Best Small Cities in America

June 1, 2015 Mortgages, Studies
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Best Small Cities in America

Goldilocks wasn’t the only one searching for something that’s “just right.” When looking for a place to live, many Americans want a location that isn’t too big or too small.

If urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles are overwhelming and rural towns are too sleepy, there are many small cities across the U.S. that could be the perfect fit.

NerdWallet crunched the numbers to find the best small cities in America — places that hit the mark in three key areas: economic health, affordability and quality of life. To do this, we looked at over 1,300 cities with less than 75,000 residents and used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Key takeaways

Midwest is best. The low cost of living, reasonable commutes and economies boosted by jobs in health care, education and technology manufacturing helped cities in the Midwest perform well.

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College towns rule. Many cities in the top 10 are home to at least one college or university. Others have a mix of public, private and technical schools. These institutions are a draw for residents and employers.

Best small cities in America

1. Moorhead, Minnesota

Moorhead residents get the perks of a small city — affordable housing and a good work-life balance, for example — plus the added economic boost from Fargo, North Dakota, its big neighbor across the river. The city’s unemployment rate in February was about 3%, which is below the national average of 5.5%. Workers aren’t plagued by long hours or long commutes, giving them time for their families and communities.

2. Winona, Minnesota

If the scenery in Winona doesn’t win you over, the short workweeks and low cost of living might. Set amid the bluffs along the mighty Mississippi River, Winona’s median rent was nearly half of the average median rent of cities in this study. And with an average workweek of just 32.5 hours, residents have time to enjoy all the city has to offer, including the annual Dixieland Jazz Festival and Winona Steamboat Days, a weeklong festival that includes a car show, parade and fireworks display.

3. Marion, Indiana

With a population of about 29,000 people, Marion might be small, but its art scene is big. The city is home to the Marion Philharmonic Orchestra, a community arts school that offers dance, cooking and acting classes. The area also has multiple performing arts venues, including the Marion Civic Theatre, a staple in the community for over six decades. Most residents can afford to enjoy the entertainment options thanks to the city’s low cost of living. The median home value in Marion is $64,000, and the median monthly homeowner cost, which includes payments for a mortgage, insurance, taxes and utilities, is $744, which is lower than any other city in this study.

4. Cedar Falls, Iowa

A diverse job market that includes health care, education and manufacturing has helped keep residents employed and wages strong in Cedar Falls. Residents have short commutes, about 13 minutes on average, and a good work-life balance. Workers log an average of 33.2 hours weekly, leaving ample opportunities to enjoy the Cedar Valley region’s 94 parks, 13 museums and 10 performing arts venues.

5. Mankato, Minnesota

The third in the trio of Minnesota cities to land in the top five, Mankato packs a lot into its 17.91 square miles. Galleries, sculpture displays and theaters populate this regional art and culture hub, and miles of biking and hiking paths stretch far beyond the city limits. Mankato isn’t all play, though. The city’s jobless rate has consistently been lower than the national average, thanks in part to major employers such as the Mayo Clinic Health System and Minnesota State University’s Mankato campus.

6. Wooster, Ohio

A low cost of living and strong job market are just two factors that help Wooster shine. Median rent in Wooster falls well below the average median for the cities we analyzed. Higher education institutions, such as the College of Wooster and Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, keep this city of about 26,300 people buzzing with young, ambitious residents.

7. Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Neighborhood gardens, free art exhibits and a vibrant downtown give Stevens Point a strong community vibe and contribute to the high quality of life. Almost 13% of the city’s residents walk to work, and the average commute time is about 15 minutes. With an average workweek of 33.4 hours, those living in this small riverfront city have time to enjoy the simple things in life, like a beer at one of the area’s many breweries or a bike ride along the Green Circle Trail.

8. Marquette, Michigan

Marquette is one of the snowiest cities in America, averaging almost 15 feet of the white stuff annually, but that doesn’t stop residents from hoofing it. Here, about 16% of residents walk to work, and the average commute time for all workers is just shy of 11 minutes. When the snow melts, Marquette’s 21,500 residents can explore the beaches, parks and waterfalls in and around the city.

9. Terre Haute, Indiana

Terre Haute is the largest city in the top 10, and it’s also one of the most affordable. The median home value hovers around $77,200, compared with an average median value of $221,817 for the cities in this study. And the median monthly homeowner cost in Terre Haute of $823 was well below the overall average of $1,677. Two universities — Indiana State University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology — call Terre Haute home and help contribute to the city’s level of employment.

10. Helena, Montana

The capital of Big Sky Country, Helena offers a host of recreational activities and natural beauty for residents and visitors alike. The city boasts high employment coupled with an average workweek of 37 hours and a commute time of 13.4 minutes. The largest employer is the state government, giving the city a stable economic foundation.

Best small cities in America

Rank City Population growth 2007-2013 Population unemployed
in 2013
Median household income Residents at poverty level Average commute to work in minutes Residents who walk to work Mean hours worked per week Median rent Median home value Median selected monthly homeowner cost Score
1 Moorhead, Minnesota 16.5% 4.6% $47,442 15% 15.4 9.0% 35.1 $688 $154,500 $1,303 76.9
2 Winona, Minnesota 6.1% 7.0% $38,198 21% 13.9 9.2% 32.5 $516 $139,100 $1,067 75.3
3 Marion, Indiana 0.5% 5.9% $31,700 28% 16.8 6.7% 34.5 $567 $64,000 $744 74.8
4 Cedar Falls, Iowa 4.5% 4.9% $51,921 21% 13.2 11.5% 33.2 $739 $167,500 $1,298 74.7
5 Mankato, Minnesota 12.6% 4.7% $41,032 27% 14.9 6.1% 33.2 $677 $147,100 $1,204 74.6
6 Wooster, Ohio 3.4% 3.6% $39,022 20% 17.7 11.7% 35 $656 $120,500 $1,131 74.5
7 Stevens Point, Wisconsin 9.6% 6.9% $38,449 26% 15.3 12.7% 33.4 $647 $111,500 $1,102 74.1
8 Marquette, Michigan 4.0% 5.2% $34,798 28% 10.8 16.1% 33.1 $647 $153,200 $1,148 74.0
9 Terre Haute, Indiana 5.5% 5.9% $31,597 27% 17.6 6.4% 34.6 $660 $77,200 $823 74.0
10 Helena, Montana 8.3% 2.7% $49,375 14% 13.4 7.2% 37 $694 $200,100 $1,311 73.9
11 Searcy, Arkansas 11.9% 3.2% $39,559 19% 18.0 5.4% 36 $613 $135,400 $1,043 73.9
12 La Crosse, Wisconsin 0.9% 4.3% $41,090 24% 14.8 8.5% 33.8 $705 $128,000 $1,222 73.8
13 Holland, Michigan 5.8% 5.3% $43,532 19% 17.5 6.7% 35 $787 $111,300 $1,100 73.5
14 Auburn, New York 15.1% 6.3% $36,690 20% 16.7 6.1% 36.3 $624 $95,600 $1,134 73.2
15 Normal, Illinois 8.1% 4.1% $53,053 26% 16.8 8.7% 32.7 $794 $161,200 $1,412 73.0
16 Laramie, Wyoming 18.0% 3.6% $37,446 30% 11.1 10.8% 36 $714 $199,800 $1,358 73.0
17 Logan, Utah 3.9% 5.9% $35,770 28% 13.6 7.2% 32.8 $650 $162,500 $1,106 72.6
18 Galesburg, Illinois -1.1% 4.8% $31,794 26% 15.5 6.1% 36.5 $569 $70,700 $860 72.0
19 Manhattan, Kansas 7.7% 3.1% $42,512 26% 15.5 10.1% 34.7 $848 $181,700 $1,405 71.9
20 Cedar City, Utah 14.3% 8.8% $41,757 20% 16.8 7.0% 35.1 $617 $161,100 $1,259 71.7
21 Iowa City, Iowa 7.8% 3.0% $40,996 28% 16.7 17.7% 34 $831 $183,400 $1,388 71.6
22 Wheeling, West Virginia -4.0% 3.8% $35,702 18% 18.1 5.4% 36.7 $523 $94,500 $875 71.5
23 Kearney, Nebraska 8.4% 2.5% $47,729 17% 12.6 4.5% 37.3 $693 $149,700 $1,295 71.2
24 Moscow, Idaho 7.6% 6.9% $33,403 27% 13.2 20.5% 33.2 $647 $198,500 $1,267 71.1
25 Emporia, Kansas -5.4% 4.6% $35,854 27% 14.5 5.4% 35.5 $560 $93,600 $1,001 70.8
26 Kingsville, Texas 4.4% 7.6% $35,692 29% 15.1 6.6% 35.1 $706 $76,000 $1,138 70.8
27 Dubuque, Iowa 2.1% 3.7% $44,415 16% 15.8 5.2% 37 $690 $130,800 $1,099 70.6
28 Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania 4.6% 5.4% $31,280 28% 19.5 8.2% 35.9 $630 $78,600 $1,053 70.5
29 Ashland, Ohio -2.3% 5.7% $39,175 15% 19.5 7.8% 36.9 $665 $97,300 $989 70.3
30 Bowling Green, Ohio 5.4% 7.0% $35,595 30% 15.7 15.0% 31.9 $629 $148,200 $1,344 70.3
31 Salem, Virginia 0.0% 3.1% $44,177 14% 16.5 5.2% 35.8 $814 $171,200 $1,233 70.1
32 Rock Island, Illinois 5.0% 6.3% $39,344 24% 17.8 5.1% 35.3 $661 $98,200 $1,012 70.1
33 Walla Walla, Washington 1.1% 5.3% $40,697 24% 12.7 9.4% 35.9 $729 $171,900 $1,299 70.0
34 Pocatello, Idaho 4.6% 4.8% $40,434 20% 16.6 4.7% 36.4 $598 $132,900 $1,032 70.0
35 Mason City, Iowa -0.1% 3.2% $40,851 16% 14.4 3.8% 37.5 $598 $101,100 $960 69.7
36 Aberdeen, South Dakota 14.4% 2.7% $47,283 11% 11.1 2.7% 39.6 $592 $136,600 $1,052 69.6
37 Grand Forks, North Dakota 5.9% 3.3% $43,647 20% 12.6 3.7% 35.7 $690 $159,000 $1,349 69.5
38 Nacogdoches, Texas 13.0% 5.5% $31,593 29% 15.9 6.8% 36.9 $714 $121,900 $1,195 69.5
39 Bozeman, Montana 11.6% 6.1% $47,354 20% 12.8 10.2% 35.9 $832 $242,300 $1,500 69.5
40 Missoula, Montana 8.6% 7.0% $41,319 20% 14.3 8.3% 35.1 $748 $237,300 $1,442 69.3
41 Columbus, Nebraska 4.4% 3.9% $47,265 11% 12.5 4.3% 39.6 $616 $115,600 $1,034 69.2
42 Rome, New York -3.8% 3.5% $41,180 18% 18.1 5.7% 37.3 $690 $91,000 $1,192 69.2
43 Bowling Green, Kentucky 13.2% 6.0% $32,202 29% 15.9 4.8% 35.4 $649 $139,300 $1,106 69.1
44 Sierra Vista, Arizona 17.2% 4.2% $58,040 14% 14.9 8.1% 39.8 $921 $183,900 $1,333 69.0
45 Superior, Wisconsin 1.6% 5.8% $39,261 23% 15.3 4.5% 35.4 $673 $111,500 $1,101 68.9
46 Eau Claire, Wisconsin 3.4% 5.0% $42,711 18% 16.6 4.1% 35.3 $713 $139,300 $1,189 68.9
47 St. Cloud, Minnesota 4.0% 5.7% $44,715 25% 18.0 4.9% 34.8 $706 $142,700 $1,192 68.7
48 Jamestown, New York -1.6% 6.9% $31,160 29% 15.2 5.8% 36.8 $601 $63,100 $895 68.4
49 Oshkosh, Wisconsin 0.3% 3.7% $41,493 20% 16.8 3.4% 35.7 $656 $114,000 $1,127 68.3
50 Appleton, Wisconsin 2.3% 3.0% $52,391 11% 17.6 3.6% 37.5 $648 $137,400 $1,274 68.1
51 Niagara Falls, New York 2.7% 7.2% $31,450 27% 18.3 5.2% 36.1 $618 $66,700 $951 68.0
52 Lewiston, Idaho 1.8% 3.4% $43,460 10% 15.3 3.4% 37.5 $628 $166,400 $1,162 67.7
53 Georgetown, Kentucky 23.1% 4.8% $59,544 12% 18.7 3.3% 39.2 $728 $147,800 $1,144 67.6
54 De Pere, Wisconsin 0.9% 4.5% $58,733 8% 17.7 4.9% 37.5 $831 $168,700 $1,370 67.4
55 Cape Girardeau, Missouri 2.8% 5.6% $38,128 26% 14.8 4.2% 36 $650 $126,200 $1,080 67.4
56 Cumberland, Maryland -4.7% 5.9% $30,609 23% 15.9 4.6% 36.4 $562 $89,400 $996 67.3
57 Altoona, Pennsylvania -2.6% 5.7% $35,290 22% 16.0 3.3% 36.2 $554 $82,000 $881 67.3
58 Russellville, Arkansas 6.5% 6.2% $35,229 27% 13.2 3.6% 36.2 $646 $121,900 $944 67.2
59 Newark, Delaware 8.0% 2.5% $52,710 27% 21.8 16.1% 31.6 $976 $269,400 $1,672 67.1
60 Prescott, Arizona -6.0% 4.3% $42,181 17% 17.6 8.1% 35.2 $772 $255,500 $1,464 67.1
61 Owensboro, Kentucky 8.8% 4.8% $39,415 19% 14.9 3.3% 38.2 $634 $104,700 $964 67.0
62 Newberg, Oregon 17.6% 7.2% $52,336 16% 23.2 7.9% 36 $902 $199,500 $1,600 67.0
63 Manitowoc, Wisconsin -0.8% 5.4% $40,695 13% 15.5 4.0% 38 $619 $106,600 $1,048 67.0
64 Bangor, Maine 8.8% 5.4% $33,820 27% 14.6 5.1% 36.5 $728 $140,400 $1,343 67.0
65 Watertown, South Dakota 11.1% 2.3% $45,112 11% 13.9 1.6% 38.9 $603 $136,400 $1,093 66.9
66 Norfolk, Nebraska 4.1% 3.6% $42,471 16% 13.6 2.8% 38.2 $583 $117,200 $1,140 66.8
67 Florence, Alabama 11.1% 4.0% $36,688 25% 17.9 1.6% 35.1 $556 $132,300 $1,083 66.8
68 Great Falls, Montana 1.2% 4.2% $42,487 20% 14.1 4.0% 37.7 $608 $157,800 $1,114 66.7
69 West Fargo, North Dakota 35.4% 1.2% $66,747 7% 16.7 0.5% 39.6 $711 $158,200 $1,363 66.7
70 Austin, Minnesota 8.5% 6.6% $40,267 19% 12.9 2.4% 36.9 $672 $94,600 $983 66.7
71 Neenah, Wisconsin 12.4% 3.8% $51,737 12% 17.5 2.1% 37.6 $672 $133,300 $1,257 66.7
72 Goshen, Indiana 1.4% 5.6% $40,746 23% 16.9 5.2% 37.8 $747 $112,900 $933 66.6
73 Hazleton, Pennsylvania 14.6% 8.5% $29,623 26% 18.5 5.0% 37.5 $644 $81,600 $926 66.4
74 Quincy, Illinois 1.2% 5.4% $38,805 20% 14.2 3.5% 37.9 $593 $98,700 $962 66.3
75 Staunton, Virginia 2.5% 4.5% $38,151 19% 19.0 4.9% 36.8 $753 $162,200 $1,114 66.3
76 Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 13.8% 5.9% $40,440 15% 17.7 3.3% 36.6 $771 $162,800 $1,150 66.3
77 Marion, Iowa 18.9% 3.4% $64,582 6% 18.6 0.8% 38.5 $642 $144,200 $1,302 66.2
78 Richland, Washington 18.4% 4.0% $68,825 10% 19.8 2.8% 37.4 $872 $203,300 $1,422 66.2
79 McMinnville, Oregon 8.3% 7.3% $41,535 21% 19.0 12.7% 36.2 $863 $182,400 $1,378 66.1
80 Bartlesville, Oklahoma 4.5% 3.4% $47,928 18% 15.0 2.7% 38.7 $634 $112,200 $1,006 66.1
81 Burlington, Vermont 9.6% 5.8% $43,620 24% 17.1 20.1% 33.1 $987 $262,200 $1,736 66.0
82 Flagstaff, Arizona 6.3% 5.5% $47,232 25% 15.8 10.9% 34.8 $1,033 $257,300 $1,563 66.0
83 Biddeford, Maine -11.4% 3.7% $46,972 14% 22.4 9.1% 35.6 $847 $197,300 $1,466 66.0
84 Keene, New Hampshire -3.5% 6.0% $50,589 17% 15.7 6.5% 35.4 $993 $186,700 $1,734 65.9
85 Rapid City, South Dakota 11.7% 3.8% $46,244 16% 15.2 3.4% 38.5 $755 $155,200 $1,235 65.9
86 Northampton, Massachusetts 0.6% 5.0% $57,908 15% 21.1 11.2% 33.6 $923 $287,400 $1,832 65.9
87 Butte-Silver Bow, Montana 4.3% 5.0% $38,347 20% 15.5 3.5% 37.9 $620 $129,100 $968 65.9
88 Jefferson City, Missouri 5.5% 3.3% $45,947 18% 14.8 2.5% 38.4 $570 $137,100 $1,092 65.8
89 Corvallis, Oregon 7.0% 5.3% $39,483 30% 18.3 10.6% 32.2 $825 $270,800 $1,588 65.8
90 Springville, Utah 19.2% 3.4% $58,333 8% 20.7 1.1% 36 $895 $182,200 $1,358 65.8
91 Alliance, Ohio 3.1% 9.6% $32,265 26% 18.1 4.7% 36 $617 $80,900 $877 65.7
92 Kaysville, Utah 13.0% 3.0% $84,125 7% 23.3 1.3% 35.5 $639 $276,700 $1,689 65.6
93 Schenectady, New York 6.0% 6.9% $36,947 25% 22.8 6.2% 36.1 $805 $112,200 $1,314 65.6
94 Idaho Falls, Idaho 10.3% 4.6% $44,195 15% 16.7 2.1% 37.3 $666 $138,300 $1,141 65.6
95 Hays, Kansas 5.9% 3.9% $40,492 19% 11.0 2.3% 37.9 $616 $153,400 $1,162 65.5
96 Burlington, Iowa 0.6% 5.2% $37,042 19% 14.7 2.5% 37.3 $655 $86,200 $898 65.4
97 Ashland, Oregon 1.5% 6.2% $46,586 17% 17.0 11.1% 32.6 $923 $321,200 $1,647 65.3
98 Winter Haven, Florida 19.4% 7.1% $37,583 17% 21.4 3.4% 37.2 $751 $96,600 $1,138 65.3
99 Findlay, Ohio 2.4% 7.1% $40,739 22% 15.1 3.7% 36.6 $620 $119,600 $1,158 65.3
100 Marshalltown, Iowa 4.5% 5.0% $49,192 15% 15.5 2.4% 38.4 $636 $102,700 $1,022 65.3


 

Methodology

We assessed over 1,300 cities with fewer than 75,000 residents to determine the best small cities across the U.S. Using data from the 2007 and 2013 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, we looked at the following three categories: 

Affordability. To determine a city’s affordability, we looked at the median value of owner-occupied units, the median rent price and the median monthly homeowner’s cost. This category was one-third of a city’s final score; each subcategory was given equal weight.

Economic health. To determine a city’s economic health, we looked at the percentage of residents who are unemployed, median household income and percent of families and people whose income is below the poverty line. This category was one-third of a city’s final score; each subcategory was given equal weight.

Quality of life. To determine the quality of life in each city, we looked at the average hours worked in each city, the average commute time to work and the percent of commuters who walk to work. This category was one-third of a city’s final score; each subcategory was given equal weight

This study doesn’t include cities where the percentage of residents living below the poverty line was 30% or higher.

NerdWallet staff writer Kelsey Sheehy contributed to this article.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized unemployment data in a few cities. The data have been corrected.


Marquette Harbor, Michigan, image via iStock. 

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