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10 low-cost locales where jobs are plentiful

If you're looking for areas with a low cost of living, good job prospects and a high quality of life, here are 10 best bets to research.

By Melinda Fulmer

Cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles might be great places to jump-start your career, but their high cost of living can break the bank for many grads and young families.

Some of the best places to live and work may be smaller so-called flyover cities such as Fayetteville, Ark., Blacksburg, Va., or Logan, Utah, according to Bert Sperling of Sperling's Best Places.

He has put together a list of the top 10 affordable job powerhouses for MSN Real Estate: places where the cost of living and unemployment are low and the number of jobs is growing steadily.

Here, Sperling says, residents enjoy a good quality of life, including a high level of home ownership, without having to make a fat salary.

These aren't boomtowns, Sperling cautions, but that's a good thing, as boomtowns often lead to real estate hangovers and strained city resources and infrastructure. "These are places where people have an opportunity to grow with the town," he says.

Many of them are college towns, providing access to cultural and sporting events that are rare in other burgs their size. Others are framed by national parks, lakes, rivers and other breathtaking natural scenery, an added plus for outdoor enthusiasts.

The drawback for most is their isolation, with trips to the nearest big city for shopping or entertainment taking more than an hour or two. And some have harsh winters, making them a hard sell for those who don't want to wear a parka in April.

But for those looking to save for a house or start a family, they might be ideal. Here are the 10 areas that made the cut for best affordable places to live and work.

1. Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers, Ark.

Many consider Fayetteville to be one of the country's best-kept secrets with its thriving economy and a family-friendly atmosphere nestled in the Ozark Mountains. Home to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has a quaint downtown, good college sports and entertainment, and a progressive feel for such a small town.

Springdale, meanwhile, feels a bit more "old South" and leads the area as a center of light manufacturing, trucking and agricultural processing, as well as being home to poultry giant Tyson Foods.

Rogers is a sleepy little town that has boomed as a major residential area just minutes from Wal-Mart Stores' Bentonville headquarters. While Wal-Mart has an overwhelming influence here, employing more than 13,000 of the residents, many other Fortune 500 companies have moved in as well, providing some diversity to the local economy. The area boasts five-year-job growth of 26.1% and a low unemployment rate of 3.5%.

There's a growing base of culture, with a large performing arts center endowed by the Waltons (Wal-Mart's founding family) on the scene. A Walton-supported art museum is scheduled to open in 2009. This access to culture and the beauty of the surrounding mountains and lakes has helped land it the title of one of America's Most Livable Cities in 2005 by the nonprofit Partners for Livable Communities.

Living costs here are low. The median home price in the three-city area averaged $212,300 in January 2007 -- and that's for a three- to four-bedroom home with as much as 2,000 square feet of living space, says John K. Carpenter of Re/Max Associates in Fayetteville. "People who come down from Chicago are absolutely blown away by what the dollar will buy here."

Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers, Ark.

U.S. avg.

 

Area population392,659647,500
Median home price$212,300$235,000
Cost-of-living index93.0*100.0
Unemployment rate3.5%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 26.14%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year4.22%1.66%
Median household income$43,014$46,326

*93% of U.S. avg. as reported by Sperling's Best Places

2. Idaho Falls, Idaho

The selling point of this small town is its magnificent scenery and top-notch access to recreation. Located on the northeast portion of the Snake River, it is as close as you can get to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks without being in a tourist trap.

Employment here is still pretty much split between agriculture and the Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear-research center outside of town. But the town also serves as a regional hub for health care in the area, and some small tech businesses are beginning to sprout, especially small consulting firms.

The town also is split on the basis of religion, with about half of the town being adherents of the Mormon faith. Most who live here say they like its small-town feel, decent amenities and safe streets and call it an ideal place to raise kids.

The median home price here was $224,800 in January 2007. This was inflated by Californians moving in and building grandiose houses, but Chamber of Commerce President Robb Chiles says the average-sized home goes for about $130,000.

But this may not be the place for the young and single, says Celeste Walker, a stay-at-home mom who recently moved north of the area. There's not a lively bar scene, she says, or places to go dancing. The big excitement of the past year? The opening of the area's first Olive Garden restaurant. "It is missing that fine-dining element," Walker says.

Idaho Falls, Idaho

U.S. avg.

 

Area population110,220647,500
Median home price$224,800$235,000
Cost-of-living index99.8100.0
Unemployment rate2.7%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 18.84%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year2.74%1.66%
Median household income$47,719$46,326

3. Logan, Utah

Another outdoor mecca, Logan is located at the south end of the Cache Valley against the Wasatch Range and the dramatic Wellsville Mountains to the west. Weekends here are all about outdoor recreation, including hiking, skiing and fly-fishing. The town also is home to Utah State University, which brings in cultural events and sporting events for the camping-averse.

Logan has a diverse economy; it's home to many biomedical and high-tech companies, food-processing plants and large call centers. The work force here is young and well-educated, with an estimated 35% of the population holding bachelor's degrees. Logan's downtown area has pedestrian-friendly streets and family-owned businesses. The climate is generally dry and pleasant and brings only a few blasts of rigorous weather each year.

Cost of living is extremely low. The median home price is $200,600. That's good, because wages here generally aren't high, either.

The big drawback here is isolation. The area's beautiful geography makes for some tough traveling to other big cities. Salt Lake City is 75 miles away across a mountain pass, which can be difficult to drive in winter. An estimated 70% of the townspeople are practicing Mormons, which could make those that don't practice the LDS religion feel even more isolated.

Logan, Utah

U.S. avg.

 

Area population110,632647,500
Median home price$200,600$235,000
Cost-of-living index94.6100.0
Unemployment rate2.8%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 18.25%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year2.12%1.66%
Median household income$45,335$46,326

4. Auburn and Opelika, Ala. 

"Mayberry after a growth spurt," is how one local resident on Sperling's Web site describes Auburn. With a nicely laid-out downtown, strong job growth and the perks of Auburn University -- Alabama's largest institution of higher learning -- Auburn is an attractive place for young people and those raising families. Educational attainment in the area is high, with 29% of all residents holding four-year or graduate degrees.

The Cost-of-living index is a modest 97.1% despite a median January home price of $210,900, which is considered slightly high for the region. Auburn's economy, once driven largely by its cotton crop, has now expanded to include manufacturing, including a large Korean auto-parts maker. Distribution centers line the industrial hub of nearby Opelika. As more people and developers have discovered the area's rolling hills and wide-open plains, Auburn has begun to sprawl. A new development plan has been introduced to address the problem.

Many say it's a fine place to raise kids, but lacks excitement. "Tolerable enough but boring" is how one resident describes Auburn. Its hot, humid summers can also be challenging. And Auburn, like many of the cities on our list, is somewhat removed from other major cities. Services and amenities in Atlanta are 110 miles away.

Auburn and Opelika, Ala.

U.S. avg.

 

Area population121,703647,500
Median home price$210,900$235,000
Cost-of-living index97.1100.0
Unemployment rate3.1%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 16.01%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year3.76%1.66%
Median household income$35,165$46,326

5. Iowa City, Iowa

Once the state capital, Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa and has one of the highest levels of educational attainment in the country. While it still retains some of its traditional agricultural base, Iowa City has expanded its economic sector to include light manufacturing, high tech and biotechnology businesses. Despite its isolation from other large towns (Des Moines is 110 miles away), Iowa City feels progressive, Sperling says. It boasts a lively cultural scene, a complete offering of goods and services, an attractive downtown and active community efforts. Older tree-lined neighborhoods comprise the east and south parts of town. More suburban developments springing up to the northeast and west, heading into nearby Coralville.

Larger retail developments are confined mainly to the nearby I-80 corridor, and sprawl issues are modest. The area is a scenic mix of flat river valleys and wooded undulating hills, which help shelter the area from some of the more severe storms in the state. Summers are warm, but winters can be harsh, with below-zero evening temperatures fairly common.

Iowa City, Iowa

U.S. avg.

 

Area population138,941647,500
Median home price$206,900$235,000
Cost-of-living index97.5100.0
Unemployment rate2.7%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 12.33%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year5.14%1.66%
Median household income$46,798$46,326

6. Dubuque, Iowa

A small industrial town, Dubuque has a beautiful historic core that has been featured regularly in film. Victorian brick buildings rise gradually from the Mississippi waterfront, where a new aquarium and convention center have been built. The city's economy hinges largely on manufacturing plants like John Deere and Andersen Windows as well as A.Y. McDonald, a large producer of brass fittings, plumbing and heavy pipe works.

Housing is reasonable, the crime rate is low, and the city has some decent amenities for a town of its size, including a symphony and theater company. On the minus side, the area is not very ethnically diverse, its economic base is fairly stagnant, and it is -- you guessed it -- a bit isolated from other cities. The climate also is somewhat erratic, with historic temperatures ranging from minus 32 degrees F to a scorching 110 degrees.

Dubuque, Iowa

U.S. avg.

 

Area population90,696647,500
Median home price$152,300$235,000
Cost-of-living index89.9100.0
Unemployment rate3.4%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 11.96%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year5.68%1.66%
Median household income$45,815$46,326

7. Pensacola, Ferry Pass and Brent, Fla.

Residents here say there's one overwhelming reason to move here: the beach. With 52 miles of white sand and clear emerald water, Pensacola's beaches could stand in for some Caribbean locales, says James Vines, a local relocation specialist with Brownsville Self Storage. "We get eight months of summer" to enjoy it, he says.

Pensacola has a rich history, having changed hands among nations 13 times. There's a lively bar scene, but not a huge helping of arts and entertainment, Sperling says. And there is a distinct hurricane risk associated with living in the area. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and 2005's Hurricane Dennis took their toll on some of the area's houses, bridges and highways. Still, Vines says the area is rebuilding and in the last year, he's "seen an explosion in Escambia County."

Historically, much of the economy was centered on the military, including the Pensacola Naval Air Station. But the economy is now diversifying to include health care and technology businesses. It's also home to the 9,000-student University of West Florida.


Pensacola, Ferry Pass and Brent, Fla.

U.S. avg.

 

Area population438,226647,500
Median home price$223,900$235,000
Cost-of-living index99.5100.0
Unemployment rate3.4%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 10.61%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year3.86%1.66%
Median household income$43,566$46,326

8. Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford, Va.

This tri-city area, located in a cluster of small towns, is best known as the home of Virginia Polytechnic Institute (better known as Virginia Tech).

Blacksburg is the largest of the three communities and combines a small-town feel and college amenities with a beautiful setting in the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. A pleasant climate and proximity to nearby Roanoke, with its excellent arts, commerce and health care, are perks. The wooded area lacks some big-city hustle and amenities, and is isolated from air service. But it has a low cost of living, with a median home price of only $197,800 and great outdoor recreation opportunities to boot.

One resident on Sperling's Web site calls it "New Englandesque" without the harsh winters and praised its great golf courses and nearby wineries. However, Sperling says, some might find the Virginia Tech presence a bit overwhelming.

Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Radford, Va.

U.S. avg.

 

Area population151,890647,500
Median home price$197,800$235,000
Cost-of-living index90.0100.0
Unemployment rate3.4%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 10.43%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year4.89%1.66%
Median household income$37,174$46,326

9. Huntsville, Ala.

This midsized city located 15 miles south of the Tennessee border is an up-and-coming research, technology and high-tech manufacturing center. Known as the "Space Capital of America" since the 1940s when aerospace research started in the area, today NASA operates the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center there. Numerous technology and aerospace firms, including Boeing, Teledyne, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, LG Electronics and Direct TV, have operations in and around Huntsville. These companies have helped create a stable economy, with a well-educated and well-paid work force.

The city is prosperous and attractive with modern buildings in a wooded mountainous setting. But it's also fairly isolated and has limited air service. Residents complain that local infrastructure hasn't kept up with growth, a downside to the low property taxes in the area.

Huntsville, Ala.

U.S. avg.

 

Area population365,076647,500
Median home price$222,100$235,000
Cost-of-living index97.5100.0
Unemployment rate3.3%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 9.68%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year3.32%1.66%
Median household income$49,754$46,326

10. Fargo, N.D.

More people are saying "you betcha" to Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota. The area is home to North Dakota State University and neighboring Moorhead State University and Concordia College across the Red River from Fargo in Moorhead, Minn. Thus, it's endowed with many college amenities.

Downtown is classic mid-America with a mix of modern buildings and many well-preserved brick structures. A number of well-kept parks line the waterfront. Fargo is best known as a friendly area with a strong Scandinavian influence (although little ethnic diversity) and a strong, varied economy including farm-equipment manufacturers and food processors.

Unemployment here is the lowest in the country at 2.6%, and its central location is helping to turn it into a leading air-cargo hub. Cost of living is low, with a median January home price of $162,800. Anyone who has seen the Coen brothers' 1996 movie, "Fargo," might be put off by the prospect of its harsh winters, but heavy winter snowfall is actually the exception rather than the rule. Its flat terrain is, however, conducive to some legendary blizzards. In Sperling's view, winter is the only significant negative for this town. And residents here seem to find ways to cope, such as swimming in high-school pools, which are open to the public.

Surprisingly enough, one 21-year-old Fargo resident commenting on Sperling's Web site said she was looking forward to the action and hustle of Fargo after leaving much-larger Minneapolis.

Fargo, N.D.

U.S. avg.

 

Area population181,586647,500
Median home price$162,800$235,000
Cost-of-living index90.3100.0
Unemployment rate2.6%4.6%
Job growth -- 5 years 9.30%4.90%
Job growth -- 1 year0.80%1.66%
Median household income$44,486$46,326

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