Iowa may be known as the “Hawkeye State,” but for many non-residents it has become most famous for one of its chief exports: corn. Of course, locals know the great state has much more to offer than agriculture. Iowa is quintessentially Midwestern with great schools, a high quality of life, and close communities. But what are the best places in Iowa?
Thankfully, we have an answer. As part of our on-going series, Movoto Real Estate is going state-to-state to uncover the best places to live. We’ve already taken a tour of the Arizona and Massachusetts. Next up is Iowa. After we crunched numbers, Waukee came in as the No. 1 place to hang your hat in the state. Here are the 10 best places in Iowa:
Yes, there do seem to be quite a few cities in Dallas and Polk Counties on our list, but if you keep on trucking we’ll explain the method behind our ranking and exactly why each of these cities are so wonderful.
How We Did It
Here at Movoto Real Estate we value facts–some people call us Saturday Night Scientists; others simply call us number nerds. Either way, in order to make this as factual as possible, we used the following seven criteria:
- Unemployment Rate
- Cost of living
- Crime rate
- High school diploma attainment rate
- Median household income
- Median home value
- Median rental price
We started with a list of the 81 places in Iowa with a population over 5,000, then gave each a rank from one to 81 in the criteria listed above. We then averaged the individual criterion rankings to create an overall score for each city. While each place on our list is unique in its own way (and residents would probably tell you it’s the best), all of our top 10 shared these commonalities: low unemployment, low cost of living, low crime rates, a high percentage of high school diploma attainment, high median household incomes, and high median home values and rent prices.
Regarding crime rates, we looked at them on a level playing field of crimes per 100,000 residents per year so that smaller cities and towns could be compared evenly with larger ones.
To find out how the top 50 places in our study ranked, scroll down to the bottom of the post. For now, though, let’s check out our No. 1 city, Waukee.
Located just outside of Des Moines, Waukee came out swinging on our list–not just with its most notable local MLB player, Hal Manders, but in nearly all of our criteria as well. Waukee really hit it home, though, with its high median income of $74,413, high median home value of $183,900, and a high school diploma attainment rate of 95 percent.
Not only did Waukee score an A+ in Education, but its school system is also expanding–and fast. With more than 1,000 staff members serving more than 7,700 total students, Waukee has the fastest growing school district in the state, which may explain the low unemployment rate of just 4.2 percent.
2. North Liberty
North Liberty is the first city (and one of the only cities) on our list that has nothing to do with Polk or Dallas Counties. This city, located just outside of Iowa City, scored well in our study with one of the lowest unemployment rates on our list–just 3.7 percent. North Liberty is also one of the safest cities in the state, with a crime rate of just 841 crimes per 100,000 people annually. That’s 66 percent lower than the state’s overall crime rate.
Additionally, this city has some of the highest median rent prices in Iowa at $779 per month. The higher the median rent price, the more desirable the city—which makes sense, seeing as North Liberty was the fastest growing town in Iowa from 2000 to 2010.
Located in Polk County, IA, Johnston came in at the top of our list in terms of real estate. Johnson ranked at the top of the list in both its median home value of $236,700 and its median rent price of $934. Of course, nothing says “people want to live here” like pricey real estate. Luckily, residents here can certainly afford it, with a median household income of $89,453.
Johnston is the home base of Pioneer Hi-Bred Seeds, The Gardeners of America, Iowa Public Television, and the Camp Dodge Military Reservation. What makes it truly unique is the community feel, the unique architecture, and places like the Ida Trier House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Grimes may have gotten the same overall score as Johnston, but for very different reasons. Grimes has a median rent price of $772 and a median household income of $72,308, which is pretty impressive as is; but where it really shined was in its high school diploma attainment rate and its overall cost of living.
In Grimes, 96 percent of residents have high school diplomas, making it No. 2 in this criterion. While the cost of living of here of 85 isn’t as low as, say, Osceola’s at 75, it is still 15 points lower than the average of 100, and one of the lowest on our list.
Grimes is also dotted with parks throughout the city, like Lions Park and Water Works Park, home to a quaint and inviting public library. Perhaps that’s why residents here are so likely to get their diplomas?
Also in Dallas and Polk counties, Clive is known for its outstanding outdoors amenities. It has a Greenbelt Park and trail system running throughout, sports and recreational offerings for residents, and one of the most recognized Public Art Programs in the state.
In our study, Clive came in at No. 1 for both its high school diploma attainment rate (98 percent) and for its median household income ($98,385). Clive also has some of the highest home prices on our list, with a median home value of $231,200. Of course, such luxuries come at a price, bumping Clive’s cost of living up to an 89—but still, this is lower than the national average of 100.
Just south of the Des Moines International Airport, Norwalk, IA is a family friendly and economically strong community. With a cost of living of 83, Norwalk is the most affordable city on our top 10, and yet, residents here still make a median household income of $69,229—that’s 45 percent above the state average. It’s no wonder Norwalk was recently voted Businessweek’s Best Affordable Suburb in Iowa.
You’re probably noticing a trend by now, but Ankeny is yet another city in Polk County. With a population of nearly 50,000, Ankeny is the third largest city in Polk County, behind Des Moines and West Des Moines. It scored well in our study with 96 percent of residents holding a high school diploma, and has a high median household income of $71,963.
Like Grimes, Ankeny has a cost of living of 85—15 points lower than the average of 100—making it one of the more affordable cities on our list. It’s no wonder Ankeny was recently recognized as one of the top 10 towns for families by Family Circle, and in 2009, ranked one of the top 100 places to live by Money Magazine.
Yet another city in Polk and Dallas counties, and a suburb of Des Moines, Urbandale came in fifth on our list for scoring well in nearly all of our criteria. In particular, though, Urbandale shined when it came to its high school diploma attainment rate of 96 percent, its median home value of $191,000, and a median household income of $80,751—that’s 69 percent higher than the state average.
Urbandale is dotted with 850 acres of parks and 33 miles of trails, is home to the Buccaneer Arena where the Des Moines Buccaneers hockey team practices, and the Living History Farms, a 500-acre open-air museum. Urbandale may be a suburb of Des Moines, but it stands just fine as a city on its own.
9. Pleasant Hill
Pleasant Hill claimed a spot in our top 10 due to its high median rent price of $787, its high median income of $71,868, and its high home value of $174,000—that’s 65 percent higher than the state average.
Pleasant Hill may be pleasant, but it is also a good place to raise a family. For example, this city is home to parts of Festival Park—a huge entertainment event center built to resemble an old English Village, complete with a castle. This place hosts all kinds of events like Renaissance festivals, the October Iowa Pumpkin Fest and Harvest Fair, and an annual film festival. Perhaps Fun Hill may be a more apt name for this Des Moines suburb?
With a high school diploma attainment rate of 96 percent and an unemployment rate of just 3.7 percent, this suburb of Iowa City caps off our list. Coralville also has one of the highest median home values in the state at $178,700. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this comparatively pricey city, with a cost of living of 91, is also home to one of the largest shopping centers in the state, the Coral Ridge Mall.
Way More Than Cornfields
We said it in the outset and we’ll say it again: Iowa is clearly much more than just a bunch of cornfields. This state has culture, personality, and some beautiful parks to boot. If you still think Iowa is a state worth skipping over, just stop by one of these 10 cities–particularly our winner, Waukee.