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ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

October 2009

In Search of America's Affluent

Esri Data Helps Author Research His Book, Rich Like Them

Top 10 Wealthiest ZIP Codes in America
Ranked by Wealth Indicators from Esri

  1. 94027 Atherton, California
  2. 22067 Greenway, Virginia
  3. 94028 Portola Valley, California
  4. 94022 Los Altos, California
  5. 92067 Rancho Santa Fe, California
  6. 60043 Kenilworth, Illinois
  7. 10577 Purchase, New York
  8. 22066 Great Falls, Virginia
  9. 19035 Gladwyne, Pennsylvania
  10. 02493 Weston, Massachusetts

-Excerpted from Rich Like Them
. Based on 2007 statistics

By Carla Wheeler, ArcWatch editor

To collect stories for his book Rich Like Them, author Ryan D'Agostino went door-to-door interviewing wealthy Americans to learn how they amassed their fortunes. Essentially, he wanted to know—for himself and his readers—how to become rich like them.

  photo of Ryan D'Agostino
Ryan D'Agostino used Esri Data to narrow his search for wealthy people to interview. Photo/Joshua Paul.

But before heading out his door with pens and notepad, D'Agostino needed to know where to go knocking. On the face of it, that would seem simple. As a magazine editor who lives in Manhattan, he could have just beaten the pavement near his home and visited the posh penthouses on the Upper East Side (provided the doormen would allow him in.) Or, he could focus on the locus of luxury, Beverly Hills, California, a community with a ZIP Code synonymous with wealth: 90210.

But D'Agostino wanted to take a more scientific route in his travels, one that ensured he would encounter the greatest number of rich people in small geographic areas in different parts of the country. That way, he would save time and money and not burn holes through his shoes and bank account.

So D'Agostino contacted the Esri Data team, which went beyond Beverly Hills 90210 to compile a list for him called the Top 100 Wealthiest ZIP Codes in the United States. The list, with Atherton, California, 94027, ranked no. 1, appears in the appendix of Rich Like Them: My Door-to-Door Search for the Secrets of Wealth in America's Richest Neighborhoods ($25.99, Little, Brown and Company). The book documents his interviews with 50 wealthy men and women who recount how they made their fortunes (often by working hard, keeping their eyes on a prize, and seeing opportunities where others saw none).

D'Agostino believed that by visiting what he calls affluent ZIP Codes—those that ranked highest using Esri's wealth indicators such as average net worth, average home value, and median disposable income—he would increase his odds of meeting people who possessed real wealth.

Even in communities with a reputation for wealth, "not everyone's going to be wealthy," D'Agostino said in a recent telephone interview from New York City. "If a ZIP Code makes it into the top 100, there's a pretty good chance that every house, every single person living there is in really good shape," he said. For example, in Atherton in 2007, the average home value was about $1.2 million, the median disposable income was $156,551, and the average net worth was approximately $1.5 million.

A Road Map to Follow

Esri was able to provide in-depth data, beyond what the U.S. Census offers, that revealed the true affluence of residents who live in a particular ZIP Code, according to D'Agostino. ZIP Codes with wealth indicators that show the highest average home value, coupled with the highest average net worth and median disposable income, paint a clear picture of real wealth, he said.

"Some people may own a really big house, but they don't have the money to furnish it," said D'Agostino. "Disposable income told me they weren't maxed out, or it gave me a pretty good idea that they didn't put every penny into their house. And it suggested, on a deeper level, if you had a high net worth on top of your home and that if you have a good-sized disposable income . . . that means their mortgage can't be that much, so they must have paid off a good deal of their house. [So] the people must be pretty good with their money," he said.

The list from Esri gave D'Agostino a road map to follow to find interviewees. He would enter the wealthiest ZIP Codes into real estate Web sites, locate the most expensive homes for sale in those areas, and travel there. "I'd find a house that was selling for $6 million and boom, start there," he said. ZIP Code data increased D'Agostino's chances of finding the 50 good stories for his book because out of the 500 doors he knocked on in 11 states, (a) most people weren't home, and (b) many people declined to be interviewed.

  Rich Like Them book cover
Rich Like Them is available in bookstores nationwide.

"A ZIP Code is usually pretty big," said D'Agostino. "So if everyone in that ZIP Code is wealthy, I am going to have a pretty good shot that I'm not wasting my time because it was a lot of travel for me and a lot of time off."

D'Agostino, a former editor at Money magazine, called the demographic data Esri provided, initially for an article for Money and later for his book, a "fantastic service" that helped him concentrate his search for potential interviewees in places that he might have overlooked.

He said he worked closely with Donna Fancher, marketing coordinator for the commercial and data team in Product Marketing at Esri.

"Most editors would have wanted a simple listing of ZIP Codes based on average household income," said Fancher, "but the definition of wealth goes beyond just how much someone earns. Instead, we provided Ryan with a listing that incorporated a number of demographic variables such as home value, net worth, disposable income, and Tapestry Segmentation data; these variables help define one's wealth status. With this information, along with other analytical criteria, we narrowed the selection to just the top 100 ZIP Codes that represented the wealthiest areas in the United States."

D'Agostino thought that the Esri data steered him toward people who made some wise decisions in their lives.

"[I] felt [it] was a pretty good representation of the wealthiest people (who made smart decisions), so I could show up and find people who would give good advice," he said.

D'Agostino calls Esri's information "essential." "With the Esri data, it really opened up my eyes to places I would never thought to go like Gates Mills, Ohio, (no. 96 on the list), which is a gorgeous town where I spent a whole day and met some amazing people," he said.

Wisdom to Share

D'Agostino himself first thought his project was "a little crazy." He knew that getting a wealthy person to open up to a stranger who just shows up on their doorstep one day seemed almost impossible. "I thought, 'No one's going to talk to me.' "

But talk many of them did, wanting to share with D'Agostino pearls of wisdom they had learned along the way to acquiring their beautiful homes, art collections, furniture, and other accoutrements.

They included

D'Agostino said he came to find out that many of the people he interviewed, though rich, were in many ways just like him. "Were they born with some kind of different motivation or drive or intellect or something? What I came to find out is 'no'," he said. "I could relate to and identify with them. They will tell you they are not anything special either. They had a work ethic that was combined with good ideas and an ability to look at the world in a slightly different way, but it's nothing that you can't learn."

D'Agostino hopes people who read Rich Like Them will come away with some of those lessons. He did. He and his wife, for example, started a dedicated savings account for the home they want to buy in New York. They're motivated now. "I'm well on my way, thanks in large part to people I met in these different ZIP Codes."

To learn more about Esri Data, visit www.esri.com/esridata.

For more information about D'Agostino's book, visit www.richlikethem.com.

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