At some point, many city dwellers realize they’ve had enough of the tiny, exorbitantly priced apartments, the noise and gridlock, the angry drivers, and the packed sidewalks. They find themselves longing for a simpler life—perhaps even putting down roots in small-town America, where they’re not always in a rush and a walk through town is sure to include at least a few friendly faces.
As you’ve probably heard, small- and medium-sized communities, farther from the country’s historic coastal population centers, have had quite a housing renaissance in the past few years. While mortgage rates were near zero and workers had more flexibility to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, many descended on pretty, tranquil, formerly affordable, smaller towns—and that caused some prices to skyrocket.
But here’s the news: It’s not too late to trade in big-city bustle for small-town serenity without busting your budget. The Realtor.com® data team found America’s most affordably priced, small towns that also have lots to offer residents. These aren’t just nice places with low-priced real estate. These are places where you might actually love to live.
“I drive down the street and see 10 people I know,” says Kelsey Janssen, a Realtor® and associate broker at Coldwell Banker Town & Country Realty of Kearney, NE, one of the top spots on our list. “Even people who don’t know you wave here.”
Janssen says she has clients who have come from California, or neighboring Colorado, and they’re blown away by how friendly everyone is—on top of how much more affordable the homes are.
Some of these smaller communities have carved a niche for themselves, whether it’s live music, like in Branson, MO, or the old-world German charm of New Ulm, MN. Each has a different flavor.
To find these desirable small towns, the Realtor.com data team looked at real estate in every U.S. “micropolitan area,” the collection of counties with a population between 10,000 and 50,000. (With the surrounding areas included, a micropolitan area can technically have a population as large as 200,000, but we’re focusing on the core town within.) Then we pulled together U.S. Census Bureau data detailing the dining, entertainment, recreation, and quality-of-life business establishments in the area, and calculated their rate per 100,000. We ranked the towns using an equal combination of those categories, as well as home list prices.
We limited our list to places where the median list price per square foot is less than 150% of the national average, and we selected only the highest-ranking micropolitan area in any given state, to ensure geographic diversity.
Here’s our list of the most affordable small towns with big quality of life.
Median list price: $159,250
Our No. 1 affordable small town with lots of big-city appeal is Cortland. The residents of the town in central New York have quick access to some larger cities, sitting about 35 minutes north of Ithaca and 45 minutes south of Syracuse. And the median list price is just about one-third of the national median in May. You get a lot for your money here.
Cortland, which has a history dating to the late 18th century, is surrounded by tree-covered hills, which transform into a patchwork of orange, gold, and crimson in the fall, which sets the mood for the annual Great Cortland Pumpkin Festival.
“The community events are just wonderful here,” says Jason Hage, a local real estate broker at Hage Real Estate.
“You’ve got the Pumpkin Festival and also the Homer Fireman Field Days. We have two or three parades a year,” he adds. “Every Wednesday night from June through August, we have Music on the Green at the Homer elementary school. It’s such a cool thing to be able to hang out there with your neighbors and check out live music.”
Cortland, like any good small town, has a Main Street dotted with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, vintage boutiques, and tattoo parlors. Other local attractions that boost Cortland’s small-town bona fides include the Cortland Repertory Theatre, offering up a range of performances, and The 1890 House Museum, where residents can learn about the town’s history and architecture.
For the more adventurous Cortlanders, Greek Peak Mountain Resort is where to go for downhill skiing and snowboarding, as well as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing—and it’s only 15 minutes outside of town.
Median list price: $384,450
Located in the heart of the Midwest, Kearney is about 2.5 hours west of Omaha and 2.5 hours east of the Colorado state line.
Kearney (rhymes with “Barney”) began as a historic Army outpost, founded in 1848, along the Oregon Trail. It became an important stop for those wagons driving west during the expansion of the U.S.
Now, “it’s just one of the best places to live,” says Realtor Janssen,
She tries to tell people moving to Kearney not to be alarmed when people they don’t recognize wave at them, she says. “That’s just how friendly people here are.”
There are hiking and biking trails, parks, golf courses, and white water rafting on the Platte River bordering Kearney to the south. There are also affordable homes for sale.
A three-bedroom home on the edge of Harmon Park, just a few minutes from downtown Kearney, is listed for $189,000.
Median list price: $320,000
Branson is a lake lover’s dream. It snagged one of the top spots of the Realtor.com annual list of the nation’s most affordable lake towns for four of the past five years. The town is located in the southern Ozarks, just a little north of the Arkansas border.
The area is known for its mountainous terrain and the large bodies of water nearby, Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo. The lakes were created by the sort of dams that came to typify this section of the country in the 20th century. Lake Taneycomo came first with Powersite Dam in 1913, and the much larger Table Rock Lake Dam was constructed in the 1950s.
Branson ranks the highest among all our towns in the Census Bureau’s “amusement, gambling, and recreation” industries, as the town has become a hub for tourism and live music.
The Dutton Family Theater, Clay Cooper Theatre, and Presley’s Country Jubilee all offer something for music lovers in the area. But crime is higher in the area than in the other small towns, according to AreaVibes.
Buyers here can enjoy lower home prices, as properties in the Branson area are priced about 25% below the national median. This two-bedroom, one-bathroom house is for sale at $145,000.
Median list price: $257,450
Sandusky is another popular lake town that made it on our list. Perched on the edge of Lake Erie, about midway between Toledo to the west and Cleveland to the east, the town has plenty of restaurants and bars downtown and along the thriving waterfront.
One of the most popular attractions is the iconic Cedar Point Amusement Park, which sits on a peninsula that juts into Lake Erie, offering unparalleled views from the top of the park’s 16 world-class roller coasters. In fact, Cedar Point is known around these parts as “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World.”
History buffs can soak up exhibits on shipbuilding, shipwrecks, and pirates at the Maritime Museum of Sandusky.
Homes in Sandusky are about 35% less expensive than the national median. Buyers can check out this three-bedroom, two-bathroom for $210,000.
Median list price: $127,425
Of all of the places on our list, Galesburg is the cheapest, with prices 70% below the national average. That’s after about a 25% appreciation compared with before the pandemic, without any real slump in prices over the past year of mortgage interest rate hikes.
This small town is located in the western part of the state, about an hour south of Davenport, IA.
The town has a rich history, having been established in 1837 by abolitionists from New York. It’s named after George Washington Gale, a Presbyterian minister who helped lead the local anti-slavery movement and aided in the escape of fugitive slaves, and it became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
While crime here is higher than the national average, the local economy is relatively diverse, with BNSF Railway, Knox College (also established by Gale), and the local OSF HealthCare hospital topping the list of the area’s main employers.
Median list price: $287,900
In the northeast corner of South Dakota, Aberdeen is known for its prairie landscape, dotted with parks, lakes, and creeks. The Mina Lake Recreation Area is where locals can find boating, fishing, and camping opportunities.
There are plenty more perks. Aberdeen is home to Northern State University, a small public university, and Presentation College, a private Catholic college. On the northern edge of Aberdeen is Wylie Park, which has “Storybook Land,” a theme park based on storybooks and fairy tales. There’s also Wylie Lake, a minigolf course, bumper boats, and go-karts.
Plus, real estate here costs about half the national average. This three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch is listed at about $240,000.
Median list price: $280,000
In 2022, Rutland ranked high on our list of great ski towns with homes regular people can afford. It’s just 25 minutes from one of the largest ski resorts on the East Coast: Killington, known as the “Beast of the East.” But homes are about half of what they cost in Killington, VT, at the base of the resort.
Rutland has lots more to offer as well. In the warmer months of the year, the Green Mountains to the east and the Taconic Mountains to the west offer an abundance of hiking and biking trails. The town has a quaint Main Street, dotted with shops and restaurants.
And as this town, like many in the upper Northeast, turns from deep green to burnt umber and red in the fall, Rutlanders can attend the nation’s longest-running Halloween parade (that’s what the locals maintain).
Rutland homes are priced about 35% below the national average, so buyers can still find deals. This three-bedroom, one-bathroom house is for sale for $215,000.
Median list price: $202,450
Iron Mountain is no stranger to our most affordable small towns list. Located on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and straddling the Wisconsin border, this is our northernmost affordable small town. Homes here cost about 40% less than the national average per square foot.
The area ranks the highest for museums and historical sites, a reflection of the area’s history of mining. Iron Mountain was established during the mining boom of the late 19th century.
Residents can soak up the history at the local Mining Museum, located at the Chapin Mine Steam Pump Engine, a national historic site dubbed “The Cornish Pump.” At 60 feet tall, it’s the largest reciprocating steam-driven engine built in the U.S., created to keep water out of the mines below.
The town is also a regional center for outdoor tourism, including hunting, fishing, and skiing. The Pine Mountain Ski & Golf Resort is located on the northern edge of Iron Mountain, with a small downhill ski mountain and the relatively well-known Pine Mountain Ski Jump, which hosts International Ski Federation competitions.
Median list price: $267,400
Sitting in the Minnesota River Valley, about 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, New Ulm is the smallest of any place on our list and one of the most distinct.
New Ulm was founded by German immigrants in 1854, and the German heritage is unavoidable. Classically German half-timbered “Fachwerk” architecture can still be found across the town. New Ulm’s downtown gets a full transformation for Christmas, and the town’s Oktoberfest is a destination for anyone looking for an authentic experience. There’s even a 45-foot glockenspiel, whose chimes can be heard throughout the town during the day, and which is adorned with a rotating stage with figurines depicting characters from the town’s history.
Flandrau State Park, on the southern edge of New Ulm, is where the town’s residents can go for swimming, camping, hiking, or just lounging on the beach.
This century-old, two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom house has been updated and is on the market for about $215,000.
Median list price: $559,000
Last on our list—and with the most expensive real estate—is Taos. Housing prices here are about 40% more than the national average per square foot, but the area’s museums, historic sites, and arts culture earn it a spot on our list.
This small town is rich with Native American culture and Spanish colonial history. The Pueblo de Taos, about a mile north of the modern town, is an ancient dwelling of the Puebloan people who inhabited it for hundreds of years before colonists arrived. It’s estimated to have been built between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1400, and it’s designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More recently, Taos has become synonymous with high-desert tourism, recreation, and leisure.
Taos sits at almost 7,000 feet elevation, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where residents and tourists can quickly access hiking and biking trails in the summer and snow sports in the winter. It has become one of the Southwest’s outdoor activity hot spots, year-round.
“People have known us for the skiing and the snowshoeing,” says Ryan Trujillo, an associate broker at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in Taos. “But now it’s also whitewater rafting, kayaking, and other water sports.”