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All Contents © 2018The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Dan Burrows, Contributing Writer
| March 19, 2018
The most expensive U.S. cities are usually expensive for a reason. Residents pay higher living costs in exchange for favorable geography, climate, culture or economic prosperity -- or all of the above. Of course, that doesn't make the most expensive cities the "best" cities to live in, at least not for everyone, says Jennie Allison of the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, a nonprofit research and policy group.
"We all consider how much it costs to live in a particular city, with housing being one of the biggest determinants of that," Allison says. "However, a person or business needs to think about what local amenities are important to them too, whether it be local public transportation systems, walkability, access to natural amenities, and so forth."
To determine just how much the most expensive U.S. cities cost, we turned to the latest data from the Council for Community and Economic Research. Its Cost of Living Index measures prices in 269 urban areas for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services such as getting your hair done or going to a movie. Take a closer look at the 10 most expensive U.S. cities.
The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during 2017. City-level data on populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Metropolitan-area unemployment rates come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represent January 2018 rates (not seasonally adjusted). For the purposes of finalizing this list, the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn were treated as separate cities; Orange County, Calif., was screened out because it contains multiple cities with large populations including Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine.
Cost of Living: 46.1% above U.S. average
City Population: 1.4 million
Median Household Income: $68,117 (U.S.: $55,322)
Median Home Value: $488,600 (U.S.: $184,700)
Unemployment Rate: 3.6% (U.S.: 4.5%)
San Diego, with its miles upon miles of beaches and almost ideal climate, is paradise for those who love the outdoors. Be it surfing, sailing, hiking, biking, golfing or just exploring Balboa Park, this city on the Pacific has something for everyone. And for those who prefer more sedentary activities, San Diego offers a world-class zoo, museums, professional sports teams and a wide-ranging restaurant scene. Top employers include the U.S. Navy, Qualcomm and the University of California, San Diego. So what's not to like? Living in San Diego can really stretch a budget. Housing costs are 138% above the national average, while transportation costs are higher by more than a fifth.
Cost of Living: 48.0% above U.S. average
City Population: 4.0 million
Median Household Income: $51,538
Median Home Value: $496,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.4%
Few cities can top Los Angeles for excess and glamour, but most of its residents don't work in Hollywood or shop on Rodeo Drive. That can make it tough for the average household to get by. The median value of a home stands about $300,000 above the national average. Median incomes, however, are roughly $4,000 below the national average. And yet the allure of the nation's second-largest city remains strong. From Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Venice Beach, few cities can claim as many famous locales. For those who seek culture beyond the Kardashians, L.A. boasts a number of important museums, and the world-class Los Angeles Philharmonic. Just be forewarned that L.A.'s notorious traffic pushes transportation costs almost 25% above the national average.
Cost of Living: 48.2% above U.S. average
City Population: 673,184
Median Household Income: $58,516
Median Home Value: $423,200
Unemployment Rate: 3.5%
With its unparalleled collection of universities, hospitals, historical sites, and tech and biotech employers, it's easy to see why Boston is such an appealing place to live. And while there’s no question the city’s popularity comes at a high cost, it’s not nearly as high as some East Coast cities that are often mentioned in the same breath as Boston. After all, the high concentrations of students, recent grads and young professionals require some level of affordability to get by while they’re starting out. Groceries, for example, run just 6% above the national average in Boston, less than residents of the other cities on this list pay. The median home value, while high relative to the U.S. median, is the lowest among our expensive cities.
Cost of Living: 49.0% above U.S. average
City Population: 704,352
Median Household Income: $74,458
Median Home Value: $484,600
Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
Coffee isn’t the only thing that’s strong in Seattle. The local economy is, too, and that's putting upward pressure on prices. As one of the nation's fastest growing cities, Seattle’s housing market is hot, driven in part by a booming tech scene. (Microsoft and Amazon are both based in the area, as are many smaller high-tech companies.) Housing-related costs for renters and homeowners are 94% higher than the U.S. average, according to the Cost of Living Index, and they're only going up. Real estate tracker Zillow expects home prices in the Emerald City to rise another 5.4% in 2018.
Cost of Living: 49.5% above U.S. average
City Population: 420,005
Median Household Income: $57,778
Median Home Value: $500,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.0%
Oakland anchors one corner of a sort of Bermuda Triangle around San Francisco Bay where affordable prices go missing. The second corner is San Francisco, as famous for its sky-high real estate as it is for Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf. The third corner is Silicon Valley, home to high-tech giants handing out six-figure salaries like candy on Halloween. Compared to its neighbors to the west and south, Oakland might seem a bargain. But consider this: The median household income in Oakland is about the same as the U.S. median, yet median home values are 2.7 times the U.S median. And after rising 12.1% over the last year, Oakland home prices are expected to climb another 5.1% in the next 12 months, according to Zillow estimates.
Cost of Living: 55.7% above U.S. average
City Population: 681,170
Median Household Income: $72,935
Median Home Value: $506,100
Unemployment Rate: 3.8%
The nation's capital is a tale of two cities when it comes to living costs. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are by far the most burdensome at 2.5 times the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index, but other expenses aren’t too far above average. In fact, D.C. health-care costs essentially match the national average. A wide-ranging bus and metro system makes getting to and around the District of Columbia affordable. The Circulator bus, for example, costs just $1 and its routes reach popular spots including Georgetown, Union Station and the National Mall. Numerous museums and historical sites are free to visit.
Cost of Living: 82.0% above U.S. average
City Population: 2.6 million
Median Household Income: $50,640
Median Home Value: $590,500
Unemployment Rate: 4.6%
Technically, Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs that make up New York City, but in recent years it has emerged as something of a metropolis onto itself. Indeed, if Brooklyn was an independent city, its population would be on par with Chicago, the third-largest city in the nation. Not so long ago, Brooklyn was considered a viable alternative for those who couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan. Not anymore. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are four times the national average. And yet, the median household income in Brooklyn is almost $5,000 below the U.S. median and close to $25,000 shy of the median household income in Manhattan.
Cost of Living: 88.3% above U.S. average
City Population: 992,605
Median Household Income: $77,161
Median Home Value: $602,700
Unemployment Rate: 2.0%
To enjoy the perks of living in such a remote Pacific paradise, Honolulu residents pay more than they would on the mainland for pretty much everything -- and it’s not hard to understand why. Most goods sold in Hawaii must arrive either by boat or by plane, which jacks up the price considerably. Honolulu has the most expensive groceries of all 269 urban areas surveyed for the Cost of Living Index. A can of tuna, for example, is 50% more expensive than the U.S. national average and eggs cost double. Even bananas go for twice the national average. As for energy prices, gasoline is about 30% pricier in Honolulu than it is in the continental U.S.
Cost of Living: 92.9% above U.S. average
City Population: 870,887
Median Household Income: $87,701
Median Home Value: $858,800
Years of relentless growth driven by high-paid tech workers have given San Francisco some of the highest living costs in the country, meaning even those with fat paychecks can struggle to make ends meet. Home prices are famously high, an obstacle for aspiring homeowners, and renters fare little better. The average rent for an apartment in San Francisco is $4,023 a month, according to the Cost of Living Index. That’s four times the national average. Yes, median household income is the highest on this list, but even then it's easy for San Franciscans to feel the financial strain.
Cost of Living: 138.6% above U.S. average
City Population: 1.6 million
Median Household Income: $75,513
Median Home Value: $871,500
If you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you don’t need us to tell you that it’s an expensive place to visit. It’s even more expensive to live there. With space at a premium and location paramount, the median home value in Manhattan is the highest among our expensive cities. So, too, is the rent for an apartment, which averages a staggering $4,559 a month. The budget-busting doesn't stop there. Residents pay a premium of almost 40% at the grocery store, while transportation is 30% above average. Want to see a movie? Ticket prices are nearly 50% higher, on average, than is the norm in the rest of the country. Oh, and you’ll need to like crowds if you hope to make it in the Big Apple: Manhattan packs in nearly 70,000 residents per square mile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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