Best places to live in California in 2021

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Many Californians faced big challenges in 2020 from the worst-ever wildfire season on record and the economic fallout from COVID-19. Despite those difficulties, California remains a land of opportunity where dreamers go to chase stardom in Hollywood, launch groundbreaking tech companies in Silicon Valley and look for ways to cash in on the fifth-largest economy in the world (as of 2018).

Outside of career opportunities, California delivers what everyone wants to have when they wake up: a high quality of life. The state ranked in the top 10 in Sharecare’s 2019 Well-Being Index, which means that California residents have a good sense of purpose in their lives with supportive social groups around them. Those senses of purpose can vary: Some residents might find it in a vineyard; others might find it working for Google, Apple, Salesforce or one of the other major companies headquartered in the state. Others might simply find it at the beach.

If you’re planning to head west, here are the best cities in California to consider.

Best places to live in California in 2021

While what makes a city ideal for you will not be a perfect match for someone else, there are common factors that everyone seeks when searching for a new place to settle. Here’s a rundown of the key factors that shaped our research:

  • Affordability – How much of your money goes to essential costs, and how much of it can go toward enjoying your time in The Golden State? We analyzed each city’s cost of living compared with median household income figures from the Census Bureau. To dig even deeper, we looked at Redfin data from home sale prices in these cities to get the pulse of the real estate market. (Note that regardless of where in the state you live, be prepared to pay: According to the California Association of Realtors, the median home price in the state was more than $710,000 as of October 2020).
  • Safety – How safe will you feel under the California sun? We analyzed per capita statistics on violent crime and property crime incidents to get an idea.
  • Job market – We looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics city-level unemployment data from the fall of 2020 to get a sense of how each of these cities has recovered from the initial shockwaves of the pandemic in early 2020. In addition to being able to find a job, we also looked at how long it will take you to get to work (if you’re required to, that is) based on average commute times from the Census Bureau.
  • Educational attainment – Education translates to achievement, so we looked at Census data on the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees in each of these areas.
  • Culture – Everyone has unique preferences about what to do outside of work hours, so our cultural metrics are a subjective evaluation of opportunities to see, do and experience these cities. We looked at convention and visitors bureau information and chamber of commerce listings to get a sense of what each of these places offer in terms of arts, music, food and nature excursions. Be sure to research these cities to determine if the lifestyle is right for you.

1. Sacramento

Affordability: 8 out of 10
Safety: 7 out of 10
Job market: 7 out of 10
Education: 7 out of 10
Culture: 7 out of 10

Biggest upside: Some of the most affordable housing on our list
Biggest downside: The city’s cultural scene still has some maturing to do

While you won’t find oceanfront views in inland Sacramento, you will find some of the most affordable housing options on our list. Sales prices for homes averaged just $400,000 as of early December 2020, according to real estate brokerage Redfin, which counts as a bargain in California.

Cheaper living translates to a higher population growth rate: The Sacramento area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, estimates show. The government is a major employer here, but there are also quite a few opportunities in renewable energy and life sciences and healthcare. The city may not share the reputation for culture of San Francisco or Los Angeles, but it has a blossoming arts scene, a scenic downtown riverfront and a full calendar of art walks, festivals and concerts.

2. Los Angeles

Affordability: 8 out of 10*
Safety: 5 out of 10
Job market: 5 out of 10
Education: 7 out of 10
Culture: 10 out of 10

Biggest upside: A second-to-none cultural scene and a high average salary
Biggest downside: Safety and a job market that has been hit hard by the pandemic

You may associate L.A. with Hollywood, but the city’s lights shine on more than movies and television production here, with major employers like Kaiser Permanente and the University of California. The City of Angels is off the charts on the culture spectrum, too, with an international food scene, a new stadium for the Los Angeles Football Club (every game sells out due to an insanely dedicated fan base) and a downtown renaissance that is attracting plenty of creatives.

The present looks great for L.A., and the future looks even better. The city is transforming itself in preparation for the 2028 Summer Olympic Games with expansion plans for its public transit system. While that project certainly won’t be finished in 2021, it does paint a bright, traffic-jam-free tomorrow for the area.

*Our numerical rankings encompass the entire L.A. metro area. For example, crime statistics in the city of Los Angeles are much higher than you will find in Glendale or Long Beach. 

3. San Diego

Affordability: 6 out of 10
Safety: 8 out of 10
Job market: 7 out of 10
Education: 7 out of 10
Culture: 8 out of 10

Biggest upside: Low unemployment rates and high educational attainment
Biggest downside: Affordability

Low unemployment, high average salaries and shorter commute times are all key ingredients that make San Diego an ideal place to call home. With a large naval base, the government is one of the city’s biggest employers, and Kaiser Permanente, General Dynamics and SeaWorld all have big operations here as well. The city’s nightlife is top-notch, with plenty of bars and nightclubs in the downtown Gaslamp neighborhood. If you’re looking for a slower pace, you can head closer to the coast, too.

While living here is pretty pricey, the city recently approved plans for a new development along the San Diego River, expected to break ground later this year, which will add 4,300 new properties to the city’s housing supply.

4. San Jose

Affordability: 4 out of 10
Safety: 8 out of 10
Job market: 9 out of 10
Education: 9 out of 10
Culture: 7 out of 10

Biggest upside: Low unemployment rates and high educational achievement
Biggest downside: A very high cost of living and signs of a slowdown in the Silicon Valley surge (HP, for instance, one of the biggest employers in the area, is relocating to Texas)

The list of employers in San Jose reads like a Hall of Fame of tech giants: Adobe, eBay, Cisco and SAP are just a few of the names that call this Silicon Valley city home. All those pioneering developments for computers and connectivity are worth a lot: Average salaries in San Jose are the highest among all the cities on our list.

There’s a tradeoff, though, since housing in San Jose is very, very expensive. If you can afford it, you’ll find plenty of excuses to spend money sampling craft beers at local breweries, cheering for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and exploring a long list of local attractions. You’ll feel safe while you do it, too: San Jose has some of the lowest crime statistics on our list.

5. Bakersfield

Affordability: 9 out of 10
Safety: 6 out of 10
Job market: 5 out of 10
Education: 5 out of 10
Culture: 6 out of 10

Biggest upside: The most affordable city on our list
Biggest downside: High unemployment rate and low educational achievement

Bakersfield is one exception to the you-have-to-be-wealthy-to-live-in-California rule, with a median home sale price of just $286,500 as of early December 2020, according to real estate brokerage Redfin. Plenty of people are taking advantage of the city’s affordable real estate. While many high-priced cities in the state have seen population growth dwindle, Bakersfield has been on a steady path of growth, the state’s Department of Finance reports. The oil industry is the foundation of the economy, and there are also opportunities in healthcare at Dignity Health and Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.

The nightlife in Bakersfield isn’t what you’ll find in bigger cities, but the city does have a growing arts culture. If you’re looking for a more heart-pounding adventure, there are also opportunities for serious whitewater rafting nearby.

6. Santa Rosa

Affordability: 7 out of 10
Safety: 6 out of 10
Job market: 7 out of 10
Education: 7 out of 10
Culture: 8 out of 10

Biggest upside: Low unemployment rates and a laid-back, small-city vibe
Biggest downside: A small number of big employers

You won’t find towering skyscrapers, subway lines or the other hallmarks of big-city living in Santa Rosa, but you will find some of the best wine in the world, low unemployment rates and high household incomes in this special sliver of Sonoma County.

Located 55 miles north of San Francisco, this is the smallest city on our list in terms of population, and it’s proof that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Living here means easy access to outdoor activities and a food scene with flavors that don’t have to travel far to get to your table. The city has a limited number of major employers, though, so you may have to a commute to contend with. The good news is, the year-round mild climate means that when you aren’t in your car, you’ll be able to stay healthy and stay outside.

Next steps

Tired of renting? You’re in luck. Record-low mortgage rates mean it’s a great time to consider buying a home in California or elsewhere.

Once you have an idea of where you want to call home, you’ll need to figure out which mortgage lender has the most attractive terms for your big move. For more on buying a home this year, check out Bankrate’s homebuying guide.

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Written by
David McMillin
Contributing writer
David McMillin writes about credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. David's goal is to help readers figure out how to save more and stress less.
Edited by
Mortgage editor