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The Most Affordable Small Cities in the U.S.

Not everyone prefers to live in the big city. Smaller U.S. cities and towns usually don’t get as much attention, but many of them offer a great quality of life while being more affordable than their bigger counterparts.

To identify the best small cities across the country, LendingTree focused on metropolitan areas with a population of less than 250,000 and ranked them by affordability, economic and lifestyle factors. The result is a clear picture of which small metros offer the best mix of being both affordable and awesome places to live.

Key findings

Ames, Iowa is the most affordable small city.

Based on our analysis, Ames, Iowa, had the best overall score of all the cities listed in our affordable small metro rankings. Working in its favor is a noteworthy economy score, reflecting a decent median annual salary and a low unemployment rate. Ames also scored high in the lifestyle category, due to a healthy population and low crime rate, and in the price category, indicating a low cost of living. The city’s housing affordability score was relatively average, however.

The No. 2 and No. 3 best small cities are both in the South.

The next two best-scoring small cities, Valdosta, Ga., and Jonesboro, Ark., had lower economy scores than Ames, but had higher housing affordability and economic growth scores to offset their weaker points. Both cities also scored higher in the price category, reflecting a low cost of living.

Napa, Calif., ranked last on our list.

Extremely pricey housing costs and an overall high cost of living pushed Napa, Calif., to the bottom of our list. This was despite a high economy score, reflecting good salaries and low unemployment, and a good lifestyle score, thanks to a low crime rate and high percentage of residents who exercise.

Vineland, N.J., and Kahului, Hawaii, ranked second and third from the bottom of the list. Vineland scored low on its economy and economic growth scores, reflecting a high unemployment rate and sluggish growth, and also had low housing affordability and price scores, translating to a high overall cost of living. Kahului’s final score was dragged down by its low housing affordability score and below-average economic growth.

Other takeaways

While there weren’t many striking geographical patterns, a few trends were apparent. For example, there weren’t any Northeastern cities among the best-scoring small metros, indicating high costs of living and low economic growth.

Small cities in the Western region of the U.S. also generally ranked lower on the list for similar reasons, but Idaho was an interesting exception as it claimed two of the top 10 spots. Additionally, the Midwest performed well at having multiple affordable small cities with a good quality of life on the list.

Overall, small metros offered significantly cheaper housing than larger metros, though in many cases, salaries were somewhat lower.

Understanding the rankings

For this study, we reviewed a variety of criteria to determine the most affordable small metro areas. We weighted affordability and costs more than the other criteria included in the data when calculating each city’s final score — 50% of final scores reflect housing and goods and services costs. We grouped the criteria into five categories:

  • Economy: We looked at the local median annual earnings for full-time workers and the unemployment rate to gauge the health of each city’s job market.
  • Housing affordability: This factor was measured by pulling data on the median rent amount for a two-bedroom unit and the median housing costs for homeowners with a mortgage.
  • Price: We compared how expensive goods and services are in each small metro to gauge the cost of living.
  • Economic growth: Relocating to a new city takes great effort, so it’s imperative that you know you’re moving to a city with a growing economy and good job prospects. We compared two-year (2015-2017) job growth, salary growth and changes in the unemployment rate to measure economic growth.
  • Lifestyle: We reviewed health and safety-related factors, including the percentage of workers with a long car commute (which can add to stress levels), the percentage of adults who don’t exercise and the violent crime rate, to determine quality of life.

The most affordable small cities

1. Ames, Iowa

Final score: 77.5

  • Economy score: 84.4
  • Housing affordability score: 71.5
  • Price score: 95.4
  • Economic growth score: 62.8
  • Lifestyle score: 71.1

2. Valdosta, Ga.

Final score: 77.2

  • Economy score: 48.7
  • Housing affordability score: 88.3
  • Price score: 92.3
  • Economic growth score: 88.2
  • Lifestyle score: 62.3

3. Jonesboro, Ark.

Final score: 74.5

  • Economy score: 52.8
  • Housing affordability score: 93.3
  • Price score: 92.3
  • Economic growth score: 69.2
  • Lifestyle score: 47.5

4. Mankato-North Mankato, Minn.

Final score: 73.5

  • Economy score: 65.9
  • Housing affordability score: 73.0
  • Price score: 95.4
  • Economic growth score: 47.7
  • Lifestyle score: 81.6

5. Lewiston, Idaho

Final score: 73.2

  • Economy score: 71.0
  • Housing affordability score: 81.8
  • Price score: 69.7
  • Economic growth score: 60.1
  • Lifestyle score: 76.9

The least affordable small cities

192. Napa, Calif.

Final score: 30.6

  • Economy score: 79.1
  • Housing affordability score: 0.0
  • Price score: 0.0
  • Economic growth score: 38.1
  • Lifestyle score: 60.7

191. Vineland, N.J.

Final score: 37.4

  • Economy score: 30.8
  • Housing affordability score: 52.5
  • Price score: 31.7
  • Economic growth score: 22.9
  • Lifestyle score: 37.9

190. Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, Hawaii

Final score: 45.2

  • Economy score: 60.9
  • Housing affordability score: 9.5
  • Price score: 69.7
  • Economic growth score: 45.7
  • Lifestyle score: 62.6

189. East Stroudsburg, Pa.

Final score: 46.7

  • Economy score: 47.8
  • Housing affordability score: 51.2
  • Price score: 57.4
  • Economic growth score: 35.6
  • Lifestyle score: 33.1

188. Ocean City, N.J.

Final score: 47.3

  • Economy score: 62.1
  • Housing affordability score: 39.4
  • Price score: 31.7
  • Economic growth score: 48.6
  • Lifestyle score: 62.5

Methodology

We focused on metropolitan statistical areas with populations lower than 250,000, then scored and ranked them on a range of variables, most related to economic health and affordability but we also included variables related to quality of life.

For each variable, the score is calculated by subtracting the minimum metro value and dividing it by the range in the variable over all metros, rescaling the range from 0 to 1. The metro with the best value (highest or lowest, depending on the variable) gets a 1, while a metro with the worst gets a 0.

The variables are grouped in five categories: economy, housing affordability, price, economic growth and lifestyle. The variables in each category are averaged to create a category score. A weighted average of the five categories was used to calculate the final score: 30% for housing costs; 20% for local costs; 20% for economy; 15% for economic growth; and 15% for lifestyle. Data sources include the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program.

 

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