Best Places to Live
Some towns have it all--great schools, a thriving job market, safe streets, plenty to do. The best offer one thing more: a reason to go home again.
(MONEY Magazine) – 1 Moorestown, N.J.
POPULATION: 20,400 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $375,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $6,000
After their twins came along, Wall Street professional Nancy Londres, now 41, and her husband Tom decided there was only one place to settle down: her hometown, Moorestown, N.J. Londres' childhood friend Saralee Michaud came home too, leaving Boston to raise her family and work as an assistant county prosecutor. Today Londres and Michaud live around the corner from each other. Just up the road is the produce stand owned by Naoji Moriuchi's family, who have farmed here for three generations. Moriuchi himself returned a few years ago, leaving a marketing career in Wilmington, Del. Now, at 29, he's a real estate agent and a volunteer fire fighter.
Welcome to Moorestown, MONEY magazine's Best Place to Live for 2005, a town where people coming up in the world can go home again. And want to. Who can blame them? Top schools. A Main Street made for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Good jobs. Nice homes at reasonable prices. And something else. "I love the feel of this place," says Moriuchi. Londres concurs: "It's a true community. There are at least 10 families on our street alone that I know from high school, and my daughter's first-grade teacher lives two doors away."
We spent months looking for Great American Towns--the kinds of places where you would want to raise your children, celebrate life's milestones and climb the ladder of your career. (For details on our methodology and a list of 100 Best Places, see pages 82 and 83. To check out the 1,300 places in our database, go to money.com/bestplaces.)
Our top 10 towns, which we'll profile below, begin with Moorestown, a mix of information age progress and traditional Americana that's hard not to love and easy to come home to. Londres, now a stay-at-home mom, buys birthday cakes at the Peter Pan Bakery on Main Street like her mother did. Down the street from Moriuchi's real estate office, the hot spot is Passariello's, where giant U-shaped booths easily fit a group of 10 and all the pizza they can eat. The town, founded by Quakers, bans the sale of alcohol, but there's plenty of night life in Philadelphia, just 15 miles away. Moorestown is more ethnically diverse than many suburbs of its size. And as for the schools, the district had to hire another Latin teacher--yes, Latin--because the language is so popular. Summer's big event is the town play. Mayor and local lawyer Kevin Aberant will play a marshal in this year's production of Oklahoma!
Moorestown is a good place to work too. Lockheed Martin's radar-systems division is based here, and Computer Science Corp. and PNC Bank are big local employers. About half the work force commutes to Philadelphia.
Easy access to highways means a trip to the Jersey Shore takes less than an hour, and New York City is 90 minutes away in the opposite direction. But because no major road runs through Moorestown, sprawl stops at the town line. That's not to say growth doesn't present challenges. Last year, a shopping center anchored by Costco and Target opened on the border with Mount Laurel, increasing traffic through town. And much of Moorestown's farmland has been lost to subdivisions. Home prices are up about 50% in the past five years, but compared with the suburbs of many big northeastern cities, Moorestown remains affordable. A four-bedroom home within walking distance of town goes for $400,000 to $500,000, and starter homes can be had for much less. "Moorestown still feels like a small town," says Michaud. "And the schools are amazing. I want my kids to come back and raise their children here too."
2 Bainbridge Island, Wash.
POPULATION: 21,600 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $500,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $4,000
+ PROS Gorgeous area; outdoor activities - CONS Life revolves around the ferry.
When Jerry Jones got the green light from his employer to leave Dallas and telecommute, he and his wife Kathy made a checklist detailing their ideal community: a small town with good schools, rational home prices, nice views and easy access to big-city amenities. In April the Oklahoma natives and their seven-year-old daughter Anna moved to Bainbridge Island, a 28-square-mile haven that's a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. "It's like being on vacation all the time," says Kathy, 44. She and Jerry, a tax consultant, stumbled onto Bainbridge while visiting Seattle a decade ago and were smitten with its lush woods, ocean views and quaint downtown.
Beauty is one thing. What about brains? "The schools are what really sold us," says Jerry, 46. Residents have never failed to pass an education-related tax levy, and they typically make extra contributions that increase the school budget by another 5%.
Of course, island living isn't for everyone. You can drive to the Olympic Peninsula via bridge, but people rely on the ferry, and the isolation can be tough on teenagers. Nearly half the island's work force commutes to Seattle every day, according to David Harrison, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs and an 18-year islander. On the plus side, the trip is predictable, and it can even be productive thanks to wireless Internet access.
3 Naperville, Ill.
POPULATION: 142,500 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $450,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $6,500
+ PROS An incredibly clean and safe city; plenty to do; 33-minute train ride to Chicago - CONS Traffic jams; surrounding sprawl
Take a summer night's walk through the center of Naperville and you'll find small-town peace. Along the Riverwalk, a five-mile brick path that follows the DuPage River, everyone from young parents to teens and senior citizens stops to chat with everyone else. Yet Naperville--with its six-figure population, every kind of shopping you could want, first-run theaters, and restaurants to suit every taste--is a real city. The seamless coexistence of big-city and small-town life drew Bruce and Amanda Hanson, 38 and 37, to Naperville from the D.C. area almost five years ago. "You have all the advantages of a city without any of the stress," says Bruce, now father to 17-month-old twins Nathan and Anneliese.
The twins will attend a top-ranked school district whose recent awards include first place in an international math and science competition. The city library has been named the best in its population category six years running. There's a six-acre swimming area located in a former rock quarry, and a thriving bar scene downtown, plus city-sponsored concerts and other events most weekends. The big negative: Drive for two minutes out of town in any direction and you're likely to be sitting in traffic on a highway.
Home prices have risen sharply with Naperville's popularity. Expect to pay at least $350,000 for a three-bedroom starter home; many of those are being torn down for million-dollar manses.
4 Vienna, Va.
POPULATION: 15,300 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $650,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $7,000
+ PROS Historical feel; hot job market - CONS Home prices and traffic
Mark Namdar has thought about moving his family a few times in the 14 years they've lived in Vienna, figuring he could buy more house and more land elsewhere. "Every time we looked around," he says, "we weren't impressed." So the Namdars recently decided to renovate and stay put. Vienna, says Namdar, a hotel manager in Washington, offers character that's lacking in other D.C. suburbs. Much of bustling Fairfax County feels like it was built last week. Not Vienna, a much-prized piece of ground in the Civil War. An active historical society is run out of the antebellum Freeman House, which served as a makeshift Civil War hospital and later as a post office, a general store and a train depot. Kids can even attend a summer history camp.
Today, Vienna is valued for its jobs and schools. Median income is more than $110,000, and IBM, Capital One and AOL are among dozens of big-name companies with large operations in the area. And D.C. and federal employment are just 15 miles away. Unfortunately, jobs outnumber houses. Result: Over the past five years, the median home price in Vienna has nearly doubled. Older homes can be had for $500,000, but new construction goes for north of $700,000. On the plus side, property taxes aren't bad and the local high school consistently ranks among the country's best. Music, dance and opera run year round in indoor and outdoor theaters at Wolf Trap, the nation's only national park for performing arts. Everyone shares one complaint: traffic on Maple Street. Driving the two-mile main drag can take up to 25 minutes during rush hour. But families like the Namdars swear the hassles are worth it. "We like the sense of neighborhood," says Mark. "And it's safe. The kids can be independent without our having to worry."
5 Louisville, Colo.
POPULATION: 19,600 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $350,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $2,000
+ PROS Sunshine; clean air; no crowds - CONS Tech-heavy job market
Many small towns define themselves by their proximity to a nearby city. Not so with Louisville (pronounced Lewisville). Though they're 25 miles from sprawling Denver and just six miles from the hip college mecca of Boulder, people here talk about their hometown like it's a refuge, not a suburb. "We wanted to get away from the congestion and crowds in Boulder," says Jessica Wible, 38, who moved to Louisville with her family three years ago. The downtown is a no-stoplight street lined with 100-year-old wood buildings in which you'll find eclectic stores and coffee shops that offer tarot readings. The trip to McCaslin Boulevard, the major shopping area, is a short hop on uncrowded roads. This being Colorado, great skiing, hiking, rock climbing and golf are no more than an hour's drive. But paradise comes at a price. The area suffered in the last technology downturn, and it will in the next one. Take in the view of the Rocky Mountains from a Louisville home, however, and it's clear why people roll the dice on the economy. "I would ask my employees to move out here for a couple of years, and they would never go back," says Arlin Lehman, who owned a medical equipment business and now heads up the Downtown Business Association.
6 Barrington, R.I.
POPULATION: 16,900 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $500,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $6,000
+ PROS No point in town is more than two miles from salt water. - CONS Few restaurants; main road clogged at rush hour; little ethnic diversity
Bordered on three sides by water, this small town on Narragansett Bay retains the leisurely feel of its days as an early-20th-century summer resort. Shops are clustered along County Road, the main street that runs through Barrington, but the commercial hub is small. While Barrington homes have gotten pricier, the town is an affordable alternative to tonier neighbors like Newport, and the test scores at Barrington's six public schools are the highest in Rhode Island. Providence, which is enjoying a renaissance, is just 10 miles to the northwest, and people also commute to Boston, an hour and 15 minutes away. When they're not in or on the water, residents flock to the 17-mile East Bay bike path, which connects Barrington with Providence and Bristol. "We were looking for a small-town New England life," says Laura Pothin, who moved from West Point, N.Y. to Barrington two years ago with her husband John and their two kids. "Families are always out walking, and kids are riding bikes."
7 Middleton, Wis.
POPULATION: 17,000 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $250,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $4,500
+ PROS Proximity to Madison; parks - CONS Summer traffic; little ethnic diversity
Talk with Middleton residents about their town, and education comes up first or second in the conversation. "The schools were one of the biggest draws for us," says Eric Foxman, 32, who recently relocated from Los Angeles with his wife Heather, 33, and four-month-old Kyle. In a three-year average of state test scores, Middleton students ranked within the top three districts in all subjects. Residents occasionally gripe about the property taxes that come with that excellence, but there's plenty of opportunity to do well here. Middleton is five miles from the state capital of Madison, which is also home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin. Besides teaching and government, law, biotech and medicine are the big professions. Those who make serious bucks head for Middleton Hills, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired development where home prices start at $450,000. But a nice house in town can be had for about half that price. You needn't leave Middleton to cross-country ski or to hike pristine wooded trails. Wisconsin winters make for a short road-repair season, so summer delays are common. Madison is where most night life is, but Middleton recently opened a performing arts center.
8 Peachtree City, Ga.
POPULATION: 35,000 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $300,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $3,000
+ PROS Ideal balance of convenience and community - CONS Ten miles of sprawl between town and the interstate; long commute to Atlanta
Peachtree City's roots don't run as deep as those of other great American towns, but it may be the model for future ones. In the 1950s, developers decided to turn 12,000 acres of farmland 29 miles southwest of Atlanta into a community of four villages and two man-made lakes. Each village has its own retail area, parks and schools, but the 10,000 families in Peachtree City are all neighbors, connected by 88 miles of winding paths made for golf carts, which can be found in almost every garage. "Life is a lot sweeter at 18 miles per hour. It forces you to slow down," explains Mayor Steve Brown. The school system is good; the crime rate practically zero. Despite tremendous sprawl around Atlanta over the past decade, Peachtree City bursts with green, thanks to a rule that limits development and commercial signage. "It's a good place to come home to," says Cal Beverly, editor of the local newspaper and a Peachtree City resident for 28 years.
9 Chatham, N.J.
POPULATION: 17,600 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $700,000 EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $7,500
10 Mill Valley, Calif.
POPULATION: 13,400 TYPICAL SINGLE-FAMILY HOME: $1M-PLUS EST. PROPERTY TAXES: $12,000
Both of these pretty towns, ideally located near big, glamorous cities, would rank higher on our list but for one thing: home prices. Chatham, just 24 miles west of New York City, feels more like a small New England town than a bustling Big Apple burb. Locals gather for lunch and gossip at Cafe Beethoven. On weekend nights, it's the hot spot for live jazz. Across the way at the train station--with a 45-minute link to Manhattan--commuters are on the honor system when they toss money into a basket for morning coffee and muffins. Not everyone works in New York: The corporate headquarters of Lucent and Schering Plough, among others, are nearby. The town's top-rated schools and the direct rail to New York, which started nine years ago, have made buying into Chatham an expensive proposition. You can't touch a decent home for less than $600,000, and most cost much more.
In Mill Valley, home prices are nearly as breathtaking as the views from nearby Mount Tamalpais. For $800,000 you get a teardown. Dotcom millionaires and power couples in the film and music industries are flocking to what not so long ago was a hangout for artists and reformed hippies just nine miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet most residents seem to love the town's low-key, back-to-nature atmosphere. Think fleece and flip-flops, not fur and stilettos. For those working toward that first million--not including their home equity--downtown San Francisco is a 30-minute commute.
The 100 Best Places to Live
# = Highest-scoring categories for each town
NOTES: Unless otherwise indicated, all data as of 2004 and based on town plus surrounding area. Nearest cities are listed only for places with population of less than 100,000.  Jobs/Economy rank based on household income increase since 1990 and Bureau of Labor Statistics county unemployment figures.  Crime rank based on FBI crime reporting.  Education rank based on the county's average student-to-teacher ratio from the National Center for Education Statistics and on the Educational Climate Index, which is based on the U.S. Census Bureau's socioeconomic status measure with weights adjusted to more strongly reflect the education level of an area's residents, generally considered a good proxy for school quality.  Arts and Leisure rank based on count of arts and leisure resources, including museums, restaurants, recreation and park space. For a full list of original sources, go to money.com/bestplaces. SOURCE: OnBoard, Brooklyn (onboardllc.com).