• Indianapolis boasts the largest median lot size overall among the country’s top 20 cities
  • Philadelphia, on the other hand, has the smallest lot sizes
  • San Diego increased the median lot size by almost 50% from the 1920s to the present day
  • Seattle, Charlotte and Denver saw the biggest lot size decreases over the past 100 years
  • Lot usage increased in all 20 biggest cities in the US, largely due increasing home sizes

The need to reconcile buyers’ preferences for more spacious homes with the need for more housing combined with growing building costs and less available land has created a compromise that’s leaving homeowners stranded for outdoor space.

New single family homes are now built larger whereas lot sizes are getting smaller. In fact, the median home size is now over 2,260 square feet, up from 2,170 square feet in 2010. Meanwhile, the median lot size of a new home decreased by almost 18%, from 10,500 sq. ft. in  2010 to 8,700 sq. ft. in  2020, according to data from the US Census, reducing the prospects for sizable backyards across the nation.

The white picket fence home with a manicured lawn at the front and a large backyard for family fun has been an essential component of the American dream for ages. But how much of the traditional aspiration towards expansive outdoor spaces is still achievable in the biggest US cities? And where do homeowners have the best chances to enjoy a nice backyard?

We looked at the 20 largest cities in the US to discover the urban hotspots where residents enjoy the most space around their houses, a feature that has only gained in appreciation during the last 18 months as most of us spent more time at home than ever before. We’ve then tracked lot and home size evolution to see how new housing supply reshaped indoor and outdoor home spaces over the past 100 years.

Best cities for yards: lot size in Indianapolis almost 10 times larger than in Philadelphia

Indianapolis stands out as the city with the biggest home lots overall. Southern cities generally rank better for lot sizes when compared to West and East Coast cities. The only coastal city to make it to the top for yard space is Jacksonville, FL. Austin, TX, Charlotte, NC, and Dallas, TX round out the top 5 cities with the biggest lots. All these urban hubs boast an overall median lot size of over 8,000 square feet.

At the other end of the spectrum, the smallest home lots among the country’s top 20 biggest cities are in Philadelphia, where the median plot size is around 1,100 square feet. Chicago, Washington, DC, San Francisco and NYC’s five boroughs– where both available land and prices are at a premium – all have median lot sizes under 2,800 square feet.

House lot shrinkage – an irreversible trend reshaping the homeownership dream

Minimum lot size regulations and zoning laws are material for hot debates in virtually all the country’s major urban hotspots – on the one hand, it’s natural to prefer living in nice neighborhoods with big yards and plenty of green space. On the other hand, keeping the minimum lot sizes up and dedicating a significant portion of a city’s available land exclusively to single family homes puts a lot of pressure on an already competitive housing market. The median home price at a national level currently stands at over $350,000, with 89% of the metros tracked by the National Association of Realtors seeing double-digit price increases year-over-year during the first quarter of 2021.

While there are indeed some variations, there is a general increase in lot space being built on – i.e., the percentage of a land plot occupied by the home, where the home size represents the total of the floor sizes – in all of the country’s biggest cities.

The demand for housing in many markets is so much higher than the current supply that developers of new residential properties have to make the most of available land. This has led to an increase in what many would call single family condensed housing,” said Isaac Hiatt of Yardi Matrix, our sister division and a research firm focusing on multifamily, student housing, office, industrial and self storage properties across the United States.

Here’s how home lots evolved in the 20 largest US cities over the last 100 years.

Top 20 Biggest US Cities Ranked by Lot Size

RankCityStatePopulationLot Size
(sq. ft.)
House Size
(sq. ft.)
% House
in Lot
1IndianapolisIN870,3409,1911,46515.9%
2JacksonvilleFL911,5289,1041,81219.9%
3AustinTX979,2638,6291,86521.6%
4CharlotteNC885,7078,5382,06424.2%
5DallasTX1,343,5658,1941,58119.3%
6ColumbusOH902,0737,5621,31017.3%
7San AntonioTX1,547,2507,4751,67022.3%
8PhoenixAZ1,680,9887,3621,65622.5%
9HoustonTX2,316,7977,1311,82425.6%
10Fort WorthTX913,6567,0961,69223.8%
11Los AngelesCA3,979,5376,8821,57622.9%
12San DiegoCA1,423,8526,5341,50423%
13DenverCO727,2116,2291,32721.3%
14San JoseCA1,021,7866,0001,56326.1%
15SeattleWA753,6555,2711,69032.1%
16New YorkNY8,336,8172,7441,42451.9%
17San FranciscoCA881,5492,7011,49055.2%
18WashingtonDC705,7492,6141,44055.1%
19ChicagoIL2,693,9591,6991,45685.7%
20PhiladelphiaPA1,584,0641,0891,200110.2%

The median lot size in Indianapolis – the city with the biggest home lots in the US – is almost 9,200 square feet, with the median home covering almost 1,500 square feet.

Even though Indy’s outdoor space is certainly large enough for entertaining, playing around and doing a bit of gardening, homes there are not exempt from lot size shrinkage. Lot usage increased in Indianapolis over the past century, from 19% in the 1920s to 27% over the past decade (2010 to 2020). The largest lots for new homes were in the 1960s, when the median lot size was over 14,000 square feet. Since then, lots gradually shrank with each decade, reaching a median size over the past decade of almost 8,000 square feet. The decade from 2010 to 2020 is also when the median size of newly built homes was largest – 2,100 square feet.

This trend toward smaller yards will most likely advance further, as Indianapolis was a seller’s market even pre-pandemic, and the coronavirus stirred things even more. The metro area’s median home price during the first quarter of 2021 jumped by almost 14% year-over-year, reaching $232,000, while the inventory is currently down by a whopping 50% year-over-year. Paired with construction costs that have been skyrocketing all over the country, the Indianapolis housing market is facing the exact combination of factors that leads to smaller lot sizes.

Searching for big lots in Jacksonville, FL, and Austin, TX? Shop around for homes built in the 60s and the 70s

In Jacksonville, median lot size is over 9,100 square feet, while median home size stands at around 1,800 square feet, meaning that the home covers about 20% of the lot. Decade-to-decade evolution during the past 100 years paints a more nuanced picture. The 1970s were Jacksonville’s best decade for large lots, with a median of over 11,000 square feet – while the homes built during that period had a median size of 1,800 square feet. However, in the last decade analyzed, 2010 to 2019, the median lot size fell to around 7,700 square feet, paired with a significantly higher median new home size of over 2,300 square feet. Thus, lot usage in Jacksonville for the past decade stands at around 30%, higher than during any of the previous decades.

Austin, with a median lot size of 8,600 square feet and a median home size of almost 1,900 square feet, is still a friendly city for people in search of roomy backyards. In Austin’s case, the median lot size from one decade to the other varied less than in other cities, from about 6,700 square feet in the 1920s to 7,400 square feet in the 2010s, with a peak of over 9,500 square feet in the 1960s. However, the median home size increased by almost 84% over the past 100 years, resulting in an increase in lot usage from 19% in the 1920s to 32% nowadays.

New homes for sale in the Mueller neighborhood, Austin, TX

Charlotte’s median lot size decreased almost eight times from the 1970s to present day

The median lot size in Charlotte, NC, currently stands at a respectable 8,500 square feet, but the city’s lot size evolution over decades is dramatic. The median lot size actually decreased from a huge 59,000 square feet in the 1970s to about 7,600 square feet for the past decade. Recently built homes in Charlotte come with a lot usage of over 30%, compared to only 3% in the 1970s – a natural evolution, seeing as the city’s population almost quadrupled over the past 50 years.

Homes being built in the 60s or 70s on expansive plots of land are being replaced by larger single family homes or, where zoning allows, by multiple townhouses. With the active listings in Charlotte dropping by 60% year-over-year this May, and the median home price in Q1 having increased by over 20% year-over-year to $320,000, Charlotte remains one of the most competitive markets in the country, driving the need for more housing in the area.

Both Dallas, TX, and Columbus, OH, saw little variation in lot size evolution over the past 100 years

Dallas ranks fifth for lot size among the country’s top 20 biggest cities, with a median lot size of almost 8,200 square feet. The median home size in Dallas stands at around 1,600 square feet. Decade-to-decade evolution of lot sizes in Dallas shows little variation – the median lot size was around 7,500 square feet in the 1920s, inching up to reach a 10,000-square-foot peak in the 1960s, and going back to roughly 7,500 sq. ft. in the last decade. However, the median home size increased by more than 76% over the same period, to over 2,400 square feet now, resulting in an increase in lot usage from 18% to 32%.

The sixth major US city for lot space is Columbus, OH, where the median lot size stands at about 7,600 square feet. Comparable to Dallas, the decade-to-decade evolution of lot sizes in Columbus does not entail significant variations, only a moderate 36% increase from the 1920s to the present day. Lot usage during the same period increased slightly from 25% to 28%, due to the median home size increasing by over 50%. Columbus homes built in the 1970s and 1980s enjoy the largest home lots, of over 9,000 square feet.

San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth fall in the middle of the pack, with median lot sizes at over 7,000 square feet

The median lot sizes of the three Texan cities — which ranking 7th, 9th and 10th for lot space — varies from 7,100 square feet in Fort Worth to 7,500 square feet in San Antonio. Houston has the largest median size of homes of the group, at over 1,800 square feet, resulting in a 26% lot usage, compared to 22% in San Antonio and 24% in Fort Worth.

San Antonio’s median lot size decreased by only 6% over the past 100 years – however, the median home size increased by almost 90%, resulting in far less space around the house for the city’s residents. In the case of both Houston and Fort Worth, lots decreased by approx. 10% from the 1920s up to the present, while the median home increased  size by over 70%.

Phoenix, AZ, ranks eighth, in the middle of the Texan cities, with a median lot size of almost 7,400 square feet and a median home size of over 1,600 square feet. Although median lot sizes varied little in Phoenix from the 1920s until today – a slight 6% decrease – homes there actually doubled in size, resulting in a 35% lot usage nowadays, compared to 16% at the beginning of the analyzed period.

Los Angeles and San Diego experience lot size increases compared to the 1920s – however, homes more than doubled over the same period

Californian cities Los Angeles and San Diego both have a median lot size over 6,500 square feet, and median home sizes above 1,500 square feet. Both cities also registered a positive evolution of the median lot size when comparing the 1920s with the 2010s. In San Diego’s case, the increase is quite significant – 46%. However, as the median home size also grew by a whopping 134%, lot usage is actually higher nowadays than during the first decade analyzed. Interestingly, homes built in San Diego in the 2000s enjoyed the largest lots – a median size of almost 13,000 square feet. For most of the cities analyzed, the decades with sprawling home lots were the 1960s through 1980s.

Los Angeles currently has a median lot size of almost 6,900 square feet. The city saw a slight 16% increase in the median lot size over the past century – however, homes also got 137% larger, which translates into a 46% lot usage for the 2010 to 2020 decade, compared to just 22% in the 1920s.

The 1970s was the decade with the largest lot sizes in LA – about 9,200 square feet. Right now, Los Angeles is in the process of implementing a new zoning code throughout the city, a so-called hybrid zoning that moves away from the separation of land uses in broad categories, such as agricultural, residential and commercial, and will provide more flexibility for new housing projects.

Denver, CO, currently builds homes with lot usage of almost 60%

Denver, CO, and San Jose, CA, feature median overall lot sizes of 6,200 and 6,000 square feet, respectively, while median home sizes stand at 1,300 and 1,600 square feet. Decade-to-decade evolution shows that lot sizes almost halved in Denver, from 6,100 in the 1920s to 3,300 in the past decade. Combined with the 83% increase in median home size, this results in almost 60% lot usage for new homes built in Denver from 2010 to 2020.

San Jose, on the other hand, saw a 10% increase in median lot size during the past 100 years, but homes more than doubled in size during the same period. Interestingly, the 2000s are the decade with the smallest lots in San Jose – a median size of just 3,600 square feet.

Residential neighborhood in San Jose, California

Seattle, WA, has a median lot size of almost 5,300 square feet, and a median home size of around 1,700 square feet. Current and future city residents on a hunt for sizable backyards should look for homes built in the 1950s through the 1970s, when the median lot size in Seattle was over 7,000 square feet.

NYC, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, have median lots hovering around 2,700 square feet

Large urban hotspots like NYC, SF and the country’s capital city have understandably low scores in terms of lot sizes, with around 2,700 square feet each, and an overall lot usage of over 50%.

When looking at the decade-to-decade evolution, we see that the median lot size started rather meagerly in New York City (all five boroughs) in the 1920s, at only 2,500 square feet – in fact, the single family homes built during the past decade are placed on lots about 500 square feet larger than those built in the 1920s. The median home size increased during that period also, by 40%, resulting in 64% lot usage for the past decade.

Among the city’s boroughs, Manhattan, unsurprisingly, has the smallest lots, of about 1,800 square feet, followed by Brooklyn, with 2,000 sq. ft., and the Bronx, with almost 2,500 sq. ft. Queens and Staten Island, on the other hand, enjoy lot sizes of over 3,000 square feet.

Unlike NYC, San Francisco experienced a 20% drop in median lot sizes from the 1920s up to the present day. The city had a linear evolution in terms of lot size for the past 100 years, starting at 3,000 square feet and gradually decreasing to almost 2,500 for the past decade. Median home sizes, on the other hand, increased significantly, by 84%, which led to more than 100% lot coverage — bearing in mind that we are totaling all floor spaces — for the 2000s and the 2010s.

Washington, DC, saw its new homes built between 2010 and 2020 benefitting from a median lot size of just 1,700 square feet, leading to a 94% lot usage. The best decade in Washington in terms of lot sizes was the 1960s, when the median lot measured over 4,700 square feet.

Chicago and Philadelphia have the smallest lot sizes among the country’s major cities

Chicago and Philadelphia take the last two spots among the country’s major cities for lot sizes, with a median value of 1,700 square feet for Chicago and only around 1,100 square feet for Philadelphia. The abundance of rowhouses and townhouses in both cities is one of the factors leading to relatively low median lot sizes. Rowhouses were seen as a solution for Philadelphia’s expanding population, and in Chicago this type of housing became popular around the 1890s, followed by the expansion of townhouses around the 1960s. Small yards are deeply rooted in both cities’ histories and emerge as a way of living that are now part of each city’s appeal. Chicago has a median lot usage of almost 86%, while Philadelphia’s stands at 110%.

Rowhouses Philadelphia
Rowhouses in Center City, Philadelphia, PA

The impact of the shrinking American yard has been felt in other sectors of real estate, including the self storage industry. In fact, self storage appeared to have grown along with the drop in housing lot sizes, supplementing for that loss of outdoor space at home. Self storage stock has grown to a total inventory of 1.5 billion rentable square feet in 2020, with 2021 expected to add another 60 million sq. ft. of extra space. The national average street rate for a 10×10 self storage unit – a type of unit that can hold a variety of items, including outdoor furniture, gardening tools, and sport equipment – currently stands at $124 per month.

With home prices and building costs reaching new highs, and many of the country’s major cities confronted with housing shortages, it’s safe to assume that the future will bring us gradually smaller backyards, particularly in our busy urban hotspots.

What the experts are saying

Jonathan Levine, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Michigan, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Lot usage when constructing new homes is growing both at a national level and in the country’s largest cities. Do you think that this trend will continue in the near future, and why?

I expect to see this trend continuing, for three reasons:

1. Many urban and close-in suburban locations are prized currently. Where construction occurs there (i.e., redevelopment or previously passed-over parcels), lots are often small and pricey. Expensive land tends to attract expensive improvements — so this often means filling out the permitted envelope for development.

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2. Much of the push for land-conserving smaller and multifamily homes is not accommodated in these close-in areas because of zoning restrictions, pushing it to newly developed sites at the fringe of the built area. As a consequence, we sometimes see an inversion of the traditional density curve:  some housing at the edge can be denser than housing at the center.

3. The trend in planning is to allow greater density of development, including accessory dwelling units and multifamily housing.

Zoning laws are changing in many cities throughout the country, allowing for smaller lots and multifamily developments in areas previously destined for single-family living. Do you think this trend is beneficial for the future of urban living?

 I do, both for affordability and for environmental-performance considerations.

Could the remote-working trend stimulate home construction farther away from urban hotspots in the long run, releasing the pressure on available land in cities?

Yes, it could, but that would not be my prediction for the overall trend.  Over the past century, each improvement in telecommunications has brought predictions of the demise of the need to live close to cities and urban areas.  In many ways, the opposite has occurred:  telecommunications are a complement, rather than substitute for face-to-face communications.  See Glaeser, Edward L. “Triumph of the City How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.” New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Sonia Hirt, Dean and Hughes Professor in Landscape Architecture and Planning, University of Georgia, College of Environment + Design

Zoning laws are changing in many cities throughout the country, allowing for smaller lots and multifamily developments in areas previously destined for single-family living. Do you think this trend is beneficial for the future of urban living?

Yes, zoning laws are changing but the changes are not as significant as the rhetoric surrounding this trend.

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For example, as far as I know, Minneapolis (a city which got a lot of publicity for “eliminating” single-family zoning) actually is allowing duplexes and triplexes in former single-family zones. That’s all. Multi-family housing is still generally separated from single-family zoning in most American cities and certainly, in most American suburbs. Whether the trend is beneficial is in the eyes of the beholder.

Could the remote-working trend stimulate home construction farther away from urban hotspots in the long run, releasing the pressure on available land in cities?

Yes, some very large companies may never need the size of real estate they had in central cities before the pandemic. As long as many people can work from home, they will, and this may result in exactly this—living away from city centers.

Professor John Shapiro, Pratt Institute, Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment

Lot usage when constructing new homes is growing both at a national level and in the country’s largest cities. Do you think that this trend will continue in the near future, and why?

Yes.  Millennials will soon be moving to the inner suburbs in greater numbers, and will be comfortable with more “urban-like” (i.e., higher density) living—including four-plexus, accessory dwelling units, living above the store, etc.  Plus, municipalities will be under greater pressure to allow accessory dwelling units, as you note next.  So, there will be higher demand and greater ability to satisfy that demand.

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Zoning laws are changing in many cities throughout the country, allowing for smaller lots and multifamily developments in areas previously destined for single-family living. Do you think this trend is beneficial for the future of urban living?

Yes and no.  I am not a proponent of “abolish single family zoning.”  I think there are a number of considerations. E.g., the size of the original houses, the extent to which they create a historic setting, the amount of impervious material that should cover the surface (including that the more adults living on a lot, the more cars and parking), clear cutting of trees, availability of transit and other services, etc.  But certainly, the requirement that every municipality (within reason) provide opportunity for housing typology and price variety (including affordable housing) is entirely beneficial in terms of meeting population growth, accommodating different demographics, and (if coupled with affirmative marketing of units) desegregation.

Could the remote-working trend stimulate home construction farther away from urban hotspots in the long run, releasing the pressure on available land in cities?

I would phrase this differently: Yes, remote working could stimulate home construction farther away from urban hotspots in the long run, leading to sprawl in the exurbs, and reducing densification that is the best way to accommodate environmentally sound population growth as well as preserve the American landscape.

James Tate, Assistant Professor, Texas A&M University, Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning

Lot usage when constructing new homes is growing both at a national level and in the country’s largest cities. Do you think that this trend will continue in the near future, and why?

I believe this will continue both within the central established cores of the country’s cities with populations over 500,000 and in the metropolitan periphery.

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In Texas, where I’m based, the “Texas Triangle” is growing at a pace that housing supply / production can’t keep up, even as production of new units outnumbers most other places in the U.S.

If anything, what we’re seeing happen in the Texas Triangle is the urbanization of a massive territory, a megaregion. At this point, Austin-San Antonio-Waco, like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston-The Woodlands-Katy are one continuous metro. These once disconnected cities have merged in large part because Texas is built through the proliferation of single family detached subdivisions. This isn’t to say there won’t be some areas in the Texas Triangle that remain large open agricultural spaces along I-10 and I-45 and some in the middle, but pretty much the i-35 corridor from Dallas to San Antonio is urbanized… Houston Northwest to Bryan-College Station is as well… Houston North to Huntsville… Houston pretty far West toward San Antonio (Katy).

One issue I see in Texas, particularly outside of central core neighborhoods in major cities, is that we continue to rely primarily on single-family subdivision lot development and large apartment complexes. Issues linked to the economics of residential development, renters vs owners, and definitions of property are ones I’m encountering while doing work here.

In the central core of the major cities in the Texas Triangle, we are starting to see Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) encouraged. In medium size cities though, these are often prohibited because of a continued commitment to a certain “suburban” mindset. For example, even though Bryan-College Station has a lot of 1/3 acre lots (less than 4 units per acre density), in very few places is one allowed to build an ADU that would provide an additional housing unit.

In Texas, I’ve found it difficult to get people to imagine a neighborhood that doesn’t reinforce individual property boundaries. The ideas of commoning or cooperative land ownership aren’t discussed here as much as they were when I as living in California. Perhaps that is due to how inexpensive a lot has been in Texas historically. Even a decade or two ago one could purchase an acre or five-acre lot in the surrounding metros at a fairly low price. I’m not sure that’s the case any longer, and especially within metros.

Zoning laws are changing in many cities throughout the country, allowing for smaller lots and multifamily developments in areas previously destined for single-family living. Do you think this trend is beneficial for the future of urban living?

I am familiar with this happening in other places. I do think it’s beneficial. We need a more diverse mixture of housing options. We also need them to be distributed in a way that doesn’t reinforce monoculture / self-similar units. In Texas this is a major issue, but with the exception of mostly grass roots efforts, we don’t see a lot of these strategies at the moment except within particular neighborhoods in the major cities. Because the we are growing so rapidly though I am hopeful some kind of change will happen in this area. It’s a personal opinion, but I don’t think a developer should be allowed in Texas to create a neighborhood without integrating a diverse mix of residential housing units… and proximity to essential resources and services need to be seen as part of the housing.

We do have several “mixed-use” developments in the metros of the Texas Triangle. Some of these are designed with New Urbanist principles while others are not. This is not to say I agree with the New Urbanism informed developments fully, but those tend to integrate a wider spectrum of housing options. Most are very much economically segregated (target higher earning individuals/households) developments and clearly define their boundaries of when you are inside or outside of the development (enclave).

I am hopeful that as a generation finishes college and recognize the various social and climate challenges we face, that we recognize how the proliferation of large single family detached houses puts a strain on and consumes a lot of resources and puts a lot of pressure on infrastructure and has social and cultural implications. I don’t imagine we will experience some widespread adoption of a different way of living, but I do think we will continue to see a move away from the excessive size and opulence of houses that came about in the 90’s and early 00’s… I think we will see many choose smaller houses in more compact arrangements with access to shared amenities and things we rely on daily. Some of this a reality of cost of living, but it’s also values and mindset.

Could the remote-working trend stimulate home construction farther away from urban hotspots in the long run, releasing the pressure on available land in cities?

While the “commute” or proximity between work and home is a factor for people, it’s my observation that many people want to live within the urban core of a city because they want easy access to the things they enjoy outside of work. So, I think a lot of this is tied to preferences about the kind of environment someone wants to live in. Again, this, for many is as much a question of values and mindset. It’s important to contextualize what drove the development of suburbs in post-war America. There are different contextual forces that are driving the decisions people make today.

Methodology

This analysis was done by STORAGECafé, an online platform that provides storage unit listings across the nation.

For this study, we looked at the median lot size for single family homes in the country’s biggest 20 cities by population and ranked the cities based on the median lot size indicator.

We also looked at the median home size in each city analyzed and compared it with the median lot size for that city.

The median home size figures were calculated as totals of all the floor sizes.

The evolution of median lot sizes and home sizes was also analyzed per decade, from 1920 to 2019, for all the cities except Chicago, where we lacked that information.

The data used to calculate median lot sizes and median home sizes was taken from PropertyShark and Point2Homes, STORAGECafé’s sister divisions.

Fair Use and Distribution

This study serves as a resource for the general public on issues of common interest and should not be regarded as investment advice. The data is true to the best of our knowledge but may change if amendments to it are made. We agree to the distribution of this content but we do require a mention in return for attribution purposes.

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Maria Gatea is a creative writer for StorageCafe and RentCafe with a background in Journalism and Communication. After covering business and finance-related topics as a freelance writer for 15 years, she is now focusing on researching and writing about the real estate industry. You may contact Maria via email.

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