We all know that you can get more for your money in a small town than in a big city, right? But die-hard urbanites sometimes assume that the 180-degree lifestyle change that goes with downsizing their metropolis would leave them bereft (of culture), bored, and maybe even a bit broken.
Or would it? This week, our data team set out to discover the most affordable small towns in America that could actually tempt away hard-core city lovers.
Of course, the cheapest places aren’t necessarily where you’d want to live. So we went beyond housing price to identify places where crime is low, unemployment is at rock bottom, job opportunities abound, and buying a home is a relatively light financial burden. And maybe even those where there are fun and interesting things to occupy your time.
We assessed more than 500 U.S. Census–designated micropolitan areas (with a population between 10,000 and 50,000) for these criteria* and ranked the top 10 by median list price. Note that “micropolitan areas,” as the federal government defines them, may include neighboring towns as well. Minnesota and Iowa, with three towns apiece in our ranking, look like good prime starting points for the soon-to-be-former-urban bargain hunter. And we’d bet that within a few months of moving in, your neighbors will all know your name.
Located 60 miles southeast of Des Moines, Oskaloosa has a rich Native American heritage marked by the downtown statue ofChief Mahaska, leader of the Ioway tribe. The economy in Oskaloosa centers on a booming retail trade, agriculture, and a strong industrial park. With a median income of $51,322, it takes less than 9% of a typical household’s annual income to buy a home, far less than the recommended 28%.
Bonus fact: The name is derived from a Native American phrase meaning either “the last beautiful place” or “black rain,” depending on modern translation. We’ll opt for the former. Call us romantics.
The city’s prosperity is based on manufacturing and agriculture. Top employers such as RV manufacturer Allied Recreation Group and the local hospital contribute to a 3.5% unemployment rate in August, 20% lower than the state average. Little Decatur’s median household income, $48,854, is also a match for the state level.
Bonus fact:It’s the home of both a world-class hospital (Adams Memorial Hospital) and a former world-class professional bowler (Ryan Squires). How cool is that?
Known as “the land between lakes” (six of them, actually), Albert Lea offers opportunities for boating, fishing, and canoeing. Top employers include the local medical center, area schools, and Albert Lea Select Foods (a pork processing plant). A median household earns about $47,715 every year.
Bonus fact: In 2009, Albert Lea was chosen to kick off the AARP/Blue Zones project, a communitywide initiative to add years to the lives of its inhabitants (based on the habits of the world’s communities with the longest-living inhabitants) through a wide variety of community, health, and social programs.
Every summer, thousands of people flock to Newton to watch races at the Iowa Speedway, dubbed the “Fastest Short Track on the Planet.” Just 30 minutes east of downtown Des Moines, Newton’s central location, job opportunities, and affordability make it perfect for purchasing a home and raising a family. In the past decade, Newton has found economic vitality in green manufacturing after two major wind turbine blades manufacturers, TPI Composites and Trinity Structural Towers, moved in.
Bonus fact:Racing’s not your thing? The town is also home to the annual Bowlful of Blues music festival and the famed Iowa Sculpture Festival.
A small town with an international presence, Austin is home to Fortune 500 companyHormel Foods, which owns Skippy, Spam and 30+ food brands. Mayo Clinic Austin, another leading employer, provides 900 job opportunities for medical professionals as well as excellent health care for Austin residents.
Bonus fact:The Hormel Institute is recognized as one of the leading cancer research centers in the world.
Perhaps the most famous Spencer resident isDewey, the abandoned kitten who transformed a sleepy library and inspired the classic American town, a story told in the nonfiction book “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.” On the more pragmatic side, the city scores high in terms of employment as the headquarters of Arnold Motor Supply, one of the nation’s largest chains of automotive parts stores.
Separated by the North Dakota–Minnesota state line, Wahpeton and its twin city,Breckenridge, MN,sit at the junction of two rivers. Large manufacturing plants such as Woodcraft Industries, WCCO Belting, and Giants Snacks provide steady jobs for the locals. Wahpeton also presents a housing opportunity for bargain hunters: Its median household income ($57,857) is on par with the state of North Dakota, but the median housing price is less than half of the state median.
Bonus fact: The renowned Bois de Sioux Golf Course is the nation’s sole duffer’s paradise with half the course in one state and the other half in another.
Nestled in the heart of the scenic Minnesota River Valley, 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, New Ulm boasts many historical attractions and a rich German heritage. It also bills itself as the “Polka Capital of the Nation.” Local residents don’t earn quite as much as their big-city counterparts, but with a median housing price of $114,000, they don’t need a big paycheck to become homeowners.
Bonus fact:It’s home to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, packed with memorabilia from regional stars ranging from theSix Fat DutchmentoJudy GarlandtoPrince.
Life in the small northwestern Iowa town of Lexington is shaped by the giant Tyson beef processing plant, which is the city’s—and the county’s—top employer with 2,700 workers. Local unemployment is only 2.7%, and the median household income stands at $50,479.
Blessed with the fertile land and abundant natural resources of the High Plains, Dumas, in northwest Texas, is poised for agribusiness expansion. The thriving farming, ranching, and oil industries contribute to an unemployment rate significantly lower than the national average. The Swift & Co. beef processing plant is the area’s leading employer with 2,600 workers, followed by Valero refinery with 500 workers.
Bonus fact: The 1920s smash hit “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas” was written about the place. You can purportedly hear its distant strains from certain local bars near closing time.
* Criteria and data source:
1. Population between 10,000 and 50,000 (Nielsen Demographics Pop-Facts 2015)
2. Households spend no more than 28% of their annual income on housing costs (Nielsen Demographics Pop-Facts 2015, realtor.com data)
3. Unemployment rate is in the top 20th percentile, lowest among all Census-designated metropolitan and micropolitan areas (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015 August estimate data)
4. Crime rate is less than the national average (realtor.com analysis of FBI crime statistics)
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