream home would be in an urban downtown — 14 percent compared to 8 percent across all age brackets. But that number was still dwarfed by the 56 percent who were evenly divided in preferring the suburbs or countryside.

Census Bureau data indicates that Americans have been moving to metro areas in increasing numbers since 2010, when the economic recovery began picking up. It shows the trend is driven primarily by two groups: young professionals and baby boomers, who are retiring and moving back to the cities they left when they started families.

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While millennials defied some stereotypes in Trulia’s survey, they signaled that amenities are often more important than the type of community they live in.

For example, 34 percent rated a short commute to work and living near good school districts as more important that the actual location.

“They have pretty big dreams. Unless you have a whole lot of spending capacity, it might be hard to get in a downtown (urban) condo or house.”

Younger prospective home buyers also expressed a greater preference for modern houses than older buyers did. They also want all the bells and whistles they can get: When Trulia asked about amenities like gourmet kitchens, pools, balconies and backyard decks, more than 50 percent of millennials expressed a desire for those features, while a majority of Gen Xers and baby boomers rated only decks as a must-have dream home feature.

“They have pretty big dreams,” Trulia chief economist Selma Hepp said of millennials. “Unless you have a whole lot of spending capacity, it might be hard to get in a downtown (urban) condo or house.”

Those dreams are why Jed Kolko, former chief economist and vice president of analytics at Trulia, expects resumed growth outside the cities, where lower costs for land and construction make houses more affordable.

“The suburbanization of America continues,” he said via email. “Suburbs offer advantages that many Americans want,” like bigger houses and outdoor space.

That view was endorsed by the 25 percent of respondents who told Trulia that they already have found their dream home.

In that subset, about two-thirds of respondents said their dream home was in the suburbs or the countryside, compared to just 6 percent who chose an urban downtown location.