The Los Angeles area might be the hot spot in Southern California, but Orange County, its neighbor, tends to be the most family friendly.
When NerdWallet crunched the numbers to find the best places for young families in Southern California, four of the top five cities on our list were in Orange County.
The common standout is quality schools, but Orange County also has a strong labor force and has invested in infrastructure improvements, such as the $64 million project to expand Irvine’s Sand Canyon Avenue where it intersects with Interstate 5.
In our analysis of Southern California, we isolated three factors that matter most to families no matter where they 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.
Smaller is better. Six of the top 10 cities occupy less than 15 square miles of land, but they have strategic locations in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
From the OC to LA: Moving down the list, Los Angeles County isn’t far behind its neighbor with six cities in our top 20.
Top cities tend to be inland, not coastal. Only one of the top 10 locations was directly on the coast, but many others are located only a short drive to the beach.
NerdWallet crunched the data for 186 places in Southern California — cities, towns and census-designated places. Only places with over 15,000 residents were analyzed.
And here’s where you can read more NerdWallet studies about California.
Best cities for young families in Southern California
The beautiful city of Irvine attracts families with its strong education — from public elementary schools to the renowned University of California, Irvine. In addition to the honor of a top score of 10 by GreatSchools, Irvine schools have strong backing from the community, thanks to initiatives such as the city’s Challenge Match Grant program that matches the exact amount raised by the nonprofit Irvine Public Schools Foundation. The city’s high home values come with the territory, and access to the ocean and numerous parks help create a balance between nature and a thriving business community.
2. Rancho Santa Margarita
A hop and a skip from Irvine and the ocean, this small master-planned city prides itself on its village vibe even as it embraces growth, which has been strong—long-term income showed a 31.22% increase from 1999 to 2012. With schools in two districts, Rancho Santa Margarita’s quality education is backed by students’ state test scores, which are especially high in science. Local businesses play a key role in the city’s growth, and the chamber of commerce, with its rebranding in 2012, is determined to attract small business.
3. Seal Beach
As the third city in Orange County on our list, Seal Beach is also home to exceptional educational choices. The surrounding Los Alamitos School District boasts California Distinguished Schools, including Seal Beach’s J. H. McGaugh Elementary School. This quiet community of beach homes is known for its naval weapons station and, among other features, the second-longest pier in the state.
With its mountain trails in San Gorgonio Pass and a name that means “beautiful mountain” in French, Riverside County’s Beaumont is also home to another peak: Residents’ income growth soared 128% in the past decade, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in California. Plus, with a median value of $226,000, the city’s housing isn’t too steep for potential homeowners, and the city’s 16 public parks help round out the community.
Despite being only 6.6 square miles, Cypress stands in a strategic location for growth, and its proximity to four freeways and commercial centers is part of it. Education in the Cypress School District, which includes six elementary schools, is characterized by academic rigor and strong marks on standardized California tests. For business owners who want to get through the official paperwork and get a business up and running quickly, the city’s small size is an advantage.
This suburb in eastern Los Angeles County balances access to a large metropolitan area with small-town charm. Like Cypress, despite its size, this city offers big opportunities for residents. The area’s long-term income growth since 1999 is a solid 26% with a median annual income level just above $102,000. Community comes into play at 11 parks and events such as the Walnut Family Festival in October.
7. Agoura Hills
Perched to the northwest of Los Angeles, Agoura Hills is close to commercial centers, but it still is home to several parks, including the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area. Education has strong roots here, too. As reflected in its high GreatSchools ratings, the Agoura Hills schools in Las Virgenes Unified School District provide well-rounded curricula — from elementary school arts and technology programs to Agoura High School’s ComedySportz High School League for young improvisers. A community mainstay for the past decade has been the Reyes Adobe Days fall festival, which highlights California and ranch culture.
8. Loma Linda
Health is a focal point in Loma Linda — even its economy depends on it. Top employers in San Bernardino County include the esteemed Loma Linda University Medical Center and other hospitals as well. Public schools in the area have good ratings, especially Bryn Mawr Elementary School, a recent nominee for the National Blue Ribbon School honor.
9. Yorba Linda
The city — just below the Chino Hills State Park in northeastern Orange County — offers space for those with a passion for horses. Several equestrian centers are in town, as well as trails for riding, hiking and biking. Schools, which are part of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, earned a strong 9 ranking at GreatSchools. In the past few years, the district has invested $600 million to modernize facilities, improve technology and build new schools.
Affordable homes and good schools make up a big part of the patchwork that is Murrieta, a city between Los Angeles and San Diego. The median home value in 2012 comes to $286,600, which is far below the state’s median. When it comes to education, Murrieta Valley Unified School District provides academic rigor that helps students achieve above-average state test scores. The city is also close to Camp Pendleton, the largest training facility for Marines on the West Coast.
Check out this interactive map of our top 10 cities for young families in Southern California. Click on each icon to see the place’s overall score.
Best cities for young families in Southern California
Scroll right to see all data categories.
|City||GreatSchools rating||Median home value in 2012||Homeownership costs||Median household income in 2012||Income growth for 1999-2012||Overall score|
|2||Rancho Santa Margarita||9||530,800||2,883||102,975||31.22%||63.62|
|48||Rancho Palos Verdes||9||973,900||3,580||119,778||25.42%||54.21|
|59||Santa Fe Springs||7||354,200||1,927||54,551||22.48%||53.26|
|70||San Buenaventura (Ventura)||7||445,900||2,334||66,586||27.32%||51.86|
|80||South El Monte||6||343,000||1,803||48,056||38.67%||49.92|
|87||San Luis Obispo||7||542,900||2,347||46,651||46.12%||49.00|
|106||San Juan Capistrano||7||560,400||2,987||75,356||20.78%||46.84|
|173||Desert Hot Springs||3||139,700||1,475||32,883||26.54%||36.41|
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, monthly homeowner costs, median annual household incomes and income changes from 1999 to 2012 were each 15% of the score. All of that information is from the U.S. Census Bureau.
NerdWallet crunched the data for 186 places — cities, towns and census-designated places — in Southern California, from San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast to the U.S.-Mexico border. Only places with over 15,000 residents were analyzed. We excluded areas that lacked GreatSchools ratings, median annual household incomes from 1999 or median home values from 2012.
Image via iStock.