WRITTEN BY Alejandra Saragoza
Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…See full bio
California is undoubtedly unlike any other state, boasting pristine beaches, crashing surf, gorgeous mountains, numerous iconic cities, and year-round moderate temperatures. But residing in a place with such enticing features can sometimes come at a cost. A rising number of California cities are becoming increasingly expensive, and many Californians—especially aspiring millennial homebuyers and residents living in larger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco—are certainly feeling the financial squeeze, as the state’s housing and rent prices continue to climb but wages stay relatively stagnant.
Despite its infamous reputation as the most expensive state in the country, California (believe it or not) still has several economically sound places to reside. While most of the affordable cities are tucked away in California’s inland regions, many of them are still within close driving distance to popular destinations, you can make a road trip out of it and listen to a binge-worthy podcast or jammin’ California playlist.
So, if you want to live in one of America’s most exciting states but don’t want to deal with the high real estate prices (and still want to be close to famed attractions and bustling metropolitan areas), here are the least expensive places to live in California:
Median home price: $176,192
Median household income: $27,034
Closest metropolitan city: San Francisco, which is roughly 2.5 hours away
Situated on the shores of Clear Lake—the largest natural freshwater lake in California—this small town is a paradise for nature lovers and is home to a flourishing wine scene. Clearlake also happens to be one of the cheapest places to live in Northern California, with the average home costing less than $200,000. Residents can explore the scenic trails of Clear Lake State Park; fish for largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill; kayak or swim in the tranquil waters; and meander through the historic downtown for shopping, wine tasting, and gourmet dining.
Median home price: $242,800
Median household income: $56,842
Closest metropolitan city: Los Angeles, which is a two-hour drive away
Bakersfield is located in California's Central Valley, where there are plenty of pleasant surprises. Historically known only for its oil and agriculture, Bakersfield has transformed into a hub for arts and culture and a rapidly growing city in recent years, but the region still retains its rich past. Bakersfield boasts the largest concentration of Basque restaurants, cultural attractions in the gallery- and museum-filled Arts District, and several antique shops. Outdoor enthusiasts, meanwhile, are bound to find nirvana at the nearby Wind Wolves Preserve, the West Coast’s largest nonprofit nature preserve. Plus, with so many beautiful lakeside campgrounds and bucket-list national park experiences to be found nearby, Bakersfield offers more than meets the eye.
Median home price: $247,600
Median household income: $41,455
Closest metropolitan city: Los Angeles, which is less than two hours away
Set in the agricultural heart of California, Fresno is a booming city abounding with old-school Spanish charm, one-of-a-kind experiences, and outdoor adventure. Fresno features gorgeous gardens and parks, a vibrant creative community and arts scene, delicious farm-to-fork cuisine, and an unforgettable (and underground) attraction you won’t find anywhere else. And with some of California’s most famous national forests and three national parks—Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia—just a short drive away, there are ample opportunities to connect with nature, too.
Median home price: $303,638
Median household income: $38,007
Closest metropolitan city: San Francisco, which takes about five hours to reach
Nestled in Humboldt County, near the northern end of the state, Eureka is the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. This popular destination oozes with small-town charm, thanks to the ornate Queen Anne homes lining the sidewalks, the Victorian-era Old Town Eureka, and the entertaining family-friendly activities. The bustling waterfront offers maritime museums and boat tours, too, so passersby can watch the fishmongers reel in their fresh catches of the day. There’s also no shortage of lush hiking trails, famous film locations, and artisanal California chocolate for new residents to discover here.
Median home price: $320,319
Median household income: $45,347
Closest metropolitan city: San Francisco, which is about 1.5 hours away
Stockton is 70 miles from the coastline, but residents can still enjoy waterfront vibes. The town sits on a winding channel that winds its way inland from the San Francisco Bay, ending at the state’s largest inland deep-water port. The Stockton Marina makes it possible to explore the intricate maze of inlets and bays via riverboats; afterward, wander the downtown waterfront to hear live music, grab some premium California olive oil at the farmers market, or catch a hockey game at Stockton Arena. Away from the scenic waterways, the can’t-miss attractions include the Haggin Museum, colorful Cambodian Buddhist Temple, and Oak Grove Regional Park.
Median home price: $360,509
Median household income: $63,662
Closest metropolitan city: San Jose, which is situated about three hours away
Clovis is known as the “Gateway to the Sierra” for a reason: The town is nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, making it a top real-estate choice for outdoor enthusiasts seeking a cheap place to live in California. With Yosemite National Park as well as Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks just a short drive away, you can take your pick of activities such as cycling, hiking, or jogging on the many trails that encircle Clovis. The city itself offers entertainment, too, between its various museums, parks, theaters, and other family-friendly attractions. And when you crave the hustle-and-bustle of a larger city, take a trip to San Jose and enjoy some South Bay adventures.
Median home price: $362,400
Median household income: $65,046
Closest metropolitan city: San Francisco, which is roughly 1.5 hours away
Sacramento is arguably among the best places to live in California. The state capital is not only an affordable place to live, but also a vibrant destination packed with fun things to do. Whether you want a place to savor farm-to-table fare, float down the river, enjoy bike rides and hikes, learn about the state’s Gold Rush history, or explore the creature comforts of Old Town, Sacramento has it all. The city is also very close to top destinations—including luxe California ski resorts, buzzy San Francisco, and stunning towns around Lake Tahoe—making it easy to escape whenever the mood strikes.
Median home price: $388,566
Median household income: $42,334
Closest metropolitan city: San Francisco, which is about a three-hour drive away
The charming town of Chico is the fastest-growing city in California and among the hottest 2020 destinations. Though it’s most well-known for being home to Chico State University, one of California’s first state colleges, Chico is a largely undiscovered NorCal gem with affordable housing options. In-the-know locals are well aware of everything Chico offers, including foodie hot spots, fashion-forward boutiques, cultural attractions, and of course, ample opportunities for outdoor recreation. Expansive parks and waterfall hikes abound in the town, but when the mountains call, the majestic Lassen Volcanic National Park is merely a stone’s throw away.
Median home price: $423,560
Median household income: $64,995
Closest metropolitan city: Los Angeles, which is less than one hour away
Historically a rural town, Fontana became a flourishing community after World War II, when entrepreneur Henry J. Kaiser built a large steel mill in the area. Now, the city is one of the cheapest places to live in Southern California and is home to more than 200,000 people who enjoy access to waterfall hikes, verdant parks, go-kart racing, and the quirky Bono’s Historic Orange on Route 66. Thanks to Fontana’s proximity to Los Angeles, it’s also easy to make a day trip to L.A. to see the city’s best attractions and most beautiful beaches.
Median home price: $473,319
Median household income: $82,513
Closest metropolitan city: San Francisco, which is less than one hour away
Tucked away in the rolling hills just west of Sacramento Valley, about halfway between the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco, Vacaville is an ideal place for families seeking a thriving destination without the hustle and bustle of big-city life. With a fascinating past as an agricultural heartland and a rich, vibrant culture, the charming community draws droves with its historic downtown, premium outlets and shops, diverse restaurants, pretty parks, and popular U-pick farms. Residents are also very close to top Bay Area destinations, making it possible to spend a day in Walnut Creek and explore the attractions in Wine Country.
Median home price: $518,706
Median household income: $62,349
Closest metropolitan city: Los Angeles, which is about one hour away
Oxnard is one of the most affordable places to live on the West Coast. Situated between L.A. and Santa Barbara, this coastal town boasts seven miles of white-sand beaches, bountiful farm stands (with ultra-sweet strawberries), world-class taquerias, and a lovely harbor that offers easy access to Channel Islands National Park. Residents may also wander through Oxnard’s Heritage Square to see Victorian-era architecture, visit renowned car museums to soak up the local car culture, surf and swim at the beloved Silverstrand Beach, and peruse the shops downtown. To see the wilder side of Oxnard, take a trip to Channel Islands National Park and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a 90-minute boat ride from the harbor. Other nearby attractions include the pastoral town of Ojai and the incredible city of Santa Barbara, so there’s always an adventure to be had when living in Oxnard.
While not all of these affordable California cities offer oceanfront property or luxe mountain homes, they each have their own unique appeal—and who knows, they just may surprise you. But if you’re set on living in one of California's most exciting and diverse cities, check out the cheapest places to live in the Bay Area and see ways to save money in these popular destinations.
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