There’s no denying that Boulder, Colorado, offers a lot of what people are looking for when they consider moving to a new part of the country. College students, recent grads and established professionals in the tech industry alike see Boulder as an ideal spot, and the active atmosphere and easy access to the outdoors continue to draw people seeking a new setting.
Boulder ranks as the No. 1 metro area in U.S. News’ Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2021-22 — the second year in a row that Boulder has taken the top spot. To determine the Best Places to Live rankings, U.S. News examined housing affordability, net migration, desirability, the job market and quality of life — which includes access to quality health care, college readiness among high school students, crime, average commute and overall well-being among residents — in the 150 most populous metro areas in the U.S. With particularly high scores in desirability, job market and quality of life, Boulder outranked the 149 other spots on the list.
But no metro area is perfect, and while Boulder is a key destination for the expanding tech industry in the metro area and is widely hailed by residents for its easy access to hiking and biking trails, it’s also an expensive place to live, even compared to the rising cost of living in the neighboring Denver metro area, which has seen rapid population growth and development in the last couple decades.
If you’re considering a move to Boulder, or you’re already a Boulder resident and you’re wondering how your hometown got to the top of the Best Places to Live rankings, we’re breaking down how Boulder scored, why it’s so competitive with other top places in the U.S. and where there’s room for improvement.
Attracting Employers and Job Stability
Out of the 150 metro areas in the Best Places to Live rankings, Boulder had the third-highest performing job market in 2020, behind Washington, D.C., and San Jose, California. The average annual salary in the Boulder metro area was $67,160 in 2019, while the national average was far lower at $53,490.
In 2020, despite a year of economic uncertainty and skyrocketing unemployment rates across the country, reaching a monthly national average of 8.1%, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Boulder managed to maintain relative stability. The Colorado metro area’s average monthly unemployment for the year was 6.2%.
Major employers in Boulder have contributed to the job market stability through an economically trying time. The University of Colorado Boulder has long been a major source of employment for the area, while also attracting plenty of new and young residents each year (even during the COVID-19 pandemic).
Tech giants like Google and Apple are significant employers in the area, along with plenty of tech startups and they continue to bring additional tech talent from places like Seattle and Silicon Valley. The aerospace industry’s presence also means major employers in the area include Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Even with the heavy-hitting employers already making up Boulder’s job market, other companies continue to consider and move to the Boulder area every year. “The companies want to locate in towns where people like to live,” says Duane Duggan, a real estate agent and sales manager for Re/Max of Boulder.
High Altitude and High Quality of Life
When it comes to the quality of life, there’s plenty to brag about in Boulder. The Quality of Life index, as part of the Best Places to Live rankings, factors in college readiness among high school students based on data from the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, proximity to quality health care based on data from the U.S. News Best Hospitals rankings, average morning commute time, crime and overall well-being as reported through the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index, which surveys residents across the U.S. asking about their overall well-being as it relates to where they live.
In overall quality of life, Boulder ranks second out of the 150 most populous metro areas in the U.S., behind only Ann Arbor, Michigan. Boulder ties for No. 1 in college readiness with San Jose, and is fifth out of the 150 metro areas on the list for well-being.
People Want to Be in Boulder
To determine which places out of the 150 most populous metro areas in the U.S. were the most desirable, U.S. News surveyed more than 3,600 people in the U.S. through SurveyMonkey, asking them where they’d prefer to live, given the choice. Boulder ranks No. 10 on the list, tied with New York City.
Boulder and New York City may seem like polar opposites in terms of their location and general atmosphere, but there’s no denying that they equally draw people seeking their ideal lifestyle.
But while New York City saw many people leave the more urban settings of the metro area in search of space during the COVID-19 pandemic, Boulder’s easy access to the outdoors, including hiking and biking trails, ski opportunities and river or lake spots, were the saving grace for many residents.
The metro area has the ability to draw Boulder expats back as well. Genevieve Clough left Boulder after growing up in the area and attending CU Boulder, until she realized that Colorado — and Boulder, specifically — were the right place to be. “I had a kind of spiritual awakening. I realized I wanted to go back home,” she says.
Clough, 34, now works in the Boulder area as an intuitive healer and shares her experiences living in Boulder and advice for moving to the area, among other topics, on her YouTube channel, Genevieve Clough.
Housing Affordability Prices Out Many Would-Be Residents
Of course, no place scores perfectly in all categories for the Best Places to Live rankings, and one area in which Boulder falls short is housing affordability. Boulder metro area residents spend 24.24% of the area’s median household income on rent or mortgage payments, property taxes and utilities. The median cost of living for the 150 places on the list is 23.06%.
Boulder still isn’t the most expensive place to live in the U.S., as the high average annual salary and proportionately higher median household income helps to offset the high cost of living. If you’re working in aerospace or tech and relocating to the area, your salary may make Boulder more affordable. If you’re in a career field that traditionally pays less, however, you’re likely to find yourself priced out of the city. “The typical schoolteacher or firefighter can’t afford a home in Boulder anymore,” Duggan says.
Duggan reports the median sale price for a single-family home in the city of Boulder in the first quarter of 2021 was over $1.3 million. In a time when most of the U.S. is seeing a shortage of homes on the market and fierce competition between homebuyers with rapidly rising prices, Duggan says all-cash offers or a significant amount of cash are almost necessary to be able to get an accepted bid in Boulder.
“A lot of first-time buyers, if they couldn’t pay cash they’d go to family to get cash, borrow from parents and get a loan later to pay the parents back,” Duggan says. Naturally, that limits many would-be buyers who don’t have access to such high amounts of cash.
In both home sales and rentals, Clough says she feels a lot of property owners aren’t afraid to ask more than the market may require, simply because of Boulder’s high desirability and high-income transplants. “They can push the market and try to upsell their places because there will always be someone who is willing to pay,” Clough says.
Unfortunately, the housing supply in the city of Boulder is pretty tapped out, so you can’t expect new construction to allow for increased density. “In Boulder there’s literally no land to build a 300-home subdivision on — it’s just not there,” Duggan says.
Surrounding cities in the metro area do allow for more affordable options, but you have to be willing to drive farther, get a bit less of the typical Boulder atmosphere and in some cases still pay plenty. Clough says she often recommends Longmont as an alternative to people priced out of Boulder, though Duggan says finding a home for less than $600,000 is hard there now as well.
If you’re willing to live farther from the city in exchange for living near Boulder and similar access to outdoor activities, Duggan notes the age-old real estate industry saying for pricey metro areas applies for many people: “Drive till you qualify.”
Residents Note a Lack of Diversity Among Neighbors
While it’s not part of the scoring system that leads to the Best Places to Live rankings, a common criticism of Boulder is its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, especially for a place that’s widely hailed as politically and socially progressive.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 77% of the Boulder metro area’s population is white, 14% is Hispanic or Latinx, 5% is Asian and about 1% is Black. In the city of Boulder, the share of the population that is white rises to 80%.
The high cost of living certainly doesn’t help increase the racial and ethnic makeup of the metro area, as the highest earners in the U.S. tend to be white.
Plus, an existing lack of diversity doesn’t always foster natural diversification. Clough notes that people of color she knows who have moved to Boulder have expressed a feeling of discomfort, simply because it’s very obvious that they are the only people of color nearby.
The Boulder metro area has become more diverse over time, if slowly. Philanthropic organization the Community Foundation Boulder County reports Boulder County’s population of Latinx people doubled between 1990 and 2017, and the Asian community in Boulder County rose from 2% to 5% in that time as well.
Making Boulder Home
Clough says that in her conversations with people and in her YouTube videos, she’s previously warned that the idealists who view Boulder as a progressive, outdoorsy and freethinking place may be disappointed. “It’s not as accessible or as genuine as it used to be,” she says.
However, she’s changing her message as she sees more efforts to make it easier and more affordable to live in the area. Clough sites the efforts of some residents to lift an aged housing law that restricts the number of unrelated people who can live in a dwelling together to three as an example of solving some of Boulder’s larger issues. Known as the Bedrooms Are for People campaign, the effort advocates that a repeal of the existing law would make it easier for shared housing to help reduce the cost of living for many.
“I’m seeing that we need more people with different cultural backgrounds (and) different economic backgrounds” to help foster more change, Clough says.
While you should certainly prepare your expectations when it comes to finding housing, it’s still possible to live out your dream of moving to the Boulder area. “If you have an authentic desire to move here, I think you should try,” Clough says.
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What Makes Boulder the Best Place to Live in the U.S. in 2021-22? originally appeared on usnews.com