Unless you’re talking about the estimated 18 million-plus visitors to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom every year, young families aren’t exactly first in mind when thinking about Florida. But think again, because even though the state has five of the nation’s 10 counties with the oldest residents by median age, the Sunshine State is more vibrant and youthful than it gets credit for.
Younger and growing
While the state is home to many counties where residents are older, there are plenty of fast-growing places where the median age is younger. Of Florida’s 54 counties, 11 have populations below the national median age of 37.3. These younger places include some of Florida’s largest cities — Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.
The population of Florida has grown much faster than the nation as a whole, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Since 1952, population growth of Florida was lower than the overall national level of growth for only two years, in 2008-2009, after Florida was hit especially hard by the Great Recession.
For young families looking for a great place to settle and raise their children, Florida has a lot to offer. With a median home value of $160,200, homes are cheaper in Florida than the national median of $176,700. This has led to a homeownership rate of 67.1% that exceeds the national average of 64.9%.
In addition to great value, residents can find excellent schools. According to US News, Florida is No. 8 on the list for gold medal high schools, which are schools that rank in the top 2.5% nationally for college readiness.
Smaller communities. The average population of the top 10 best places, 32,347, is well below the statewide average of 53,324. However, the population of communities in the top 10 range from about 12,000 to 66,000, so young families will find different-size options.
Excellent schools. The average GreatSchools rating of the cities in the top 10 is 8.3 out of 10, which is significantly higher than the statewide average of 6.0.
Balance across the state. Of the top 10 cities, two are in the Panhandle, three are in the Tampa metro area, two are in the Orlando area and three are in South Florida.
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 GreatSchools.org, one of the most complete school-ranking resources, 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 if it is also a healthy one for children.
Want to know about future NerdWallet studies first? Click here to have updates sent to your inbox.
NerdWallet crunched the data for 180 places in Florida — cities, towns and census-designated places. Only places with over 10,000 residents were analyzed.
Best cities for young families in Florida
Pace, a community of 20,333 on Escambia Bay near Pensacola, offers exceptional value for young families, with median monthly homeownership costs of $1,404, the lowest in the top 10. Here, residents will find excellent schools, with a GreatSchools rating of 8 out of 10, and one of the fastest-growing economies in the state — median family income has grown 64.46% from 1999 to 2013. For families who hunt, locals have access to some of the best hunting in the state at the Escambia River Wildlife Management Area.
The suburban Orlando city of Oviedo has plenty to offer young families: schools that scored 9 out of 10 at GreatSchools, median home values of $218,400, which is below the top 10 average of $223,930, and a community where 32.1% of households are families with children, the third-highest proportion in the state. Oviedo also shines with its recreation — whether hiking or canoeing at the Little Big Econ State Forest or bird- or alligator-watching at Lake Jesup, there are plenty of options for families who love the outdoors.
3. Wesley Chapel
With a population of 44,982, Wesley Chapel is one of the larger communities in the top 10, but it still offers a small-town atmosphere. Median home values of $152,200 are the most affordable in the top 10, and for the money, residents get access to schools that earned an 8 at GreatSchools. Over 30% of households are families with children, making Wesley Chapel a destination for young families. Even with the small, close-knit feel, residents in Wesley Chapel are only 20 miles north of Tampa, home of one of the fastest-growing metro economies in the state.
4. Winter Garden
Located on Lake Apopka, 15 miles west of Orlando, Winter Garden for years has been a strong option for young families looking for economic opportunity and a quality community. With median family incomes since 1999 having grown 69.88%, the most in the state, it isn’t surprising that 3 in 10 households in Winter Garden are families with children. Lake Apopka is representative of the community’s commitment: Friends of Lake Apopka have spent decades restoring the former EPA Superfund site to health, with the goal of making the lake an “ecotourism Mecca.”
With a population of 66,435, Weston is the largest city in the top 10, and a very good option for young families, since other families with children make up 42.0% of households, the largest proportion in the state. Weston combines a family-oriented community with local schools that score a 9 at GreatSchools. Active families will also want to take advantage of the city’s 46 miles of bike trails, many of which offer a unique perspective of the Everglades.
Valrico, located about 14 miles east of Tampa, provides the rare combination of affordability, quality amenities and strong economic growth. The median home price of $194,200 is among the lowest in the top 10, a solid value for residents who get access to a school system that scored 8 at GreatSchools. A median family in Valrico saw income grow 62.88% since 1999, one of the best performances in the state. Yet only 26.5% of households are families with children, which is below the top 10 average of 29.3%, making Valrico something of a hidden gem for young families.
Like its neighbor Wesley Chapel, Lutz is an affordable community with excellent schools. A median home in Lutz is valued at $226,300, which is a bit above the top 10 average of $223,930, but with local schools rated a strong 9 at GreatSchools, Lutz provides exceptional value for young families. The community is under 15 miles from the economic hub of Tampa, and as an added bonus, families here can drive to some of the state’s best beaches, like Honeymoon Island, in less than an hour.
8. Lynn Haven
The panhandle city of Lynn Haven offers young families a balance of affordability and quality. The median home value of $182,800 is 18% below the top 10 average of $223,930, and more than a quarter of households are families with children. Lynn Haven was first settled in 1911, and the downtown around Main Street has plenty of shops and restaurants, as well as a weekly farmers market.
9. South Miami
Though median home values are on the expensive side at $344,400, South Miami provides residents with a perfect 10 GreatSchools rating — there are only two other places in the state that earned this highest score. Though residents may pay a premium to live in the city, it does have a unique urban design, with its direct connection to downtown Miami and Miami International Airport by the Metrorail, which has helped create a downtown perfect for walking with local restaurants and shops.
10. Royal Palm Beach
Royal Palm Beach is 12 miles inland from West Palm Beach, making the community’s name a bit of a misnomer, but that hasn’t detracted from its quality as a destination for young families. Nearly 27% of households are families with children, many of whom were drawn by the village’s affordability: median home values in Royal Palm Beach are $189,300, which is 15% below the top 10 average of $223,930. Young families love the community’s yearly events, including the Star Spangled Spectacular celebration for the Fourth of July and the community-band summer concert series.
Best cities for young families in Florida
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.
Florida beach image via iStock.