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The Best Towns in Iowa for Young Families

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When young families in Iowa buy a home, they consider more than property taxes. They look at what a community has to offer in its job market and its schools. With that in mind, we asked the following questions as we analyzed cities and towns across the state to identify the best for young families:

  1. Does the town have good public schools? We measured schools’ academic performance with ratings from GreatSchools. This non-profit compares a given school’s standardized test scores to the state average to obtain a rating on a 1 to 10 scale (10 representing the highest score). Higher ratings led to a higher overall score.
  2. Can you afford to live there? We looked at both median home values in each town and ongoing monthly home costs, including mortgage payments, real estate taxes, insurance costs, utilities, fuel and other bills. Lower costs led to a higher overall score.
  3. Is the town growing and prospering? We assessed a town’s economy by looking at average household income and income growth over the last decade. Higher income and greater growth led to a higher overall score.

Check out our cost of living calculator here as well as our mortgage rates calculator for more information. 

The Best Towns for Young Families

1. Ankeny

Ankeny is a suburb of Des Moines, and it is growing quickly. The unemployment rate is exceedingly low, at 3.4 percent as of July 2013 – lower than the state rate of 4.9 percent and less than half that of the nation’s unemployment rate. The schools here are excellent, too, with a graduation rate of 92.8 percent – nearly three points higher than the state average.

2. Waukee

Waukee, just outside Des Moines, is blowing up. The long-awaited Alice’s Road Corridor has begun construction, and, when the road is finished, 1,300 acres of land will be available for development, both for business and recreation. According to city officials, the road could bring in over 25,000 jobs. Beyond industry, too, things are looking up, with the Waukee Community School District graduating 98 percent of its high school seniors in 2012.

3. Pella

Pella is about 40 miles from Des Moines, and it has a beautiful downtown district with restaurants and fantastic bakeries like Jaarsma, which bakes delicious Dutch treats – true to the heritage of many folks who live here. The schools are great, too, with students averaging in the 90th percentile on standardized tests.

4. Urbandale

Urbandale is a suburb of Des Moines in Polk and Dallas Counties. The unemployment rate is low here, at just 3.6 percent – less than half that of the nation overall. Also in town are 900 acres of parkland, including 48 parks and 38 miles of trails. A teacher at Urbandale Middle School, Jon Parrott, was recently named a finalist for the 2014 Iowa Teacher of the Year.

5. Johnston

Johnston is a suburb of Des Moines in Polk County, and it has seen tremendous growth in recent years. The city population doubled in size from 2000 to 2010, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in the state. The school district is also excellent. It is a strong supporter of both the community and its students – the Johnston Community School District is the fourth-largest employer in town and includes a National Blue Ribbon School in its ranks.

6. Bettendorf

Bettendorf is one of the Quad Cities, a group of two cities in eastern Iowa and two in Illinois, including Moline, East Moline and Rock Island. The labor force of 530,000 people have built a $16.5 billion economy that is home to several Fortune 500 companies. Included in its ranks are John Deere, Alcoa and 3M.

7. North Liberty

North Liberty is conveniently located between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and it is the second-fastest growing city in the state. The community’s population grew by nearly 150 percent last decade, thanks in part to the strong local economy. Big employers in the area include the University of Iowa and Procter & Gamble.

8. Clive

Clive is a 15,447-person city near Des Moines. One of its hallmarks is its Greenbelt Park, over 290 acres of green space and 11 miles of trails that stretch nearly as long as the community. Residents in Clive demand the highest median income on this list, at $101,875. Top employers in the community include the American Cancer Society and Wells Fargo.

9. Coralville

Coralville is a suburb of Iowa City in Johnson County. Students here – and in Iowa in general – do exceedingly well. On the ACT, students in the Iowa City Community School District scored an average 25.5, and the state overall posted a 22.1. Meanwhile, students across the nation earned a mean score of 20.9.

10. Altoona

Altoona is just outside Des Moines in Polk County. Facebook recently announced that it would build a data center in the community, which is expected to add over 2,500 jobs and $450 million in high-tech and construction salaries. Beyond industry, there is a lot to enjoy in Altoona. The city includes 18 miles of bike trails and a 68-acre athletic complex.

Rank City Nearest big city GreatSchools rating Median home value Monthly owner costs Median household income Growth,’99-’11 Overall score for young families
1 Ankeny Des Moines 10 $173,500 $1,511 $72,703 31.8% 75.9
2 Waukee Des Moines 9 $191,200 $1,634 $80,863 39.4% 75.0
3 Pella Des Moines 8 $163,900 $1,230 $60,184 32.3% 68.1
4 Urbandale Des Moines 7 $193,100 $1,611 $83,401 39.6% 67.4
5 Johnston Des Moines 9 $237,600 $1,839 $93,042 22.3% 67.3
6 Bettendorf Davenport 8 $166,600 $1,382 $69,239 27.7% 66.4
7 North Liberty Iowa City, Cedar Rapids 6 $154,100 $1,359 $61,304 44.2% 64.3
8 Clive Des Moines 6 $229,700 $1,752 $101,875 37.4% 63.6
9 Coralville Iowa City 7 $186,100 $1,523 $53,273 39.9% 63.4
10 Altoona Des Moines 7 $162,900 $1,390 $65,781 31.1% 63.2
11 West Des Moines Des Moines 8 $183,000 $1,534 $67,179 24.1% 63.1
12 Marion Cedar Rapids 8 $143,100 $1,305 $58,551 20.5% 62.7
13 Spencer 6 $105,300 $931 $43,208 31.1% 60.0
14 Carroll 8 $119,000 $1,122 $45,316 13.7% 59.6
15 Indianola Des Moines 7 $144,900 $1,300 $53,162 21.6% 58.2


The overall score for each city was derived from the following measures:

  1. GreatSchools city rating. GreatSchools city ratings are calculated by averaging the weighted overall rating for each school in the city (weighted by the number of students enrolled at the school)
  2. Median home value from the U.S. Census (2011 ACS, data set DP04, half-weighted)
  3. Monthly homeowner costs from the U.S. Census (2011 ACS, data set DP04, half-weighted)
  4. Median household income from the U.S. Census (2011 ACS, data set DP03, half-weighted)
  5. Income change between 1999 and 2011 from the U.S. Census (data sets P053 and DP03, half-weighted)

38 Iowa cities and towns designated as places by the U.S. Census were included in this analysis. Only places with a population greater than 10,000 were considered.

More from NerdWallet

  • Mr N

    How does Carroll outscore Ames?? Or Altoona for that matter?

    • NerdWallet

      Hi Mr N,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Ames came close — it ranked #17 on our list. It would’ve ranked higher, but homes were slightly more costly there than they were in Carroll.

      • John Hascall

        Ames’ median income is no doubt artificially skewed by the ISU students.

        • NerdWallet

          Hi John,

          You’re likely right. When the Census collects data, it includes college students in a given community if they live there most of the year, according to Pew:

          Ames would then rank even higher were only non-student residents included.

          • John Hascall

            Exactly, any methodology that puts Ankeny ahead of Ames as a place to live is deeply, deeply suspect.

          • Mr N

            The young families aspect is what the article is going for and having lived in both Ames and Ankeny while raising a young family I have to agree with the placement of Ankeny above Ames. Ames should still be higher and perhaps Ankeny lower but head to head is no contest.

            Ankeny’s parks are better equipped and more available, it has 2 first-class pools, library is a far superior facility with more programming, youth sports facilities (Prairie Ridge sports complex) and programming far outpaces Ames parks and rec.

            The schools are demographically different and while Ames has more award winners (National Merit, perfect ACT, etc…) that is a product of the university setting which you attempt to discount in earlier arguments. Ankeny students actually graduate with more college credit than Ames students. School facilities are far ahead of Ames’ though that gap will close in a few years, but at time of ranking its a very clear statement. Layout of commerce is far more friendly and more plentiful. Ames’ score (~58) is at best 77% of Ankeny’s score (~76).

            Ames could be the better place for empty-nesters, retirees, or school board members defending their turf, but that is not what this survey is about.

          • John Hascall

            You’re wrong about just about everything.

            Ankeny’s Prairie Ridge and Ames’ Hunziker Sports facilities are roughly comparable. Plus Ames has a top-rate skating facility. And a skate park. And a new aquatics center, with another on the way.

            Ames is building an essentially brand new library, and has the ISU library to boot (which shames any public library in the state).

            Ames is a far more diverse city. And it goes without saying, more educated.

            Cultural offerings (music, dance, theater, art, museums, food, etc) in Ames far outpace anything offered in Ankeny.

            Ames schools outpace Ankeny’s by a wide margin in the Belin-Blank Iowa AP Index (#4 vs #15). Ames is #2 on the Newsweek best Iowa high schools list, Ankeny is #9; Ames is #3 on the US News list, Ankeny is #10. Ames High has a whole hallway of Presidential Scholars, including another one this year, has Ankeny ever had one? The music program at Ames far outshines Ankeny’s (does Ankeny even have an Orchestra?) Ames was the first school in Iowa to offer Arabic as a foreign language (and as far as I know only DSM Lincoln has joined them). And so on…

            Ames has a far better public transportation system.

            You are, however, correct that if you want to shop in a big box chain, Ankeny has that in spades. Oh, and my parents live there, so I guess that’s 2 in the plus column for Ankeny.

            PS, I haven’t been on the school board for several years.

          • Mr N

            Hunziker is on the fringe of Ames with essentially no way to get there other than car. It is roughly 7 miles away from where the growth in Ames is located. Prairie Ridge is centrally located with abundant bike and walking paths headed there.

            Ankeny has a skate park. It also already has 2 completed water park facilities, 1 more than Ames. “On the way”, doesn’t cut it.

            Ames library is located in an old shopping store, “on the way” doesn’t cut it. ISU library isn’t accessible to YOUNG FAMILIES, where the content of this article is directed at.

            I gave the concession to Ames high school and you have added many good points. But those high achieving students are a transient population in town with their professor parents. A whole hallway full of presidential scholars is very incorrect. Ames has had roughly 15 total in the past 50 years. Their pictures hang in a case in the high school. I don’t know about orchestra or arabic, but again I have a young family and those things are 10 years away.

            Regardless, you keep talking HIGH SCHOOL and this is for YOUNG FAMILIES.

          • John Hascall

            I don’t know if you would call us a “YOUNG FAMILY”, but we have a 3rd grader. As it turns out, elementary-age children are in high school before you know it. And planning ahead never hurts.

            Yes, it would be nice if Hunziker was more centrally located, but it’s actually 7/10s of a mile closer to my house in Ames than Prarie Ridge is to my parents’ house in Ankeny. And judging from the space allotted to parking, both expect most of their visitors to arrive via motor vehicles.

            Ankeny is a perfectly fine wide-bread suburb full of middle managers who work in Des Moines, but think it a too scary and exotic location to live in. If that’s who you are, everyone’s probably happier with you living in Ankeny anyway (the exclusive ‘you’, btw).

            Ames is a community of scientists, engineers, and artists; with more to do in the evening after little Jacob and Emily’s soccer games than watch “NCIS: SVU: CSI: MNF: WTF” on the TV.

            PS, anyone can get an ISU library card, and they have quite a selection of materials for young children because of the young childhood and elementary educations programs.

          • Mr N

            Let’s be honest, Ames and Ankeny are both great places. For my family, Ankeny is better. For your family, Ames is better. I would never hesitate to move back to Ames either, but would have my children in the Gilbert schools because that’s the area of town I’d move back to.

            You do continue to drive home the author’s points though by calling Ankeny a preferred place to live over Des Moines. Regardless of the reason “exotic/scary” or “better schools, less crime, more opportunities” Ankeny is chosen and a commute to work is the small price to pay.

            And, for what its worth, we don’t have TVs in our home. Our family is active and on the go. Based on the numerous people I see while we are out, I assume the same is true regarding the TV viewing choices of my cohorts.

            Prairie Ridge has a massive number of parking spaces because of the vast number of softball, baseball, and soccer tournaments hosted there. The majority of Ames’ varsity softball/soccer lineups are a part of the Ankeny clubs by the way.

          • Brad Hinske

            LOL… L’Ames is a cesspool John. Get off your high horse buddy.

      • Mr N

        Looking at the results, I’m thinking growth rate was a big factor too.

  • thefrozenone

    10 suburbs
    2 micropolitan areas
    2 small, metropolitan population centers

    This type of analysis continues to perpetuate the notion that suburbs and non-urban environments are the only places suitable for families.

    • NerdWallet

      Hi thefrozenone,

      You’re correct to point out that most often these communities are outside a major metro area. Principally, this is because urban areas often cannot claim the same success at schools as the suburbs can.

      On average, 53 percent of urban high school students graduate — nearly 20 points lower than the suburban rate.