The basic elements that make somewhere a great place to live rarely change—good schools, a good economy, good neighbors. Yet around the edges, preferences tend to shift over time.
When MONEY launched its inaugural Best Places to Live list in 1987, for instance, crime was still rising nationally—so interest in personal safety was at a high. Later, when unemployment was soaring during the global financial crisis, access to good job opportunities was considered a big priority.
Today, more than eight years into this economic recovery and five years into the national real estate rebound, there are different concerns. While home prices have come back in general, the recovery has been uneven. Rising demand for urban living from millennials and their baby boomer parents—some of whom are downsizing—has pushed up prices for homes and condos in city centers.
That has created an opportunity, “driving a lot of people to look at the suburbs,” said realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale. “It’s not only the price difference, but all the other things that you get for the money, like school quality.”
Being the contrarians and bargain hunters we are, the journalists at MONEY jumped on this trend. For this year’s Best Places to Live list, we chose to focus on towns with a population of 10,000 to 100,000, to avoid the biggest cities while shining a light on smaller towns and affordable suburbs.From that starting point, MONEY sifted through data at a granular level. We examined dozens of different variables that speak to the good life, including growing jobs, quality schools, cultural and recreational resources, and affordable homes. To help hone our search, MONEY teamed up with realtor.com to leverage its knowledge of housing markets throughout the country.
The traits fell into eight broad categories: cost of living (how steep are local taxes, for instance?), the economy (how many jobs are being created?), education (what’s the graduation rate?), housing (is real estate appreciating, and are homes affordable?), crime (how’s the crime risk?), convenience (are commutes onerous?), cultural and recreational amenities (do you have access to libraries, museums, and entertainment?), and an overall sense of pleasantness (are the skies sunny?).
These efforts helped us identify this year’s No. 1 city: Fishers, Ind. This Indianapolis suburb is no stranger to Best Places. In 2010, Fishers ranked No. 8 on our list. And in 2012 it came in at No. 12—the same year that its neighbor to the west, Carmel, Ind., was named the Best Place to Live in America.
Yet Hamilton County, Indiana, isn’t the only place where you can find your bliss. Our Best Places list is as diffuse as ever, with our top 10 communities scattered throughout every U.S. region—the West Coast, the Rockies, the Great Plains, the Midwest, the Northeast, the Southwest, and the Deep South.
The full top 10 is as follows:
The point isn’t to thrust our definition of what the good life is onto you. It’s to help you find the right town that fits your own hopes and goals—and your budget.