While metro Sarasota held on, Collier County fell out of the coveted Top 10 of the annual best places to live list released this morning by U.S. News & World Report.
Collier’s reason shouldn’t be surprising: It’s just so dang expensive for workers to live there. Being ranked as the nation’s safest place helped save it from a deeper dive.
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The compilation, used by tourist agencies and marketing companies to draw visitors and future residents, helps provide insight into the country’s 150 most populous metropolitan areas based on affordability, desirability and quality of life.
And the bragging rights are fun, too.
Last year, Naples led Florida and placed seventh overall in America. In the new 2022-2023 Best Places to Live in the United States, it dropped to 12th overall and now in the Sunshine State has fallen behind Sarasota-Bradenton, which repeated in the No. 9 slot nationally. Cape Coral-Fort Myers freefell from No. 43 to 100.
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The findings rocketed NASA-fueled Huntsville, Alabama, to the top due to strong housing affordability and high quality of life. At No. 2, Colorado Springs, Colorado climbed back to its previous 2018 peak, followed by Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Lambeau Leap of 18 spots.
“Much of the shakeup we see at the top of this year’s ranking is a result of changing preferences,” said Devon Thorsby, real estate editor at U.S. News. “People moving across the country today are putting more emphasis on affordability and quality of life than on the job market, which in many ways takes a back seat as remote work options have become more standard.”
Major challenges with affordability
Collier has become the most expensive place to buy a home in the eastern U.S., according to data this month from the National Association of Realtors.
But the challenge goes beyond there.
Because of rising prices in Lee County, a qualifying income of nearly $90,000 is now needed for a first-time buyer of a median single-family house. A year ago, it was $64,000, and NAR bases that on the typical 6.5% down payment and keeping monthly payments to 25% of income.
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Southwest Florida did get some love from U.S. News when it came to safety, locking down two of the three top national positions in that category, with Naples first and Fort Myers third. Between them: Port St. Lucie.
“That affordability factor is certainly a detractor, but quality of life is also a major priority for consumers,” Thorsby told me. Naples “ranks No. 4 for quality of life, which factors in college readiness among high school students, proximity to quality health care, air quality, average commute, crime and overall well-being.”
Other stellar grades for Collier: “No. 14 for air quality and No. 16 for college readiness among high school students,” she said. “Air quality is a new factor in our rankings this year as part of the quality of life score. Of the Florida metros, Naples ranks highest at No. 14, followed by Fort Myers at No. 17.”
Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Sarasota metros
So what’s the beef with Lee?
“Fort Myers saw a bigger drop in desirability, which played a role,” Thorsby said. “Additionally, Fort Myers ranks No. 105 out of 150 for its job market, which is a significant contributor to the drop.”
Abodes rose for Sarasota, but salaries might be keeping up better than other parts of the continent.
“Unlike most metro areas in the U.S., Sarasota’s cost of living actually dropped ever so slightly compared to last year, when comparing the local median household income for the metro area to housing costs including mortgage payments, rent, utilities and property taxes.” Thorsby said. “It’s still certainly not the cheapest place to live, but the fact that its score didn’t drop much helps. Sarasota also ranks No. 7 for crime and No. 35 for air quality.”
Collier is used to being top dog, with an increasingly crowded trophy case.
In the last decade, the Naples-Marco Island metropolitan area ranked No. 1 in four renditions of what was known as the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, based on dwellers’ views about health, financial security, community and sense of purpose.
Naples received the best beach town crown in June from financial analysts at WalletHub, which also made the same proclamation in 2019.
And Travel + Leisure magazine wrote last year that it was the top U.S. beach town in which to reside.
Florida metros sunk across the board
So how did other Florida cities do overall in the U.S. News results? Every one of those dropped except for Daytona Beach’s baby step from No. 69 to 68. And only seven are in the Top 75, down from last year’s 11.
Let’s take a look: Sarasota (ninth); Naples (12th); Melbourne (20th), Jacksonville (24th), Tampa (39th), Pensacola (44th), Daytona Beach (68th), Port St. Lucie (78th), Ocala (91st), Fort Myers (100th); Tallahassee (110th), Lakeland (113th), Orlando (118th) and Miami (137th).
Orlando took the most painful plunge so Fort Myers wasn’t alone.
“The biggest cause of Orlando’s drop from No. 60 to No. 118 is the cost of living,” Thorsby said. “Orlando’s cost of living is the 16th-highest out of the 150 metro areas we consider. Combine that with smaller dips, like a slight drop in desirability and going from the ninth-fastest growing metro to the 25th, and it adds up to a bigger drop in the rankings.”
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What did it look like last year? This: Naples (seventh), Sarasota (ninth), Melbourne (18th), Jacksonville (22nd), Pensacola (26th), Tampa (32nd), Fort Myers (43rd), Port St. Lucie (47th), Ocala (58th), Orlando (60th), Daytona Beach (69th), Tallahassee (76th), Lakeland (80th) and Miami (128th).
“We know the reason can vary so much for so many people,” Thorsby said. “But we can speculate about the cost of living being a concern, worries over simply being able to compete with other homebuyers in a competitive market or even the potential dangers hurricane seasons have on many parts of the state as climate change becomes a bigger part of the discussion for where people want to live.”
At a summit last month, experts said to expect more record heat, crippling humidity and more powerful hurricanes in Florida for the coming years with the continuing warming patterns. Already home to the country’s 10 hottest cities, the state now has an average of 25 dangerous heat days with a heat index of 105 degrees. By 2050, it is projected to face 130 such days each year, more than any other state, according to Climate Central.
“Climate change and the weather events that come with it can certainly impact desirability,” Thorsby said. “Along with our survey for desirability, we annually survey people across the U.S. about the most important factors when deciding to move to a different part of the country, and from that we adjust how we weigh those factors to follow consumer preference.
“This year we saw affordability become an even larger concern, while net migration dropped a bit. Florida is fast-growing, but the cost of living is higher than many other parts of the country, so we see some Florida spots lose their edge as a result.”
What role does ‘Florida Man’ play?
Last year, Florida was among the nation’s most popular spots, with incoming new residents taking to heart, the Beatles’ “I’ll Follow the Sun” and heading south. But there are signs that the market may not continue to sizzle as much with price drops becoming more common in homes for sale, based on real estate data.
A series of controversial laws brought international attention to the state including a government battle involving Disney World. A new poll finds that a bi-partisan majority of Americans are uncomfortable with the latter and the free speech implications, according to Forbes magazine.
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Some of that has led to “Florida Man” stigma jokes by comedians and late night TV shows. This may have been the first weekend in awhile where the state didn’t play a significant role on Saturday Night Live.
The Peninsula’s many miles of beaches and highly regarded winters may help overcome that for northerners stuck in the snow during the cold months and still considering Florida as an alternative.
“Any jokes, stereotypes or stigmas about a place can certainly impact its desirability score, since it’s based on people’s personal preference,” Thorsby said, when asked. “However, as pervasive as something like ‘Florida Man’ jokes may be, the fact that we’re still seeing seven Florida metro areas rank in the top 25 for desirability tells me people are more interested in the warm weather and beach access, among other things.”
Other parts of America are making moves up.
“States with a low cost of living overall have seen many of their metro areas perform well this year in Best Places to Live, and that echoes the public’s emphasis on affordability,” Thorsby said. “Many Midwestern states, including Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan and more see more than one metro area ranking high on the list because affordability is high compared to local income — and in many cases their job markets are strong as well.”
U.S. News added air quality this year as a factor, as Americans increasingly consider environmental factors before making a major move. That helped propel communities like Huntsville and Albany, New York, which climbed to No. 21 from 45.
The magazine determined the list based on methodology that factored in the job market, value, quality of life, desirability and net migration ratings. They were determined in part using public inquiry of 3,600 individuals throughout the U.S. to find out what qualities they consider important in a place to live.
It also examined data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the FBI, Sharecare, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. News analysis of schools and hospitals.
The Top 10 best places in America
Here’s the overall Top 10 list:
1. Huntsville, Alabama
2. Colorado Springs, Colorado
3. Green Bay, Wisconsin
4. Boulder, Colorado
5. San Jose, California
6. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
7. Fayetteville, Arkansas
8. Portland, Maine
10. San Francisco
Most affordable places to live in U.S.
And what were the most affordable, according to U.S. News:
1. Hickory, North Carolina
2. Green Bay Wisconsin
3. Huntsville, Alabama
4. Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois
5. Fort Wayne, Indiana