What if you had a magic wand — or maybe a magic menu — and could create a recipe for the best place to live in America? What would the ingredients be?
Low taxes, of course. Affordable homes. Also great schools, top hospitals, and plenty of good jobs nearby. Wait — how about culture and recreation facilities and … ?
MONEY's annual "Best Places to Live" list incorporates all those categories and many more. This year's list focuses on communities with populations from 50,000 to 300,000, analyzing and ranking them on about 60 factors, from median home prices to the median high temperature and graduation rates to crime rates.
With the national economy seeming to run in slow motion, MONEY also gave extra weight to places that scored well on a handful of key financial factors: the job market, economic opportunity, and housing affordability.
The reasoning, MONEY editors explained, is simple: Because it's not enough to live in a nice place. You want to be able to live well.
Naperville, Ill.,'s charm doesn't come cheap. The typical home sold for $350,000 in 2016, though that was down slightly year over year. Yet with a median household income of $122,600, the ratio of income to home prices is lower than in many upscale communities.
One of Beaverton, Ore.,'s prime selling points — along with the fact that NIke's headquarters is located here — is value. Property taxes are about 85% of what you'd pay in Portland, and the median home price is $320,000. Another reason you'll find extra money in your pocket: Oregon is one of only five states with no sales tax.
Geography is key to much of Weston, Fla.,'s success. Located within easy commuting distance of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, this planned community also offers abundant employment options. Weston is at the top of MONEY's list for economic opportunity, a category driven largely by purchasing power. That means residents have to sink less of their household income (the median is $99,690 a year) to buy a home than residents in most places around the country.
Truth be told, Clarkstown, N.Y., probably picked the wrong name — it should be Clarkstowns. This community on the Hudson River is actually nine villages knitted together by their bucolic setting and affordable homes, all within a 35-mile drive of New York City. In one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, Clarkstown's $360,000 median home price is a bargain — that's 34% lower than in neighboring Westchester County.
Highlands Ranch, Colo., is a bedroom community where residents sleep very well at night. In fact, they affectionately refer to their hometown, about 15 miles south of downtown Denver, as “the bubble” because crime is low, the schools are top-notch, and the unemployment rate is a downright skimpy 3.4%.
Parsippany–Troy Hills, N.J., is still very much a New York City suburb. The Big Apple is only 35 miles away, and many residents are commuters. But it is also surprisingly affordable by regional standards. The typical home costs about $356,500; property taxes on it would run about $8,220 a year. That may sound expensive, but residents pay less in property taxes relative to their homes' values in Parsippany than they do in 75% of the New Jersey locations on MONEY's list.
West Des Moines, Iowa, has become a family-friendly city that's home to great shopping, a thriving arts community, and enough good jobs to field any number of dreams. It also leads MONEY's list in another key category. The median home price in the first quarter of 2016 was only $187,500. Those affordable prices are only one of many reasons that thriving West Des Moines still feels like small-town America.
Transplants have helped make Plano, Texas, remarkably diverse. About 43% of residents are nonwhite, and 80 languages are spoken in its well-regarded schools. Why are they coming to town? Jobs. J.C. Penney, Frito-Lay, Bank of America, PepsiCo, Cigna, and Intel all have large operations in town. No wonder Plano's motto is: "A Great Place to Do Business."
Eden Prairie, Minn., has appeared on MONEY's Best Places list several times and finished No. 1 in 2010. One reason for its success: The economy is self-sustaining. Several large employers, including Optum, C.H. Robinson, Starkey, and Supervalu, have their headquarters here. Though Eden Prairie has only 62,000 residents, it is home to 57,000 jobs and a downright skimpy 3.6% unemployment rate.
Columbia, Md., turns 50 next year, and it's never looked better. It ranks in the top 5% of the 823 places on this year's list for job growth and economic opportunity. The schools are among the state's best. And in this pricey corner of the country, Columbia's median home price is just over $300,000, 11% less than in Gaithersburg, one county over.
For the full list, check out MONEY's Best Places to Live 2016.