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5 rising U.S. cities where homeownership is affordable

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Dynamic, growing downtowns you can actually afford

Student union patio on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin
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“It costs how much?”

Those not living in overpriced coastal cities are familiar with the conversation; a friend from New York or San Francisco visits, comments on a charming home, and then freaks when they realize that it costs a fraction of even the lowest-priced property back home. They may even bookmark the listing on Zillow, only to forget about it by the time they get back to their tiny apartment.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Plenty of midsize, oft-overlooked U.S. cities get dismissed out of hand, despite having booming tech industries; walkable, exciting downtowns; shorter commutes; and thriving cultural scenes. They’re livable, dynamic, and, better yet, don’t require insane down payments or seven-figure mortgages. So-called second-tier cities offer more opportunity and affordability than many expect.

To create this list (which appears in no particular order), Curbed consulted a number of reports and experts—representing the Urban Land Institute, RCLCO Real Estate Advisors, and American Planning Association—then checked their suggestions against a number of data points, including job growth, home value, and millennial population growth.

As we did last year, we purposely avoided listing cities that have been cited in similar articles for years (Austin and Nashville, for example). We also declined to highlight cities that were suggested by analysts and experts but featured in last year’s list, including San Antonio, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Indianapolis, Indiana; Boise, Idaho; and Providence, Rhode Island.

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Madison, Wisconsin

By the numbers: 26.8 percent millennial population, 1.9 percent unemployment

Median home price: $273,600

Population: 252,551

Selling points: Madison isn’t a big city, but it’s much larger than other Midwest college towns. The Wisconsin capital has emerged as a tech success story over the last decade, playing off the strengths of the flagship University of Wisconsin campus to create a hotbed of financial service and IT companies. Epic Systems, which specializes in health care software, even runs its own tech shuttle from downtown to its suburban campus in nearby Verona, and a Brookings Institution study placed it in the top 10 cities for tech job growth in the U.S. Madison’s downtown swelled on the strength of a growing economy and its celebrated quality of life—the city is partially situated on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona, and boasts great bike trails and parks.

Noteworthy neighborhoods and developments: New hotels recently opened or in the works, including AC, Tru, King, and a proposed boutique development on State Street, as well as commercial and mixed-use developments, show developers betting on business and tourist travel.

Other high-profile projects include the Madison Public Market, as well as a proposed Nolen Waterfront development, which would add a decked-over park to the city’s waterfront.

Main Street Station
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Richmond, Virginia

By the numbers: 23.6 percent millennial population, 3.6 percent unemployment

Median home price: $258,900

Population: 223,170

Selling points: If the presence of mobile millennials looking to start their career is a good proxy for economic potential, then Virginia’s capital has plenty of promise. And regional home sales, which rose 9 percent last year, also suggest as much.

Adding millennials at nearly double the average rate of other U.S. cities, Richmond boasts affordable housing, a solid knowledge base from local universities, and top-tier employers like Amazon, Capital One, and Facebook. The local business community does a good job of supporting area entrepreneurs, and the region has had more than six years of sustained business growth. The former tobacco town has also become an entertainment destination, with Scott’s Addition, a waterfront warehouse district, and the local brewery scene getting national recognition.

Noteworthy neighborhoods and developments: “Cranes are currently a fixture on Richmond’s skyline,” according to an Urban Land Institute report on the city’s real estate scene. Office and mixed-use projects, like the 20-story Dominion Energy Tower or 17-acre City View Landing project along the James River, suggest the millennial migration isn’t slowing down anytime soon; nearly 20,000 new units are currently in some stage of development.

The city’s new Pulse rapid bus system is predicted to encourage more transit-oriented development; a proposal to redevelop the city’s nearly half-century-old coliseum will energize a 10-block area downtown; and the $20 million renovation of the historic, glass-encased Main Street Station Shed brought a historic landmark back to life.

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Des Moines, Iowa

By the numbers: 23.6 percent millennial population, 2.6 unemployment

Median home price: $198,200

Population: 215,472

Selling points: Des Moines, one of the nation’s most affordable metro areas, has posted some of the fastest job growth rates of the last few years. But the downtown rebound, comparable to what’s happening in other Midwest cities, like Chicago, may be the real draw. The city’s celebrated, two-decade initiative to rebuild the riverfront and urban core has drawn a new generation of creative and business talent to the area; millennials now comprise half the mortgage holders in the area.

Noteworthy neighborhoods and developments: New projects continue to build upon the momentum created by projects such as the Western Gateway Park, including the seemingly simple but high-impact Connect Downtown plan, a $33 million bid to revitalize downtown businesses with streetscaping and new bike lanes.

The Renzo Piano-designed Krause Gateway Center, which includes an adjacent sculpture park, may become a new Des Moines landmark, while The Fifth and The Blackbird, the first high-rises to break ground here in decades, are both underway.

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Chattanooga, Tennessee

By the numbers: 22.1 percent millennial population, 3.4 percent unemployment

Median home price: $178,100

Population: 177,571

Selling points: Travel magazines have celebrated Chattanooga’s natural beauty and its proximity to world-class climbing and whitewater rafting. But the real connection that’s vaulted this city to prominence is the gigabit-speed public fiber-optic network that’s made Gig City a regional startup superstar. Add new tech hubs, such as the Tomorrow Building, to existing regional innovation centers, like Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, and you have a formula for fast growth, new companies, and an increasing number of cultural amenities.

Noteworthy neighborhoods and developments: One Hundred at South Broad, a newly opened townhouse development, created a New Urbanism-inspired neighborhood near downtown, while the Riverton Development Group has plans for a $200 million development on the city’s riverfront.

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Omaha, Nebraska

By the numbers: 23.8 percent millennial population, 2.8 percent unemployment

Median home price: $179,000

Population: 446,970

Selling points: Sure, it’s got its charms, including a cobblestoned historic district, and it’s one of the best affordable cities in the country. But this midsize city is about much more than college baseball and Warren Buffett. Creative and entrepreneurial energy (and a music scene recently celebrated by National Geographic Traveler) underscores a growth spurt that’s reshaping downtown and Midtown, as well as up-and-coming areas like the Blackstone District.

Noteworthy neighborhoods and developments: It may be easier to ask where things aren’t happening. The bank of the Missouri River, in both Omaha and nearby Council Bluffs, is home to a number of apartment and office projects; the Playland Park development will add hundreds of apartments and a new public plaza; the $1.2 billion West Farm mixed-use project is beginning to progress; and looking further out, new plans to add a maker’s district and reshape Midtown are under consideration.

About our data: Median home price and year-over-year appreciation figures come from Realtor.com. Current city population data is from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Millennial population figures from Brookings Institution.