Life in Dallas So Far

I lived in Illinois for 41 years. Moving from Illinois to Texas was one of the hardest things I’ve done. But it was the right decision. I’ve now been living in Texas for almost 5 months. We caught the end of the hot summer and are now in the mild winter. I thought I’d write a bit to share our impressions of life in Dallas.

I spent a lot of time researching and thinking before deciding to move here. Years, actually. Ahu and I started looking at houses in Texas during the summer of 2008 before Karl was born. We made numerous trips to Texas, including Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas. We started leaning towards Dallas in 2010 but Connor was just born. We wanted to be close to family and so our plans for moving were tabled for some time.

During last winter, Ahu and I were getting ready to buy a 5-acre lot in Barrington and were planning to build our “dream house” there. Then there was that brutally cold January and that experience brought back the old “why are we living in Illinois?” question. We again surveyed the country, including Florida, Colorado, the Carolinas, and always kept coming back to Texas. As of last April we had narrowed it down to Dallas (Westlake) or Houston (The Woodlands) and were leaning towards Dallas.

The main reasons for moving here were weather, taxes, and school. School was a major factor. My sons were attending a private school for gifted children called Quest Academy in Palatine. That costs about $40,000 a year for two kids and my kids would probably have attended through 8th grade. So that’s a major ongoing cost and not deductible in any way. The weather reason is obvious. Texas has no state income tax, no estate tax, and no capital gains tax. Illinois has a 5% state income tax, in addition to other taxes. Saving 5% of your income per year adds up.

The area we were looking at in Houston had only private schools so we wouldn’t have saved tuition costs there. In Dallas we found a community called Westlake. Westlake has a single public school called Westlake Academy that has grades K-12 and consistently ranks among the best schools in the United States. It’s not a gifted school but they have an International Baccalaureate curriculum which allows teachers to differentiate material for students in a class if some students need more or less challenge. It’s free and you are guaranteed acceptance…if you live in Westlake. If you don’t live in Westlake, there is a lottery system for getting into any open spots and there are thousands of kids from surrounding communities on the waiting list.

I made 3 trips to Dallas after April and decided Westlake was the right place but the general cost of houses here is commensurate with the quality of the education at Westlake Academy. It was an interesting equation where we planned to swap non-deductible private tuition for deductible mortgage interest and property taxes. In the end, however, we found a very reasonable older home on ¾ acre lot with a pool and about 40 tall post oak trees.

Our Home in Westlake

Speaking of houses, many of the ones around here have stone “siding” There are also a lot of full brick houses but stone seems to be the most popular option. I’ve been told that stone is ideal in Texas because it is the best for insulating the house. Stone houses stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Modern houses here have what they call “radiant barrier” in the roof, which is this foil-like material they put under the tiles/slate/shingles to reflect heat away. There is typically one air conditioner per 1,500 square feet of house. They are massive and very efficient. Electric bills are not really that much more expensive than Chicago. Gas bills are far less expensive, at least when averaged across 12 months. Homeowners insurance is more expensive because the spring season here apparently has a few storms which bring hail. Hail damage is the #1 claim that is made on insurance policies in north Texas. So that’s something to look forward to. To that end, many of the houses, including ours, have a porte cochere to shelter visitors’ cars.

Beautiful Westlake house with stone and porte cochere

Fire ants are a legitimate pest around here. You pay a few hundred a year for a treatment that eliminates them in your yard. Everyone in the family except my wife has had at least one fire ant sting. Fire ants descend from wasps so they sting instead of bite. None of the stings were at home, though. Karl got his in someone else’s yard. Connor got his on a playground at his school. I guess I did get mine at home but that bastard stowed away on my pool float and stung me when I sat down on the float without looking. No idea where he came from. But, once you get a sting, you learn to avoid them really quickly. Quite possibly the most painful tiny sting you could get. Not something you want to repeat or have in greater quantity.

Anyway, Texas is hot in the summer and very mild in the winter. December is apparently the worst month and it is forecast to be in the upper 60s now on Christmas Day. In January the temps go back to the upper 60s, lower 70s. We were here for most of August and it hit 106 or so. Thing is, it’s not that humid so it is surprisingly bearable. Supposedly the longer you live here, the more acclimated you become as well. If I didn’t work from home, I might mind commuting to work with that kind of heat. But for me, the heat is just an opportunity to go jump in the pool 3-4x a day and float around in the sun for a break. I also bought a really good wireless headset and take the occasional conference call while sitting on the pool steps. Yeah, I know, my life sucks, right?

Boys Playing in the Pool

My wife and I have always had the Battle of Indoor Climate. I like cool temps and she likes warm temps. When we lived in Illinois, I wanted to see summer temps around 68-70 and winter temps no higher than 72. My wife would prefer everything to be above 75 and 78 would be just fine. For me, I’d probably spontaneously combust at 78 degrees. At least, that was the way it was in Illinois. In Texas, we pretty consistently keep the inside around 75, sometimes higher, during the summer and 70-72 in the winter. For some reason, 75 feels just fine when it is so hot outside. I think a large reason for this is the prevalence of ceiling fans. Every room in our house has at least one ceiling fan. Our living room has two ceiling rans and all of the ceiling fans are going all the time during the summer.

This area has great restaurants - steakhouses and BBQ, in particular, are amazing - and plentiful shopping. Fort Worth Zoo is excellent and, because of the mild weather, the outdoor exhibits are open year round. I live 10 minutes from Grapevine Lake where you can dock a boat and go water skiing, etc. If you put on a wetsuit for the winter months, you can do this all year round. No one takes their boat out of the water for the season around here that I’ve seen. Likewise, almost no one drains their pool, either. Public pools are open at least two months longer. They open in late April or early May and close in late September or early October.

The Hard Eight BBQ, 5 minutes from home

The dominant cuisine around here, though, is actually Tex Mex. Fajitas and tacos and frozen margaritas are everywhere. I could stay within 5 minutes of my house and eat fajitas at a different restaurant every day of the week and probably for all meals. Assuming you avoid the chips and salsa and ditch the tortilla, all of these places are good for eating low carb, too, so that’s a positive for me.

The environment is not like what I had expected from Texas. Most people I talk to think Texas is dry, hot, brown, and dusty. Around here, it’s lush with thousands of 100-year-old post oak trees, large expanses of green grass and grazing cattle, rolling hills, and perfect roads. Since they don’t have the hot/cold changes of Illinois, the roads don’t break down. I haven’t yet seen a pothole on any of the roads I regularly travel on. I’m sure there is a lot of Texas that is dry, hot, brown, and dusty but that’s far enough from here that I haven’t seen it yet.

Another awesome surprise about this area is the mixture of modern convenience and rustic pastures and farms. I grew up in the country. I lived on a lake and played outside until dark. The air was fresh and clear. Across the street from the end of my parents’ gravel driveway was a cow pasture. I remember waiting for the school bus very early on and watching the cows across the street. But that was country living.

Eventually I moved to the big city of Chicago and grew accustomed to urban conveniences like the fastest high-speed internet service, restaurants with the best foods and ever-changing and creative menus, hospitals with trauma centers, great schools, and nonstop air service to any international destination. That’s why we ended up moving to the Barrington area in Illinois - lots of country living with close proximity to everything modern and urban. Westlake is like that. It protects the tranquility of the pastures and countryside while being very close to DFW airport, Texas’ best hospitals, award-winning restaurants, and other amenities. And at any given moment in time, a grazing cow is never more than a few hundred yards from my house. Another great surprise was finding that Westlake is a Dark Sky community. That means that they prohibit street lights and other nighttime lighting with the goal of preserving a dark night sky for stargazing. Looking at Westlake from the highway at night is like looking at a black hole. It’s so great.

Karl and Cows Grazing at the End of the Runway

I had some friends from NYC visit me in Chicago before I moved. They were remarking about how friendly everyone was in Chicago compared to New York. I told them they should visit Texas. Texas hospitality is insanely great. People go to ridiculous measures to make you feel welcome. When we moved in, our neighbors threw us a BBQ. Neighbors were stopping by to introduce themselves, bringing over cookies, brownies, and awesome beer. For the 7 years I lived in Inverness, I never met my next door neighbor. The closest I got to that was a nod and a wave in passing. That’s an exception but it just wouldn’t be possible here.

I can’t say that I had a lot of “Illinois pride” but I can say that Texas pride has no limit down here. We’ve found it engrained in everything here but especially the schools. Every day they do two pledges at the morning assembly. One is the American Pledge of Allegiance. The other is the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of Texas. Both my 4-year-old and my 6-year-old can sing various Texas songs including Deep in the Heart of Texas. They really get into singing that stuff in the assemblies. Also, they carve out almost as much curriculum time to the history of Texas as to the history of the United States itself. The IB people at Westlake Academy are not fans of this, but since they are a public school, they have to teach it.

Green Grass, Full Trees Right Before Halloween

That said, Westlake is a very balanced community. This balance is one of the reasons why we moved here. Lots of CEOs and entrepreneurs live here. These are people who understand what it means to be a “global citizen” and is the driver for the IB curriculum, which favors an international view of the world. The parents at WA are mostly well-educated and want their kids to grow up well-educated also and to become world leaders and citizens. Another example of how different this school is from other Texas high schools - WA barely fields a high school football team. For other Texas high schools, it’s Friday Night Lights every week. The WA high school curriculum is so demanding that most students don’t have free time for anything other than studying. When researching Westlake Academy, the only real criticism we could find was about how the kids had no free time because they had to study so much. I can think of worse problems to have in high school.

My ultimate lifestyle has always been something like this: Work for myself. Don’t waste time commuting. Play in the water. Get lots of sun. Spend as much time as possible with my wife and sons. Be outdoors as much as possible. Eliminate stress.

Another Great Texas Evening

To that extent, Texas is a dream come true. Other than my family and friends, I don’t miss anything about the midwest. Zip. Nada. Seriously, nothing there is better than here, at least for me.