| Sep 18, 2017
Home is where the heart is—but shouldn’t your head have a say in it, too? After all, finding your ideal hometown involves a lot of practical considerations, as well as the emotional ones. What’s more important: having a supermarket close by, or a gym? Are there ample prospects for work, in case you decide to make a change? Are there decent restaurants, interesting museums, and soul-affirming parks and trails?
Do you want to raise your kids in the (presumed) warmth of a small town, or the (constant) stimulation of a city?
This year, for the first time, realtor.com® teamed up with Money magazine on its annual Best Places to Live list, lending our rich trove of data and insights into local housing markets to suss out great places to raise a family, enjoy a night out, find a job, and generally just get the most out of life.
The analysis eschewed the nation’s biggest metros and instead set its sights on smaller cities and towns, with populations of between 10,000 and 100,000. Dozens of different data points were used to narrow the list, including realtor.com data on housing market costs and growth. Other factors tracked economic health, cost of living, and public education.
Any place that had more than double the national crime risk was disqualified. The same went for those with less than 85% of its state’s median household income, or a lack of ethnic diversity. To ensure a geographically diverse set, the final list of 50 was limited to no more than four places per state and two per county.
“These are [small] cities and towns that have a really strong community life,” says realtor.com’s chief economist, Danielle Hale. “When you’re buying a home, you’re not just buying the kitchen and master bathroom. You’re buying the community.”
So what are the best places in the United States, circa 2017—and what makes them so darn livable? We talked to real estate experts and local residents to find out.
1. Fishers, IN
Median home price: $236,167
Median household income: $87,043
Although it’s just 30 minutes from downtown Indianapolis, Fishers has its own redeveloped downtown, with restaurants, boutiques, and a year-round farmers’ market that has been voted one of Indiana’s best.
Larry Lannan, a retired tax law specialist and local blogger, has seen the town evolve since he moved there from Indy in 1991.
“When I moved, it was just a bedroom community for the Indianapolis metro area,” he says. “Now, Fishers has its own identity. And that’s why we’ve chosen to stay here.
“What’s special is that it’s such a family-oriented place,” he adds. In fact, there’s plenty here for all ages, with free concerts and festivals year-round, an annual arts crawl, and a fresh batch of craft breweries.
And more development money is pouring into downtown, with $90 million slated for new projects. One of them is the Yard, a $40 million food and entertainment hub that will include 18 restaurants, a hotel, and green space for concerts and wine tastings. It’ll even have a 3,000-square-foot culinary incubator, to nurture the next generation of food entrepreneurs.
Judy Koehler, a long-time real estate broker at Carpenter Realtors in Fishers, says the downtown revitalization has been good for the community.
“We were losing a lot of college talent to other cities, but it’s starting to change, and we’re attracting millennials,” Koehler says.
Although Koehler notes that prices are on the rise, she says newcomers can get a nice four-bedroom for $220,000. “We have lots of people who move from the East and West coasts and never leave, because the quality of life is much better,” she says.
All this is only going to make Fishers more of a draw for individuals and companies. Projected job growth in this area over the next five years is 11.6%, according to Moody’s Analytics. Companies like student-loan provider Navient and Roche Diagnostics are already there, and the city has invested in a 52,000-square-foot co-working space to nurture entrepreneurs and tech startups. Unemployment in Hamilton County, where Fishers is located, was just 2.7% in July.
2. Allen, TX
Median home price: $323,676
Median household income: $104,524
On the outskirts of sprawling Dallas, the affluent suburb of Allen offers top-notch schools, a strong sense of community, and good value compared with the big city. But unlike in Dallas, everything you need here is within easy reach.
“I never thought I’d move to the suburbs,” says Lee Crowder, a Texas native who was living in Dallas when she and her future husband went to visit friends in Allen. “But then we drove around the neighborhood, and there were all these great walking trails and parks.” They ended up buying the home across the street from their friends in 2004.
“It has a small-town feel that I really love, and we’ve been here ever since,” Crowder says. In fact, this year, they’re trading up from their three-bedroom, two-bath brick home to a five-bedroom, four-bath place across town.
The excellent schools are a primary draw for house-hunters in Allen, says longtime local Realtor® Michelle Musick Jones of Coldwell Banker Apex. In fact, that’s what drew her to the area back in 1997. Buyers typically choose among single-family homes in master-planned communities, with $400,000 to $500,000 the hot price point.
Although many residents make the 30-minute commute to Dallas, there are also plenty of employers closer to home, including an influx of tech and cybersecurity companies. A $91 million convention center and hotel complex is in the works, and there are plans for a 135-acre mixed-use development that would include office space, shopping, residences, and green spaces.
Median home price: $533,083
Median household income: $57,419
Residents of the Los Angeles area are familiar with Monterey Park, nestled in the San Gabriel Valley just east of downtown Los Angeles, as the place to go for the best Chinese food. And it’s true! You can find anything from innovative dim sum to authentic regional specialties here. But it’s also just 15 minutes from downtown L.A., and the expanded light-rail system means there’s also the option of a car-free commute.
“It’s a very safe city,” says Kathryn Tong, a real estate broker at CityLights Realty in Monterey Park, noting that the housing stock is mostly stand-alone single-family homes, with just a sprinkling of condos. Many offer views of the San Gabriel Mountains to the north.
The community is largely Asian—66.9%, according to the 2010 census, with 47.7% of Chinese origin—and attracts mostly Chinese buyers, Tong says. The buyers tend to be established and successful immigrants who have been in the country for 30 to 40 years, she says.
Events throughout the year highlight the varied ethnic traditions of its residents, which include the lunar new year, the cherry blossom festival, and Cinco de Mayo.
4. Franklin, TN
Median home price: $433,996
Median household income: $82,334
Situated just outside Nashville, Franklin comes awfully close to matching its vibrant and world-famous culture—its Franklin Theater, for example, was the site for several concerts filmed for the TV show “Nashville.”
Those who work in Music City have a reasonable 21-mile commute, but there are plenty of options nearby, including health care-related employers such as Community Health Systems and Healthways. Nissan’s North American headquarters are in town, as well as offices for Verizon and Mars Petcare.
Jessi Sgarlata, a real estate agent at Village Real Estate in Franklin, says most of her clients are families with school-age children. This is not surprising, considering that there’s a school district here that earned a heady 10 out of 10 rating on GreatSchools.org.
“For those people who would like to transition from city living, Franklin is an easier transition,” she says. “We have a great downtown center that also has festivals, live music, and great restaurants and boutiques.”
Word is apparently getting out, Sgarlata says, because she sees a lot of people relocating from Chicago, and parts of California and Florida.
The homes in the area are typically single-family homes in new subdivisions, with many more under construction. Because of the demand, Sgarlata says, “Homes under $450,000 in Franklin don’t last long.”
Median home price: $185,092
Median household income: $62,958
Although it’s in Mississippi, Olive Branch is just across the state line from Tennessee and functions as a suburb of Memphis. Residents love this place’s historic small-town atmosphere, as well as the stellar schools.
Derric Curran moved to Olive Branch from Pensacola, FL, in 2003, when he got a job as a videographer at a Memphis TV station. His brother, who lived in Olive Branch, clued him in to the town’s appeal.
“I wanted to take advantage of the bigger city while still living in a smaller town,” Curran says. “It’s just a small, safe town. It’s good people, everybody’s friendly. It’s the cliche Southern town.” But in a good way.
Curran, who notes that new businesses are constantly moving in, recently got into the action himself. He’s the co-owner of the new Mississippi Ale House, a craft beer bar that opened in July.
Median home price: $227,417
Median household income: $71,866
North Dakota is surfing the wave of a current oil boom, and as one of the biggest cities in the rural part of the state, Dickinson is reaping plenty of the benefits. Dickinson State University is here, with 14,000 students, and there are jobs in manufacturing and the local hospital system, but the oil industry is—and is likely to remain—the employment heavyweight.
But home prices have seen some ups and downs in recent years. “We did see a drop in [home] prices starting in 2015, due to low oil prices,” says Anthony Kleinwaechter, a real estate broker at American West Real Estate, based in Dickinson. Some of the oil rigs were pulled out, and a lot of people sold their homes and left. “Then our oil prices recovered a little bit, and we’re back to a stable market.”
Buyers range in age, with a fair amount of turnover, Kleinwaechter observes. Although the median home price is $227,217, Kleinwaechter says most people spend in the $300,000 range, which can get you a four-bedroom, three-bath home built within the last decade, typically in a subdivision but sometimes on a city street.
The downtown is slowly revitalizing, Kleinwaechter says. However, the boutiques and restaurants aren’t Dickinson’s primary draw—it’s all the outdoor activities, from fishing to big-game hunting to hiking, to horseback riding. Tourists flock to Theodore Roosevelt National Park nearby to see the Badlands; the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey trail system showcases some of the country’s most breathtaking terrain.
Median home price: $411,333
Median household income: $116,761
The outdoor lifestyle is also a big lure in Lone Tree, the smallest town in our Top 10. It sits about an hour outside Denver by car or light rail and beats housing prices in the big city by a mile. Many miles, in fact.
“It’s such a great place to live,” says Kate Cerminara, a Realtor® at Realty One Group in Lone Tree. “There’s great skiing in the winter. In the summer, there’s hiking and biking. And the weather is wonderful year-round.”
Bluffs Regional Park is a great al fresco destination, with 3.5 miles of trails and views of downtown Denver and the mountains.
Although Lone Tree has a suburban feel, with strip malls rather than a defined downtown, there are plenty of restaurants, nightlife and shopping—Park Meadows Mall is the state’s biggest shopping center.
One of the top employers is the local hospital. Cerminara says more businesses are moving in, including Charles Schwab, which employs about 4,000 local and transplanted workers. The town’s unemployment rate is just 2.7%.
Median home price: $446,500
Median household income: $73,885
Within 15 minutes of New York City’s bustling Financial District, North Arlington offers a small-town feel that’s appealing to families. The schools are excellent, crime is low, and the 85-acre Riverside County Park is a great place to get outside.
“We are really a small community. But everything around us is big,” says Carlos Jesus, a real estate broker at Exit Golden Realty Group in North Arlington. “We don’t have the malls or the movie theaters right in town. And people want to keep it that way.”
Many residents have deep roots in the neighborhood, although Jesus says he sees a fair number of retirees moving away. They are balanced, however, by the younger generation moving in from the city.
“They want to put down roots in a relaxing town,” he says.
Median home price: $77,557
Median household income: $246,500
To the northwest of Chicago, Schaumburg is a classic bedroom community that doesn’t have much of a downtown. But it does have business. According to the village website, “In the past 50 years, with vision and thoughtful planning, Schaumburg has transformed from a small farming community into a thriving economic center that is home to more business in Illinois than any other community outside of Chicago.”
For commuters, there’s a train station with service to downtown Chicago, a one-hour trip.
“You get a lot of people who want to be in the suburbs but close enough to the big city,” says Ryan Gable, a real estate broker at StartingPoint Realty in Schaumburg.
It’s a combo that pays off for families, given that the school district rates 10 out of 10 on GreatSchools.org. The town has poured a lot of investment into its parks, with the newest being Bison’s Bluff Nature Playground.
And for a mid-sized metro, Schaumburg does boast its own big-city amusements, like comedy clubs and the Prairie Center for the Arts.
10. Bozeman, MT
Median home price: $313,525
Median household income: $49,303
You could come to Bozeman just for the gorgeous mountain scenery, and many do—it’s a tourist destination, just 90 minutes from Yellowstone and close to several ski resorts.
“We sell quite a lot of homes to people who fell in love with Bozeman from the airport,” says Tamara Williams, a real estate broker at Tamara Williams and Company—Real Estate in Bozeman.
Those who choose to stay for work, though, manage to pull off the kind of work-life balance people only dream of in most cities or outdoor meccas. The average commute takes 13 minutes, and about 14% of residents do it on foot or bike. Recently, the tech sector has been blowing up, with startups popping up all over; hometown company RightNow Technologies got snapped up in 2011 by Oracle for $1.5 billion. The area is expected to see 11.4% job growth over the next five years, according to Moody’s Analytics.
Williams sees many transplants from New York, Chicago, and Seattle, but she comments, “Our home prices are not quite as affordable as most people think when they first start looking here.” Starter homes begin in the high $300,000s, she says—that’s for a three- or four-bedroom home of 1,600 to 1,800 square feet.
But residents say it’s well worth it. Downtown offers historical charm, mountain views, and few chain establishments, and great snowboarding is just a short road trip away.