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
A hundred-year-old, four-bedroom home in McPherson, KS
If all of the 20-somethings whizzing by on road bikes isn’t a dead giveaway, then surely places like the Craft Coffee Parlor spell it out: This is a college town. About an hour north of Wichita, it’s home to McPherson College and the Central Christian College of Kansas, boasting about 1,600 students between them.
“McPherson, KS, is one of the most progressive small communities in the Midwest,” says Anne Kirchner, with the McPherson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Like many college towns, there’s a big range in home types and prices. They range from stately, two-story, 100-year old homes with front porches around $165,000 (perfect for a professor) to five-bedroom houses going for $115,000 that seem designed to accommodate multiple college students.
McPherson boast a strong cultural arts scene, with frequent performances at the McPherson Opera House and traveling exhibits at the McPherson Museum & Arts Foundation.
Hometown perk: The town’s Hemp Victory Garden sells all sorts of cannabidiol oils that don’t require prescriptions.
Median home price: $375,800 Population: 18,738
Homes in Los Alamos, NM
The country’s best and brightest physicists headed to Los Alamos during World War II to help develop what would become the nuclear bomb. And today it still remains a hub for high-paying science and tech jobs, with the Los Alamos National Laboratory being its top employer. Not only is this the most affluent small town on our ranking, its median household income of $110,190 is among the highest in the nation.
And while homes here aren’t cheap, they’re much more affordable than in Santa Fe, about 40 minutes to the southeast. The median home price there is $594,100.
“The lab recruits worldwide,” says Joanie Ahlers, economic development administrator for Los Alamos County. “We have a steady stream of young families moving into town.”
A classic Los Alamos home sits atop the town’s many cliffs, and has breathtaking views of the New Mexico canyons and terrain down below. And folks here have a lot of time to take in those views: Last year realtor.com ranked Los Alamos County as one of the top 10 counties where people live the longest.
Hometown perk: International swim teams from places such as Belgium and Japan train in the local Aquatic Center, a top-notch facility with Olympic-size pools.
6. Austin, MN
Median home price: $115,000 Population: 39,566
Austin flies in the face of stereotypes about small towns in decline. Construction crews are hard at work here, putting up a $35 million, 100,000-square-foot community center that will include everything from indoor running tracks to warm therapy pools. It’s slated to open later this year.
So why is Austin, nearly two hours south of Minneapolis, doing so well? It’s home to the headquarters of Fortune 500 packaged food maker Hormel. The company spends millions improving the community and attracting talent.
“People from everywhere come here,” says Kristen Olson, a community concierge at the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce who helps newcomers transition to living in the town, including those in refugee resettlements. “We have some 50 languages spoken in our schools.”
Home buyers tend to live in cozy, century-old, two-story houses that go for around $90,000.
Hometown perk: Two words: Spam Museum.
Median home price: $240,000 Population: 33,349
Ranch home in Williston, ND
Williston has seen a modern-day gold rush thanks to the North Dakota oil boom that started in the mid-2000s. The population jumped 49% since 2010.
But those bigger paychecks haven’t come without some growing pains. Some folks have struggled to find affordable apartments, and the influx of students created a teacher shortage. And when oil prices took a hit in 2015, so did the city. (But it was a momentary setback: North Dakota oil production hit a new record in December.)
When all the new folks started moving to town, builders put up ranch homes with bright and open floor plans. But Williston has managed to retain its small-town charm.
Hometown perk: Check out the classics, muscle cars, choppers, and rat rods at the annual Chokecherry Festival Car & Bike Show
8. Mexico, MO
Median home price: $94,800 Population: 25,641
Ranch home in Mexico, MO
For one week each summer, Mexico is transformed from a quaint, quiet community into a giant beauty pageant filled with baton twirling, vocal solos, and clouds of hairspray. The town, about two hours northwest of St. Louis, has hosted the Miss Missouri pageant since 1970. The winner goes on to compete in Miss America.
Home buyers who want lots of neighbors can choose from two-story houses near the city center with wraparound porches built in the 1930s that go for around $60,000. Meanwhile, those seeking more peace and quiet can score 3,000-square-foot, custom-built ranch homes surrounded by woods for around $250,000.
There are all the hallmarks of a classic small town: a mom and pop tire repair shop, a bowling alley, and a miniature golf course. But for more elevated pursuits, there’s also the Presser Performing Arts Center, which holds art classes for locals and hosts dance performances.
Hometown perk: Quirky history—the town was established in 1836, the same time that Texans lost to the country of Mexico in the Battle of the Alamo.
9. Merrill, WI
Median home price: $145,000 Population: 27,838
This haven for history buffs is located along the banks of the Wisconsin River. Merrill boasts six buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Lincoln County Courthouse, a Beaux Arts–style building with a grand clock tower, and Merrill City Hall.
Buyers who dig the town’s past can snag two-bedroom homes built in the 1920s and ’30s that need some serious fixing up for under $50,000. And on the outskirts of Merrill are 1970s-era ranches with two-car garages going for just under $200,000.
This cozy river town tends to attract families keen on enjoying the outdoors. On the weekends you’ll spot ’em hiking through the pine trees in Council Grounds State Park, a 500-acre park just minutes from the town’s center. Or maybe Mom and Dad will sneak out for drinks at Sawmill Brewing Co.
Hometown perk: Drink cheap beer (it’s Wisconsin!), and throw darts at All Aboard, a good, old-fashioned dive bar.
10. Andrews, TX
Median home price: $232,000 Population: 17,722
This first oil well was drilled 90 years ago in Andrews, located in the heart of West Texas’ Permian Basin. It’s no wonder this town, about 40 minutes north of Odessa, is full of good-paying trucking, engineering, and oil field jobs. The typical household income is $70,753 here—topping incomes in cities such as Austin and Dallas.
Andrews is no stranger to boom-and-bust cycles. After some down years following the low oil prices of 2015, things are looking up again. List prices on realtor.com have soared 30% over the past two years. Passing cattle ranches, oil diggers, and that West Texas grass-coved desert landscape, home buyers can find lots of ranches priced around $230,000 on the outskirts of town.
The character of this town can be summed up by its Wild, Wild West Fest. The annual festival, held in April, includes two-steppin’ under the evening stars to country music, a barbecue cook-off, truck and tractor pulls, and, of course, goat roping.
Hometown perk: The steak fingers at Buddy’s Drive-In, founded in 1969, are a local obsession.
* This is a government definition that includes a core community plus the outlying areas with a total population of between 10,000 to 50,000 folks. We included only one place per state to achieve some geographic diversity.
** Data sources: realtor.com, Sperling’s Best Places, U.S. Census Bureau, and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Source: Housing Trends Feed