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Cost of living for cartographers


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#1
ArcMapper

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As a cartographer in Fairfax, VA, I find it difficult to picture myself owning a house. I'm trying to figure out if there's a "good" place to be in this field and to, you know, make a decent living and be able to afford a house, etc. Granted, my wife and I take a lot of trips and don't save as much as we COULD, but we do alright in our apartment. While we both have good incomes, the house prices still seem out of reach. I think this area (the richest county in America) is not the best place to be a cartographer. Any thoughts??

#2
Hans van der Maarel

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I've moved this over here, as it's far from off-topic.

I'm not exactly up-to-date with the average US house prices but I do know that one of my friends was able to buy a nice, big house on an acre of property in a small town in southern Minnesota (2 hours by car from the Twin Cities) for a *very* good price.

If you want to be freelancing you probably (depending on what your wife does) have a bit more flexibility in where you want to live and there seem to be plenty of opportunities away from the big population centers. As long as you're not too far from a major airport you can still travel as much as you like.
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#3
David Medeiros

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I don’t see it as a location issue as much as one of expertise and demonstrated skill in a particular style or market. I think anyone doing day to day cartographic jobs is going to have a hard time of it if they don’t also do something else (GIS for example). If you’re a cartographic master and have a particular skill set that is in demand you can work from just about anywhere (ie Stuart Allen of Raven Maps or Tom Patterson of Shaded Relief fame off the top of my head).

I think you need to have a demonstrable mastery of your work, a niche market or product you excel in with a wide range of additional skills to accompany that work. A solid portfolio and a good network help as well. The key is probably to be good enough at what you do that people will be willing to pay more for you than the next guy down the street. Whatever the magic formula is I’d like to know… because I’m in the same boat as you… this doesn’t pay enough to buy a house in the SF Bay Area!

GIS Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Geospatial Center.

 

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#4
Nick H

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As a cartographer in Fairfax, VA, I find it difficult to picture myself owning a house. I'm trying to figure out if there's a "good" place to be in this field and to, you know, make a decent living and be able to afford a house, etc. Granted, my wife and I take a lot of trips and don't save as much as we COULD, but we do alright in our apartment. While we both have good incomes, the house prices still seem out of reach. I think this area (the richest county in America) is not the best place to be a cartographer. Any thoughts??

It's the human condition I'm afraid, not just a problem for map-makers. You could probably afford somewhere a little further south, I rather liked Fredericksburg and the houses were dirt cheap there. It's handy for the VRE and the I95 too :). If you could face the prospect of either.

Regards, N.
Caversham, Reading, England.

#5
James Hines

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It doesn't matter if your a cartographer or a GIS guy, the way the market is rate now & for the foreseeable future will be quite stagnant. And an education will only be good enough to flip burgers for a living. Even if you have a high technological skill employers do not care if you are qualified, for example: if your lousy at writing resumes, live in the wrong geography, or more highly skilled & experienced candidates apply for the same position you are totally screwed. If you check the job boards it's not GIS technicians that are in high demand, it is GIS analysts that have skills specifically in the programming sector.

The problem stretches beyond the GIS industry, if the economy picks up our sector will be high in demand again, but at what cost? Those with a high skill but haven't done the work in a long time will be considered outdated. And there will be no meaningful incentives such as lower tuition for retraining & updating. Most cartographers already have GIS skills that should allow them to work in the industry but ultimately many employers have this sense that we make pretty maps, & we are specialized graphic designers. Essentially I believe as cartographers should be hired to make corrections, to design maps, become trainers, & become project managers within GIS firms.

"There is much beauty that we fail to see through our own eyes teeming with life forms that give us that perception of our reality.  Leaves on the trees blowing gently in the wind, or scarily, the waves pounding through high surf, or lightly on a warm summer’s day; that opportunity to sit or swim in the water on a white beach.   That comfort to shout, “The universal conscious do you hear me?  I am alive, guide me dear logos towards the path of rightnesses.”  Earned what has been kept, no longer to be absorbed into a life filled with cold damn winds and  that stubborn fog clouding  my vision with nothing but darkness."


#6
Derek Tonn

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I've moved this over here, as it's far from off-topic.

I'm not exactly up-to-date with the average US house prices but I do know that one of my friends was able to buy a nice, big house on an acre of property in a small town in southern Minnesota (2 hours by car from the Twin Cities) for a *very* good price.

If you want to be freelancing you probably (depending on what your wife does) have a bit more flexibility in where you want to live and there seem to be plenty of opportunities away from the big population centers. As long as you're not too far from a major airport you can still travel as much as you like.


I know you're talking about your other friend is Southern Minnesota, Hans, but I also resemble that bolded remark. :)

It is extreme over-simplification, but if individuals in India, China, the Ukraine, etc. can be the recipients of outsourced projects from North America and Western Europe, why can't the residents of tiny, rural towns miles from anywhere do the exact same thing?!

My wife and I moved from a nice neighborhood in Saint Paul, MN to the tiny town of Springfield, MN (2.5 hours SW of Minneapolis) in 2003. At the time, we sold our 1,400 square foot home for about $225,000 and used built-up equity to pay $58,000 cash for a beautiful 3,400 square foot 90-year old house on a lot that was twice the size of our former one. Our cost of living (not having rent or a mortgage) was effectively cut by more than half. Without impacting the clients we were serving in any way.

I tell our city and county economic development folks that compared to companies trying to run their businesses in places such as New York City and Washington D.C., we *ARE* "India." If we can run our companies and live our lives away from work for roughly half the costs of our "large metro" counterparts, that means that every time we are bidding head-to-head against companies from those more-costly regions, we are either:

A. Going to quote a significantly lower price while preserving an equivalent profit margin, or
B. Going to keep more money after all the bills are paid.

Moving to a small town has its sacrifices as well. Just try and find a great Chinese or Japanese restaurant within a 45-minute drive of where I live! :) However, having more time to enjoy spending with the family and having more time to enjoy the Great Outdoors and have multiple hobbies is more than worth the trade. Especially since I could stand to lose 20-25 pounds at the moment...ha!
Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#7
ArcMapper

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These are all great comments and insights. Thank you. Yea, I think about moving to a 'smaller' town sometimes, but then I also think about giving up convenient features of of a 'big' place. I'm just not sure what's more important at this point. But I guess the main idea is that it's harder to buy house IN GENERAL when you're in your first few years of a career than when you've 'moved up'. I guess I'm wondering what 'moving up' really means to a cartographer anyway. I'm just about to finish a graduate certificate, but that doesn't automatically amount to anything in the real world. I suppose GIS is really the path to take? But that's not quite as 'fun' as making pretty maps! haha.

#8
rudy

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Not to make light of your situation but I think that this is a problem faced by many starting out in their career (whatever it may be) in many places. The larger cities have the most jobs and also have the highest real estate prices. When I think of moving entirely to freelance work I also think that it doesn't much matter where I live; moving to a cheaper location, probably out in the country, makes sense then (although I daresay you'd want to have high speed internet access if you are planning on downloading data or uploading map files). Not all of us have the option (or want to) go freelance full time so we are tied to where our employers are.

In the Toronto area where I live real estate prices have jumped 15 to 20% in the past year alone and I often wonder how young families just starting out manage to afford a house. You are not alone in your predicament nor are cartographers an exception in this case. Good luck.

#9
David Medeiros

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These are all great comments and insights. Thank you. Yea, I think about moving to a 'smaller' town sometimes, but then I also think about giving up convenient features of of a 'big' place. I'm just not sure what's more important at this point. But I guess the main idea is that it's harder to buy house IN GENERAL when you're in your first few years of a career than when you've 'moved up'. I guess I'm wondering what 'moving up' really means to a cartographer anyway. I'm just about to finish a graduate certificate, but that doesn't automatically amount to anything in the real world. I suppose GIS is really the path to take? But that's not quite as 'fun' as making pretty maps! haha.


First you gotta stop calling them "pretty maps" :P There is a nexus of sorts between high quality map work, information display and GIS work. If you separate out the quality & visual display part of all that as being nothing more that art work or "pretty maps" than you do a disservice to your GIS work.

Second, I'm not sure I'd call GIS a career path anymore. Get in the habit of thinking of it as a tool and skill set that you'll apply to your career. If you think of yourself as simply doing GIS I think you'll find yourself ultimately limited to a lot of uninteresting (but well paying) work.

GIS Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Geospatial Center.

 

www.mapbliss.com

 


#10
Dennis McClendon

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At least in the US, it's not so much big cities vs. smaller metros for housing prices. It's a few unusually high (and a couple of unusually low) metro areas vs. the rest of the country. So the Bay Area, anywhere in California, and the Boston, New York, and DC metro areas will be tough, no matter what your profession. But housing is much more affordable in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, South Florida, or even Seattle. A table of housing affordability by metro area.

If you already have a client base, or think you offer something spectacularly unique, you certainly can settle in a small city. (Derek doesn't mention how much he enjoys rising at 4 am to catch a morning flight out of MSP.) If you will need to move from job to job to advance your career, I think it's best to be in a big metro area with lots of municipalities, government agencies, and publishers. And if there's an epicenter for cartography in the US, it's DC.
Dennis McClendon, Chicago CartoGraphics
chicagocarto.com

#11
Derek Tonn

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At least in the US, it's not so much big cities vs. smaller metros for housing prices. It's a few unusually high (and a couple of unusually low) metro areas vs. the rest of the country. So the Bay Area, anywhere in California, and the Boston, New York, and DC metro areas will be tough, no matter what your profession. But housing is much more affordable in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, South Florida, or even Seattle. A table of housing affordability by metro area.

If you already have a client base, or think you offer something spectacularly unique, you certainly can settle in a small city. (Derek doesn't mention how much he enjoys rising at 4 am to catch a morning flight out of MSP.)


Aah, but that's the beauty of living on $0.50 on the dollar in a small, rural community vs. a metro like Minneapolis St. Paul, or probably $0.30 on the dollar of a place like D.C., NYC, SF or Boston...you can afford the time/$$$ to fly out the afternoon before. :P

Seriously though, small towns only work if you can bring your work with you and you aren't significantly tied to any geographic location for your clientele. There are only four colleges/universities within an hour's drive of where I live...so if I had to earn a living from what the local area is providing me, I would have starved to death 3-6 months after we moved here.

We're very lucky, as we are based in a rural community in the Upper Midwest, but most of our annual revenues come from Maine to Florida, Florida to Texas. We didn't bring hardly any of those clients with us though. In fact, when we left MSP in 2003, about 70-75% of our annual revenues were coming from the Twin Cities metro. We didn't get most of our East Coast clients until after we left for the land of Homer, Bart and Mr. Burns! I'd talk to folks on the phone and they'd say "Springfield...is that near Minneapolis?" and I'd say we were 2+ hours SW of there, and they'd say "Oh, okay" and then we'd start talking about their projects. We could have been orbiting Jupiter on Europa for all folks cared...as long as we were on-time, on/above spec and on budget at the end of the day.

Well, maybe not Europa...unless we could have simultaneously discovered technology that would allow for file transmission at the speed of light. Ha! But you get the idea.
Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com




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