The West’s Most Affordable Towns Have More Than Cheap Housing and Good Jobs—They’re Awesome Places to Live
From a California surf town to suburban Washington, we found 19 spots we’d be happy to call home
January 10, 2017
| Updated December 30, 2019
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NorCal Winner: Nevada City, CA
Median family income: $55,000
Median home price: $377,000
Average property tax: $2,719
Year-over-year home appreciation: 7.4 percent
Number of live concerts per year: 65
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Why Nevada City Is Awesome
Ask Matthew Ticciati to describe his first Halloween after moving to Nevada City in the Sierra Foothills, and at first you get the happy clichés of rural life: the whole town dressing up, every porch lit with a jack-o’-lantern, the neighbor who gives out 2,500 pieces of candy. But then the clichés stop. “The best costume? A kid who came as No Face from the Japanimation classic Spirited Away. That was pretty great,” he says. California isn't known for having tons of affordable places to live. But lots of Gold Country towns have quaint main streets and good schools and affordable Victorians like the one Ticciati and his wife are fixing up—but fellow parents who would dress up their 10-year-old as a Hayao Miyazaki character? That takes a certain artsy sensibility, which is exactly what’s luring big-city escapees like the Ticciatis to Nevada City. It also doesn’t hurt that the alt-folk musician Joanna Newsom hails, famously, from here.
That counterculture dates back to the 1960s, when young back-to-the-landers drifted away from the Bay Area to colonize a half-empty logging town. Today, those hippies have become the establishment, and the town they rescued boasts a 150-year-old brick theater that still stages live plays and dance performances; a foundry turned venue that books the likes of John Doe and Bonnie Prince Billy; not one but two annual film festivals; and a charter K–8 school dedicated to the arts. Because when it comes to a solid grounding in Japanese cinema, you’ve got to start them young.
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Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
Artisan Goods Abound
Indie boutiques and artisans dominate the shopping scene in this town. Start at Kitkitdizzi opened in 2012 by Nevada City natives and lifelong friends. The Broad Street shop focuses on handmade products, including tea towels by San Fran artist Jenny Pennywood and earthy-chic jewelry by Oakland’s Erin Cuff. Nearby, Tiger Alley—named for the gambling districts that existed during the Gold Rush era—blends handmade and upcycled goods with a well-curated selection of vintage. Plan to visit in April, when the juried Nevada City Craft Fair gets more than 600 regional illustrators, woodworkers, textile designers—and every other type of crafter—together under one roof.
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
It’s the Ultimate Nature Escape
When you’re in town scoping out potential new digs, do as the locals do and embrace the outdoors. You’ll find plenty of campgrounds in this Tahoe National Forest-gateway town, but none quite as cushy as Erin & Dan Thiem’s Inn Town Campground, which has glamping tents and RV hookups on 15 wooded acres. If camping’s not your style, try the couple’s other property, the Outside Inn, a renovated 1940s motor lodge.
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
NorCal Runner-Up: Reno
Median home price: $266,000
This city regularly appears on Livability’s Top 100 Best Places to Live list, and in 2016 Entrepreneur magazine cited it as one of the country’s 50 top spots for start-ups. But just as Reno’s economy has diversified beyond dice and divorce, the city’s cultural life has blossomed: The ripples created by such Midtown bars as Chapel Tavern have spread as far east as Times Square, and the Nevada Museum of Art’s ambitious programming is living up to the promise of its striking building.
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NorCal Runner-Up: Fremont, CA
Median home price: $805,500
Named one of the 50 Best Places to Live by Money, Fremont has a lower median home price than many other Bay Area cities, along with great weather, a diverse population, and a prime location. The fourth-largest municipality in the Bay Area, Fremont sprawls from the top of Mission Peak all the way to BART’s terminus and the Dumbarton Bridge—making a commute to San Francisco or Silicon Valley doable.
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SoCal and Hawaii Winner: Ventura, CA
Median family income: $80,461
Median home price: $497,000
Average property tax: $3,242
Year-over-year home appreciation: 5 percent
Animal and plant species endemic to the nearby Channel Islands: 145
Spencer Weiner / Getty Images
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Spencer Weiner / Getty Images
Why Ventura Is Awesome
Another one of the stellar affordable places to live in California is on the Central Coast. For decades, Ventura was a drive-through beach town, somewhere you stopped for gas and a lungful of sea air while on your way to Santa Barbara. But that’s changed recently. Houses don’t languish on the market; rentals are heating up. In part, you can credit companies like The Trade Desk, a product of Ventura’s municipal tech incubator that recently went public, and Island Packers, which runs the Channel Islands boat concession. And, of course, Patagonia was founded here in 1973. But you can also credit Ventura’s lack of polish. “People are discovering that if you just want to chill, not feel any pressure to dress a certain way, you can do that here,” says Marlyss Auster, head of the city’s Visitors and Convention Bureau. And despite the boomlet, it’s a place where you can still patch together a mix of surfing and part-time work and live the beach-town dream. Take Chipper “Bro” Bell. He’s Patagonia’s “cultural ambassador” and has been with the company for 23 years. When he needed to go part-time to raise his kids and run his surf school, they let him take four months a year off. For 14 years in a row. He loves Ventura because you can be in the mountains one day and surfing with dolphins the next. “No, we’re not fancy like Newport Beach, bless their Spanish-Mediterranean hearts, or Santa Barbara, with their no-billboards law,” Bell says. “But it’s a great community.”
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Historical Roots Run Deep
Ventura—or, rather San Buenaventura, the town’s full name, which comes from the mission founded by Father Juniper Serra (walk up toward City Hall to see his statue)—is proud of its history. Rightfully so: Ventura is filled with interesting stories. Last year, locals pooled together to fund a mural, on the side of the San Buenaventura Mission, which traces the town’s history since its founding in 1866. Depicted within is Patagonia, which got its start here in 1973; the 2017 Thomas Fire; nods to the area’s agricultural legacy; and notable locals.
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The Ocean Is Your Playground
Locals flock to San Buenaventura State Beach for prime surfing and beach volleyball. It’s not unusual for people to run along the beach on their lunch breaks or end the day with a paddleboard session around Ventura Harbor Village. Marine biology lovers find paradise here too. Captain Pancho Mayoral of Island Packers Cruises, which leads trips to the Channel Islands, says of the area, "The beaches are perfect and the ocean is so rich with biodiversity. You can spend all your time on the water and see dolphins and whales almost every day."
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The Town Is Way Cool
If Ventura were a shop, it’d be Iron & Resin: a little bit skater, a little bit blue-collar, and a whole lot of cool. A group of outdoor-loving friends launched the brand when they couldn’t find gear that fit their Southern California, Americana vibe (read: motorcycles, surfboards, Bruce Brown). Inside, you'll shop a mix of house-label clothes and accessories, along with goods from like-minded brands like Red Wing, Pendleton, and Raen. Browse the assortment of deerskin gloves, canvas jackets, and cargo pants then hop over to Ventura Avenue, where a growing crop of industrious makers and artists are taking up residence. You’ll hear of some—like modish shoe designer Charlotte Stone—who are tinkering behind-the-scenes in private studios, but others welcome the crowds. We’re partial to Ventura Spirits Company (and its stellar Strawberry Brandy) and Bell Arts Factory, a collective with more than 30 artists.
Andrea Gómez Romero
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Andrea Gómez Romero
SoCal Runner-Up: Irvine, CA
Median home price: $725,000
This O.C. town was engineered for livability back in the 1960s. What it lacks in an actual downtown, it makes up for with 350 miles of bike lanes and trails, an infinitesimal crime rate, a robust economy, a multicultural population, and the Orange County Great Park, pictured. (Although the park’s expansion hasn’t yet reached the promised 1,300 acres, you can visit the working gardens of its Food + Farm Lab and ride the carousel.) Housing here isn’t particularly cheap, but you’ll get your money’s worth.
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SoCal Runner-Up: Koolaupoko, HI
Median home price: $766,500
Not only is Koolaupoko, on the southeastern side of Oahu, an option for the work-from-anywhere crowd; it’s also a mere 30-minute drive from downtown Honolulu. The median income is high for Hawaii, and the district—which encompasses Kailua, Kaneohe, and Waimanalo—is part of the statewide Blue Zones Project, intended to promote healthy living by adding sidewalks and upgrading school lunches.
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SoCal Runner-Up: Los Alamitos, CA
Median home price: $605,000
Despite landing the 12th spot on Livability’s 100 Best Small Towns list, Los Alamitos is the very definition of under the radar. (It’s home to California’s Joint Forces Training Base.) Located midway between Long Beach and Anaheim, the town has a strong school system and relatively low taxes and housing prices—none of which may sound exciting, but affordability in Orange County? That’s worth paying attention to.
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Mountains Winner: Boise, ID
Median family income: $64,952
Median home price: $216,916
Average property tax: $2,328
Year-over-year home appreciation: 10.9 percent
Time it took to sell out a second ramen pop-up: 19 minutes
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
Why Boise Is Awesome
When Rob Scheffler first visited Boise, one February weekend in 2015, he fell in love. “It was Walnut Creek and Tahoe and San Luis Obispo and Minneapolis all in one, with its rolling foothills and ski slopes and college-town exuberance and Midwest niceness.” It wasn’t until after he moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area that Scheffler discovered he’d also be able to eat well. Very, very well—thanks to restaurants like Red Feather Lounge, The Owyhee Tavern(pictured), and State & Lemp (which has since closed, but its James Beard-nominated chef is getting ready to open a new restaurant, Kin). It’s also thanks to locals like Dave Yasuda. He isn’t a chef or a restaurateur, but he is part of what’s bringing Boise’s food scene to a simmer: a passionate, involved audience. Yasuda, who works in marketing for American Wagyu-beef distributor Snake River Farms, recently jumped in to fill a culinary gap in town. “There’s a really nice bánh mì shop here, and a lot of places serve a good bowl of pho, but there’s no place for ramen.” So he and a few friends borrowed a brewery’s tasting room to make it happen as a pop-up. Thirty dollars got you octopus salad, marinated pork loin, and noodles flown in from California, plus a green-tea saison and a ginger Berliner Weisse. “We did two seatings, 112 people,” says Yasuda. “If there’s a ramen person out there who wants to open a ramen place, there’s a demand in Boise!” Noted. Good restaurants with reasonably priced menus, a decent housing market, and tons of growth makes this Idaho city one of the West's most affordable places to live.
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Thomas J. Story
The Coffee Scene Is Buzzing
Cool-kid coffee shops are turning Boise into a legit craft coffee city. Slow by Slow Coffee is a multi-roaster café that excels with its pour-over offerings—it’s also downright inspiring with its honeycomb tile, exposed brick, and local art. Meanwhile, Boise native Grant Shealy—who opened Neckar’s, brick-and-mortar in 2018—took the minimalist route when it comes to the shop’s decor and instead focuses on the details, like the custom walnut handles on the espresso machine and handmade cups. For a fully subversive coffee experience, we recommend Caffeina Coffee Roasting Company, where a mother-daughter duo built their dream roaster-meets-coffee shop-meets favorite hangout. A second location is about to open in the Bench neighborhood. Other hip cafés to put on your radar: Push & Pour (owned by a pro skater serving up locally made Maps Coffee), the light-filled District Coffee House, and Form & Function.
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Thomas J. Story
Every Stroll Is an Architectural Adventure
Historic preservation is top-of-mind for Boise residents. Just last year, the City Council approved the creation of a new East Main Historic District to protect nearly a dozen historic homes downtown. And, that’s in addition to the nine other historic districts that are already protected. Sign up for a Preservation Idaho walking tour to scope out landmarks like the Adelmann Building with its brick facade, turreted window, and retro sign; the Egyptian Theatre; and the Renaissance Revival Idaho State Capitol. Or, map out your own tour by choosing stops from the citizen-run Idaho Architecture Project.
Thomas J. Story
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Thomas J. Story
The Restaurants Are Fresh and Stylish
Not only does Boise over-deliver when it comes to quality eats; the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are gorgeous too. Dig into an ingredient-driven, farm-to-table menu at Juniper, where exposed brick and mix-matched, modern chandeliers set the scene. Inside the recently updated lobby at the Grove Hotel, the new restaurant Trillium sets its farm-sourced menu against a midcentury modern backdrop (tufted and velvet seating, geometric wood paneling, subway tile). In the hipster Hyde neighborhood, Camel’s Crossing consistently ranks as one of the best restaurants in the city for its inventive menu, which pulls from the next-door garden. Visually, we’re keen on the retro-fab orange-spotted wallpaper and high-back leather booths.
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Mountains Runner-Up: Provo, UT
Median home price: $225,000
Home of Brigham Young University, this traditionally conservative municipality now also plays host to Google Fiber; a cheeky restaurant called the Black Sheep Café that serves farm-to-table Native American cuisine; and a legit brewpub. Provo led Outside’s 2014 list of Best Adventure Towns—hello, red rock country!—and it ranked third on the Entrepreneur list of 50 best start-up cities.
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Mountains Runner-Up: Fort Collins, CO
Median home price: $325,000
The city may be famous for craft beer—its 20-odd breweries range from the upstart Funkwerks to the stalwart New Belgium Brewing—but its equally vibrant tech sector is jump-starting the local economy. Throw in Colorado State University and a nonprofit start-ups incubator called the Innosphere, and Fort Collins’s enviably low unemployment rate makes even more sense. Don’t overlook the award-winning public schools and the location right on the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Mountains Runner-Up: Canmore, Alberta
Median home price: $600,000 Canadian
The last stop on the drive into Banff, this mountain-ringed community is the kind of small town you might not think exists anymore: New arrivals are greeted as soon-to-be-old friends, the major chains are absent from the main street, and everyone turns out for the big pancake breakfast in Centennial Park on Canada Day. Real estate prices may be high relative to other towns in Alberta, but the property tax rate is one of the lowest in the province. Unlike Vancouver, B.C.’s 15 percent surcharge, Alberta hasn’t yet enacted foreign-buyer penalties.
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Southwest Winner: Prescott, AZ
Median family income: $56,958
Median home price: $285,000
Average property tax: $1,412
Year-over-year home appreciation: 5.5 percent
Annual increase in visits to the city’s popular Peavine Trail: 11 percent
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Why Prescott Is Awesome
When Chris Hosking moved to Prescott 10 years ago, the small, mile-high city was already popular with hikers and bikers for its 28-mile trail network and easy access to Kaibab and the Prescott national forests. Then the lapsed industrial designer (who worked for Apple) got involved building trails, which turned into a city job buying more open space and easements for more trails … and now, 100 miles of mixed-use paths lace through the city’s chaparral, linking the pine forests to the south with the grasslands to the north. Which says something about how important the outdoors is to this place. Look at how Prescotters spend their free time: 10 hiking groups, a mountain-biking alliance, two equestrian organizations, and more gardening clubs than you can shake a trowel at.
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You Can’t Beat the Sense of Community
“We’re attracting a lot of people who work out of their houses and could be anywhere,” says Hosking. “They choose Prescott for the quality of life.” Even teenagers are trading their screens for the woods: “About four years ago, the first high school mountain-biking team got started, and now we’ve got eight teams and 150 kids racing mountain bikes every weekend.” But what he’s most proud of is that everyone gets along—bikers and hikers and trail runners and horseback riders. “People here have a good outlook. Sure, maybe it’s the good weather. But maybe it’s not having to work to death to afford to live.”
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The Scenic Vistas Are Epic
There’s no shortage of spectacular scenery to take in. The town’s blue-water lakes are a big draw—especially at Watson Lake, just north of Prescott. It’s surrounded by Granite Dells, a geological feature of billion-year-old rock formations. Just four miles from downtown, Goldwater is another stunner with ponderosa pine-covered trails. And within Prescott National Forest, you’ll find Lynx Lake at 5,500 feet, in the Bradshaw Mountains. Like with the other lakes, swimming isn’t allowed, but the boating is great and rentals are available at the Lynx Lake Store.
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It Has That Wild West Feel
As the original territorial capital of Arizona, Prescott saw many legends walk its street—Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, Big Nose Kate, among others. And you’ll still feel those outlaw vibes on a stroll through the historic downtown. Start at the neoclassical Yavapai County Courthouse, which fronts a leafy plaza perfect for strolling or lounging. Then walk over to the 1877 Palace Restaurant and Saloon—it claims to be Arizona’s oldest frontier saloon. Story has it that when the original building caught on fire in 1900, patrons moved the bar across the street and kept pouring drinks while the Montezuma Street block burnt down. When they rebuilt, dozens of saloons filled the street earning the it the street the name “Whiskey Row.”
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Southwest Runner-Up: Scottsdale, AZ
Median home price: $370,000
Hear “Scottsdale” and you think, “Desert. Resorts. Golf courses.” You wouldn’t be wrong, exactly—but you’d be missing the fact that Scottsdale is also a suburb for people working all over the Phoenix metro area. Due to the lingering effects of the foreclosure crisis, housing here is still more affordable than in affluent suburbs of, say, Seattle or Denver, and the schools score high in statewide rankings.
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Southwest Runner-Up: Silver City, NM
Median home price: $129,000
Though this mining town (guess what metal?) isn’t quite as well off as Los Alamos, it’s in a quiet, gorgeous corner of New Mexico’s Gila wilderness and has a sizable arts scene. The mining industry is still a big employer—these days, the ore being dug up is copper—and commodity prices can be volatile, but Western New Mexico University is also based here, which helps stabilize the economy. The weather is golden too: Being at 6,000-feet elevation keeps the humidity away, and the town is far enough south to boast warmer winters than Santa Fe or Taos.
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Southwest Runner-Up: Los Alamos, NM
Median home price: $255,000
This place is more than just a historical landmark—it’s an actual town, and a bang-up one at that. Thanks to Los Alamos National Laboratory (yes, home to the Manhattan Project), tech jobs are plentiful, and though housing prices aren’t as low as elsewhere in the state, Los Alamos offers better schools and little crime. And, because this is New Mexico, property taxes are still far lower than elsewhere in the West. Scenery? The town is ringed by the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument, a half-dozen pueblos, Santa Fe, and the eerily beautiful Valles Caldera National Preserve.
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Northwest Winner: Vancouver, WA
Median family income: $57,000
Median home price: $247,000
Average property tax: $2,611
Year-over-year home appreciation: 12.7 percent
Percentage of district teachers with a master’s degree or higher: 75 percent
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Why Vancouver Is Awesome
If you’re relocating to Portland and want the best value for your money, there’s a good chance you won’t be house-shopping in Portland. Or even in Oregon. You’ll be looking in Vancouver. Not the Vancouver in Canada but the one across the Columbia River from PDX, in income-tax-free Washington State. Here’s why: You have kids. That’s what happened to Jody Bamford, who moved with her husband and their young daughter from a condo near the Pearl District to the suburban city six years ago. “So many families are moving to Vancouver because the public schools are all very good,” says Bamford. But the city has a lot more going for it than high test scores. “It’s so peaceful, with wide streets and sidewalks and maple trees in storybook neighborhoods,” she says. “And every little neighborhood has its own park—from our house, there are two within walking distance. It’s like Vancouver was built for kids.” The Vancouver Community Library definitely was. The third floor looks like a children’s museum, with tipis and a kitchen area, plus a cafe on the first floor. “We hang out there a lot when it rains,” says Bamford.
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You Get Big-City Amenities
Couver doesn’t lack in grown-up amenities: In the past few years, the dormant downtown has reawakened. And more so, since the 2018 unveiling of the Vancouver Waterfront, a $1.5 billion waterfront park, pier, and mixed-use development that connects downtown to the Columbia River. Today, you’ll find brewpubs, wine bars, restaurants, and coffee bars like Boomerang, a shop and coffee house that donates its profits to local causes—and has a treehouse inside. Other nearby spots to stalk: Nom Nom Restaurant and Grill for its authentic Vietnamese curries, salads, and noodle dishes; Maryhill Winery’s tasting room on the waterfront; and bakery haven Treat.
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It’s a Great Place to Raise a Glass
The town has drawn plenty of buzz for its stellar brewery circuit (explore the dozen-plus breweries with the Brewcouver Passport app). Loowit Brewing—dubbed for Mount St. Helens’ early Klickitat name—was one of the pioneers and still draws crowds for its Pacific Northwest-style IPAs, live music, and arcade games. On the newer end, Brothers Cascadia impresses with its barrel program that turns out sours and aged stouts. The craft cocktail scene isn’t falling behind either. Many of the best bars pay tribute to the region. Wildfin uses Northwestern spirits for many of its cocktails like the Willamette Valley Sour and the Barrel Aged NW Old Fashioned with Portland’s Burnside bourbon. Another downtown spot, The Grocery Cocktail & Social is all about community. Most of the bar is made up of Washington-distilled spirits—even in the tucked-away Washington Whis(e)y Parlor upstairs, where you’ll choose from a robust selection of around 50 Washington-made brown water. In the Uptown Village area, The Thirsty Sasquatch mixes a little bit of the best of all the craft spirits world with its taproom that serves up regional beers, ciders, wines, and cocktails.
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Northwest Runner-Up: Coos Bay, OR
Median home price: $170,000
This once-faded fishing port on the southern Oregon Coast has seen its fortunes rebound, thanks to public redevelopment efforts and private enterprise. The former helped fund construction of the new Coos History Museum building and the 2014 reopening of the Egyptian Theatre, a relic of Coos Bay’s 1920s heyday. A good example of the latter is the family-friendly 7 Devils Brewing Co. public house, a civic-minded labor of love for the young couple who opened it in 2013.
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Northwest Runner-Up: Wenatchee, WA
Median home price: $234,000
The farmlands of the Wenatchee Valley were once filled with orchards, and the Columbia River, which runs through the small city, powered a series of nearby hydroelectric dams. The dams are still in place, but now vineyards and wineries are gaining ground. In 2013, the not-for-profit Pybus Public Market opened in a onetime Pybus Steel warehouse, with a mix of specialty-food vendors and restaurants, as well as a weekly farmers’ market and live music on Friday nights.
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Northwest Runner-Up: Anchorage, AK
Median home price: $300,437
On the plus side: no state income tax (in fact, you get an annual dividend from the state), high median family income, low housing prices, and the northern lights. Weigh against those a distinct lack of sun in the winter months. Still on the fence? How do you feel about having a bull moose wander into your backyard? If the prospect of living where the wild things are gives you a thrill, then your decision is easy.