Towns sure to please the whole family
Top 10 places to raise kids offer more than good schools
By Andrea Coombes, MarketWatch
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- What's the first thing families with children seek when moving? The town with the best schools.
But they may be putting too much emphasis on that one criterion, according to a new ranking of the top family-friendly locales in 10 metro areas nationwide.
Even though a town has great schools, it may have a higher crime rate or fewer families with children, both of which can affect quality of life, than a neighboring town with equally good schools, said Andrew Schiller, author of the report.
A "quality-rated public school in and of itself ... does not necessarily make a good town or community to raise children," said Schiller, a geographer and founder of Location Inc., and creator of NeighborhoodScout.com, a site that lets visitors compare communities nationwide on various criteria.
Using census, crime and other data, Schiller compared towns in the 10 largest metro areas nationwide based on six attributes: Good schools, low crime rates, high homeownership rates, high numbers of residents with college degrees, families with children and single-family homes.
High homeownership rates "represent an investment in the location by those living there," Schiller said, and the number of college-educated residents is "a good indicator that the populace places a high degree of importance on education. Those parents who are educated tend to be those who work hard to promote good local schools and participate in the schools."
A high proportion of families with children means "the town provides great social networks for both the children and their parents," Schiller said.
Plus, in towns with fewer families there's "less political clout ... to continue to support those things that make that community good for families with children," he said. "Even if the schools are good now it's difficult to say that they would have the political will to continue."
Best schools don't necessarily mean best towns
In the Washington metropolitan area, the highest-rated school district is in Alexandria, Va., according to Schiller's data. But the town that won top honors for family-friendliness in that metro area is Potomac, Md.
"Alexandria tends to be a community that, depending on the neighborhood, has either a lot of young, upwardly mobile, single people, or seniors, or college students, depending on where you are in the city," he said.
But Potomac has a slightly lower crime rate and "neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood is dominated by a demographic that is families with children," Schiller said.
A similar picture emerged in the San Francisco Bay area, where Los Altos, Calif., won top honors as a family-friendly town.
Just a short drive up the highway, nearby Palo Alto offered the highest-rated public schools in the area but, while the town is safer than most communities in the U.S., it has a higher crime rate than Los Altos, according to Schiller's data.
Richest not always best
You might expect the towns with the highest home values to be among the best places to raise children, but that's not always true under Schiller's formula.
For instance, in the Boston metropolitan area, Sudbury, Mass., won top honors, edging out the pricier Lincoln even though both towns share the same top-ranked school district.
In most cases, the top locales for families are not the most expensive towns in that area, Schiller said. "It may be that ... families with children are priced out."
Still, the winning locales are often pricey relative to other parts of the country. "Most of the places that were best for families were rather expensive. They just weren't uniformly the most expensive places in these metro areas."
Top 10 towns
Schiller generated two lists, one that factored in home values and one that didn't. "We ran the research twice for each metro area, once without including cost at all and the second one with cost, looking for much more reasonably priced areas," he said.
"That revealed the top choices and the best value communities in each of the U.S.'s top 10 metro areas."
The following are the top locales for families with children, in each of the 10 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, with cost not a factor, according to Schiller.
- In the Boston metro area: Sudbury, Mass.
- In the New York metro area: Manhasset, N.Y.
- In the Philadelphia area: Richboro, Pa.
- In the Washington area: Potomac, Md.
- In the Detroit area: Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
- In the Chicago area: Lake Forest, Ill.
- In the Dallas-Ft. Worth area: Highland Park, Texas.
- In the Houston area: Sugar Land, Texas.
- In the San Francisco Bay area: Los Altos, Calif.
- In the Los Angeles area: Moorpark, Calif.
- In the Boston metro area: Holden, Mass.
- In the New York metro area: Andover, N.J.
- In the Philadelphia area: Downingtown, Pa.
- In the Washington area: Columbia, Md.
- In the Detroit area: Troy, Mich.
- In the Chicago area: Wheeling, Ill.
- In the Dallas-Ft. Worth area: Richardson, Texas.
- In the Houston area: Stafford, Texas.
- In the San Francisco Bay area: Suisun City, Calif.
- In the Los Angeles area: Simi Valley, Calif.
Andrea Coombes is a reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco.