When you start looking for your next home, your priorities probably range widely, from the smallest details, such as the size of the backyard or whether the garage is attached, to more general feelings you get in a place, such as walkability and community involvement.

While many details play a part in how you enjoy where you live, one thing almost everyone has on their list: feeling safe.

A sense of security is paramount to residing happily in a community, but it can be subjective. People have different thresholds for nearby crime and necessary security measures in the same way they have differing thresholds for weather extremes.

Each year the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index surveys residents in 189 metro areas throughout the U.S. on how they feel about their community, purpose, social interactions, financial and physical stability. U.S. News uses the index results to help determine quality of life in the U.S. News Best Places to Live ranking.

[See: The Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2017.]

The survey includes 58 items addressing purpose, social, financial, community and physical well-being. One question in the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index survey asks residents whether they agree with the statement, “You always feel safe and secure.” The metro area with the highest rate of residents agreeing with the statement is Boulder, Colorado, with 89.5 percent in agreement. Rockford, Illinois, had the smallest portion of residents agreeing with the statement, at 60.2 percent.

More so than raw crime data from law enforcement departments, public opinion reflects how safe a city or metro area feels to the people who live there.

“The safe and secure piece of [the index] relates to where you live, it relates to your ability to move around naturally within your community, it impacts your ability to exercise,” says Susan Frankle, managing director of the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. “So that specific item … gets at maybe a little bit of a different aspect than a crime statistic would.”

From the index’s results regarding safety and security, we looked at a few of the Best Places to Live that received high marks: Fayetteville, Arkansas; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Maine; Des Moines, Iowa; and Honolulu.

It’s no secret that these five metro areas aren't the biggest in the U.S. In fact, of the 125 largest metro areas U.S. News examines, they’re on the smaller side. That smaller population may have something to do with the peace of mind many residents experience.

Dan Witters, research director of the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, notes that residents of large communities tend to have better overall well-being when all aspects are involved, although small communities appear to do better in certain areas, including a sense of security.

"In prior research, we have reported that residents of small communities are more likely to feel safe walking around at night, have higher job satisfaction and feel less significant stress on any given day," Witters says. "The reasons are probably everything that one might think: slower place, everyone knows a large percentage of the other residents and can more readily spot newcomers and occupational opportunities are more limited and predictable, which has the effect of attenuating expectations."

Feeling Safe and Being Safe

A 2013 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that deaths caused by injury, the most common of which were vehicle- and firearm-related, are actually more likely to occur in rural areas than in urban settings, based on an analysis of injury deaths per capita over a 10-year period. When you think about proximity to a hospital and ease of access for first responders, it makes sense.

But when it comes to your gut reaction and peace of mind in choosing to buy or rent where you'll feel safe, it may take a bit more than the location of the nearest hospital. Less than 75 percent of residents in the New York City, Seattle and Houston metro areas agreed with feeling consistently safe, despite all cities having plenty of health care facilities nearby.

In a metro area like Madison, out-of-towners who are used to greater security measures notice a difference in the approach to safety, says Liz Lauer, broker owner and head listing agent at Lauer Realty Group in Madison. She notes that clients from California and other areas may point out a glass front door or an easily accessible window as design flaws, when they aren’t seen as a potential problem to longtime residents because break-ins rarely occur as a result.

“People here don’t think that way – people don’t come into our homes and rob them because you have a glass door,” she says. “So I guess our architecture is set up to be very lax, because we don’t have that kind of high crime problem.”

[See: The Best Places to Live for Quality of Life in 2017.]

What a Sense of Security Can Do

A strong sense of personal security and safety in a community doesn’t stop at residents’ emotions – it can actually translate throughout the community. Frankle notes that a community’s investment in infrastructure such as bike lanes, public transit, parks and other projects is closely tied to how safe people in the community feel, as they don’t have to be concerned about traffic safety getting from point A to point B.

“If you can walk for errands and bike your errands, that piece of it is easy and safe, then the communities that have invested in that sort of active-living infrastructure” see residents’ pride in the community and even physical health increase, Frankle says.

And it’s not just surveys and local mayors noticing an impact. Expanding businesses and corporations – tech companies, particularly – pay close attention to the butterfly effect that community investment has on happiness and peace of mind and often open offices in those locations because employees are more likely to be satisfied with buying a home and investing in the area.

Madison is among many other smaller metro areas in the U.S. that are attracting tech companies seeking more affordable alternatives to pricey Silicon Valley. Lauer says Madison’s small-city, large-town reputation plays a role.

“It is very kid-friendly, bike- [and] bus-friendly and kind of family-oriented. And safety goes along with that, of course,” she says.

[See: The 25 Best Places People Are Moving to in the U.S. in 2017.]

San Francisco, on the other hand, being a much larger metro area and one of the most expensive places to live in the country, has started outpricing many residents. Just 72.5 percent of San Francisco residents agreed that they always feel safe and secure, which puts the Golden City in the bottom quintile of the 189 metro areas in the Well-Being Index survey.

When it comes to looking for your next home on an individual level, whether you're relocating from another part of the country or simply another neighborhood, you may benefit from examining community involvement and infrastructure versus raw crime statistics to estimate how secure you'll feel living there.

Metro Area Percent Agree With “You Always Feel Safe and Secure”* Best Places to Live 2017 Ranking
Austin, Texas
82.3 1
Boise, Idaho
83.3 12
73.3 83
Des Moines, Iowa
86.7 9
Fayetteville, Arkansas
87.9 5
Grand Rapids, Michigan
84.1 19
86.1 46
73.5 20
Los Angeles
71.2 88
Madison, Wisconsin
87.4 18
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
83.7 17
New York City
74.2 80
Portland, Maine
87.2 26
San Francisco
72.5 16
74.1 6

*Source: Gallup Sharecare Well-Being Index, 2016

Tags: real estate, housing, renting, crime, safety, Gallup, community, traffic

Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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