Where to Find Pockets of Economic Sanity in the United States

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Here's where jobs exist, buying a home is within reach and schools are above average. (If you live on a coast, you're probably not in one of these "sane circles."

American families are stressed and squeezed by economic math that works against them. For example, as I wrote recently, homes in ZIP codes with at least one above-average school cost twice as much as homes in ZIPs without a good school. I’ll repeat this message because it’s so important: The numbers say that families with average incomes can’t afford average-priced homes in most of America. That’s the sign of a broken market, but more important, it’s driving people crazy. That’s what I’m covering in The Restless Project.

But while many families in America’s big cities struggle in the get-a-great-job-so-we-can-beat-the-odds game (a game that, sadly, the majority cannot win), there are ways to escape the craziness. There are hundreds of communities where homes are inexpensive relative to incomes and there are still good schools. None of them are on the coasts; but they do exist. If you feel restless, you should consider moving to one of these areas. At the very least, you should learn about them and realize that not everyone lives under constant economic uncertainty bred by outsized housing costs.

Last year, my most popular Restless Project story revealed the top 100 “sane circles” — places with jobs and schools and reasonably priced homes. So today, I’m revealing the 2015 sane circles map, once again thanks to the hard work of the folks at RealtyTrac. Click here for an interactive map to see details on communities in the top 100. (*See below for how “sane circles” were identified.)

You might need a furry cap, with ear flaps

Before you dive in, here are a few observations. First of all, there are hundreds more ZIP codes that fit the good-jobs-homes-schools description. This map shows only the least expensive 100. So other areas cannot be disqualified. That said, it’s remarkable how narrowly grouped the circles are. A bit of Florida, a bit of North Carolina-Tennessee-Ohio, a bit of upstate New York, and a lot of Wisconsin and non-Chicagoland Illinois.

In other words, want a simpler life? Buy a warm coat. To put it nicely, tolerance for changing seasons will open up opportunities for you.

As for the 2014 vs. 2015 comparison, there aren’t major shifts, but it does seem as if the good times might be coming to an end in upstate New York. (I’ll have more on that soon. Buffalo has become like San Francisco, Marketwatch just proclaimed!) And affordability really seems to be tilting toward Wisconsin and its neighbors.

I’d love to hear your impressions of this map. If you’ve moved into one of these “sane circles” recently, I’d really love to hear from you. In the search for affordable America, we are all in this together.

*How “sane circles” were identified: To qualify as good schools, they needed to have test scores that were at least one-third higher than their state’s average. The process is not perfect, to be sure: The intrastate standard means a better school in a state where education is better overall could be penalized. The unemployment rate criteria is simpler — 5.9 percent or lower. And affordability meant that home payments (using the formula we used last time) are 33 percent of income or lower.

Are you tempted to uproot your family and move to a “sane circle,” or are you already living in one? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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