The idyllic appeal of small-town life has taken on a whole new dimension in the coronavirus era.
People seeking more room for work and schooling at home, more distance from others, and more things to do that don’t involve crowding into indoor spaces are finding that small towns check all those boxes—and plenty more.
Even before the pandemic, incessantly rising home prices had been driving many folks farther afield to get more square footage for their money. But now they’re finding that small towns also offer a lot more options for enjoying the great outdoors.
Thinking of making that move? We’ve got you covered. The realtor.com data team has sifted through the numbers to find which small towns in the U.S. offer the best mix of affordability and opportunity.
Nearly half of U.S. adults would prefer to live in a small town or rural area in 2020, a 9% increase from 2018, when 39% of respondents reported the same, according to a recent survey by Gallup. By contrast, 27% wanted to live in a big or small city, and 25% were interested in suburban life.
“We’ve seen home shoppers prefer larger homes with more outdoor space as a result of the pandemic, and home-shopping interest has [especially] increased in areas that offer outdoor activities such as beaches or skiing,” says Danielle Hale, chief economist for realtor.com.
To come up with our list, we looked at U.S. metros with a population under 50,000, then factored in affordability metrics like median home list prices on realtor.com, year-over-year list price change, and ownership costs as a percentage of income. Of course, being able to afford a home depends on employment prospects, so we also took unemployment rates into account. And just to make sure these places are as safe and wholesome as you’d imagine a small town to be, we factored in the rates of violent crime and property crime. Finally, we limited the list to one small town per state, to get some geographic diversity.
Still, you’ll notice a pattern. As Hale says, “The Midwest is well-represented thanks to its affordable home prices and abundance of small towns— and the few areas outside of the Midwest are both scenic and historic.”
And don’t worry, you won’t be bored to death in the sticks—we found places with plenty of fresh-air fun things to do. Ready to leave the big-city blues behind? Let’s take a road trip!
1. New Ulm, MN
Median listing price: $139,900
This little town on the prairie was founded by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, and those roots are still very much apparent today. Not only is it home to the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the United States (Schell’s!), but it also boasts plenty of German restaurants and delis. And naturally, they put on a mean Oktoberfest. Even when locals aren’t drinking beer, chances are good they are hanging out at an outdoor festival, or at events like free Music in the Park every Monday night in summer.
“There’s always something going on,” says Joyce Krenz, a Realtor® with Century 21 Red Shoe Realty. “In winter, a lot of the parks have snow hills for sledding, and there are several lakes close by for people who want to do ice fishing.”
Just a 90-minute drive from Minneapolis, house hunters can get into the market for a reasonable price with places like this historic four-bedroom listed at $140,000 or this five-bedroom with a kitted-out back patio asking $264,900.
Median listing price: $145,000
Lexington is basically a paradise for lovers of the great outdoors. It’s just 9 miles northeast of Johnson Lake, a large body of water that is a destination stop for boating, fishing, water sports, hiking, and cycling. And the river town sits right on the edge of one of the greatest wildlife migrations in the world. Every year, from mid-February to mid-April, 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes take a break from their trip up to the Arctic on the 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River that sits between Lexington and Grand Island. For a big-city weekend getaway, Omaha is three hours away and Denver is four.
3. Houghton, MI
Median listing price: $149,500
Way up in the “UP” (Upper Peninsula in Michigander speak) on the Keweenaw Peninsula, Houghton is considered a four-season destination for tourists—but locals don’t need to take time off to enjoy its attractions. In the winter, the area boasts 233 miles of snowmobile trails through scenic landscapes. In the summer, the town serves as the gateway to Isle Royale National Park. The remote park includes more than 200 islands and 166 miles of hiking trails, accessible only by boat or floatplane.
Buyers can find deals all over town, including this $139,900 three-bedroom fixer that’s walking distance to downtown and Michigan Technological University, and this $309,900 three-bedroom on nearly an acre of land.
4. Spencer, IA
Median listing price: $92,500
Historic architecture is one of Spencer’s key selling points: Its adorable downtown boasts one of the largest collections of 1930s art deco architecture in the entire Midwest. (That’s because a young boy accidentally burned down the entire town with a firework in 1931 and they had to rebuild en masse.) The world-class mix of art deco and Mission Revival architecture that lines Grand Avenue earned the town a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
Lovely buildings aside, it’s also a great place to wander museums, watch live theater, camp, hunt, fish, bike, and visit the “World’s Greatest County Fair,” which takes over the town once a year.
Buyers who want a piece of the town’s historic homes can get into lovely places with antique details, including this three-bedroom near downtown listed at $149,900 or this two-bedroom bungalow on the market for $87,900.
5. Wahpeton, ND
Median listing price: $179,900
We’ve seen people getting into growing their own vegetables, but how about catching your own fish? Wahpeton sits right at the head of one of North America’s great catfish-producing rivers, and a lucky angler might land a 30-pounder—or even something bigger. The river boasts more than 70 species of fish, including walleye and northern pike.
When locals aren’t casting rods, they might be out playing golf, visiting the riverside Chahinkapa Zoo, or picnicking near the Prairie Rose Carousel, one of just three restored 1926 Spillman carousels running in the United States.
Oh, yeah, and the housing stock is an absolute steal. For example, this beautifully renovated circa 1915 five-bedroom is asking $219,000 and this nice-sized three-bedroom fixer-upper is aiming to get $84,900.
Median listing price: $145,000
This prototypical small town—the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon—offers residents a wide range of home choices, from custom-built homes with upscale amenities like this four-bedroom ranch that has its own outdoor living room for $829,000 to beautiful old homes like this three-bedroom asking $100,000.
The quaint downtown has a historic pedigree: 65 buildings in the Wapakoneta Commercial Historic District have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings, erected from the 1840s through the 1930s, represent a range of American architectural styles from that period and now are used for civic services, domestic residences, museums, churches, and small businesses—and, of course, locals just love to look at ’em.
Median listing price: $307,500
Los Alamos is the most expensive small town on this list, but it’s a bargain compared with pricier—and more coveted—Santa Fe, just 45 minutes away. With the Los Alamos National Laboratory as its top employer, the spectacular high desert town is a hub for well-paying science and tech jobs; the median household income is a whopping $121,324. And these highly paid locals have plenty of things to do without spending a penny. The area is home to ancient pueblos, diverse wildlife, and gorgeous scenery that is ideal for hiking, camping, and plenty of other outdoor activities.
Many Los Alamos homes boast breathtaking views, such as the mountain panoramas seen from this quirky three-bedroom condo listed at $210,00 and this three-bedroom on the market for $499,000 that looks out toward the vibrant Sangre de Cristo range.
8. Lincoln, IL
Median listing price: $84,900
Named for Abraham Lincoln before he even became president, this historic town boasts a tight-knit community that gets together at events throughout the year. It attracts a lot of folks who work in the nearby cities of Bloomington, Springfield, Peoria, and Decatur but prefer a small-town feel.
On weekends, locals spend time at the farmers market or events like its hot air balloon festival, which draws pilots from all over the country, and the Logan County Fair.
“People like Lincoln because everything they need is here,” says Seth A. Goodman, broker and owner of Me Realty. “If not, it’s 30 minutes away in one of the nearby cities or two or three hours to Chicago or St. Louis.”
Median listing price: $150,000
With plenty of locals whose families have been in the area for generations and a vibrant college community, Maryville is an ideal mix of tradition and fresh ideas. The sports-obsessed residents turn out for the football and basketball teams at Northwest Missouri State University, which are division champions, earning Maryville the nickname “Title Town.” Even the high school teams have an avid fanbase.
“People go to sports games every week,” says Traci Barmann Snyders, a real estate agent with Shirley’s Realty. “But there’s also a lot of hunting, fishing in Mozingo Lake, camping, and other outdoor activities.”
Folks who want to live within walking distance to the college court and field can find plenty of affordable options, including this three-bedroom ranch listed for $158,000 and this four-bedroom Cape Cod on a large lot asking the same price.
10. Seneca Falls, NY
Median listing price: $114,900
This small upstate New York town, sandwiched between two of the Finger Lakes (Cayuga and Seneca), combines historic charm with actual history. As the site of the first women’s rights convention in the United States, in 1848, the town has been designated a national historic district. There’s even a museum to commemorate the groundbreaking meeting.
Seneca Falls is a popular weekend getaway for city dwellers, but locals can indulge in visiting its lakeside wineries (hailed for their Riesling), boating on the lakes, or skiing on nearby mountains whenever the mood strikes.
“There are a lot of things to do in the area if you want quiet, relaxed time,” says Susan Sinicropi, a real estate sales agent with Century 21 Steve Davoli Real Estate.