Small-town America is making a big comeback.
No, we’re not sounding the death knell for big-city living just yet. But after years of losing residents to bustling urban areas and their equally bustling suburbs, the nation’s smaller municipalities are again tempting more Americans with the seductive lures of greater affordability and a simpler way of life. In 2017 populations of these closer-knit enclaves began rising for the first time this decade, according to the latest U.S. Census data available.
And why not? There’s plenty to love about these all-American locales where home prices are way more reasonable, crime is low, public schools are decent—and you might actually know the first and last names of all of your neighbors. And their kids! Even younger, first-time home buyers are coming to grips with the fact that leaving the city behind doesn’t mean leaving behind fun, culture, beauty, connectedness, and even—dare we say it?—a bit of excitement.
They just need to know where to set their sights—and we’re here to help.
So, for the third year running, realtor.com® set out to find America’s best small towns, places that could melt even the calloused hearts of the most die-hard urban dwellers.
“Moving to a small town lets people afford a quality of life that is really appealing and lets them feel like a part of community … in a way that so many young people are looking for today,” says Winona Dimeo-Ediger, editor of Livability.com.
“Millennials, in particular, are very focused on affordability,” she says. “By moving to a small town, their basic cost of living is low enough to travel and go to restaurants.” Imagine!
To create our list, we looked at more than 500 U.S. Census–designated micropolitan areas.* Then we factored in the following criteria** to come up with our rankings:
Median home list prices on realtor.com
Low unemployment rates
Low violent crime rate (e.g., assaults, robbery, homicide)
Low property crime rate (e.g., burglary, vandalism)
Home affordability (percentage of income that goes toward mortgage payments on median-priced homes in the local market)
Two-year home price appreciation
But we didn’t stop there. We dug deeper to find the places that offer residents something extra: one-of-a-kind festivals, quirky mom and pop shops, surprising foodie destination spots. And yeah, a Spam Museum.
Sick of your big-city rent? Let’s take a tour of America’s best small towns.
Top 10 Affordable Small Towns
1. Boone, IA
Median home price: $134,500 Population: 26,484
The first weekend after Labor Day is when Boone, about an hour northwest of Des Moines, comes alive. It’s the start of the town’s annual Pufferbilly Days festival featuring everything from a 5K run and motorcycle show to live polka performances and—wait for it—a spelling bee! Since the 1970s, this event has paid tribute to this historic coal town’s railroad history, which includes being a major stop along the Union Pacific Railroad.
“Boone is a community that represents Iowa in everything: past, present, and future,” says Greg Piklapp, a Boone city councilman. To put the town’s future on the right footing, it has used its close proximity to Iowa State University Research Park, 15 minutes away in Ames, to attract agriculture and bioscience companies.
The strong industries have pushed the median household income here to $57,906, which is higher than the rest of the state.
Story Street, the town’s main drag, is lined with two-story storefronts with flower baskets hanging from their light poles. Down the side streets are big, two-story historic homes with front porches, priced around $100,000. Folks can also snag two-bedroom apartments with a white, subway tile backsplash in the kitchen for $600 a month.
Hometown perk: All aboard! Folks can hop on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, a sweet evening ride in a historic train cart that includes a good dinner.
2. Van Wert, OH
Median home price: $94,600 Population: 28,217
Three-bedroom ranch in Van Wert, OH
When Jerry Mazur, now 78, wrapped up his final project in New York City as manager of an elevator installation firm in 2000, he and his wife moved out of their $10,000-a-month Manhattan apartment and set off for small-town living in Van Wert. They relocated to slash their cost of living and be near his wife’s mom, but didn’t know what to expect from the town, 40 minutes southwest of Fort Wayne, IN.
“As an outsider I found people warm and friendly. … It is easy to integrate into Van Wert,” says Mazur. So easy, in fact, that in 2016 he took over as mayor of the town.
Van Wert was the cheapest town on our list, but it offers big-city amenities, including the Van Wert Civic Theatre and Wassenburg Art Center, as well as a quaint Main Street lined with storefronts dating to the 1950s.
Housing runs the gamut, from three-bedroom ranch homes priced around $100,000 to new construction. The Landing at Dickinson Farms, a new subdivision, will offer up to 300 suburban, single-family homes and condominiums from $160,000 to over $200,000.
Hometown perk: The Van Wert Community Dog Park, a fully fenced canine mecca paid for by community donations, now hosts the annual Dog Bone Hunt each Easter.
3. Decatur, IN
Median home price: $117,500 Population: 35,491
Three-bedroom home listed for under $140,000 in Decatur, IN
If you’re making the two-hour trip from Indianapolis, you’re going to pass plenty of cow pastures, corn and soybean fields, and grain silos on the way. In many ways, this is your prototypical small Midwestern town.
But Decatur, founded in 1836, has its own unique vibe, too. On the weekend places like the Riverview Tap, a bar with some great live music, are packed. People like to cut loose here.
Decatur’s biggest selling point is its price tag—cheap even for Indiana. Finding two-bedroom homes in town for under $70,000 isn’t hard, and buyers in their 20s are common. The town is working on revitalizing some of its older neighborhoods, thanks to a grant by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in 2017.
Hometown perk: Late October marks the start of the Callithumpian Festival, featuring zombie walks, haunted wagon tours, costume contests, and a huge parade. Yup, they take their Halloween seriously here.
Median home price: $158,800 Population: 28,708