In my opinion, Washington state is one of the best vacation destinations in the contiguous United States.
However, for many people, Washington is one of those “it’s alright to visit but I sure wouldn’t want to live there” places.
So what’s it like to live in Washington State? As someone who has traveled extensively in the state before moving there, I’m hoping to shed a bit of light on that question!
I did spend quite a bit of time brainstorming about this article and trying to figure out how to best format it to give the full scope of what living in Washington state is like. After all, the people who like it and the people who hate it often cite the same reasons (like the rain…).
So here’s what we’ll do, instead of a traditional pro and con list I’ll give you a list of the things that I feel distinguish life in Washington from other states.
What is it like living in Washington State? Distinguishing Factors
There are a couple of things that set life in Washington apart from other states. It’s worth noting though that most of what I’m going to say applies only to western Washington.
Let’s face it, when people daydream of living in Washington they’re not thinking of Spokane or the desert region in the middle of the state.
So, if you’re focused on the area west of the Cascades, here are the Washington-specific things you can expect.
1. Varied Geography (But It’s All Beautiful)
Washington was my introduction to the Pacific Northwest and my first visit left an impression on me that has lasted my entire life.
The entire PNW is beautiful but Washington, in my opinion, takes the cake. No matter where you are in Washington (Seattle not excluded) you’re never far from incredible outdoor scenery.
No matter what you’re into you can find it in Washington. You can find trees of every variety, waterfalls, cliffs, beaches, mountains, wetlands, and everything in between.
Oh and lots of moss.
With the varied geography comes all of the ensuing perks such as lots of outdoor activities, and wildlife. These things, more than anything, set Washington apart and are a defining part of the lives of the people who live there.
2. High Cost-of-Living
The affordable housing problems that are affecting people all across the U.S. are, if anything, worse in Washington state.
Living in Washington State means that you’re committing to a cost of living that is 13% higher than the rest of the nation (with housing costs that are at least 20% higher).
While the high cost of living is coupled with lots of job opportunities (especially in tech) and a higher minimum wage it’s not enough to keep up with people’s expenditures.
This results in lots of inequality for people living in Washington. Either people have great jobs and are able to maintain an affluent lifestyle or they are barely getting by. While this is a problem everywhere it’s especially visible in Washington (Seattle specifically) where there is a huge portion of the population that is barely getting by.
Many people can’t afford to live in Seattle at all which has created serious problems for keeping employees in low-paying jobs.
While there are some tax advantages to living in the state (no state income tax) taxes are quite high otherwise and the benefits don’t outweigh the negatives for the majority of people.
According to Alex Hormozi, you don’t move to a city, you move to a neighborhood. The exact place you choose to live (or visit) will dictate your experience in a place. However, there are some general characteristics that people have in the PNW that are enjoyable to some and off-putting to others.
While their characteristics are visible throughout the state, they are most concentrated in urban centers such as Seattle and Tacoma.
So, unless you plan on living under a rock, the most defining factor may just be the people that live in Washington.
So what are people like? Well, it’s incredibly difficult to give some general characteristics of an entire state (especially when it varies city by city) but I’ll do my best here.
I realize that grouping people is probably offensive. So if you’re reading this, just pretend I’m talking about everyone else but you.
Those living in Washington are the left-leaning, outdoor-loving, dog-owning, reserved type of people.
Oh, and they love their coffee and craft beer.
Smaller towns tend to be more conservative but if you’re after a right-leaning, god-fearing place where people respect your views, the PNW might not be the place for you.
If you like protesting, on the other hand, come on up!
The weather in Washington state is notoriously unpredictable. One minute it can be sunny and warm, and the next minute it can be cold and raining. This unpredictability can be frustrating for residents and visitors alike, but it also makes the state an exciting place to live.
In general, Washington doesn’t rain as much as its reputation would suggest (there are dozens of wetter cities in the U.S.) but it does get an above-average amount of rain.
In general, Washington’s weather is amazing. Its proximity to the ocean means that it’s more moderate throughout the year while still providing four distinct seasons.
I know that when we lived in Utah for several years we couldn’t wait to escape back up to Washington to escape the heat that drove us indoors all summer.
Unless you live somewhere like Forks (which is rain-central) then you’ll probably enjoy the weather here for the majority of the year!
5. Politics / Progressive/Liberal
I could have grouped this with people, but it is a slightly different topic.
The Seattle metropolitan area is the largest in the Pacific Northwest and is home to a variety of political views. The city of Seattle has a long history of progressivism, and this is reflected in its politics today.
The city government is dominated by the Democratic Party, and left-leaning policies such as gun control and environmental protections are prevalent.
What’s more, people in Seattle (and the PNW in general) can be very loud about their beliefs, not to mention unaccepting and intolerant of those who don’t share their views.
However, Seattle is not a one-party city, and there is a significant number of Republicans and independents who contribute to the city’s political landscape. Outside of Seattle, the rest of Washington State is more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. However, the state as a whole leans to the left, thanks in part to the influence of Seattle.
While the politics of Washington are not extreme enough to be a deal-breaker for most people it’s definitely something to be aware of!
6. Mostly Outdoor Activities
Once you’re outside of any major city in Washington you’re mostly left with nothing to do but stare at trees and mountains (with some waterfalls thrown in).
While I personally love it, if you’re the type of person who would rather be at a club than a hipstery craft brewery then most of the state won’t sit well with you.
7. Incredible Job Opportunities
The employment situation in Washington is unique as there are several ways it differs from the rest of the country.
Seattle and nearby Bellevue are the centers for huge companies such as Amazon and Microsoft that are always looking for top talent. Start-ups are also the rage in and around Seattle (it must be all the coffee) but the confluence of these brings in lots of big-brain types from other states and keeps a lot of the local brain-power around.
In addition to the tech jobs, Washington is home to a ton of “starving artists.” Self-employment by starting a handmade-widget shop, selling paintings, or busking on the street are all valid ways that people made a living in the area.
Add in all of the “normal” infrastructure jobs that you’d find in towns and cities and you’d be hard-pressed to go without a job for long. Whether the job will actually pay you well enough to live anywhere is a different matter entirely.
If you stray too far from major centers however you’ll find towns that are severely depressed with no money and major drug issues. The area south of Tacoma and west of Puget sound is full of towns that had their glory days 50+ years ago and offer little in the way of employment or enjoyment now.
8. Great Schools
One of the biggest selling points for my wife and I, when we were deciding where to move, was that Washington has some of the best schools in the nation.
I should qualify it though and say that, on balance, the schools in Washington are average. The schools in affluent areas are incredibly good and the “average” schools are still better than average.
The overall tenor of schooling is brought down by the poor funding and performance of small-town schools that have very poor ratings, however.
So as long as you’re picky about where you move, living in Washington can provide excellent access to both primary and secondary education!
9. Vibrant “Alternative” Scene
The social scene in Seattle and Washington State is defined by its live music, festivals, hipsters, punks, alternative, progressive culture.
The music scene is particularly vibrant, with a wide variety of genres represented. From folk to metal, there’s something for just about everyone.
The festival circuit also draws tens of thousands of people every year with major attractions such as Bumbershoot leading the way.
And of course, no discussion of the social scene would be complete without mentioning the hipsters. They can be found in every corner of the city with their flannel shirts and beards.
While Washington is diverse and full of oddities, it’s a bit more family-friendly that other alternative cities in the PNW such as, say, Portland…
10. Progressive Programs
I mentioned the progressive programs that are spawned by the state’s politics already. However, I would be negligent not to mention one of the biggest side-effects of the programs…homelessness, inequality, and drugs.
An influx of vagrants in the 80s and 90s led to more lenient and progressive social programs in Seattle and the rest of the state. Unfortunately, these programs led to Seattle being dubbed “one of the best cities to be homeless in” and people make the trek to live in a tent in Washington State.
This spawns other issues such as drug use and violence, not to mention the need for ever-increasing programs (and budgets) to address these issues. It’s a vicious cycle.
While homelessness is only a major problem within the Seattle area drugs are permeated most small towns and backroads in Washington.
These are the main issues that cause people to moan that “Seattle/Washington isn’t what it used to be…” and they’re right. You used to be able to walk about without stepping over trash every few feet.
However, it’s not enough to cause most people to leave the area entirely…just to get out of Seattle.
11. Lack of Affordable Housing
For most people living in Washington State, the lack of affordable housing is a serious problem. For many people who grew up here, it is the problem that dictates whether they can stay in the state or not.
According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, the average rents in the state have increased by more than 50% over the past decade, while incomes have only grown by about 20%. This has put a severe strain on many families, who are struggling to make ends meet.
Most single people who live in the city only do so by having several roommates or living in Section 8 Housing.
However, there is an opportunity to live elsewhere in Washington and avoid prices that are sky-high.
If you want to disappear into the woods and live on a homestead for the next 50 years, Washington is the place to do it.
The area outside the cities turns very quickly into sparsely populated wilderness and the trees let you feel like you’re a million miles from anyone else.
Many of the houses that are affordable to us “normal” people are outside of city limits and sit on large pieces of land. It doesn’t mean that the housing is cheap by any means but, if you’re willing to drive 30 minutes to the grocery store, you might just be able to make it work financially!
12. Proximity To The Ocean
In my opinion, the beaches of Washington state are some of the most beautiful and enjoyable in the entire world.
That is, if you don’t care about most traditional beach activities. Some intrepid souls do surf in the PNW but the majority of beach time is spent kayaking, beach combing, looking in tidepools, climbing rocks, or playing in the sand.
The water on Washington’s coast ranges from 48 to 58 degrees which means that swimming is out for a lot of people.
However, never being far from the beach does open up a lot of activities that we didn’t have living in the midwest!
13. Washington is “Healthy & Green”
Washington is often referred to as a “green state,” and for good reason. From the coast to the mountains, Washington is home to stunning natural beauty, and its residents are committed to protecting the environment. recycling, and conservation.
The state has an extensive system of parks and hiking trails, and its cities are filled with trees and green space. In addition, Washington has been a leader in the development of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
In addition to valuing the “health” of the environment, Washington has excellent resources to improve the health of residents.
Unless you are in a small town you’ll have access to excellent healthcare in some of the best facilities available.
Add in the emphasis on being outdoors, the sea air, and the physical activity and you’ll be hard-pressed to not improve your health over time…as long as you treat that vitamin D deficiency you’ll probably develop.
Hopefully, I was able to get you at least a glimpse into what it’s like to live in Washington State!
Having lived here for several years I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it but communicating it is a different matter entirely.
If you couldn’t tell, I love Washington state and the PNW. However, I know that living in Washington isn’t for everyone and some parts of it straight up suck (annual wildfires, anyone?).
However, every time I look outside or get out of the city I realize there’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather live. You’ll just have to decide whether it’s for you.