The median household income in the United States is $51,941. The average home price is $158,700. The median value of a house is $170,000. And the average monthly rent is $808.
For most Americans, these numbers are real. They can relate to them. But for those who live in the most expensive cities in the United States, they might as well have to do with life in a third-world country.
When we hear or read about the most or least expensive places to live in the United States, the information often comes from the Council for Community and Economic Research, a research group that uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau to produce a cost of living index. The council analyzes living costs in 309 American cities, with the average cities receiving a score of 100. In its most recent index, San Jose, Calif., received a score of 152.4, which means it is 52.4 percent more expensive than the national average, and Harlingen, Texas – the least expensive city in the country – received a score of 81.7, making it 18.3 percent cheaper than the national average.
Here are the 10 most expensive places to live and the reasons why.
New York City
The Big Apple, not surprisingly, tops the list with a score of 223.9, making it more than twice as expensive as the national average. The cause is pretty obvious: an average home price of $1.14 million, which is more than $300,000 more than the next highest metro area for home prices. The median household income in New York City is $63,553, a lot more than the national average but not enough for most people to afford a house there. On the positive side, energy consumption is low in New York City because so many people depend on public transportation.
Honolulu’s median household income of $67,066 is higher than New York City’s and its average home price of $689,781 is lower, but the council still gave it an index rating of 167.1. Not only are housing costs high there, but energy costs rose 8.5 percent between 2010 and 2011.
San Francisco has a relatively high median household income ($74,876), but its average home price is $808,481 and its average rent is $2,305 – about triple the national average – and gasoline typically costs 30 cents or more per gallon above the national average. Its cost of living index rating is 161.3.
San Jose, California
At $85,020, San Jose has one of the highest median household incomes in the country – and the highest on this list. Its residents need all the money they can get because the average home price there is $761,867, and the average rent is $1,578. Its cost of living score is 152.4.
With a score of 148.4, this suburb of New York City is home to more than its share of CEOs and hedge fund managers, boosting its median household income to $81,114. The average home price is $606,742 the average rent is $1,827 and health care and utility costs are high there.
Trailing close behind Stamford with a score of 147.5, our nation’s capitol, flush with government workers, has a median household income of $84,424, much of which goes to pay for housing. The average monthly rent is $1,790, and the average home price is $670,675.
Perhaps the first surprise on the list is Fairbanks, where residents are paid well, with a median household income of $65,121. The problem is it is so remote that it costs a mint to get anything there. Groceries cost a third more than the national average, utilities cost twice as much and health care costs are the highest of any city on this list. The average home price is $438,225, and its cost of living score is 138.
Beantown has a higher median income ($69,854) and a lower average home price ($418,775) than Fairbanks, but its score is the same because the cost of groceries and utilities is so high there.
High housing costs – an average rent of $1,830 and an average home price of $576,173 – explains why its cost of living score is 134 -- 34 percent higher than the national average. With a median household income of $58,987, it can be very difficult to afford to buy a house.
The fourth California city on this list has a median household income of $62,901 and an average home price of $555,678. And the cost of food, energy and housing has been going up in recent years.
With the exception of perhaps Fairbanks, cities where lots of people badly want to live often are very expensive places to live. The common denominator is housing. If lots of people really want to live somewhere, landlords and home sellers are in a position of power and can force others to spend much of their paychecks on housing. It all comes down to location, location, location.