Best Cities for Young Families in Northern California

Spencer TierneyOctober 27, 2014
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best cities for families in Northern California

San Francisco may be booming when it comes to the tech industry, but for young families looking to put down roots, heading east is a smarter move.

NerdWallet crunched the numbers to find the best places in Northern California for your family when you make one of the biggest decisions of your life — where to raise your kids.

Of the top 20 cities we’ve found for young families in Northern California, nearly half are east of San Francisco. The East Bay is known for sun, schools and access to San Francisco culture and jobs, as well as Silicon Valley tech companies.

NerdWallet's analysis

We isolated three factors that matter most to families no matter where they decide to live:

Public school excellence. For school quality, we gathered GreatSchools data, which compares students’ test scores and other statewide data and ranks schools on a 1-10 scale, with 10 as the highest rating. Home affordability. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, we weighed median home values and monthly homeownership costs, including mortgage payments, real estate taxes, insurance costs, utilities, fuel and other bills. Places with more affordable homes had higher scores. Growth and prosperity. We assessed a place’s economy using census figures that detailed median annual household incomes from 2012 and long-term income growth since 1999.

Key takeaways

Go east. Families crave space and value, and with soaring housing prices in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, cities across the Bay Bridge offer strong schools and easy access to outdoor recreation. The 2012 median home values in Alameda and Contra Costa counties are $100,000 to $200,000 lower than those in the South Bay or on the peninsula.

Sacramento area also stands out. Five cities in the top 10 are close to the state’s capital — in Placer, El Dorado and Sacramento counties — and take advantage of opportunities at the American and Sacramento rivers.

Schools matter. Of our top five, all received excellent scores from GreatSchools.

Choices abound. Northern California is home to a vast array of cultural opportunities in a naturally beautiful setting. And it’s also a great place for busy young families who have a variety of choices, including cities and smaller towns set amid a transportation infrastructure that includes trains for commute options.

NerdWallet crunched the data for 138 places in Northern California — cities, towns and census-designated places. Only places with over 15,000 residents were analyzed. To see the full data set, click here.

Best cities for young families in Northern California

1. Clovis

Clovis, the top place in Best Cities for Young Families in California, again is a No. 1 pick. The combination of affordable homes, highly ranked schools and long-term growth make it a stable, thriving community in the San Joaquin Valley that is less than three hours from the coast and Yosemite. Clovis showcases its community atmosphere with farmers markets and a citywide rodeo every April. To accommodate students with different needs, the Clovis Unified School District promotes accelerated learning programs for gifted students from first grade to advanced placement courses.

2. Folsom

With places to play at Folsom Lake and the American River, Folsom boasts a great Sacramento County location with excellent public schools, many with high scores on the state’s most recent Academic Performance Index report. Housing is relatively affordable for middle- to upper middle-class families, with the 2012 median home value at $398,200. The annual American River Salmon Festival and Folsom’s trails around the lake help connect the suburban community to nature.

3. Dublin

This low-key suburban community in the Bay Area’s east hills is on the BART train line, which means residents have direct access to jobs in San Francisco. For those who work in Silicon Valley, Dublin is located at the intersection of two major interstates. The highly ranked schools here invest in more than just academics. Part of Dublin High’s $150 million project to improve its campus included a performing arts center that opened in June. For recreation, Dublin residents can hike, bike or ride their horse on nearby trails, including those in Dublin Hills Regional Park.

4. Ridgecrest

As the place with the most affordable housing in our top 10 cities, Ridgecrest had a 2012 median home value of $184,200, which is considerably lower than the state median of $383,900. This Kern County city, with light traffic and its proximity to Death Valley and the mountains, is a peaceful place for outdoor lovers. Schools such as Ridgecrest Elementary School take pride in promoting quality learning environments.

5. Rocklin

This quiet middle- to upper-middle-class suburb sits in rolling hills close to Folsom Lake and within an hour’s drive to downtown Sacramento. The community’s schools, in the Rocklin Unified School District, include several California Distinguished Schools — Breen Elementary, Valley View Elementary and more. Affordable housing also makes this area attractive for families, with the median home values in 2012 at $333,200, and residents have seen long-term stability in income growth, too.

 6. Orinda

Orinda, Lafayette and Moraga together make the portmanteau “Lamorinda,” a suburban trio of communities known for strong school districts and short train commutes to bustling San Francisco Bay Area technology hubs. Orinda is home to the California Shakespeare Theater, know as “Cal Shakes,” where professional shows take place year round. This area, behind the Berkeley Hills, is home to the East Bay’s warmer weather — a balance of sun and mild temperatures.

7. El Dorado Hills

Nestled in the foothills northeast of Sacramento, El Dorado Hills focuses on serving families and providing a good education for students. The El Dorado Community Services District organizes holiday events throughout the year for kids, and manages the “hills” of the community, which includes over 100 acres of parks. This quiet bedroom community offers a respite from the metropolitan hustle in a place where families can relax with recreational activities from golfing to sailing on nearby Folsom Lake.

8. Roseville

Known for its shopping malls in the Sacramento area, Roseville sports a lively downtown. In May, June and July, families have the chance to see live bands and visit farmers markets in one place at Downtown Tuesday Nights. Roads, sidewalks and parking lots in Roseville accommodate traffic and also offer plenty of parking, and the city continues to improve its streets with new sidewalks that reflect the growth in the region. In education, several high schools in Roseville’s school district have increased the number of students in AP courses in recent years.

9. Granite Bay

At once rural and upscale, this quiet residential city is close to Folsom Lake and Roseville’s Westfield mall. With the highest 2012 median annual household income from our list, Granite Bay is a stable community with strong schools. Within the local school district, several teachers have been honored for making a difference and the district also received recognition for having a high 2013 API score. The Granite Bay Community Association provides a range of activities for residents with events and activities ranging from farmers markets to gardening club meetings.

10. Walnut Creek

Walnut Creek, on the other side of the East Bay hills, is a place where open spaces — from bike trails to golf courses — welcome residents who are just a BART ride from San Francisco. Due to rent and population increases throughout the Bay Area, this affluent community recently witnessed a surge of young professionals to the downtown area, where new apartment buildings offer options in an urban setting. For families, this stable community boasts excellent public schools and a variety of retail stores at Broadway Plaza. Check out this interactive map of our top 10 cities for young families in Northern California. Click on each icon to see the place’s overall score.

Best cities for young families in Northern California

Scroll right to see all data categories.

Rank

City

GreatSchools rating

Median home values in 2012

Median monthly homeownership costs in 2012

Median household income in 2012

Median income growth from 1999 to 2012

Overall score

1

Clovis

8

259,000

1,981

63,983

51.32%

68.07

2

Folsom

9

398,200

2,554

95,623

30.68%

66.59

3

Dublin

9

574,200

3,162

112,679

45.80%

65.27

4

Ridgecrest

7

184,200

1,338

60,885

35.39%

64.23

5

Rocklin

9

333,200

2,430

77,287

19.39%

63.98

6

Orinda

10

983,600

3,888

162,267

37.94%

63.03

7

El Dorado Hills

9

479,900

3,217

117,599

25.80%

62.86

8

Roseville

8

326,700

2,336

74,579

30.00%

61.57

9

Granite Bay

9

622,500

3,523

126,953

28.54%

60.34

10

Walnut Creek

9

587,200

2,910

83,419

31.91%

60.30

11

Martinez

8

424,100

2,356

80,928

28.44%

60.17

12

Benicia

8

439,000

2,605

88,691

31.17%

59.95

13

Pacific Grove

9

683,800

2,567

68,213

35.74%

59.73

14

Sanger

7

162,300

1,508

40,761

27.09%

59.67

15

Yuba City

6

198,900

1,679

50,013

52.21%

59.43

16

Pleasanton

9

723,300

3,325

118,129

30.01%

59.08

17

Danville

10

842,000

3,609

131,833

15.58%

58.92

18

Arcata

7

340,500

1,589

32,097

43.84%

58.79

19

San Ramon

9

704,000

3,568

124,518

29.90%

58.72

20

Oroville

5

169,300

1,341

36,709

67.54%

58.62

21

Albany

9

626,000

3,004

73,728

34.25%

58.55

22

Davis

8

538,000

2,570

61,535

44.95%

58.40

23

Livermore

8

490,800

2,877

97,379

29.28%

58.10

24

Moraga

10

895,000

3,587

119,416

21.75%

58.08

25

Orangevale

7

270,600

1,970

67,244

25.99%

57.92

26

Lincoln

6

337,600

2,328

72,921

60.10%

57.63

27

Redding

7

240,200

1,719

43,667

27.70%

57.62

28

Susanville

6

172,600

1,489

48,588

36.20%

57.40

29

Atwater

7

139,300

1,466

41,317

10.64%

56.87

30

Fremont

8

605,100

2,841

99,169

29.50%

56.61

31

Oakdale

6

222,200

1,845

55,656

41.48%

56.45

32

Arroyo Grande

8

489,200

2,562

62,976

30.56%

56.38

33

Orcutt

7

346,700

2,128

68,187

28.05%

56.28

34

Cameron Park

7

343,800

2,318

76,570

28.31%

56.24

35

Castro Valley

8

561,500

2,687

82,656

27.41%

55.95

36

West Sacramento

5

253,300

2,082

54,179

70.81%

55.65

37

Chico

6

276,900

1,766

42,896

46.11%

55.54

38

Eureka

6

269,600

1,563

36,525

41.30%

55.09

39

Foster City

9

847,900

3,292

114,720

20.40%

54.74

40

Alameda

8

628,600

2,977

77,249

37.25%

54.68

41

San Carlos

9

927,900

3,758

120,112

35.78%

54.61

42

Paso Robles

6

369,800

2,074

57,977

47.84%

54.26

43

Paradise

6

223,200

1,421

40,702

27.74%

54.26

44

Brentwood

7

360,800

2,888

88,306

27.61%

53.90

45

Galt

6

206,500

1,858

56,976

26.47%

53.61

46

Selma

6

179,700

1,488

41,817

20.46%

53.20

47

Fair Oaks

7

381,100

2,261

73,616

16.39%

53.08

48

Pleasant Hill

8

532,700

2,696

76,750

13.72%

52.84

49

Reedley

5

180,000

1,438

47,733

37.63%

52.77

50

Petaluma

7

442,700

2,520

76,909

24.69%

52.70

51

Atascadero

6

394,400

2,109

66,603

36.69%

52.24

52

Vacaville

6

292,000

2,185

73,024

26.63%

52.12

53

American Canyon

5

337,900

2,667

83,609

60.46%

51.97

54

Mountain View

8

773,200

3,264

92,987

34.06%

51.67

55

Pacifica

7

617,600

2,919

96,014

33.84%

51.53

56

Chowchilla

5

155,700

1,501

41,373

34.64%

51.49

57

Fairfield

6

288,200

2,374

66,363

29.74%

51.05

58

Lodi

6

249,300

1,941

49,034

23.92%

51.00

59

Millbrae

9

904,400

3,485

86,364

26.26%

50.81

60

McKinleyville

6

294,800

1,789

46,801

23.01%

50.65

61

Milpitas

7

538,400

2,792

99,447

17.79%

50.56

62

Oakley

6

240,000

2,328

75,825

15.61%

50.17

63

Turlock

5

214,600

1,844

52,974

35.66%

50.06

64

San Bruno

7

607,200

2,639

78,521

26.48%

49.80

65

Windsor

6

390,700

2,398

79,076

25.02%

49.57

66

Fresno

5

195,900

1,617

42,276

31.15%

49.52

67

Manteca

5

225,700

2,027

62,411

33.71%

49.47

68

Merced

5

150,200

1,487

38,253

25.71%

49.43

69

Sacramento

5

244,100

1,873

50,661

36.74%

49.37

70

Rosamond

4

140,700

1,567

58,933

39.30%

49.30

71

Sunnyvale

7

703,800

2,963

96,884

30.20%

49.15

72

Novato

7

588,700

2,868

79,664

25.55%

48.75

73

Berkeley

7

707,700

2,904

63,505

42.76%

48.40

74

South Lake Tahoe

6

334,500

1,877

41,445

19.41%

48.13

75

Dixon

5

292,700

2,235

72,406

32.92%

48.09

76

Newark

6

450,600

2,544

84,922

22.45%

47.84

77

Nipomo

6

393,800

2,283

61,184

22.73%

47.71

78

Madera

4

165,700

1,471

43,240

39.34%

47.69

79

Modesto

5

186,000

1,761

49,205

21.81%

47.66

80

San Mateo

7

719,700

3,215

87,662

35.37%

47.54

81

Santa Rosa

6

377,000

2,265

60,525

18.84%

47.20

82

Campbell

7

666,400

3,025

84,692

26.00%

47.20

83

Truckee

7

471,700

2,696

65,397

11.13%

47.08

84

Suisun City

5

241,600

2,110

72,543

19.22%

46.78

85

Ceres

5

167,300

1,749

47,510

16.63%

46.76

86

Belmont

8

887,400

3,780

103,083

27.41%

46.53

87

Rohnert Park

6

322,000

2,130

56,625

9.02%

46.38

88

Lompoc

5

256,700

1,897

47,177

25.51%

46.26

89

Santa Clara

6

618,600

2,920

92,198

32.72%

45.85

90

Santa Cruz

7

666,300

2,779

62,755

24.01%

45.75

91

San Lorenzo

5

358,300

2,168

70,719

25.90%

45.68

92

Gilroy

6

454,800

2,976

78,842

26.89%

45.61

93

Stockton

4

178,900

1,741

47,246

33.26%

45.11

94

Tracy

5

272,600

2,448

75,259

19.85%

44.78

95

Santa Maria

4

267,200

1,926

51,675

41.42%

44.78

96

North Highlands

4

153,900

1,456

40,364

25.05%

44.63

97

Soledad

5

213,300

2,100

50,111

17.63%

44.51

98

Riverbank

4

188,900

1,953

58,346

30.62%

44.41

99

Greenfield

3

214,400

1,622

55,814

48.43%

44.33

100

Hercules

5

386,500

2,709

92,140

22.53%

43.81

101

Dinuba

4

159,500

1,300

39,228

17.64%

43.72

102

Carmichael

5

299,000

1,973

53,947

14.68%

43.56

103

Citrus Heights

4

204,100

1,779

54,236

23.66%

43.20

104

Ukiah

4

306,000

1,843

44,958

37.46%

43.01

105

El Cerrito

5

584,700

2,743

79,945

39.63%

42.54

106

Napa

5

430,300

2,419

62,505

27.16%

42.42

107

San Rafael

7

719,600

3,273

73,202

20.02%

42.37

108

Daly City

6

566,400

2,716

72,762

16.77%

42.36

109

Concord

5

373,900

2,358

65,850

18.44%

42.24

110

Marina

5

375,600

2,401

54,038

25.67%

42.20

111

Patterson

4

174,400

1,940

56,976

19.25%

42.16

112

San Jose

6

575,100

2,918

81,349

15.81%

41.82

113

Los Banos

4

156,100

1,668

49,131

12.45%

41.70

114

South San Francisco

6

603,700

2,863

73,568

19.11%

41.49

115

Woodland

4

271,900

1,938

55,139

24.05%

41.34

116

Seaside

4

407,500

2,340

59,057

42.67%

41.15

117

Palmdale

4

187,200

1,924

54,277

15.63%

40.97

118

Vallejo

4

241,900

2,131

60,764

21.46%

40.83

119

Hollister

5

294,800

2,371

60,750

8.28%

40.79

120

Lathrop

4

199,400

2,000

62,255

13.11%

40.68

121

Morgan Hill

6

600,500

3,292

94,300

15.06%

40.56

122

Live Oak

5

526,000

2,658

62,338

30.01%

40.03

123

Pinole

4

354,200

2,403

77,476

24.45%

39.87

124

Union City

5

493,300

2,769

83,066

15.49%

39.17

125

Pittsburg

4

237,200

2,147

58,063

14.85%

39.12

126

Monterey

5

659,900

2,388

63,072

28.43%

39.02

127

Lancaster

3

174,900

1,795

51,719

25.75%

38.77

128

Salinas

4

279,000

2,085

50,587

15.71%

38.12

129

Antioch

4

251,900

2,318

65,494

8.51%

37.39

130

San Leandro

4

386,800

2,346

62,195

21.76%

37.38

131

Clearlake

2

99,900

1,217

25,916

30.47%

36.45

132

Redwood City

6

770,500

3,316

77,488

16.09%

35.91

133

San Pablo

3

206,100

1,912

44,155

18.75%

35.27

134

Richmond

3

303,200

2,167

54,657

23.63%

34.38

135

Hayward

3

336,300

2,316

62,313

21.76%

33.42

136

Watsonville

3

333,500

2,223

46,603

23.89%

32.72

137

Bay Point

3

178,600

1,791

44,966

0.03%

32.54

138

East Palo Alto

3

377,900

2,630

47,950

6.54%

26.15

Methodology

The score for each place is from the following data:

Public schools made up 40% of the score. We used data from GreatSchools, which the nonprofit calculates by averaging the overall rating for each school in the city.

Median home values were 15% of the score. The information is from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Monthly homeowner costs were 15% of the score. The figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Median annual household incomes were 15% of the score. We used data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Income change from 1999 to 2012 was 15% of the score. The information is from the U.S. Census Bureau.

NerdWallet crunched the data for 138 places — cities, towns and census-designated places — in Northern California, from the Oregon border to San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast and across the state to the east. Only places with a population of over 15,000 residents were analyzed. We excluded areas that lacked GreatSchools ratings, median household incomes from 1999 or median home values from 2012.


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