THE BEST PLACES TO LIVE NOW For the third time, the top place to live in the U.S. is an idyllic urban outpost close to a major metropolitan area.
By Richard Eisenberg and Marguerite T. Smith Reporter associates: Debra Wishik Englander with Missy Daniel, Paul Katzeff, Tim Turner and Nancy Way

(MONEY Magazine) – Here we go again, ranking America's hometowns and rankling just about everyone in the process. After you scour our list of the 300 largest U.S. metropolitan areas on pages 82 and 83, you may react something like this: Why is my city ranked so low/so high? It's not that bad/great. Furthermore, whaddya mean Roanoke (188) is better than Richmond (225)? And what's with the top city? Bremerwhat?! How did such an obscure place shoot up from 179 a year ago to the No. 1 spot? What does it have over its neighbor Seattle, last year's winner? First, Bremerwhat is Bremerton, Wash., a metropolitan area of 180,900 that mirrors two of our previous survey winners, Nashua, N.H. in 1987 and Danbury, Conn. in 1988. Call it a satellite city or even a super-burb: a medium-size, safe, environmentally clean place, with a rebounding economy, located an hour or less from a large, vibrant U.S. city. Take the 50-minute, $6.65 car ferry west from Seattle across gleaming Puget Sound and you are in Bremerton, gateway to the 393-square-mile lush, Twin Peaks-y Kitsap Peninsula, which the U.S. Census defines as the Bremerton metro area. Bremerton is best known as a Navy town. Lately, though, the city and its environs have attracted and retained families who desire all that Seattle offers -- a pristine environment, plentiful jobs, low taxes, housing appreciation, arts and leisure activities galore -- plus Kitsap's lower house prices and reduced workday stress. A 1,700-square-foot starter home that commands $125,000 in Seattle might go for $60,000 in Bremerton. Asks Larry Hall, a 44-year-old lawyer whose country-style home overlooks Kitsap Lake: ''Where else can you watch osprey dive for fish in your front yard as you eat breakfast and be at the office eight minutes later?'' (For more on why the Hall family loves Bremerton, see page 80.) As the country's rolling recession flattens an estimated 28 states across the land, Bremerton's No. 1 rank seems especially apt. The Northwest stands virtually alone with an economy that refuses to ease up. Four other places in our top 10 are in that corner of the country: Seattle (2), Tacoma (4), Eugene/ Springfield, Ore. (6) and Olympia, Wash. (8). Seattle, for example, leads the nation in housing appreciation (up 36.5% in the past year, contrasted with a 3.4% drop in slumping Boston). Two other large metro areas in our top 10 are known for their quality of life despite significant drawbacks -- earthquakes in San Francisco (No. 3) and savage winters in Minneapolis/St. Paul (7). Columbia, Mo. -- with 106,800 people, the smallest of our areas -- leaped from No. 108 to No. 5 this year because of its low cost of living, recession- resistant economy and high number of physicians. Two sunny California areas with excellent medical care, Sacramento (9) and Los Angeles/Long Beach (10), completed our honor roll. Not surprisingly, none of the five northeastern places in last year's top 10 repeated. All were victims of a stalled economy and depressed housing markets. For example, the unemployment rate in Nashua (now ranked No. 133) stands at 5.4%, up from 3.1% a year ago. Our basic survey methodology remained the same. We asked a representative sample of 252 MONEY subscribers (median age: 48; median household income: $66,550) to rate the importance of 44 specific regional characteristics, such as weather and crime, on a scale from 10 down to 1. This year our readers' top priority was clean water. Other key factors cited included a low crime rate, clean air, available and affordable medical care, a financially strong state government and low taxes. (See page 93 for the complete list.) Then we collected the latest data at the time -- unemployment rates were as of March -- to measure each of the U.S. Census Bureau's 300 largest metropolitan areas, including 12 new entries. Next, with the assistance of Fast Forward, a Portland, Ore. consulting firm, we awarded points to each metro area based on how well it delivered on the attributes that MONEY's subscribers said they wanted. Finally, to learn about area attractions and detractions that our data might have missed, MONEY reporters visited the top and bottom five places as well as Monterey Bay, Calif., the area that moved up most in our rankings from a year ago (see page 89). Some places have risen significantly. Among the biggest gainers were small and medium-size satellites like Bremerton, Columbia, Mo. and Sacramento. Such places offer an easygoing way of life plus ready access to their big-city neighbor's arts, leisure and medical facilities. Many of them have had recent population spurts, as Americans choose to relocate from congested central cities to the new, self-sufficient city-states. ''These places are large enough to have job opportunities for professionals as well as being nice places to live,'' says Calvin Beale, senior demographer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ''They're not just suburbs.'' These satellite cities are likely to lead the way in future U.S. job creation. ''Moving out a few miles from the big city is absolutely the trend for the '90s,'' says Nestor Terleckyj, president of National Planning Association Data Services. This year's survey shows much more movement among the city rankings than it , did in the past. Partly, this reflects the latest readers' survey. For example, low housing prices and the possibility of a natural disaster mattered a good deal less this year -- house prices got a median score of 6 out of a top of 10, down from 8.5 in 1989. The rankings also were affected by data sources we added: -- The environment. We included a 1989 air-quality survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a state-by-state report from the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham, N.C. research group. -- Strength of state finances. We ranked the states by their latest Standard & Poor's bond ratings. Highest-rated, at AAA: California, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia. Lowest: Massachusetts (BBB) and Louisiana (BBB+). -- Recession resistance. For the first time, we included data from DRI/McGraw- Hill, the Lexington, Mass. economic-forecasting firm that let us rank each area -- from a top score of 1 down to 318 -- on its insulation from a recession. The best scores went to places with the least cyclical economies. Most recession-resistant: certain college towns like Iowa City and state capitals including Olympia, Wash. Among the least recession-resistant: auto- industry cities such as Flint, Mich., places with heavy manufacturing like Allentown/Bethlehem, Pa. and oil-dependent areas like Midland, Texas.

-- Housing and jobs. We noted year-to-year housing-permit figures as compiled by the U.S. Housing Markets, a monthly newsletter published by Lomas Mortgage USA. In addition, the National Planning Association forecast average annual job-growth rates from now to 2000 for us. Our weighting system changed a bit too. We reduced point scores for outlying metro areas like Beaver County, Pa. and Boston's North Shore because we concluded that they had received too much credit just for being located in the 20 mammoth regions the Census calls Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas. At the same time, we gave extra points to Bremerton and Flint -- our No. 300 in 1987 -- because they are close enough to benefit from features of Seattle and Detroit, but the Census ignores that fact. The agency's reasoning: According to the 1980 census, there was not enough commuting between the areas to link them. This year's bottom five places -- Waterbury, Conn.; Pawtucket, R.I.; New Britain, Conn.; Fall River, Mass. and No. 300, Allentown/Bethlehem, Pa. -- represent the bursting of the Northeast's economic balloon. Housing prices in the Allentown area (pop. 677,000) of eastern Pennsylvania, for example, rose about 20% a year from 1985 to 1987. Last year, the average sales price fell 7%, from $117,000 to $109,000. Furthermore, following a rash of overbuilding, housing permits slid by 29% in 1989. ''People assumed that New Jersey residents would move to Allentown to get more house for the money. But we were overly optimistic,'' says Kamran Afshar, director of the Lehigh Valley Consumer Research Center, a local economic-forecasting firm. The unemployment rates in the bottom five areas all ranged above March's 5.2% national rate, stretching from 5.6% to 11.1%. Despite placing at No. 300, Allentown/Bethlehem is much improved from the early '80s when the steel mills were closing and Billy Joel sang his devastating tribute to the area. True, Allentown may soon lose Mack Trucks, one of the city's biggest employers with 2,200 jobs, now that Renault has made a tender offer to buy the troubled company. Even so, most residents are ardent boosters (see Editor's Notes on page 5). Says Ken Graham, 47, director of the Muhlenberg College psychology department: ''It's really a good place to raise kids.''

1 BREMERTON, WASH. Area population: 180,900 Unemployment rate: 4.6% Three-bedroom house: $80,000 to $150,000 Property taxes: $1,000 to $1,875 Top tax rate on wages: None Top sales tax rate: 7.8% Robberies per 100,000 people: 40 Recession insulation: 34th out of 318 Annual sunny days: 136

Snobbish Seattleites still regard Bremerton as a down-at-heel country cousin. But word is spreading about the glories of our No. 1 metropolitan area, known locally as the Kitsap Peninsula -- a 393-mile thumb of land projecting into Puget Sound just west of Seattle. ''We've had more developers come through here in the past six months than in the past six years,'' says Bremerton Mayor Louis Mentor. Disaffected residents around the country are checking out the verdant area too, and coming away impressed by its natural beauty, its charged-up economy and, along with the rest of Washington, its freedom from state income taxes. Emigres from Seattle, as well as retirees from California, New York and other high-priced enclaves, will likely make 1990 the area's third straight record-breaking year for local housing appreciation -- up from 18.2% in 1988, to 22.5% in '89 and this year more than 30%. . Even as the economy turns anemic nationwide, Bremerton stands strong. Few metropolitan areas are better insulated from recessions, according to DRI/ McGraw-Hill. In large part, that is because a full 49.2% of Kitsap County employment is federal, state, county or city government-related and manufacturing accounts for only 5% of jobs. The U.S. Navy remains the biggest employer: Trident nuclear submarines are repaired here and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, with 12,200 civilian workers, harbors 20 mothballed carriers and cruisers. ''The Defense Department cutbacks are not in areas that will affect this shipyard,'' says Alexis Cain, research director of the Defense Business Project, a nonprofit research group. Quaint, rustic Kitsapland towns, such as Poulsbo, Port Orchard and Port Gamble, and the climate -- both physical and social -- make the area a first- rate place to raise a family. The peninsula swells with places for swimming, fishing and boating. You will find no traffic jams, no ozone alerts and a crime rate about half the national average. Should you yearn for big- city pleasures -- a symphony concert or a professional ball game, say -- you can take the ferry to Seattle in 50 minutes. As with so many older American cities, Bremerton's downtown area needs work badly. for rent and for sale signs mar shop windows and the Roxy moviehouse, an Art Deco gem, is permanently dark. ''We were malled,'' concedes Mayor Mentor, referring to the booming Kitsap Mall near suburban Silverdale, which lured away most of Bremerton's retail trade when it opened in 1985. But city officials plan an $8.6 million waterfront development, featuring an overwater boardwalk, downtown marina and restaurants, slated for completion by mid-1991.

2 SEATTLE Area population: 1.9 million Unemployment rate: 3.9% Three-bedroom house: $150,000 to $200,000 Property taxes: $1,600 to $2,000 Top tax rate on wages: None Top sales tax rate: 8.1% Robberies per 100,000 people: 185 Recession insulation: 243rd Annual sunny days: 136

We are not the only ones who think that Seattle, our top city last year, is still a terrific place to work and play. In the past year more than 75,000 people put down stakes in the area, driving up the average sales price of houses by 36.5% to $207,000. Some sellers boasted of getting more than their asking prices, or closing deals even before the properties hit the multiple- | listings books. The already low unemployment rate has dropped nearly a full percentage point, from 4.7% last year to 3.9% in March. The Bolshoi Ballet and the art exhibit ''Moscow: Treasures and Traditions'' came to town, as did the Goodwill Games. So what caused Seattle to slip to No. 2? Bremerton simply nudged past it by being safer, more recession-resistant and, according to the National Planning Association, a stronger candidate for job growth through the year 2000. Like the real estate market, Seattle's Boeing-led economy was in full throttle last year. Since then it has started to moderate. Boeing (employer to one of every 16 local workers) still has $90 billion worth of future orders for commercial jets. But the firm's military aircraft production, though only 20% of its business, has softened considerably. In July, the company announced plans to cut its 106,000 Washington State work force (virtually all in the Seattle area) by a total of 5,600 by the end of this year. Fortunately, local high-tech firms are bouncing higher. Microsoft, the Redmond-based computer- software manufacturer, buoyed by the spectacularly successful launch of its new Windows program, plans to add 1,000 local people to its 3,700-person work force. Still, Seattle's current supersonic boom makes some economists jittery. ''We're cautioning our clients about Seattle, though not for the near term,''explains Beth Burnham Mace, senior gional economist for DRI/McGraw- Hill, the Lexington, Mass. forecasting firm. ''There's a real chance that a spate of overbuilding could hit that area hard in the face one day.'' Current conditions come with a bill. After a recent citywide re-evaluation, assessed values on residential real estate rose an average of 55% above the level of two years ago. Higher taxes will flow accordingly. More than 30,000 of the 460,000 homeowners have already filed appeals. ''We will finally be paying for the good life here,'' says F.J. Van de Putte, an accountant in the King County assessor's office, ''and not everyone's happy about it.'' In fact, some bumper stickers complain of being ''Californicated'' by the influx from that state. Residents of Seattle, which has the highest recycling rate of any major U.S. city, are particularly sensitive about tampering with the environment. This fall, voters will decide whether to further limit land development, especially near their sparkling streams and rivers. Any curbs, however, may drive up property values -- and probably taxes as well. * 3 SAN FRANCISCO Area population: 1.6 million Unemployment rate: 2.8% Three-bedroom house: $300,000 to $600,000 Property taxes: $3,000 to $6,000 Top tax rate on wages: 9.3% Top sales tax rate: 7.25% Robberies per 100,000 people: 368 Recession insulation: 19th Annual sunny days: 265

As a doctor in the summer hit movie Arachnophobia, actor Jeff Daniels says he can't wait to leave San Francisco for a small country town so he won't have to call spaghetti ''pasta'' anymore. Bad move, Jeff. Not only does he end up in some close encounters with deadly tarantulas, he also flees one of America's most livable places. The San Francisco metro area -- which includes the counties of San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo -- was again ranked No. 3, as it was last year. Its strongest category: leisure. In July, MONEY's food experts concluded that it was the third best restaurant town in America, following New York City and No. 1, Los Angeles. The Bay Area also posted solid scores in arts and culture, weather, health care and economy in this survey. Unlike rival Los Angeles, San Francisco isn't likely to suffer much from defense spending cutbacks, and it has less than half as much carbon monoxide in its air. Last October's earthquake jolted the area in more ways than just seismic, though. The San Francisco sales tax rate jumped from 6.5% to 7.25% to pay for transportation improvements and earthquake relief efforts. The quake also cut into tourism, San Francisco's biggest industry, at $3.1 billion annually. Local analysts expect no increase in visitors in 1990. ''Previous years have shown steady 2% to 4% growth,'' says John Marks, president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. ''We feel this pattern would have continued if it hadn't been for the earthquake and the sluggish U.S. economy.'' If you're considering relocating here, this may be an ideal time to buy a house -- presuming you can afford one. Prices are flat or, in some places, 5% lower than a year ago and are expected to remain unchanged at least until spring. Best bargain: a $300,000 three-bedroom house with yard in San Rafael, a popular family-oriented Marin County suburb that rarely gets the famed San Francisco fog. You also can commute from Larkspur to downtown via the 45- minute Golden Gate ferry, complete with a bar for the trip home. Daily cost: $2.20 each way, drinks extra.

4 TACOMA, WASH. Area population: 559,100 Unemployment rate: 5.3% Three-bedroom house: $75,000 to $110,000 Property taxes: $1,100 to $1,600 Top tax rate on wages: None Top sales tax rate: 7.8% Robberies per 100,000 people: 295 Recession insulation: 52nd Annual sunny days: 136

The local airport's nickname, Seatac, tells the tale: Tac for Tacoma has long played second fiddle to Sea as in Seattle, which is 25 miles to the north along Puget Sound. ''We have had an image problem,'' acknowledges Erling Mork, Tacoma's city manager for 15 years. Many Seattleites still joke about ''the aroma of Tacoma,'' though the onetime smell of sulfite carried upwind from the pulp and paper mills is mostly gone. These days, though, Tacomans have plenty to boast about. For example, the Port of Tacoma on Commencement Bay is now the nation's sixth largest container port, up from 18th in 1984, albeit still a notch behind Seattle. ''You can just feel the momentum,'' says Mork. ''We're like a rocket ready to take off.'' That's not mere boosterism. Tacoma soared from No. 49 in our rankings because of its enviable mix of conditions for work (plentiful jobs, typical commutes of 20 minutes, insulation from recession) and play (Crystal Mountain, a 7,000-foot skier's dream, is an hour away in Mount Rainier National Park). And though houses appreciated 37% in 1989 to an average of $90,000, they remain values by northeastern and Southern California standards. The Puget Sound area's two biggest employers, Boeing and the U.S. Defense Department (which has 30,000 workers locally), are especially keen on Tacoma. In July, Boeing announced plans to build two facilities in Tacoma's Pierce County: a $350 million plant southeast of the city, employing 300 workers to make jet parts, and a $30 million tool-sharpening operation with 250 employees in nearby Puyallup. Word around town is that the Army may move its Seventh Infantry Division to Tacoma's Fort Lewis, probably resulting in a 3,000-person increase to 25,000 by 1993. And the Madigan Army Medical Center, billed by the area's Congressman Norman Dicks as the Walter Reed of the West Coast, will attract military retirees to Pierce County when it opens in the next year or two. Tacoma -- a port city with many transients and a diverse population -- has traditionally suffered more violent crime than its Puget Sound neighbors. Since last year, however, a community effort known as Safe Streets appears to have helped. Its tactics include neighborhood groups picketing crack houses, videotaping drug deals and painting over graffiti. In any event, crime is down 21% over the past two years in Tacoma's downtown area and 1% citywide. ''I'm not saying we've solved the problem,'' says a spokesman from the city's police department. ''But we're starting to turn the corner.''

5 COLUMBIA, MO. Area population: 106,800 Unemployment rate: 2.6% Three-bedroom house: $60,000 to $150,000 Property taxes: $700 to $1,600 Top tax rate on wages: 6% Top sales tax rate: 6.48% Robberies per 100,000 people: 86 Recession insulation: 13th Annual sunny days: 191

Most Americans know Columbia only as the home of the 24,220-student University of Missouri (''Mizzou''), if they know it at all. Too bad. This undiscovered small city (pop. 64,300) and surrounding Boone County in the foothills of the Ozarks provide a refreshing pocket of prosperity halfway between St. Louis 125 miles to the east and Kansas City to the west. Its unemployment rate is less than half the 5.8% rate in St. Louis. Columbians don't worry much about recessions, since their white-collar economy is largely fueled by the three steady, environmentally clean industries of higher education, health care and insurance. The area's 681 M.D.s mean there are 638 doctors per 100,000 people, the highest rate of physicians per capita in the country (just ahead of Charlottesville, Va. and Ann Arbor). ''Pretty soon the doctors will be cold- calling us,'' says Brad Miller, vice president of the local office for B.C. Christopher Securities, a regional brokerage. The closest thing Columbia has to heavy industry is an Oscar Mayer plant employing 170 people. No one moans about housing woes here. Prices are slightly under the national average and have been appreciating in value by 4% a year. Local builders cannot erect deluxe, marble-floor homes (price: $150,000 to $250,000) fast enough in the trendy southwest neighborhood, near the Country Club of Missouri. The overall cost of living is quite affordable too, at 7% below the average for U.S. metropolitan areas, as determined by the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association. A first-run movie is $4.50, and a gallon of unleaded gas costs as little as $1. Salaries are on the low side too, though. The average teacher makes only $28,722, 8% below the $31,340 U.S. average. The next time traffic makes you scream, think about Columbians, who generally drive to work in 10 minutes or less. ''Half the town goes home for lunch to see their kids,'' says Dr. Jerry Kennett, a cardiologist and father of an 11-year-old son. The trip is considerably longer -- two hours -- if you hanker to see the St. Louis Cardinals or Kansas City Royals, or dine at a Mobil Guide-rated five-star restaurant like Tony's in St. Louis. But some Columbians think nothing of escaping summer's hair-curling humidity by driving an hour south to their $80,000 vacation condos by the bass-filled Lake of the Ozarks. Columbia residents routinely work to improve their city, even if it means digging into their pockets to do so. The past three school bond issues passed with more than 70% of the vote, including one last June that will raise property taxes by roughly $200 a year in order to hire 28 more teachers and pay school operating expenses. A vigilant 97-person police force deserves much of the credit for driving down Columbia's already low crime rate since 1988. A year ago, two groups of teens, one from Kansas City, tried to get a drug trade going in the Douglass Park-Trinity section. ''Neighborhood residents provided the information we needed to arrest the kids and send them to prison,'' says chief Ernest Barbee. ''The gangs faded into the sunset.''