Affordable and Growing: Best Small Cities for Families

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Costly homes. Crowded neighborhoods. Underperforming schools. Some families would rather not put up with the challenges of big-city living. Smaller cities, especially ones near large urban centers, can offer the benefits of big cities, but with a family-friendly pace of life — and often more affordable housing.

NerdWallet’s analysis

What makes a smaller city an affordable and desirable place to live? To determine the best small cities for families, NerdWallet examined the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, GreatSchools and NeighborhoodScout for 245 places in the U.S. with populations from 25,000 to 100,000. Our analysis considers factors such as home value and affordability, median annual income, growth and factors that families consider including school quality and crime. To see our detailed methodology, click here.

If you are a homebuyer looking to narrow your choice of locations in a big or small city, try NerdWallet’s calculator to learn how much house you can afford.

Key takeaways

U.S. suburbs win. The majority of small cities on our top 10 list are suburbs of large cities, with most less than 30 miles from the nearest big city. Families in these places will find the convenience of higher-paying jobs and amenities without long commutes.

Texas dominates. Suburbs of Dallas, Houston and Austin won the majority of the top 10 spots on our list. Texas, which was more resilient economically than other states during the Great Recession, has experienced a real estate boom in recent years. What’s more, homes in many cities are relatively affordable when considering median annual household income.

Best small cities for families

1. Wylie, Texas

This city, about 30 miles northeast of Dallas, is between Lavon Lake and Lake Ray Hubbard, which means it offers access to outdoor activities for families. The city of 44,000 residents has the second-most affordable homes in the top 10, with a median home value of $154,600 in 2014. Of all 245 cities analyzed, Wylie has the seventh-highest median annual income growth, which jumped over 19% from 2009 to 2014. Schools in Wylie earned a rating of 9 out of 10 by reviewers at GreatSchools.org.

2. Spring Hill, Tennessee

Spring Hill, which is about 30 miles south of Nashville, has experienced growth as a manufacturing hub, particularly for cars. It boasts the ninth-highest population growth of the 245 cities, with a 37% jump in residents from 2009 to 2014. In Spring Hill, nearly 50% of families, the third-highest in the top 10, have children under age 18. That’s not the only reason this Tennessee town is family-friendly: Schools in Spring Hill are rated a strong 9 out of 10 by reviewers at GreatSchools.

3. Leander, Texas

Leander is a growing Austin suburb and the only one connected to the capital’s downtown via light rail. Leander has the most affordable houses of the top 10 cities, with the median home value in 2014 at just $154,500 — which is about half of the value of homes in Austin, according to Zillow. Of the 245 cities analyzed, Leander was No. 10 when it comes to the percentage of families (nearly 52%) with children younger than 18. This city’s population grew over 34% from 2009 to 2014, as the Austin area booms.

4. Bentonville, Arkansas

Home to the headquarters of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, Bentonville is one of two cities in the top 10 that’s not a suburb. Residents here experienced the highest income growth of all 245 cities analyzed, with median annual household incomes rising over 39% from 2009 to 2014. Schools in Bentonville scored a 9 out of 10 at GreatSchools.org, and homes here are the fourth-most affordable in the top 10 cities. The downtown boasts a free and extensive art museum funded by the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and there’s a Wal-Mart visitor center near the site of the original store.

5. Carmel, Indiana

The formerly sleepy suburb north of Indianapolis has become a growing, affluent Midwest city. Residents here earn the second-highest median annual household income ($107,916 in 2014) of the top cities. Incomes in Carmel have grown over 11% from 2009 to 2014, while the population jumped 25%. The city is home to many major employers, such as Geico, and over 40 corporate headquarters, according to the city. Carmel’s schools earned a GreatSchools rating of 9 out of 10.

6. Pearland, Texas

Once a small agricultural town known for pears and other crops, this south Houston suburb has the biggest population of all 245 cities analyzed, with over 97,000 residents as of 2014. Residents of Pearland have the fourth-highest median annual household income in the top 10 cities at $94,653 in 2014. Families will find highly rated schools and many families  — 45% of families here have young children. Pearland is also home to the famous Killen’s Barbecue, a favorite of Houston Texans player J.J. Watt.

7. League City, Texas

Located along Clear Lake and next to the Gulf Coast, League City is part of the Houston metro area, giving residents easy access to the nation’s fourth-biggest city by population. The city attracts families who love fishing and boating with four marinas, and the schools are a lure, too: League City’s schools were rated 8 out of 10 at GreatSchools. Residents here have the fifth-highest median annual household income among the top 10 at nearly $91,000 in 2014, and the median home value was $182,000 that year.

8. Allen, Texas

Allen, 27 miles north of Dallas, was home to nearly 90,000 residents in 2014, making it the second-largest city in the top 10. This affluent Texas city also has the third-highest median annual household income ($102,120 in 2014) of the top 10 cities. Allen’s schools received strong rankings, with a rating of 9 out of 10 at GreatSchools. Allen boasts nearly 50 miles of hiking and nature trails, along with almost 800 acres of developed parks — and over 200 restaurants.

9. Little Elm, Texas

There’s no doubt Little Elm is family-friendly: Nearly 54% of families in this city of about 30,000 residents have children under age 18, the highest percentage in the top 10 cities. It’s also growing quickly, with a 32% jump in population from 2009 to 2014. Located in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Little Elm — and its over 66 miles of shoreline on Lewisville Lake — is ideal for those who love being near the water. Homes in Little Elm are also the third-most affordable among the top cities, with a median home value of $159,200 in 2014.

10. Wildwood, Missouri

Although Wildwood, on the outskirts of St. Louis, has the highest median home value ($351,400 in 2014) in the top cities, residents also earn the highest median annual household income ($123,578). Residents in this affluent city, which was incorporated in 1995, enjoy 32 miles of trails, in addition to city, state and county parks. It’s also just a few miles from the Hidden Valley Ski Area.

Best small cities for families by region

Best cities in the Northeast
Shelton, Connecticut
Melrose, Massachusetts
Saratoga Springs, New York
Milford, Connecticut
Warwick, Rhode Island

Best cities in the Midwest
Carmel, Indiana
Wildwood, Missouri
Ankeny, Iowa
Woodbury, Minnesota
Dublin, Ohio

Best cities in the South
Wylie, Texas
Spring Hill, Tennessee
Leander, Texas
Bentonville, Arkansas
Pearland, Texas

Best cities in the West
Syracuse, Utah
Sammamish, Washington
Maricopa, Arizona
Lake Stevens, Washington
Kaysville, Utah

Best small cities for families

Scroll down and right through the table below to see the data for the top 100 small cities.

RankCityMedian annual household income in 2014Median home value in 2014Affordability index ratio Population growth 2009-14Median annual income growth 2009-14Percentage of families with children under age 18 in 2014Percentage of families with children under age 18 in poverty in 2014Crime riskGreatSchools ratingScore
1Wylie, Texas$83,594$154,6001.8527.48%19.16%49.10%4.90%Safe978.58
2Spring Hill, Tennessee$76,840$198,2002.5836.85%15.32%49.50%5.60%Most safe975.56
3Leander, Texas$75,983$154,5002.0334.36%11.20%51.80%4.40%Most safe674.52
4Bentonville, Arkansas$71,461$167,8002.3514.63%39.29%40.50%8.70%Less safe974.39
5Carmel, Indiana$107,916$297,6002.7625.23%11.61%40.20%3.70%Most safe973.92
6Pearland, Texas$94,653$179,6001.928.03%9.62%45.40%4.70%Less safe873.26
7League City, Texas$90,972$182,000233.83%8.74%39.90%4.10%Less safe872.99
8Allen, Texas$102,120$207,4002.0316.57%8.37%49.10%6.20%Safe972.79
9Little Elm, Texas$81,866$159,2001.9432.17%8.78%53.70%6.40%Safe672.40
10Wildwood, Missouri$123,578$351,4002.843.90%8.65%44.20%3.70%Most safe971.53
11Ankeny, Iowa$75,069$172,7002.323.91%5.44%36.10%5.30%Safe971.18
12Syracuse, Utah$86,158$248,2002.8823.23%9.81%56.10%3.70%Most safe670.88
13Sammamish, Washington$144,775$586,4004.0517.79%11.72%54.50%2.80%Most safe970.60
14Mansfield, Texas$89,774$182,7002.0439.11%4.00%45.50%6.10%Less safe770.58
15Woodbury, Minnesota$98,974$267,5002.717.59%9.78%40.90%2.90%Less safe970.52
16Parkland, Florida$126,905$473,0003.7310.64%20.17%51.60%4.60%Most safe970.12
17Dublin, Ohio$117,860$334,9002.8412.01%2.88%44.00%3.00%Safe969.97
18Kyle, Texas$75,182$147,2001.9630.26%9.76%54.40%5.20%Safe469.95
19Andover, Minnesota$93,314$234,7002.522.89%4.23%43.40%4.50%Most safe969.89
20Brentwood, Tennessee$138,395$487,9003.5312.11%7.84%47.50%3.10%Most safe1069.88
21Keller, Texas$114,266$285,2002.510.81%-1.26%43.90%3.90%Most safe869.36
22Wentzville, Missouri$72,095$187,3002.645.22%-4.23%46.60%4.80%Less safe869.29
23Mason, Ohio$83,466$214,6002.576.59%-6.81%40.20%2.70%Safe1069.09
24Ballwin, Missouri$82,685$237,0002.871.16%4.03%32.00%2.80%Most safe969.05
25Cedar Park, Texas$79,323$206,5002.65.39%15.46%43.10%6.10%Safe868.98
26Oviedo, Florida$82,259$222,9002.7113.57%5.26%40.90%5.20%Safe968.78
27Upper Arlington, Ohio$100,736$317,2003.156.94%11.24%32.90%4.60%Safe1068.71
28Marion, Iowa$62,532$146,8002.3511.72%12.95%32.10%5.10%Safe768.42
29Rockwall, Texas$86,627$188,5002.1819.08%5.75%40.00%6.90%Less safe868.31
30Friendswood, Texas$95,120$228,8002.4110.50%3.74%37.70%5.80%Most safe868.29
31Leawood, Kansas$133,702$388,1002.96.04%5.14%34.30%2.70%Safe868.18
32Maricopa, Arizona$65,214$134,6002.0635.13%-3.66%39.40%3.30%Less safe568.01
33North Royalton, Ohio$69,126$193,5002.83.72%11.58%25.00%3.60%Safe967.89
34Bartlett, Tennessee$80,240$172,9002.1521.63%7.41%33.80%5.90%Less safe767.88
35Lake Stevens, Washington$70,345$245,3003.49110.70%-2.15%42.10%9.20%Less safe867.88
36Lakeville, Minnesota$94,635$243,0002.577.57%4.22%46.10%6.80%Safe967.77
37Hilliard, Ohio$88,203$207,1002.359.86%8.47%41.20%5.50%Less safe867.60
38Bettendorf, Iowa$74,529$177,0002.375.56%15.63%31.50%6.10%Safe767.54
39Coppell, Texas$111,325$291,7002.621.66%2.31%46.00%4.00%Safe867.51
40Kaysville, Utah$86,982$268,9003.0915.66%10.95%50.70%8.30%Most safe867.35
41Lockport, Illinois$79,845$207,7002.65.16%6.42%37.40%4.80%Most safe767.29
42Southlake, Texas$170,742$530,3003.116.53%-6.15%50.00%3.00%Safe1066.91
43Elmhurst, Illinois$95,240$366,9003.85-1.24%13.14%36.10%3.60%Safe1066.63
44Lehi, Utah$74,200$242,9003.2724.72%9.50%60.80%7.30%Safe766.56
45O'Fallon, Missouri$78,634$192,3002.459.64%2.82%41.10%5.40%Safe766.45
46Madison, Alabama$92,965$231,7002.4913.15%12.55%35.80%8.90%Less safe1066.44
47Riverton, Utah$84,718$269,6003.188.38%7.80%52.90%2.70%Safe666.13
48Sugar Land, Texas$105,400$263,7002.54.06%5.75%37.70%5.20%Less safe866.08
49Beavercreek, Ohio$79,243$174,2002.29.97%3.48%27.30%4.80%Less safe866.07
50Rowlett, Texas$83,442$159,4001.914.80%2.83%41.40%5.20%Safe565.98
51Spanish Fork, Utah$63,376$191,8003.0322.13%5.18%55.80%6.40%Safe665.91
52Kirkland, Washington$90,611$424,7004.6976.98%15.68%27.00%5.10%Less safe865.85
53Burleson, Texas$69,088$126,3001.8319.64%11.17%41.40%9.50%Less safe665.76
54Owasso, Oklahoma$65,550$149,8002.2919.03%6.06%39.10%8.70%Less safe865.59
55San Ramon, California$129,062$722,7005.650.91%8.19%48.50%2.70%Safe1065.59
56Crystal Lake, Illinois$80,136$204,7002.55-1.21%9.22%38.00%6.10%Less safe865.43
57Herriman, Utah$78,141$285,9003.6654.22%2.13%68.20%6.20%Less safe665.37
58Lee's Summit, Missouri$78,186$188,2002.4114.88%4.80%36.90%7.50%Less safe865.29
59Bowie, Maryland$106,396$297,7002.85.16%6.52%32.60%2.50%Less safe665.21
60Savage, Minnesota$94,432$246,7002.613.20%3.96%44.90%5.50%Less safe865.17
61St. Charles, Illinois$83,997$277,8003.311.43%8.23%30.30%4.30%Safe964.86
62Shakopee, Minnesota$79,670$210,7002.6417.73%6.14%41.00%5.80%Less safe764.83
63Allen Park, Michigan$60,655$94,3001.554.41%7.72%28.90%7.90%Less safe664.83
64Westlake, Ohio$76,250$226,9002.986.07%11.67%25.80%5.40%Less safe864.69
65Germantown, Tennessee$110,169$282,1002.56-3.47%-5.61%30.90%3.50%Safe864.61
66Kirkwood, Missouri$77,420$242,6003.132.78%10.85%25.80%5.00%Less safe964.58
67Noblesville, Indiana$67,939$170,4002.5131.29%-0.40%38.10%9.30%Less safe864.50
68West Des Moines, Iowa$70,882$186,3002.639.20%15.33%31.10%7.90%Less safe864.49
69Royal Oak, Michigan$64,873$159,0002.451.85%9.71%18.60%6.20%Safe764.47
70Aliso Viejo, California$102,325$468,9004.5820.35%7.80%38.60%4.80%Most safe964.35
71Folsom, California$100,163$393,6003.9310.44%8.37%37.30%2.60%Less safe964.31
72Strongsville, Ohio$77,849$192,7002.484.24%-1.14%28.20%5.50%Safe864.20
73Deer Park, Texas$77,612$133,9001.738.72%0.96%36.50%9.50%Less safe864.00
74Westerville, Ohio$81,763$205,4002.513.14%3.81%28.80%4.40%Less safe763.93
75North Ridgeville, Ohio$66,746$157,8002.3611.58%5.79%27.40%9.30%Most safe663.84
76Shawnee, Kansas$74,992$195,3002.66.30%4.24%38.20%8.00%Safe863.80
77Schertz, Texas$72,463$168,3002.3223.45%1.92%37.60%9.60%Less safe763.65
78Gahanna, Ohio$73,583$186,8002.540.25%1.34%33.00%4.40%Less safe763.63
79Urbandale, Iowa$79,909$192,7002.413.58%3.08%32.10%6.90%Safe763.49
80Draper, Utah$94,852$372,6003.9312.03%8.66%48.80%4.80%Less safe963.45
81Cottage Grove, Minnesota$82,485$204,6002.486.62%0.90%41.50%6.80%Less safe763.44
82Brookfield, Wisconsin$91,485$282,3003.09-3.13%6.35%30.70%4.80%Least safe1063.31
83Eden Prairie, Minnesota$95,697$301,2003.151.33%2.63%35.20%6.10%Safe963.31
84South Jordan, Utah$91,228$324,1003.5518.69%0.63%43.80%3.20%Less safe763.22
85Missouri City, Texas$84,662$156,9001.85-5.00%2.53%35.50%7.90%Safe663.12
86Blaine, Minnesota$73,496$179,9002.458.12%0.36%35.60%5.30%Least safe763.00
87Cooper City, Florida$91,285$290,9003.198.67%0.64%39.90%5.50%Safe862.97
88Edina, Minnesota$86,968$393,1004.527.40%10.69%30.20%2.60%Less safe1062.77
89Shoreview, Minnesota$79,485$232,4002.921.80%0.63%27.40%6.40%Safe862.71
90Springville, Utah$59,375$195,3003.2911.94%10.03%51.90%6.20%Less safe662.70
91Rochester Hills, Michigan$80,806$215,2002.664.32%-1.87%30.90%6.30%Less safe862.59
92Novi, Michigan$80,299$235,6002.935.92%3.56%32.70%7.10%Safe862.55
93Batavia, Illinois$92,015$272,8002.96-4.60%-2.18%35.00%6.50%Safe962.54
94Hoover, Alabama$76,469$260,7003.4118.10%1.40%32.50%6.20%Least safe1062.30
95New Berlin, Wisconsin$74,203$236,7003.192.04%-4.54%24.60%3.50%Safe862.21
96Crown Point, Indiana$64,250$171,4002.6719.35%3.06%27.30%7.70%Less safe762.17
97Liberty, Missouri$65,106$164,7002.53-2.05%7.29%34.20%9.40%Less safe862.08
98Vestavia Hills, Alabama$81,352$339,0004.179.20%0.20%33.30%3.80%Safe1062.07
99Franklin, Tennessee$81,432$312,4003.8415.72%6.50%35.70%8.50%Safe1062.00
100Broomfield, Colorado$80,430$284,1003.5311.62%5.50%33.60%5.60%Less safe861.86

Methodology

We analyzed 245 U.S. cities with populations from 25,000 to 100,000. We analyzed incorporated cities only and excluded unincorporated census-designated places, towns and villages. We also excluded cities that didn’t have a rating from GreatSchools.org and places with over 10% of families with children living in poverty.

Income and affordability is 50% of the overall score. We created an affordability ratio to illustrate the relationship of the cost to own a home and income. To get this ratio, we divided median home value by median annual household income from the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. This index accounted for 50% of a city’s total score. A higher number in the affordability index created a lower overall score for a city.

Prosperity and growth is 25% of the overall score. We looked at population growth and median annual household income growth from 2009 to 2014 using the most recent data from the American Community Survey. Each metric accounted for 12.5% of a city’s total score. A larger percentage of growth created a higher overall score in this category.

Family friendliness is 25% of the overall score. We measured family friendliness by looking at the percentage of families with at least one child under age 18, the percentage of families with children with incomes below the poverty level, crime and quality of schools. The percentage of families with children and the percentage of families with children in poverty are from the 2014 American Community Survey. School ratings, with 10 as the highest ranking, are from GreatSchools.org. Crime data are from NeighborhoodScout.com. We used the proprietary data to categorize each city as “most safe,” “safe,” “less safe”  and “least safe.” Each of these four metrics accounted for 6.25% of a city’s total score.

Emily Starbuck Crone is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: emily.crone@nerdwallet.com. Twitter:@emstarbuck. Sreekar Jasthi is a data analyst at NerdWallet. Email: sreekar@nerdwallet.com.