Best Places for Young Families in Iowa

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Best Places for Young Families in Iowa

Thanks to an economic renaissance, Iowa is becoming something you might find surprising: a destination for young families looking to buy homes.

There’s still a lot of corn, but Iowa has seen a boom in its manufacturing and bioscience fields. This growth has not only helped keep Iowa’s unemployment rate at a low 4.1%, but it also sets it apart from other Midwest states, whose GDP gains are driven largely by booming oil fields.

Jobs and affordable homes

The unique combination of geography and industry allows Iowa to offer what few other states can — technology jobs and affordable homes. In 2013, Iowa ranked third nationwide in job creation, but its median home value of $124,300 was the seventh lowest in the nation, less than neighbors such as Nebraska and South Dakota.

As young families move to the Hawkeye State, it helps to know the places for the best quality of life, including affordable housing, career opportunities, schools and community activities. By analyzing U.S. Census Bureau data, NerdWallet was able to crunch the numbers and find the best places for young families in Iowa.

Here’s what we found

Shorter commutes cost more.  Iowa saw a steep decline in pricing when houses were located over 30 miles from a major city, a typical trend in more urbanized states.

Lots of community engagement. Although not part of our methodology, we discovered a variety of community-run festivals and events in our top cities.

High-ranking schools. Our top 10 places on average saw strong scores in school quality, one of the highest we’ve seen in any state.

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How we did our analysis

Home affordability. We looked at median home value and selected monthly homeowner costs to prioritize affordable communities.

Prosperity and growth. Looking at current and past family incomes, we calculated the income of residents, as well as the projected long-term growth of each city.

Quality of education. We looked at ratings at the popular site GreatSchools.org to find the best schools.

Family friendliness. This year, we added a new component to our methodology — the percentage of families with school-age children and the poverty rate for young children. This measure helps determine if an area is not only affordable for families, but also a healthy one for children.

NerdWallet crunched the data for 80 places in Iowa — cities, towns and census-designated places. Only places with over 5,000 residents were analyzed. Here’s the full data set.

1. Waverly

Affordable homes, quality schools and a 20-mile commute to Waterloo make Waverly an ideal city for young families. In Waverly, 25% of residents are families with children, and family income has grown 61.9% since 1999. This city of 9,900 is near a number of parks, and it is also home to Wartburg College.

2. Grimes

Just 16 miles northwest of Des Moines, Grimes is convenient to the city’s economic opportunities while still providing affordable housing. The city has a reputation as a family friendly place, which is supported by the fact that 36.7% of the city’s residents are families with children. Grimes is set to grow, as its popularity has kept up demand for 150 new homes annually.

3. Waukee

Right outside West Des Moines, Waukee has one of the most active communities in Iowa. Holiday-themed celebrations, such as Waukee’s annual Easter egg hunt and a haunted house at Halloween, are complemented by family activities, such as free summer movies in the park. Residents here don’t just play: The Waukee school system was rated 9 out of 10 by GreatSchools.org. One downside in Waukee is that its popularity has boosted home values to the fourth-highest level in the state at $186,000.

4. Orange City

Slightly more rural than our top three, Orange City is a good match for couples who make separate commutes to Sioux City and Sioux Falls, which are 50 and 70 miles away, respectively. The town of 6,100, which scored a 9 at GreatSchools for its public school system, has seen family income grow 36.4% since 1999. For those favoring local celebrations, Orange holds a tulip festival that draws thousands of visitors from surrounding areas.

5. Manchester

The smallest city in our top 10, Manchester is a great match for families who prefer a rural environment but don’t want to sacrifice employment opportunities. Manchester is home to a number of equipment manufacturers, such as Exide Technologies and Henderson Manufacturing, as well as a strong agricultural center. For those who need to commute, Manchester is 47 miles from Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.

6. Spencer

Priding itself on a “comfortable lifestyle” and “abundant recreation areas,” Spencer’s small-town vibe doesn’t mean giving up an exciting lifestyle. The town is 16 miles from Spirit Lake and the Slough State Game Management Area, both known for their bass fishing. Spencer has received recognition for its arts, with Arts of Grand as the centerpiece of the city’s art scene. The home value of $109,500 is about the state median, which means families will find affordable housing in a very well-rounded community.

7. Le Mars

The self-proclaimed “Ice Cream Capital of the World,” Le Mars is home to Wells Enterprises, one of the largest producers of ice cream and frozen treats in the country. That has helped spur the growth of other food industries, such as Bodeans Baking Company and IML Containers Iowa. Despite its relatively small population, Le Mars has managed to secure many successful business investments from companies, such as Belkins Inc., which has helped kept the unemployment rate at a low 2.9%.

8. Norwalk

Neighboring Des Moines, Norwalk is a family friendly place with a school system that scored 9 at GreatSchools. Adding to Norwalk’s appeal for young families is its median home value of $149,000. The city takes pride its in amenities, including four parks, the Norwalk-McAninch Sports Complex and miles of biking trails. Not only does this city provide a high quality of life, but it also has a strong economic center.

9. Ankeny

With a population of 47,586, Ankeny is the largest city on our list for young families. The school district has 16 schools, including eight highly ranked elementary schools. The schools have brought families to the area, and the city scores high on our family friendliness index because 29.3% of residents have children. Although Ankeny ranks well across the board, young families here will spend more than in other places on our list: Median home values are $173,000.

10. North Liberty

Rounding out our top 10 is North Liberty, which made our list largely because of a 60% increase in family income since 1999. Partnerships, such as the Small Business Development Program, which partners businesses in North Liberty with the University of Iowa, have successfully fostered job growth, and this is reflected in the 1.9% unemployment rate. In addition to high marks for prosperity, North Liberty also scores well when it comes to family friendliness — 23.1% of residents are families with children.

Best cities for young families in Iowa

Rank Location GreatSchools rank Median home value Family income growth 1999-2013  Median family income in 2013 Percentage of residents with 1 child under 18 Child poverty rate Final score
1 Waverly 10 $153,400 61.87% $85,232 25.0% 4.6% 73.9
2 Grimes 8 $165,800 46.65% $89,234 36.7% 0.0% 71.46
3 Waukee 9 $186,600 41.25% $90,914 32.7% 0.0% 66.16
4 Orange City 9 $152,800 36.35% $66,915 27.3% 0.0% 65.91
5 Manchester 7 $98,000 50.51% $59,028 19.5% 9.8% 65.08
6 Spencer 7.5 $109,500 48.14% $63,914 16.5% 8.9% 64.64
7 Le Mars 7 $124,900 54.80% $73,389 20.7% 17.6% 64.02
8 Norwalk 9 $149,300 26.37% $81,699 25.8% 6.6% 63.52
9 Ankeny 9 $173,000 32.20% $87,825 29.3% 4.7% 63.48
10 North Liberty 7 $165,700 60.05% $86,026 23.1% 1.9% 62.34
11 Nevada 7 $117,400 42.58% $69,435 21.3% 6.2% 62.28
12 Glenwood 6 $133,600 53.35% $71,394 21.6% 0.0% 61.87
13 Oelwein 4 $64,000 63.82% $52,881 13.2% 0.0% 61.68
14 Sioux Center 7 $162,500 39.93% $71,420 26.0% 0.0% 61.46
15 Independence 7 $115,500 60.38% $73,696 22.6% 35.0% 61.39
16 Sheldon 7 $123,600 49.91% $64,982 15.7% 0.0% 61.36
17 Altoona 7 $157,400 46.85% $85,625 29.6% 16.6% 60.91
18 Marion 8 $146,200 32.51% $78,327 24.3% 8.8% 60.3
19 Bettendorf 8 $173,600 36.42% $90,884 25.2% 6.9% 60.12
20 Grinnell 8 $124,600 39.38% $68,285 15.4% 4.9% 59.9
21 Johnston 10 $242,500 16.57% $113,453 34.4% 2.6% 59.65
22 Pella 8 $164,500 35.13% $76,105 25.6% 13.7% 58.71
23 Urbandale 7 $192,300 41.85% $100,073 28.1% 4.0% 58.71
24 Eldridge 6 $174,300 39.26% $86,902 28.4% 6.7% 58.49
25 Clarinda 6 $75,700 34.93% $58,904 15.5% 24.4% 58.29
26 Ames 9 $173,200 41.79% $80,024 15.2% 11.1% 56.33
27 Carroll 8 $123,000 23.70% $63,114 17.0% 15.7% 55.93
28 West Des Moines 8 $186,500 27.17% $89,781 24.8% 4.9% 55.6
29 Iowa Falls 5 $92,000 41.83% $59,966 16.1% 19.3% 55.3
30 Webster City 6 $83,200 7.93% $47,857 17.0% 0.0% 55.11
31 Denison 5 $91,800 29.73% $53,657 27.8% 39.1% 54.91
32 De Witt 6 $137,900 49.08% $80,597 15.0% 14.6% 54.9
33 Harlan 7 $97,700 19.96% $55,046 16.4% 19.1% 54.24
34 Winterset 7 $132,600 17.33% $50,394 20.2% 0.0% 54.03
35 Creston 5 $88,100 32.10% $54,167 16.9% 17.3% 53.78
36 Clive 8 $225,700 24.29% $112,934 29.2% 9.9% 53.72
37 Fairfield 5 $85,600 27.53% $58,840 13.5% 12.4% 53.23
38 Coralville 7 $186,100 37.95% $79,832 24.1% 7.7% 53.17
39 Centerville 5 $69,300 34.23% $49,469 15.2% 29.8% 53.08
40 Shenandoah 4 $75,100 44.98% $56,700 17.1% 35.4% 52.81
41 Pleasant Hill 6 $179,300 19.19% $82,106 27.8% 3.6% 51.52
42 Fort Madison 4 $74,400 18.50% $49,850 14.5% 3.4% 51.49
43 Decorah 8 $144,800 36.19% $67,643 13.6% 26.3% 51.09
44 Cherokee 6 $70,200 42.95% $60,516 11.4% 56.7% 50.97
45 Algona 3 $97,400 48.69% $61,275 15.9% 27.8% 50.96
46 Cedar Rapids 6 $133,900 29.10% $70,084 17.4% 16.4% 50.91
47 Boone 5 $111,300 27.78% $61,605 17.7% 11.6% 50.9
48 Oskaloosa 3 $93,300 31.44% $55,387 15.8% 2.1% 50.75
49 Newton 6 $97,300 9.08% $54,517 14.4% 4.9% 50.57
50 Anamosa 5 $100,700 44.66% $57,431 14.2% 29.8% 50.48
51 Cedar Falls 7 $165,200 36.25% $76,513 19.6% 30.5% 49.91
52 Washington 3 $103,400 32.25% $58,848 19.0% 6.2% 49.9
53 Knoxville 5 $93,000 36.45% $60,143 24.0% 63.8% 49.83
54 Indianola 7 $146,400 25.78% $65,703 18.8% 20.8% 49.03
55 Clinton 4 $92,500 33.27% $57,514 14.8% 18.5% 49
56 Atlantic 3 $88,700 23.71% $50,927 19.2% 22.1% 48.94
57 Dubuque 6 $129,400 24.31% $57,883 15.4% 19.5% 48.58
58 Mason City 4 $97,600 32.60% $59,882 14.6% 25.4% 47.99
59 Storm Lake 3 $105,400 30.22% $55,000 21.9% 25.7% 47.92
60 Hiawatha 7 $129,400 8.20% $51,000 16.0% 0.0% 47.72
61 Estherville 3 $79,300 46.68% $60,200 16.8% 47.1% 47.27
62 Marshalltown 3 $99,500 22.69% $55,599 20.3% 19.1% 46.82
63 Clear Lake 6 $134,200 29.42% $59,000 15.0% 38.1% 44.74
64 Sioux City 4 $94,600 17.61% $53,809 17.3% 34.3% 44.34
65 Ottumwa 3 $73,000 23.81% $46,184 16.0% 35.9% 44.33
66 Muscatine 4 $106,300 21.77% $55,244 18.9% 29.2% 44.33
67 Charles City 5 $79,600 23.70% $47,373 12.7% 54.5% 44.09
68 Burlington 5 $83,300 15.99% $47,454 14.6% 43.3% 43.9
69 Vinton 6 $103,100 35.44% $56,271 17.9% 70.6% 43.43
70 Red Oak 5 $70,600 38.49% $51,250 12.4% 72.6% 43.06
71 Mount Pleasant 6 $107,800 29.32% $59,569 13.4% 62.9% 42.39
72 Keokuk 4 $64,400 9.55% $43,355 12.5% 40.7% 42.3
73 Maquoketa 4 $83,000 21.34% $44,537 16.0% 50.6% 42.02
74 Council Bluffs 3 $112,200 33.10% $56,855 15.5% 27.2% 41.89
75 Waterloo 3 $102,100 21.19% $51,784 14.5% 30.0% 41.06
76 Davenport 3 $121,300 25.37% $57,601 15.3% 21.3% 40.71
77 Iowa City 5 $180,900 24.80% $71,843 13.4% 14.0% 38.69
78 Perry 2 $85,600 12.65% $47,057 19.6% 42.5% 37.62
79 Fort Dodge 3 $79,400 19.30% $50,768 12.5% 55.9% 37.16
80 Des Moines 2 $118,200 17.74% $54,854 17.3% 23.8% 36.86

Methodology

All data are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey. Our methodology focused on four factors:

Home affordability. 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.

Growth and prosperity. Growth and prosperity are 20% of the total score. The two metrics involved were growth in family income from 1999 to 2013, and median family income in 2013. Both were weighted equally and positively.

Family friendliness. To measure if an area is a good place for families, which is 30% of our total score, we looked at the percentage of married couples with at least one child under age 18, and the percentage of families in poverty with at least one child under age 5. The percentage of families with at least one child was 70% of the score, while the percentage of families in poverty was 30% of the score.

Educational quality. Using data from GreatSchools, every place was assigned a ranking from 1 to 10 for the quality of schools. Education is 20% of the total score.


Des Moines, Iowa, skyline image via iStock.