Thinking about moving to Los Angeles? The first thing you should know: LA is massive. This fact informs nearly all of the advice that follows.
The city of Los Angeles is about half the size of Rhode Island, and it’s home to more than 4 million people. That’s just the city of LA.
There are 87 other cities in Los Angeles County. Many of them, including Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Santa Monica, are part of what we colloquially call “LA.” (This cool map shows how many states, i.e., most of them, have fewer residents than Los Angeles County.)
If you’re coming from a smaller place, Los Angeles will feel exciting, and probably overwhelming. On the other hand, with all that space—4,751 square miles—you’ll have to room to breathe. LA might even feel languid if you’re coming from New York.
Los Angeles is filled with contradictions and extremes: the 10,000-foot (sometimes-snowcapped) mountains and the 100-degree heat of the Valley; the mansions and the tents; the sunshine and the floods. They make it almost unknowable. It’s easy to understand why Los Angeles is mischaracterized and misunderstood.
The best way to try to get to know it is to live here. Before making up your mind about whether to give it a go, below are 15 things to know about living in LA.
1. Los Angeles is eclectic. The city of Los Angeles is made up of hundreds of neighborhoods. The boundaries of these neighborhoods are often disputed (although many have tried to draw them), and walking just a few blocks will often reveal a community that looks and feels distinctly different.
Leimert Park is a tight community, where you’ll come home to “find a bag of lemons from your neighbor’s tree on the doorstep.” South Park, in Downtown Los Angeles, is “very contemporary and modern,” with its glassy new high-rises and pretty rooftop bars. North Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley, is “a little bit calmer… The pace is a little bit slower.” Small-town San Pedro is reminiscent of the Midwest, but on the coast—“it’s the last affordable beach town.” There’s a place for everyone.
2. Picking a neighborhood you like is supremely important. Before signing a lease—and definitely before buying a house—crash with a generous friend for a few weeks. Give yourself time to adjust and get to know the different neighborhoods. There will be days when leaving your ’hood and wrestling with the concept of getting from one part of the city to another is too daunting.
Staying in your zone, and being able to walk to fulfill most of your daily needs, can be a survival mechanism. So choose where you live carefully—but also keep in mind that you might be priced out of your dream neighborhood.
3. It is possible to live in LA without a car. Much of the city was built for cars—single-family homes with driveways and garages, strip malls, and too many parking garages—butit’s getting easier all the time to avoid being behind the wheel. In addition to having the U.S.’s third-largest public transit system, the city is focusing on making streets more walkable and is slowly but surely adding safer bike infrastructure.
There are also several solid bike-share systems serving many neighborhoods (and dockless bikes and scooters as well), and of course, plenty of ride-hailing and car rental options. If you rarely, if ever, use your car, you’ll end up enjoying LA even more.
4. Commuting will be a challenge. LA’s major job centers—and it has multiple job centers, not a single central business district—are also some of the most expensive places in the region. LA’s traffic is no joke, and the sheer distance you might have to travel might make taking transit to work unpleasant, if not downright impossible. This is part of the research you’ll need to do when you decide where to live.
Can you take a train or ride a dedicated bus lane to avoid congestion? Do you have a bike route that feels safe to ride? Does work top off your TAP card for riding transit? How much will gas cost? Is parking free? Will your employer let you work from home one day per week?
5. The weather really is wonderful. It’s not sunny 365 days per year, but pretty close. In the last year, there have been just 27 cloudy days in Downtown LA, where daytime temperatures, according to the National Weather Service, have averaged a perfect 75 degrees for 30 years.
It was the cloud-free skies (and the magical light) that drew movie studios here. Boosters once promoted “Southern California’s ‘Mediterranean’ climate to East Coast and Midwestern residents sick of brutal winters and sweltering summers” and convinced them that “sunshine and temperate climate would cure them of their ills.”
6. The median rent for a one-bedroom is $1,360. The costs of renting and buying in LA are through the roof compared to most places in the country. The median home price for Los Angeles County is $585,000, and that’s a price that less than 28 percent of the county’s population can afford. These astronomical prices are caused, in part, by a housing shortage that has created stiff competition. Although the house-buying market doesn’t show any sign of cooling off, the good news is that rents are finally starting to plateau.
7. But you’ll get more home for your buck. The way LA is laid out, with almost half the city zoned for low-rise development, you’ll have a little more space than New York and San Francisco. So you’ll get more square footage, but also outdoor amenities like gardens, balconies, and pools. It’s not hard to find entire single-family homes to rent, with a yard and a garage. (Yes, it’s a great place to have pets.)
8. You’ll experience exhilarating highs and defeating lows. You’ll spend 45 minutes traveling 5 miles. You’ll catch a pink-and-gold sunset over the Santa Monica Bay. You’ll walk by homeless encampments on your way to work. You’ll spend $5 on a cup of coffee. And $15 on a cocktail. You’ll swelter on a 110-degree day in October. You’ll spend a Saturday picking up trash strewn all over your street.
You’ll ride your bike past a colonnade of palm trees. You’ll rack up $2,043 in parking tickets in Santa Monica. You’ll wake up to the sounds of birds chirping outside your window. You’ll drink horchata from Guisados while strolling through the Spring Arcade. You’ll drive home at golden hour, and the Hollywood Hills will be bathed in the light. You’ll fall in and out of love with LA in the same day.
9. Not all of LA looks like the opening credits from Baywatch. If you’re picturing a lush beachfront paradise, you’ll find that in some neighborhoods—Venice, Santa Monica, the South Bay. But Los Angeles isn’t all coastline and palm trees. Pockets of the city are gritty. They teem with concrete and tall buildings. The streets come alive with exotic trees, neon, and people, but, without regular rainfall, they can be dirty and smelly. That gray dust that coats your patio furniture for much of the summer? You can thank our freeways.
10. Living here is expensive—but not New York or SF expensive. Depending where you’re relocating from, you might find the cost of housing, gas, groceries, and going out exorbitantly expensive. Compared to most places in the U.S., it is. In 2017, a survey of urban living expenses figured out that the income an individual needs to live comfortably in Los Angeles is $76,047. The survey factors in discretionary spending and savings. You can certainly get by on less—and many Angelenos do. The median income here is $64,300.
1. The traffic really is a monster. It’s probably even worse than you’re expecting. You will encounter traffic at unexpected times for inexplicable reasons. You’ll always have to check travel times before you leave; Google Maps will be your best friend. Waze can help find less congested routes (and introduce you to new neighborhoods), and tapping a ride-hailing service means you don’t have to be the one attempting to merge onto a crowded freeway.
12. Public transit doesn’t serve LA equally. The biggest problem with LA’s public transit is that it’s still not quite ubiquitous or frequent enough to convince most locals to replace a car trip with a Metro ride. The region is making the largest public transportation expansion in the U.S., but it will be at least a decade before many of these new rail lines will open.
As the area’s rail network grows, especially with the addition of the Regional Connector, which will make switching to different lines much easier, there will be more growing pains. If you can’t afford to live close to work or work from home a few days a week, your car-free commute will likely mean relying heavily on the city’s buses—which, with the exception of a few dedicated routes, still get stuck in traffic.
13. It’s a great place to raise kids. People will try to tell you that LA’s fine while you’re single but impossible once you want to have children. While certain aspects of LA life might become more of a challenge—and more expensive—with little ones, LA really is a wonderful place for families.
The region is home to some of the country’s best museums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, parks, and some exceptionally kid-friendly malls, plus there’s nearly everything—from skiing to sailing to apple-picking to wildflower–hiking—within a few hours’ drive. Get involved at your local school, sign up for a kids’ membership at LACMA (you’ll get to go with them for free), and find the nearest splash pad.
14. LA’s economy is strong, but not for everyone. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent, personal income is rising, and the region’s GDP is forecasted to continue eclipsing that of the rest of the country. But Los Angeles ranks seventh in income inequality out of the largest 150 metro regions, and that inequality is driven, in part, by a widening gap in wages, according to a report published last year by USC. The report also found that people of color are far more likely to be in poverty or working poor than white residents.
The disparity is obvious. Mansions the size of hotels are cropping up in the hills of Bel Air with open houses that feature runway models, Champagne, and “artisan sushi.” Meanwhile, the homelessness crisis escalates. The number of people living on the streets and shelters in the city of Los Angeles has swelled 75 percent in six years.
15. Truly appreciating this city can take time—even years. If you don’t fall in love right away, be patient. Eventually, you’ll uncover all of the advantages of living here: the ability to spend a morning in the mountains and an evening at a beach bonfire, the taquerias and the fruit vendors, the garden apartments. Hopefully, you’ll start volunteering to help, in some small way, to make the city better. You’ll start to appreciate the quirks that might have once seemed foreign: the strip malls, the Googie cafes, the Santa Ana winds. And, if you don’t, there’s always Texas.