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Best Affordable Suburbs: Midwest

Dreaming of idyllic and inexpensive suburban life? Head to the heartland

Think of Midwest suburbia, and you may picture squeaky-clean streets lined with identical single-family homes and friendly neighbors who bring over fresh-baked pies. You may imagine a place where you can let your children play outside and leave your door unlocked without a worry in the world.

Of course, this is an exaggeration—the Midwest has its fair share of economically depressed cities, and it's certainly not crime-free. We do know of a few places, however, that live up to the region's idyllic stereotype. And you'll be pleased to discover that in the Midwest, you don't always have to pay a premium price for the good life.

In part three of our four-part series on America's Best Affordable Suburbs by region—after the first installment on suburbs in the Northeast and the second on suburbs in the West—the places on our list of the Best Affordable Suburbs in the Midwest, compiled with Portland (Ore.)-based research group Sperling's BestPlaces, have the best combination of affordability and quality that we have seen in any U.S. region so far. Half of the suburbs on the list have a median home price below $239,800, and only five of the 25 have median home prices above $300,000. The average cost of living index among these suburbs falls just short of the average for the country (100), at 98.4.

In many other parts of the country, schools and safety suffer as affordability increases, but this doesn't seem to be the case in the Midwest. The secondary school test score indexes on our list range from 93.2 (Rochester, Minn.) to 210.5 (Columbia, Mo.), compared to each state's average of 100. The average violent crime index on the list is just 57, vs. the nation's average of 100—so you may be able to leave that door unlocked after all.

The Best in Chicagoland

To be sure, finding a high-quality, inexpensive suburb outside Chicago—the third most populous city in the U.S. and the Midwest's largest city by a long shot—is a tougher task than finding a place to live in some of the region's less-populated spots.

You could do far worse than Lake Zurich, Ill., a village of about 19,000 residents roughly a 40-minute drive northwest from the Windy City. "It's a great place to raise a family," says Sadie Winter, a realtor with Century 21 Premier Properties in neighboring Glenview, Ill. "It has a small-town feel."

The almost rural scenery, complete with lakefront beaches and parks, makes Lake Zurich a kind of oasis in an area that also houses the headquarters of such major companies as Boeing (BA), Motorola (MOT), McDonald's (MCD), and Sears (SHLD). Settled in the 1830s and incorporated in 1896, it remained a farming community before developing into a popular summer resort in the late 1920s. Housing development began in the 1950s, and in 2006 the village broke ground for a downtown redevelopment.

Lake Zurich's above-average school system (test score index: 111.5) and virtually nonexistent crime rate (violent crime index: 29) complement its aesthetic appeal. "When you have good schools for an affordable price, of course everybody flocks there," says Winter. And while the town's median home price of $659,900 is the highest on our list, there are plenty of fine homes at lower price points in the district. Winter says she and business partner Dana Cohen were recently showing brand-new, three-bedroom homes in Lake Zurich in the $400,000 range. In the town's Forest Lake neighborhood, similar-size homes are priced in the $300,000s, Winter adds. While these homes tend to be older, it's the same school district.

Wisconsin Wonder

Sitting just above Illinois and sharing the Western shore of Lake Michigan, the state of Wisconsin, known to many as the nation's leading cheese producer and the home of Miller beer, may now have another claim to fame—there are six Best Affordable Suburbs here, more than in any other Midwestern state.

The towns of DeForest, Wausau, Waukesha, Green Bay, and Sheboygan all make the top 25, but Appleton, Wis., stands out from the rest with a median home price of just $119,500, the lowest on our list. This small city (pop. 70,000) on the Fox River near Lake Winnebago is big on cleanliness and tough on crime—the violent crime index is 50. Appleton schools also stand out—the test score index is 110.3, vs. the state's average of 100.

It's an easy day trip to Milwaukee (89 miles), but you don't need to leave Appleton for jobs or entertainment. "It's still a small town, but we've got a lot of big-city conveniences," says Richard DeKleyn, a Coldwell Banker realtor and lifetime Appleton resident. Electronics manufacturing services company Plexus (PLXS) is based in nearby Neenah, and paper-product maker Kimberly-Clark (KMB) is a big employer. A touring production of the Broadway show The Lion King is currently playing in downtown Appleton's performing arts center, and this summer the city plans to throw a 150th anniversary bash.

But it's Appleton's truly affordable way of life that really reels in the out-of-state home buyers. "New York people especially like our prices," says DeKleyn, who recently sold a nearly new, three-bedroom ranch home for $189,900. "We even had some buyers from London a little while ago. They are so happy, they're going to pay cash."

BusinessWeek.com's slide show looks at the 25 Best Affordable Suburbs in the Midwest.

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