It’s hard to deny that California is one of the best states in the nation. Great beaches, great skiing, the mighty redwoods, and some of the most spectacular views in the world all make this place their home. With that in mind, where exactly is the best place to live in this great state? That’s what the the Movoto Real Estate Blog wanted to find out. Rather than looking at specific cities and towns, we focused on counties this time, to give people a wider range of options when house hunting. We crunched the numbers and came up with this definitive ranking of the best counties in California: 1. Marin County
2. San Mateo County
3. Santa Clara County
4. San Luis Obispo County
5. Ventura County
6. Placer County
7. Napa County (tie)
7. Orange County (tie)
9. Santa Barbara County
10. San Francisco County
Some of these might surprise you, and some of these might seem like no-brainers. If you want to know where a specific county ranked and it’s not in our top 10, you can scroll you the bottom of the page and check out the chart we have there. If you’re curious about how we created this ranking, you can just check out our very next section.

Our Methodology

In order to get this ranking, we first made a list of all the counties in the state, which was a total of 58. Then, we used the U.S. Census (2010) to collect data in seven different criteria that tend to denote how awesome a place really is. Those all-important criteria were:
  • Unemployment rate (the lower the better)
  • Median household income (the higher the better)
  • Median rent (the higher the better, to indicate area’s desirability)
  • Median home price (the higher the better, to indicate desirability)
  • Percent of families below the poverty line (the lower the better)
  • High school graduation rate (the higher the better)
  • Average Commute Time (the lower the better)
After that, we ranked each place in each category from one to 58, with scores closer to one being better. We then averaged each place’s scores into one Big Deal Score. The place with the lowest number for that score became our most awesome county in California. Now let’s take a more in-depth look at why each county was just so fantastic.

1. Marin County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user metacynic
The race for No. 1 here wasn’t even close, and that’s really no surprise to anyone who’s ever spent much time in Marin. For starters, let’s just look at the numbers. This county ranked first in low unemployment rate, high median household income, median home price, and median rent. It also had the second lowest number of families below the poverty line. Of course, this county wasn’t just about the big bucks. Marin County loved education, with establishments like the College of Marin and Dominican University of California, and a high school graduation rate of over 92 percent. The Marin County Free Library is also pretty enlightening for any avid readers out there. Besides that, this county had way more to offer than numbers could tell. The Marin Museum Of Contemporary Art, Muir Woods, one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Center (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) all make this a hub of culture, natural beauty, and just plain awesome.

2. San Mateo County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user Shawn Clover
Yet another place for natural beauty, this county includes cities such as San Mateo, Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and many more sources of beaches and hiking trails. There are even some very lovely lighthouses for those more into architecture. Besides the beauty, the numbers here also spoke worlds about this county’s value. The unemployment was the third lowest, plus the median household income and median home price also both came in third. The high school graduation rate was high, and merely 4.9 percent of families were below the poverty line. As far as perks, it’s hard to go wrong with the Moss Beach Distillery or Lovey’s Tea Shoppe. Their scones alone should keep this place in the top three counties.

3. Santa Clara County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user pointnshoot
Santa Clara County, home to spots like San Jose, Los Altos, and Palo Alto, has so much to offer anyone who lives there. From the second highest household income to the very low unemployment rank, working and living here is a dream come true for many. The numbers don’t stop there, though. The commute times were pretty good, the home prices were high (showing this is a very desirable area), and the place is home to some pretty famous tech companies. Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google… we’re sure you’ve heard of them. Also, if you happen to be a sports fan, you can’t go wrong with minor league baseball featuring the San Jose Giants or some pretty great hockey with the San Jose Sharks.

4. San Luis Obispo County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user Barlow_james
Central California may often feel forgotten, but we certainly didn’t leave it out of this list. San Luis Obispo county has Pismo Beach, Mission San Miguel Arcángel, and so much more to offer locals and tourists alike. Really, some of the attractions here are like no others on Earth. The scores this place got definitely back that up, too. The unemployment was the fifth lowest, the high school graduation rate was very high, and the commute times were the 12th lowest on our list. The rent was slightly lower than other places, so despite still being a desirable place, it’s slightly more affordable. The poverty was also low and the amazing food is something you just have to try, in case you don’t surf or have a ton to spend taking a Hearst Castle tour. Head to Goshi Japanese Restaurant if you don’t believe us.

5. Ventura County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user J. Stephen Conn
Even if the top of our list is mostly northern counties, many southern counties fared very well, and this was one of them. With the fifth highest median household income and the fifth highest rent, you can kinda see why. The median home prices here were also very high, the ninth highest on our list. However, that just meant that people are clamoring to live there, and with attractions like wine tasting, The Jolly Oyster restaurant, Mission San Buenaventura, and more, can you really blame them? If you’re a nature lover, it should be mentioned that there are a ton of national forests in the area. It’s easy to be a tree-hugger in California and it’s even easier to be one here.

6. Placer County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user Nate Bolt
Favorite skiing spots around Lake Tahoe and Big Basin are located in this county, as are some of the most pristine mountains and fascinating California history. It’s a must visit for anyone who’s lived in CA for more than a year. For those not visiting, this is still a wonderful county. The household income was the eighth highest, the unemployment and poverty were low, and the high school graduation rate was almost 94 percent, the second highest on our list. Interestingly enough, the median home price here was ranked No. 22. What that means is that for all that awesome, it’s still a pretty decent value to live here. In fact, the median home price was only $354,900.

7. Napa County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user ah zut
Most people know of Napa as wine country, and for good reason. Some of the best wines in the world come from this area, and tasting here is an experience you really have to try to appreciate. But there’s more to this county than grapes. The food in the area is superb, considering how fresh produce is pretty much everywhere nearby, and staying active with rock climbing, hiking, and horseback riding is pretty easy. Of course, visiting vineyards is always going to be the major attraction. Seriously, you need to plan a trip there. By the numbers, locals have a lot to smile about besides gold medal chardonnays. The unemployment was the seventh lowest, the poverty was low as well, and the home prices indicate that this is one desirable place to live. With the 11th highest household income, it might be a little easier to afford that very-worth-it price tag.

7. Orange County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user Andy Castro
Tied with Napa County for seventh is a place you all probably knew would be on the list. Orange County has some of the most amazing beaches, fun piers, and interesting lifestyle options out of anywhere in the state. It also has some amazing food trucks, like The Burnt Truck, GD Bro Truck, and Dogzilla. Sure, you don’t usually brag about food trucks, but these are kinda special to locals. Beyond some great food on wheels, you can also find the ninth lowest unemployment here and the sixth highest median income. The median rent and home prices also indicate that this is one place people are flocking to, and even the percent of families below the poverty line is very low. By the way, you might say this is the happiest county on earth, considering it’s home to Disneyland.

9. Santa Barbara County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user Damian Gadal
When you first set eyes on Santa Barbara County, the word “picturesque” might come to mind. Beaches, palms, unique architecture, and fun attractions fill this county, keeping locals and tourists alike coming back for more time and time again. The numbers here were also impressive. The unemployment was the eighth lowest, and the median household income was very high. The housing costs denoted great desirability, and the food options were simply to die for, especially the seafood. One standout figure was the commute time, ranked seventh lowest on our entire list, and the lowest on our top 10. Living here, you’re likely to have a job and be able to get there with ease.

10. San Francisco County

Best Counties In California
Source: Flickr user Kay Gaensler
There’s really only one city in this county, and that’s San Francisco. Then again, what more do you need? Stellar bread, mouthwatering seafood, amazing shopping, a very unique lifestyle, and one of the most iconic bridges in the worlds definitely make this city and county one of the greatest in the state. This place also had the fourth lowest unemployment, the seventh highest median household income, and very few families below the poverty line. Of course, the median home price here would make your jaw drop, as would the rent, but you definitely get quality for the cost. You can always try a souffle for two at Cafe Jacqueline if you don’t want to take our word for it. It should be noted that the commute here was dismal, ranking 53rd on our list, so public transportation might be a good bet. Anyway, haven't you always wanted to ride a cable car?

Eureka, You’ve Found It

That next great locale you’re looking for? Yeah, you’ve probably found the perfect county for you on this list. From the curling waves to the gently falling snow, California has it all—even safe communities and welcoming neighborhoods for those looking to make their new home in the Golden State. If that includes you, Movoto can help you find the house of your dreams. Best Counties In California