In a polarized society, it is no surprise Americans are divided on the best places to live in the U.S. Many top destinations have just as many detractors as fans.
A new study by real estate company Home Bay, in partnership with Allied Van Lines, asked 1,000 respondents where they do and do not want to live, as well as places they consider over and underrated. The results revealed many polarized opinions.
San Francisco, for example, was the sixth most desirable place to live and the sixth most undesirable place to live. New York City was considered the fourth-most desirable city, the fifth-most undesirable city, and the most overrated city.
However, there were some clear winners and losers.
What makes a place desirable?
The qualities that make a place desirable or undesirable boil down to safety and money.
Nearly half of respondents said low crime was the No. 1 most desirable quality in a city or state, while 41% said high crime was the No. 1 reason a place was overrated.
Crime rates were much more important to older respondents. Baby boomers were 41% more likely than Gen Z and 28% more likely than millennials to cite high crime as a reason a place was overrated.
After crime, nearly every other factor that makes a place desirable is financial in nature. The most popular non-crime responses were affordable homes, a low cost of living, and a high quality of life.
Where Americans want to live
The most desirable U.S. cities are on the coasts, although they are not the ones you would likely expect. Of the top five most desirable, only one — New York City — is a prestigious global megacity. The other four are smaller regional cities, suggesting that enthusiasm for big-city living may be giving way to a preference for a more modest urban lifestyle.
Seattle tops the list in 2023 and was especially popular among young generations. It was the top choice among zoomers and the second-most popular choice among millennials, behind Los Angeles. Tampa, Florida, was a close second, followed by Charlotte, North Carolina, New York, and Denver.
At the state level, four of the top five most desirable are again on the coasts. Americans said California was the best state, followed by Florida, New York, Texas, and Hawaii. Although California was the most desirable state, it was the third least desirable.
As many admirers as California has, it seems to have a nearly equal number of detractors. This pattern is true for many of the most desirable states. Florida is the second most desirable but the sixth least desirable; New York is the third most desirable but the fourth least desirable; and Texas is the fourth most desirable but the fifth least desirable.
Where Americans are moving
Moving data from Allied Van Lines paints a complicated picture of where people are actually moving.
Although Seattle was voted the most desirable city, it had the second-most outbound moves among all cities studied in the first half of 2023. Los Angeles, the seventh-most popular city, saw the third-most outbound moves.
Phoenix, which did not appear in the top 10 most desirable cities, had the most inbound moves in the first half of 2023.
There is some logic to the moving data, though. Denver and Tampa, voted highly desirable in the study, experienced the fourth- and fifth-most inbound moves in 2023, respectively.
“A clear trend of Americans leaving expensive, highly taxed, and cold states for warmer states with lower tax burdens can be observed,” said Ryan Cox, director of consumer channel at Allied Van Lines. “Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania continue to lead as top outbound states, while states like Arizona and South Carolina attract more people. It’s a continuation of what we saw in 2021 and 2022.”
Where people do not want to live
The least desirable city was Washington, D.C. Although the District is a vibrant and diverse city, it can be difficult for respondents to separate their feelings for the city from their feelings for the politicians who live there.
Despite being the least desirable city, the U.S. capital had the second-most inbound moves in the first half of 2023 as Americans moved in and out during the election cycle.
Baltimore was No. 2 on the least desirable list, followed by Atlanta, Buffalo, New York, and Birmingham, Alabama.
The top five least desirable states were Alaska, Alabama, California, New York, and Texas. The latter three also made the list of most desirable states, indicating Americans are split on the best places to live.
Expectations versus reality
Stated preferences don’t always match with real-life choices. Maine has the lowest crime rate in the country, while Mississippi has the lowest cost of living, but they were the 24th and 34th most desirable U.S. states, respectively.
The most desirable city, Seattle, has one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, with an average home value of over $700,000 — far above the studied city average of $437,000. Two other cities on the most desirable list — New York and Denver — have similarly expensive housing markets.
The same counterintuitive pattern also applies to the least desirable cities. Three cities on the least-desirable list — Baltimore, Buffalo, and Birmingham — offer affordable housing and a low cost of living but got no love from respondents, suggesting other unstated qualities figure into a place’s desirability.
“What makes a particular place desirable can be highly individualized,” said Zachary Neal, an urban sociology expert and professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “For example, younger people may prefer being near amenities like bars and entertainment in cities, while families with children may prefer the larger homes in the suburbs. In addition, high housing costs and the ability to work from home have led many people to look for lower-cost areas, which often include smaller cities and more rural areas.”
The bottom line is that what people say they want isn’t always what they actually want, especially when it comes to where they live. The choice is fluid, complicated, and not always totally rational.