California is a great place to live. It consistently ranks high on quality of life indices, attracting people from all over the world. In fact, California has the largest foreign-born population of any other state.
Some of the Golden State’s most attractive aspects include its:
- year-round pleasant climate;
- proximity to the Pacific;
- diverse population;
- world-class public university system;
- numerous health options; and
- booming industries, which make it the region with the sixth largest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world.
From another perspective, California also presents unique challenges for its residents. These include:
- a high cost-of-living, including high housing costs and tax rates;
- political gridlock which limits new construction and economic growth; and
- high levels of income inequality.
The thing is, how much any of the above factors impacts a California resident depends on where they live in the state. The average quality of life is very different in, say, San Jose than in Bakersfield.
Keep on reading for a glance at the quality of living in each of California’s largest regions, organized from highest average quality of life to lowest.
Editor’s note — Unless otherwise indicated, quality of life measurements come from the Social Science Research Council’s Portrait of California 2014-2015 report. To figure each region’s quality of life index figure, the researchers use three measurements: average life expectancy and overall health, access to education, and the average standard of living, measured by earnings.
California’s overall quality of life
As a state, California scores above average on the Social Science Research Council’s quality of life index, at 5.39 out of 10. The U.S. average is 5.07.
The average life expectancy in California is 81.2 years, compared to the U.S. life expectancy of 79.0 years. A higher percent of the population has college and advanced degrees, and average earnings are higher in California than elsewhere (though this is somewhat counteracted by our high cost of living).
However, California’s below average high school graduation rate drags down its quality of life score. 81.5% of adults have a high school diploma here, compared to 86.4% of all U.S. residents.
1. Santa Clara and San Jose
The highest quality of life in the state can be found in Santa Clara and San Jose — specifically (ranked highest to less high) in:
- Mountain View;
- Palo Alto;
- Los Altos;
- Saratoga; and
- Los Gatos.
Here, the average quality of life index is 7.08 out of 10. The state average is 5.39. Average life expectancy is a high 83.9 years and 86.4% of adults have a high school diploma.
2. San Francisco and Contra Costa
The next highest quality of life is also found in the Bay Area, specifically in:
- San Francisco proper;
- San Ramon;
- Walnut Creek;
- Orinda; and
In the San Francisco metropolitan area, the quality of life index score is 6.72 out of 10, compared to the state average of 5.39. Average life expectancy is 82.5 years and 87.5% of adults have a high school diploma.
3. Oxnard and Thousand Oaks
In third place, the Oxnard and Thousand Oaks metro has a quality of life score of 5.62 out of 10, higher than the state average of 5.39. The average life expectancy is 82.3 years, compared to the state average of 81.2. Further, 82.5% of adults have their high school diploma compared to 81.5% of Californians.
The top quality of life area in Oxnard-Thousand Oaks is the city of Thousand Oaks proper. However, the cities of Oxnard and Port Hueneme rank very low on the quality of life index, at just 3.96 out of 10. Here, only 64% of adults have a high school diploma.
4. San Diego
San Diego also has a relatively high quality of life, scoring 5.59 out of 10, compared to the state average of 5.39. The average life expectancy is also higher than average, at 81.7 compared to the state’s average of 81.2. 85.3% of adults graduated high school, higher than the state average of 81.5%.
The places with the highest quality of life in the San Diego area are:
- Del mar Mesa;
- San Dieguito;
- Rancho Bernardo;
- Poway; and
The areas with the lowest quality of life in San Diego are:
- Chula Vista (West);
- National City;
- Oceanside; and
- Camp Pendleton.
Moving down the quality of life index, Sacramento still receives a higher than average score of 5.47 compared to the state average of 5.39.
Life expectancy is lower in Sacramento, at 80.2 years compared to the state average of 81.2 years. However, the high school graduation rate of 87.7% in Sacramento is the highest of any metro area in the state. The state average is 81.5%.
The best quality of life in the Sacramento metro area is found in:
- Folsom City;
- Fair Oaks; and
- Elk Grove City.
The worst quality of life is in the City of Sacramento proper, specifically:
- North Highlands;
- Southeast/Fruitridge; and
6. Los Angeles
Los Angeles can provide a high quality of living — but only in certain neighborhoods. It’s a mixed bag in Los Angeles, with life expectancy and other measures of wellbeing varying wildly across this large region.
The areas with the highest quality of life are:
- Redondo Beach;
- Manhattan Beach; and
- Hermosa Beach.
In contrast, Los Angeles is also home to some of the state’s neighborhoods for worst quality of life. The worst neighborhood in the state for quality of living is South Central/Watts, followed by:
- East Vernon;
- Walnut Park;
- Florence-Graham; and
- Huntington Park.
On average, Los Angeles scores just above average for quality of life at 5.44, compared to the state’s 5.39 score. The average life expectancy is slightly higher than average at 82.1 years, while the high school graduation rate is below average at 78.2%.
7. Riverside and San Bernardino
Riverside and San Bernardino score below average on the Social Science Research Council’s quality of life index, receiving 4.59 out of 10, compared to the state average of 5.39. Average life expectancy is 79.8 years and only 78.6% of adults have graduated high school.
The highest quality of life in the Riverside metro area is in Temecula, where nearly 92% of adults have their high school diploma and life expectancy is 82.4 years. Other notable mentions include:
- Corona City;
- Murrieta and Wildomar Cities;
- Norco; and
- Palm Desert.
The area’s lowest quality of living is found in:
- Blythe; and
- the east neighborhood of La Quinta.
8-10. San Joaquin Valley
In the last three spots are:
- Fresno; and
Geographically, these three metros span the northernmost part of the San Joaquin Valley to the southern tip. For a national perspective, these three metros are on par with West Virginia and Mississippi in terms of quality of life.
Much of the reason for the low performance is due to the low-paying industries — oil, agriculture and manufacturing — dominant in the San Joaquin Valley. Of California’s largest metro areas, the lowest quality of life is found in Bakersfield, in Kern County.
The average per capita income in Kern County is $37,355 as of 2015, a substantial difference from California’s average per capita income of $53,741, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Further, the one-year income increase between 2014 and 2015 was just 1.9% in Kern County compared to the state income surge of 5.4% over the same year.
Not counted in the index but just as important for residents is the Central Valley’s poor air quality. Bakersfield, followed by Visalia then Fresno, has the worst air quality in the nation, according to the American Lung Association. This has contributed to California’s lowest life expectancy rates in Fresno, Stockton and Bakersfield.
Some good news: Bakersfield air quality has improved somewhat in recent years. Wood-burning rules have decreased air pollution in recent years, and today there are on average 73 fewer high ozone (smog) days per year compared to 2000, according to the American Lung Association.
How quality of life impacts local home values
California has the highest home prices in the nation — it also has the highest average quality of living. Coincidence? Not likely.
When zooming in to view home values across California’s various large metro areas, this relationship plays out on a micro level, too.
San Francisco and San Jose experience the highest home values in the state — the average home value as of January 2016 is over $1.1 million in San Francisco and $843,200 in San Jose, according to Zillow. They also have the highest quality of living in the state.
The relatively low quality of life and low-paying industries mean housing in the San Joaquin Valley is cheap by comparison. The average home value in Bakersfield is $213,200 as of January 2016, according to Zillow. Bakersfield’s highest home values are found in the Riviera-Westchester and Sagepointe neighborhoods. In Fresno, the situation is even worse, as the average home value is $201,600, according to Zillow.
Meanwhile, the average home price across California is more than twice that found in the Valley — $482,600 according to Zillow.
One caveat: to some extent, home values are included in quality of living indices, making it a self-referential measurement. That’s because home values are determined in significant part by homebuyer incomes, which also form a large part in quality of living rankings. It makes sense that the highest home values in the state are found in the areas with the highest incomes, so home values and quality of life naturally go hand in hand.
For residents looking for a higher level of wellbeing, they may consider other aspects of quality of life than incomes, since income variations are often canceled out by each area’s cost of living (including housing).
Agents and brokers: what makes your area a great place to live? Part of what makes a successful agent is a passion for their community. Even if you live in one of the regions with relatively low quality of life, search for the desirable qualities in your city and specific neighborhoods you serve and share these with your clients.
For instance, an agent in low-ranked Stockton knows their city has both relatively cheap housing and is in commuting distance to Silicon Valley. In nearby Fresno, agents can highlight their various outdoor recreation spots like the San Joaquin River and the numerous parks around the city. Bakersfield agents can talk up the area’s many festivals, or local hot spots like Dewar’s famous taffy and ice cream shop.
Agents and brokers: what makes your community a quality place to live? How do you sell your clients on the areas you serve? Share your experience in the comments below!