To much of the rest of the country, California is a postcard, an idealized place pieced together by movies, TV shows, songs, books and magazines.
The truth is that the most populous U.S. state is also a great place to live, with a lot to offer young families. It has some of the most highly regarded public schools in the country, and although some locations feature jaw-dropping home sales prices, it’s not difficult to find places that are family-friendly.
» COMPARE: Best places for young families in California
To find the best places, NerdWallet analyzed 334 locations in the Golden State — cities, towns and census-designated places — using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and SchoolDigger.com to find the places that offer the best combination of affordability (based on local incomes, housing and other costs), quality schools, future growth and prosperity, and family-friendliness. Only places with over 20,000 residents were analyzed. To see the data, click here.
Top places are clustered in five areas. Of the top 10 places, six are in the three metro areas anchored by San Francisco, San Jose and the state capital of Sacramento, while the remaining four are in the Los Angeles metro area and the fast-growing region to the east known as the Inland Empire. These five metros are also among the state’s most populous places.
Smaller suburbs score big. Eight of the top 10 places are under 75,000 residents. The highest-scoring city over 300,000 in population? Bakersfield, with 364,000 residents, ranked 124th overall.
The top places tend to be on the pricier side. Eight of the top 10 places have median home values that are more than the median in the analysis. But the most expensive places don’t score well in the overall analysis: Of the cities with the highest home values, none ranks higher than 103rd out of 334 places.
Tips on relocating
- Consider financial options, such as a good credit card, to cover expenses while in transition.
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Best places for young families in California
1. San Ramon
Home to the headquarters of global energy giant Chevron, the city of San Ramon sits on the east side of the San Francisco Bay in the region known, appropriately, as the East Bay. The city of 75,000 scores well for family-friendliness, with 44.% of households consisting of married-couple families with at least one child younger than 18 (second-highest in the analysis) and just 2.4% of families with a child under age 5 living in poverty (tied for 300th out of 334). Schools are also strong, with a score of 93.41 out of 100, good for 14th-highest in our analysis. On the other hand, San Ramon was one of the least affordable of all of the places analyzed, with a median home value that ranks as the 34th highest and median selected monthly owner costs that are the 18th highest on the list.
This city, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is home to Apple — the world’s most valuable company. Incomes here are among the highest in California: The median family income is $166,465, the highest among the top 10 places and seventh-highest in our analysis. The city is also the least affordable city for housing in the top 10, with the only median home value in excess of $1 million. Meanwhile, public schools in the city of 60,000 are tied for second-highest among all the places in our analysis, with a SchoolDigger score of 97.81. It also scores highly for family-friendliness, with 44.1% of households consisting of married-couple families with at least one child under age 18 (highest in our analysis) and virtually no families with a child younger than 5 living in poverty.
The site of the state prison made famous by singer Johnny Cash, Folsom sits about 20 miles northeast of the state capital. Although it’s not superlative in any one area, the city of 74,000 ranks well for median family income, $119,032, good for 34th in our analysis. Public schools there are well-regarded, with a SchoolDigger score of 83.40 (38th). Folsom is also one of the more affordable cities in the top 10, with a median home value that ranks 138th out of 334 and with median selected monthly owner costs that come in at 125th.
Sitting in the shadows of two of Southern California’s highest peaks — San Gorgonio Mountain and Mount San Jacinto — the city of Beaumont is on U.S. Interstate 10 about 80 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Since 2000, the city has more than tripled in population to about 41,000 residents as transplants from the west fled higher costs. Indeed, the median home value in Beaumont is at least $200,000 less than in Los Angeles. Median home value (ranked 266th in our analysis) and relatively low monthly owner costs make Beaumont the most affordable place in the top 10.
5. Rancho Santa Margarita
Incorporated on Jan. 1, 2000, Rancho Santa Margarita is one of the newer cities in California and one of two cities in the top 10 in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. The city of 49,000 scores well for family-friendliness, with 34% of households consisting of married-couple families with at least one child younger than 18 (tied for 15th in our analysis) and 3.6% of families with a child under age 5 living in poverty (tied for 283rd).
6. El Dorado Hills
El Dorado Hills is an unincorporated area of El Dorado County that sits to the east of Sacramento and Folsom and includes several planned communities. The area is among the more affluent in our analysis, with a median family income of $129,686 — the 23rd highest. Schools there scored 88.38 on SchoolDigger, good for 27th in our analysis. El Dorado Hills also scores well for family-friendliness, with 34.4% of households consisting of married-couple families with at least one child younger than 18 (tied for 12th in our analysis) and 6.0% of families with a child under age 5 living in poverty (tied for 246th).
Named after John C. Frémont, the soldier, politician and unsuccessful presidential candidate who played a key role in 19th century California history, the East Bay city of Fremont sits at the southeast end of the San Francisco Bay. It has 225,000 residents, more than twice the population of any other place in the top 10. The city is tied for sixth in our analysis for percentage of households with married-couple families that have children younger than 18, with 36.7%.
8. Aliso Viejo
Originally a planned community in Orange County, Aliso Viejo was incorporated in 2001 and has grown into a city of about 50,000. The city scores well on growth and prosperity, with a median family income of $121,309, 31st in our analysis, and 59% income growth from 1999 to 2015, good for a tie for 85th.
Founded in the 1800s at the crossroads of two major stagecoach routes, Dublin today sits at the interchange of two major interstates, I-580 and I-680. The city of 52,000 has the 21st-highest median family income in our analysis, $133,080. It’s a good thing, too, because it also has the 54th-highest median home value, and is tied for 30th for monthly homeowner costs.
The southernmost city in the top 10, Temecula has nearly doubled in population since 2000 to about 107,000 people. The city is among the more affordable in the top 10, with a median home value that puts it at 194th out of 334 places and selected monthly owner costs that rank at 160th. It also scores well on family-friendliness metrics, ranking 22nd for percentage of households consisting of married-couple families with at least one child younger than 18 (33.2%) and tied for 200th with 9.6% of families with a child under 5 living in poverty.
Best places for young families in California data
NerdWallet analyzed 334 places in California with populations above 20,000. With the exception of school-quality scores from SchoolDigger, all data were five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Our methodology focused on these factors:
Home affordability, 30% of the total score, was calculated by averaging index scores for median home value and median selected monthly owner costs. The lower the costs, the higher the score.
Educational quality. Using ratings from SchoolDigger for 2017, every place scored from 1 to 100 for the quality of schools, which was 20% of the total score.
Growth and prosperity are 20% of the total score. The two metrics involved were growth in family income from 1999 to 2015, and median family income in 2015. Both were weighted equally and positively.
Family-friendliness, which is 30% of the total score, is the percentage of married-couple households with at least one child younger than 18 and the percentage of families living in poverty with at least one child younger than 5. (The percentage of families with at least one young child was 70% of this score, while the percentage of families in poverty was 30% of the score.)