Maybe the boss just walked into your office and told you, "Better get packing: you've been transferred to the Houston office!" Or maybe you've decided the grass is greener in Texas and you're pulling up stakes to leave the rustbelt behind. Well, good luck.
Perhaps you've been to the Bayou City for business or a convention, but living there will be a whole different thing. What to do, what to do! Don't despair; there are many resources to help you relocate. First though, let's get a general idea of what life in the fourth largest city in the country will be like.
This Is One Big City!
Houston as seen from space; the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Island are to the lower right. For scale, it's about 50 miles from downtown Houston to the beach on the south side of Galveston.
Houston sits just inland from the Gulf of Mexico at about 30° north latitude, so the town has a subtropical to tropical climate (Plant Zones 8 and 9 for gardeners). Like much of the Gulf Coast, the topography can give "flat" an inferiority complex: cyclists and runners seek out freeway overpasses to find hills. The climate is dominated by a long, hot and muggy summer, a short cool and wet "winter," and fall and spring days that are cool and comparatively dry. It snows around here maybe once every five years, so you can pack away the boots and mittens. On the other hand, you should expect to run the air conditioning from March to November and mow the lawn year-round. Tropical storms are a near-annual occurrence, but 2008's Hurricane Ike was the first major storm to visit in twenty-five years; still, new residents and old hands alike should prepare for large storms.
The city covers more than 600 square miles, but the metropolitan area as a whole is a sprawling mass extending almost ninety miles east-west along Interstate 10 and a similar distance north-south along I-45. You will most certainly want to find a home as convenient as possible to your new workspace, since Houston has just the one light-rail line into the downtown area and a barely-average bus network. Transportation is almost entirely by private vehicle, though a substantial number of suburbanites who work downtown ride express buses from park-n-ride locations along the major freeways.
Part of the skyline of downtown, as seen from the north side of Interstate 10.
Like many modern cities, Houston's growth followed a "doughnut" pattern. At the center is a core of office and government buildings, surrounded by the city's oldest neighborhoods. Many such close-in neighborhoods have been gentrified and are now prime real estate. The next ring is industrial, though in Houston most of it is concentrated east of downtown near the Port of Houston and the rail yards serving it. This layer is surrounded by another residential ring shaped somewhat like a backwards C, with almost no housing east of downtown. Business, retail, and industrial complexes are scattered throughout this area; as Houston has always resisted any sort of zoning.
The "Inner Loop," I-610, runs within this zone; though the city limits extend far west and north of the loop. A second loop, the Sam Houston Tollway (also called the Sam, the Beltway, the Outer Loop or Texas 8) sits another ten miles or so outside 610. Most of the area between the two loops is within Houston city limits though it tends to be overlooked by city officials, who concentrate on the neighborhoods nearer downtown. Beyond the city limits you'll find bedroom communities like Katy, Pearland, Sugar Land, Tomball, Baytown, Atascocita and Spring. Each has its own school system or systems; local realtors will be able to direct you to comparisons of the public and private schools. A few independent and semi-independent towns sit surrounded by Houston, including West University and the Memorial Cities.
Commuting in Houston
Rush-hour traffic in the Bayou City is... well, it's relentless.
Location, Location, Location
Yes, real-estate agents get it right: the three most things to consider when buying a home are location, location, location. In Houston, though, the three "locations" may be different. The first location to consider is buying close to work, schools, recreation, shopping, and other amenities. If your job is downtown, close-in neighborhoods like the Montrose, the Heights, Bellaire, West University, and the Medical Center will be very convenient and offer amenities not available to suburban dwellers, such as sidewalks. Homes in these neighborhoods are older and quite expensive when compared to suburban homes of similar size. If money is no object, there is always the River Oaks neighborhood on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, due west of downtown.
Your cash will buy (or rent) more house in Missouri City than in Bunker Hill or in Katy than Eado, but you'll also spend far more time in your car. There's your first location decision: finding a neighborhood or neighborhoods; and it will be driven in part by how much money you have to spend on a home or apartment, and whether you're more interested in shopping malls and megachurches (mostly in the suburbs) or vibrant nightlife, tattoo parlors, and easy access to funky restaurants (mostly close to downtown).
The second location factor is what's near a potential purchase. Houston's historic failure to enact zoning means that strip malls and office buildings are scattered willy-nilly across the landscape. When looking for a home here a few years ago, I rejected several great houses because they sat in the shadow of a 40-story office complex every morning; sat a block downwind from a sewage-treatment plant; or were on the flight path of an airport. Visit any potential home multiple times during days and evenings and on weekends to evaluate traffic and other potential problems.
The third location is "watch out for flooding." After a major tropical storm (Allison) flooded large areas of the city in the '90s, the city re-drew the floodplain map. It's available online so you can evaluate a potential house's flooding potential - all the way down to the outline of the lot.
Funky Neighborhoods in the Historic Wards
Information that Doesn't Show on Maps
- The Highways: Like most big cities, the local freeways have names that often don't to show up on maps or signs. The names are (clockwise from North):
- North Freeway: I-45 north from downtown toward Dallas
- Eastex Freeway: US 59/I-69 northeast from downtown toward Texarkana
- Baytown/East Freeway: I-10 East from downtown toward Beaumont
- Pasadena Freeway: TX 225 East from I-610 toward Deer Park
- Gulf Freeway: I-45 south from downtown towards Galveston
- South Freeway: TX 288 South from I-45 through Pearland toward Angleton
- Southwest Freeway: US 59 southwest from Downtown toward Victoria
- Katy Freeway: I-10 west from downtown toward Katy and San Antonio
- Northwest Freeway: US 290 northwest from I-610 toward Brenham and Austin
- The Wards: TV and newspaper reporters constantly talk about the six "wards," but almost no one who doesn't live in the wards knows where they are. They're the "real Houston," including the Heights and Montrose. You can see maps on wikipedia.
- Local Politics: The County Judge doesn't wear a black robe and swing a gavel; he (maybe someday "she") is the head honcho of the County Commissioners Court. There are six commissioners in Harris County, one for each precinct - their names can be found plastered on every sign in their districts. There are also six constable's districts, but the precinct numbers and their boundaries do not coincide with the commissioners' districts. Go figure. Besides the Constables, there is also a county sheriff, not to mention school district police, INS, Texas Rangers, State Police, Homeland Security...
- MUDs: A MUD is a municipal utility district; which is a water company combined with a sewer district. MUDs are found only outside the Houston city limits. Homeowners outside the city limits are liable for property taxes paid to their local MUD, which can - and do - run to thousands of dollars annually.
Eating Your Way Through Town
Some say that Houston has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. They might be right.
Houston's a city that apparently lives on its stomach, with uncounted restaurants of almost every conceivable cuisine, ranging from traveling taco trucks to five-star restaurants. Though the city lacks a major university, the University of Houston (public) and Rice University (private) offer a wide variety of coursework; so do multiple campuses of Houston Community College (HCC) in the city and Lone Star College in unincorporated Harris County. Shopping is seemingly everywhere: most major streets in town are lined with strip malls, and there are large shopping centers, including the world-class shopping at the Houston Galleria.
Houston is ethnically diverse: though the original "Chinatown" east of downtown is now the gentrified neighborhood called "Eado," a voluminous Asian community spreads over a large portion of the city's southwest. Shopping-center sized complexes sell imported goods ranging from food to clothing to furniture for Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian immigrants. A large Hispanic community is evident in the restaurants - not just Mexican, but Argentine, Colombian, Peruvian, Guatemalan, and others. A large and vibrant African-American community has also contributed its own distinct flavor to Houston's communal melting pot.
The Real Deal
Houston's not perfect, not by any means. The city not only has poor public transportation, it is also so pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly as to be hostile, although the Montrose neighborhood in specific has been honored for its walkability (the other 96% of the city has not been so honored). The park system is small and except for Memorial and Hermann Parks (inside the Loop, of course) the few parks are large, crowded, and not well-maintained.
Overall, Houston will only be as great a city as you make it. Here's hoping that you find your niche and the Bayou City serves as a great home!