Updated June 25, 2014

Study: Best Counties for Suburbanites

Where can you live the American dream, the one with a full-time job and a cute fence around the home you own?

For those with a college degree, some locations offer more solid footing than other areas. We set out to find the U.S. counties that provide their inhabitants with stability through decent incomes and a roof over their heads.

Study Methodology

We started by looking at counties with the highest income in 2012, the most recent data available. Instead of relying on data from a single year, our criteria required counties to have above average income from 2008-2012, a period that includes the recession and (weak) recovery.

Then, we assessed these counties' track records for:

  • Educational achievement: Using college degree holders as our target audience, we analyzed whether high-income counties have an above average number of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher from 2008-2012.

  • Homeownership: Owning a home is a central part of the American dream. We looked for high income, highly educated counties with an above-average homeownership rate.

  • Poverty: Some areas show a drastic division between the “haves” and “have-nots.” We incorporated poverty rates from 2008-2012 to find out whether a particular county does not have such a divide.

1. Loudoun County, VA

  • Median household income: $122,068
  • Bachelor's degree or higher: 57.9%
  • Homeownership: 78.2%
  • Poverty: 3.5%

Loudoun, located in the Washington, D.C., metro area, had the highest median household income of all U.S. counties in 2012. Most adults (94%) have at least a high school diploma and over half have earned a bachelor's degree or higher. The county's homeownership rate is about 10% higher than Virginia's average even though homes in Loudoun are far more expensive, with a median value of $450,000. Over 60% of the county's households have six-figure incomes, with about 20% earning $200,000 or more. Less than 15% of households earn under $50,000 a year, so it's little wonder that the county's poverty rate is nearly three times lower than Virginia's.

2. Fairfax, VA

  • Median household income: $109,383
  • Bachelor's degree or higher: 58.2%
  • Homeownership: 69.7%
  • Poverty: 5.6%

Fairfax lies adjacent to Loudoun in northern Virginia. The number of high school graduates is slightly lower in Fairfax at 91%, but still over half of adults have at least a bachelor's degree. That Fairfax has a homeownership rate of about 70% for the past four years is impressive given that the median home value is about $480,000 and the county's population is over 1.1 million. Fairfax has more government workers than Loudoun, but still, nearly two-thirds of residents are private industry employees. About 18% of households earn less than $50,000, but about 20% are raking in at least $200,000 a year. The poverty rate in Fairfax is one of the highest on our list of high income counties, but it's still half the state average.

3. Howard County, MD

  • Median household income: $107,821
  • Bachelor's degree or higher: 59.5%
  • Homeownership: 74.2%
  • Poverty: 4.4%

Howard is located in the heart of Maryland, between Baltimore and Washington D.C. Its educational system, from kindergarten to college, is reportedly ranked among the best in the state. 95% of adults are high school graduates and about 60% have at least a bachelor's degree. According to the county's website, Howard ranked second in the nation for advanced degrees in 2004. The average home is valued at over $435,000, and Howard's homeownership rate is almost 75%. Over half the households have six-figure annual earnings, with about 18% earning upwards of $200,000 a year.

4. Los Alamos, NM

  • Median household income: $106,426 (NM: $44,886)
  • Bachelor's degree or higher: 63.2% (NM: 23.6%)
  • Homeownership: 77% (NM: 68.9%)
  • Poverty: 4.9% (NM: 19.5%)

Compared to national averages, New Mexico falls short in high school graduation, bachelor's degree achievement, median household income, and median home values. But Los Alamos county, with a population just over 18,000, beats both state and national averages. Nearly all (97%) of adults in Los Alamos have a high school diploma and 63% have a bachelor's degree or higher. The average home in Los Alamos is valued at over $285,800 (as compared to the state's median home value of $161,500). While the average household in the state earns less than $45,000 a year, 53% of Los Alamos households have six-figure incomes. New Mexico has a high poverty rate. In Los Alamos, the rate is not only about four times lower, it was the lowest of all U.S. counties in 2012.

5. Hunterdon, NJ

  • Median household income: $105,880 (NJ: $71,637)
  • Bachelor's degree or higher: 48.1% (NJ: 35.4%)
  • Homeownership: 84.7% (NJ: 66.2%)
  • Poverty: 3.8% (NJ: 9.9%)

Hunterdon, located in western New Jersey, had the sixth lowest poverty rate among U.S. counties in 2012. 94% of adults have graduated from high school and nearly half have at least a bachelor's degree. Hunterdon has earned a reputation for having some of the nation's highest property taxes, but homeownership is nearly 20% above the state average. At $419,000, the county's median home value is over $80,000, higher than NJ's average residence. Manufacturing jobs are more prevalent than in most other counties on our list. About 21% of Hunterdon's households earn less than $50,000 a year, while 31% earn upwards of $150,000 annually.

6. Douglas, CO

  • Median household income: $101,108 (CO: $58,244)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher: 54.8% (CO: 36.7%)
  • Homeownership: 81% (CO: 65.9%)
  • Poverty: 4.0% (CO: 12.9%)

Douglas is located in central Colorado, about 40 miles from Colorado Springs and Denver. Virtually every adult (97.5%) is a high school graduate, and over half have at least a Bachelor's degree. Homeownership is 15% above the state average and the median home value is $335,300, about $100,000 more than the average Colorado home. Poverty is three times lower than the state average, and was the third lowest among all U.S. counties in 2012. About 20% of Douglas' households earn $50,000 or less, while 25% earn $150,000 or more per year.

7. Somerset, NJ

  • Median household income: $98,571 (NJ: $71,637)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher: 50.6% (NJ: 35.4%)
  • Homeownership: 78.6% (NJ: 66.2%)
  • Poverty: 4.5% (NJ: 9.9%)

Somerset is located in central New Jersey, about 40 miles from New York City. 93% of the adults are high school graduates and half went on to earn at least a bachelor's degree. Like Hunterdon, Somerset has reportedly made the top 10 list for the nation's highest property taxes; the county's median home value is over $400,000. But despite costs and taxes, homeownership rates are 15% above the state average. Somerset's median household income is only about $27,000 more than the state's median, but half of the county's households earn $100,000 or more per year.

8. Stafford, VA

  • Median household income: $96,355 (VA: $63,636)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher: 35.5% (VA: 34.7%)
  • Homeownership: 78.3% (VA: 67.8%)
  • Poverty: 4.9% (VA: 11.1%)

Stafford is another northern Virginia county, but is further south than those mentioned earlier. 92% of Stafford adults are high school graduates. Only about 35% have bachelor's degrees or higher, and that's not only the lowest rate on this list, but it's barely above Virginia's average. Homeownership in Stafford is about 10% above the state's median rate, and home values, which average about $309,000, are about $60,000 above the state average. Stafford has the highest level of service and government workers on our list. Over 47% of Stafford households earn over $100,000 per year, but it's the only county you'll find here with less than 10% of households earning $200,000 or more.

9. Morris, NJ

  • Median household income: $97,979 (NJ: $71,637)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher: 49% (NJ: 35.4%)
  • Homeownership: 75.9% (NJ: 66.2%)
  • Poverty: 4.2% (NJ: 9.9%)

Morris, New Jersey's seventh largest county, is about 30 miles from NYC. Most adults (93%) are high school graduates and nearly half hold at least a bachelor's degree. Morris is another county with an above average homeownership rate, despite reportedly high property taxes. At over $446,000, Morris' median home value is over $100,000 more than New Jersey's. About half of the county's households earn six-figure incomes, but 23% earn less than $50,000 per year.

10. Montgomery, MD

  • Median household income: $96,985 (MD: $72,999)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher: 56.9% (MD: 36.3%)
  • Homeownership: 68.2% (MD: 68.1%)
  • Poverty: 6.5% (MD: 9.4%)

Montgomery is located north of Washington, D.C., and has a population over 1 million. Most adults (91%) are high school graduates and over half have a bachelor's degree or higher. Homeownership is only a fraction above the state average. The median home value in the county is $455,800, which is $150,000 above Maryland's average. However, the county's median income is only about $24,000 above average. Nearly half (48.7%) of the county's households earn six figures a year, but Montgomery also has the highest percentage of households earning less than $50,000 (23.8%). And although on our list of high income counties, Montgomery also has the highest poverty rate.

The stereotypical American dream isn’t for everyone, and, in many cases, it’s not attainable. But if you do in fact want, and can afford, the house, the cars, and even the fence dividing your well-fertilized yard from your neighbors, any of these counties could be a good fit for you. You will likely fit right in.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Michelle Smith at michelles@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy decisions. (read more)

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