The Best Places to Live in California

See how 12 metro areas in California compare to each other.

By Devon Thorsby, Editor, Real Estate |Sept. 17, 2019, at 9:54 a.m.

The Best Places to Live in California

Slideshow

Which spot in the Golden State is best?

Date Palm, sometimes referred to as the Arabian Palm and adopted in 1950 as Saudi Arabia national emblem, representing the Kingdom's assets.

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Whether it’s because you consider the West Coast the best coast or simply because the right job is calling to you, you may be one of many people considering a move to California. But while your mind might first jump to Los Angeles or San Francisco as the epitome of life in the Golden State, there are many more major metro areas to consider. Out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. that make up the overall Best Places to Live rankings – calculated based on affordability, job market, access to quality health care and desirability, among other factors – 12 of them are in California. Read on for the Best Places to Live in California.

Updated on Sept. 17, 2019: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

12. Bakersfield

12. Bakersfield

Bakersfield, California

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 124
Metro Population: 878,744
Median Home Price: $226,908
Median Annual Salary: $47,680

Bakersfield is an inland California metro area and ranks No. 124 on the overall Best Places to Live list. Bakersfield residents spend 25.9% of the median annual household income on living expenses, including mortgage payments, rent, property taxes and utilities. With an unemployment rate of 8% and a median annual salary of $47,680 – $3,000 below the national median – Bakersfield has a job market that ranks fourth-worst out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S., with San Juan, Puerto Rico, and McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, having poorer-performing job markets.

Learn more about Bakersfield.

11. Stockton

11. Stockton

Waterfront Cityscape of All American City Award Recipient, Stockton, California, Reflected in River at Weber Point

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 123
Metro Population: 724,153
Median Home Price: $352,350
Median Annual Salary: $46,770

In California’s Central Valley, Stockton is surrounded by farms and vineyards characteristic of the northern part of the state, but the metro area is also home to many manufacturing and distribution hubs for companies such as Safeway and Whirlpool Corp. Although Stockton was hit hard by the Great Recession and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2013, the metro area has made positive strides in recent years. However, unemployment in the area remains high at 5.9%, compared to the national unemployment rate of 3.9%.

Learn more about Stockton.

10. Modesto

10. Modesto

Rolling green hills with oak trees in Modesto, California

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 120
Metro Population: 803,074
Median Home Price: $289,168
Median Annual Salary: $46,176

Located about halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, Modesto is another major California metro area with proximity to farms and a deep connection to agriculture. The job market in the metro area, however, has room for growth. The median annual salary in Modesto is about $4,000 less than the national median of $50,620, and the unemployment rate is 7%. Additionally, residents endure a high cost of living, which requires 27.32% of the area median annual household income, making it the 13th-most expensive place to live out of the 125 metro areas on the list.

Learn more about Modesto.

9. Fresno

9. Fresno

Fresno downtown skyline view with a clear blue sky in the background.

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 119
Metro Population: 971,616
Median Home Price: $260,733
Median Annual Salary: $45,510

Ranking No. 119 on the overall Best Places to Live list, Fresno is located in the San Joaquin Valley – roughly a two-hour drive to the coast. Like many inland California metro areas, Fresno is best known for its connection to agriculture, with fruits like tomatoes and peaches among its most common crops. A largely agricultural focus also keeps many residents from having to travel far for work, as the average morning commute in Fresno is just 22.4 minutes, four minutes less than the national average.

Learn more about Fresno.

8. Salinas

8. Salinas

Strawberry fields in the Salinas Valley of central California juxtapose with urban residential housing in the adjacent foothills.

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 117
Metro Population: 433,168
Median Home Price: $581,342
Median Annual Salary: $48,290

Located along the Pacific coast, Salinas is one of the smaller California metro areas on the list, with less than 500,000 residents calling the area home. While the city of Salinas does not sit directly on the coast, other parts of the metro area, including Monterey, are on the water, which helps them attract many visitors and residents for the ocean access. As a result of its prime location, Salinas is the 24th-most desirable place out of the 125 metro areas on the list, based on the results of a SurveyMonkey analysis that asked 2,000 U.S. residents where they would prefer to live.

Learn more about Salinas.

7. Los Angeles

7. Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles skyline at sunset with palm trees in the foreground

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 107
Metro Population: 18,585,594
Median Home Price: $526,214
Median Annual Salary: $53,803

The home of Hollywood, Los Angeles ranks No. 107 on the overall Best Places to Live list for 2019. The second-most populous metro area in the U.S. after only New York City, Los Angeles offers a healthy job market and desirable location, but the popularity comes at a price. Los Angeles residents spend 30.28% of the median household income on housing, which makes this metro area too pricey for many people. Los Angeles area residents also spend more time getting to work – the average morning commute is 30.4 minutes.

Learn more about Los Angeles.

6. Sacramento

6. Sacramento

Clouds over cityscape of Downtown Sacramento at sunset.

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 82
Metro Population: 2,268,005
Median Home Price: $389,858
Median Annual Salary: $55,010

California’s state capital receives its best scores for its job market – the median annual salary, at $55,010, is $5,000 above the national median, while the unemployment rate is 3.7%, just below the national average of 2.9%. As a result, Sacramento’s job market ranks 20th out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Higher income in Sacramento helps reduce the impact of housing costs, though not by much. More than 26.55% of the median household income is required to cover typical housing costs for the area.

Learn more about Sacramento.

5. Santa Rosa

5. Santa Rosa

The Fountaingrove Round Barn, built in 1899, is a local landmark in northeast Santa Rosa, California.

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 74
Metro Population: 500,943
Median Home Price: $629,917
Median Annual Salary: $53,890

If you’re looking to live in the middle of California wine country, look no further than Santa Rosa. Ranking No. 74 on the overall Best Places to Live list for 2019, Santa Rosa receives its strongest scores for low property crime and murder rates, college preparedness among high school students and an average morning commute of just over 25.2 minutes, a little under the national average of 26.4 minutes. The cost of living in Santa Rosa requires 28.22% of the area median household income.

Learn more about Santa Rosa.

4. Santa Barbara

4. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, California is the best place to travel alone

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 73
Metro Population: 442,996
Median Home Price: $463,750
Median Annual Salary: $54,320

The least-populated California metro area on the list, Santa Barbara has just over 442,996 residents – but it appears to keep them happy and healthy. In the annual Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which measures residents’ satisfaction with their hometown, overall health and economic success, Santa Barbara is third out of the 125 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Combined with high scores for its proximity to quality hospitals, based on U.S. News Best Hospitals data, low rates of property crime and murder and a short average morning commute, Santa Barbara ranks No. 1 for quality of life.

Learn more about Santa Barbara.

3. San Diego

3. San Diego

la jolla cove - san diego, ca

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 36
Metro Population: 3,283,665
Median Home Price: $555,325
Median Annual Salary: $56,410

The fifth-most desirable place out of the 125 places on the list, San Diego attracts many residents for its sunny weather, warm climate and proximity to the beach. But sandy shores aren’t the only thing bringing people to San Diego – a median annual salary of $56,410 and an unemployment rate of 3.3% mean the job market is stronger than the average metro area in the U.S. But with a cost of living that requires 29.52% of the area median annual household income, San Diego is also the fifth-most expensive metro area in the U.S.

Learn more about San Diego.

2. San Jose

2. San Jose

Drone photo of sunset over downtown San Jose in California

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 14
Metro Population: 1,969,897
Median Home Price: $1,080,017
Median Annual Salary: $77,180

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the capital of Silicon Valley ranks highly on the overall Best Places to Live list at No. 14. San Jose is home to nearly 2 million people, and with a median home price of $1,080,017, it has even higher home prices than San Francisco. But like its Bay Area neighbor, a high income offsets the mile-high prices. With a median annual salary of $77,180, San Jose residents aren’t hurting as much when it comes to buying a house.

Learn more about San Jose.

1. San Francisco

1. San Francisco

Classic view of historic traditional Cable Cars riding on famous California Street in beautiful early morning light at sunrise in summer, San Francisco, California, USA

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Best Places 2019 Rank: 7
Metro Population: 4,641,820
Median Home Price: $768,517
Median Annual Salary: $69,700

San Francisco has plenty going for it to attract new residents, from its reputation as a fun city to live in to a strong job market. And while San Francisco’s real estate market is notoriously expensive – with a median home price of $768,517 according to data from real estate information company Zillow – the higher median income offsets those high costs. Tied with Honolulu, Portland, Oregon, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, San Francisco ranks No. 1 for desirability out of the 125 metro areas on the Best Places to Live list.

Learn more about San Francisco.

The Best Places to Live in California include:

The Best Places to Live in California include:

Colorful San Francisco building tops with Bay on a Sunny day. Oblique view with copy space.

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  • San Francisco.
  • San Jose.
  • San Diego.
  • Santa Barbara.
  • Santa Rosa.
  • Sacramento.
  • Los Angeles.
  • Salinas.
  • Fresno.
  • Modesto.
  • Stockton.
  • Bakersfield.

Read More

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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