Bert Sperling tells Americans where they ought to live. Whether they’re looking for the best retirement locations, the most family-friendly town, the most romantic cities, the safest cities, or just the overall best places to live in America, Sperling has it covered.
The mastermind behind Sperling’s BestPlaces, he has compiled lists of the “Best Places to Live” and “Best Places to Retire” for Money, “Great College Towns” for Newsweek, and annually does a list of the “Healthiest Cities for Women” for SELF magazine, among many others.
But in something as subjective as what city is better than another, what gives Sperling the confidence to say that it’s better to relocate to Des Moines, Iowa, than to Denver? Or the authority to say that Charlotte, N.C., is more “manly” than Nashville, Tenn.? According to Sperling, it’s all in the numbers.
Working with his wife and a handful of researchers, Sperling has spent the last 25 years plugging away at creating data-analysis software and crunching numbers. He draws on Census data, information on crime rates, climate, availability of leisure activities and recreation, arts and culture, transportation, and commuting, as well as specialty data pulled when he’s doing a study for a corporate campaign. (When ranking the best cities to celebrate Thanksgiving in for Pepto-Bismol, the team tracked turkey consumption, inbound airport traffic, and Pepto-Bismol sales.)
And Sperling believes that if data can tell people where to live, it can also tell builders where to build.
“Wayne Gretzky said, ‘A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be,’” Sperling told Builder in an interview. “A smart builder will not just look at where people are buying now, but at where they’ll be buying at least a year down the road.”
While builders around the country are tracking job growth, Sperling thinks there may be more important metrics to consider. “You want to look at where it’s going to be desirable. I think what [builders] overlook is quality of life. These are places where people want to move. … Businesses will relocate to them,” he said, which will bring buyers there in the near future.
Sperling recommends that builders look for areas of steady population growth and especially for the type of population growth they build for. “You want someone who can afford the types of homes you’re building.” He recommends hiring a demographer in the area to give you an idea of what the area's metrics are like to help you determine the types of potential buyers you will have. Such an evaluation “should be very affordable,” Sperling says.
The question is, to what degree do people factor data and Best Places lists into a decision as important as where to move? And how much can builders count on this sort of information improving a given market?
In 2004, Charlottesville, Va., was ranked No. 1 as the best place to live in the country, and according to Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, the impact was palpable.
“Our consistently high rankings cause a lot of inquiries from people all over the East Coast,” Hulbert told Builder. “People regularly inquire as to the opportunities to start a business, raise a family, or retire.” He reports that after being ranked at the top in 2004, the area saw “fairly substantial growth from 2005 to 2007,” and the past few years the city has seen growth primarily in home building. “The attraction is more residential, and it’s a little more mature—late 40s or 50s,” he said. “And the builders have taken that to the bank.”
When Sperling released a subsequent list of best places in 2008, Charlottesville was unseated from the No. 1 spot by Plymouth, Minn. When asked whether the ranking had resulted in increased interest from businesses and families in the area, Judy Johnson, former mayor of Plymouth, a long-time city council member and the council's current director of government affairs, answered emphatically. “Absolutely! Being ranked No. 1 gives you notoriety nationwide. It puts you on that platform,” she said.
While Johnson points to Plymouth’s great schools, safe atmosphere, parks, and strong economy as the foundation for what makes Plymouth an attractive place for buyers (and therefore builders), she says it was the list ranking that got people’s attention and started movement. In residential especially, “we’re starting to see an uptick,” she said.
That uptick was enough for Pulte Homes, whose interest was also piqued by the ranking. The builder went before the Plymouth City Council last year expressing interest in the area and has since invested in Plymouth. The lists’ rankings are “a big influencer in our decisions,” Ian Peterson, vice president at Pulte Homes, told Builder. “It definitely influences when you have a community like Plymouth.”
Like Johnson, Peterson points to the area's schools, parks, open spaces, and city government as the foundational elements that make Plymouth a place people want to be. But, he says, it was the combination of a superior community along with the notoriety of a high list ranking that really got the builder’s attention.
“It’s a combination of both things,” Peterson said. “We always knew it was a highly desirable place to live. And then when it appears on the list, that gives potential buyers the assurance that this is a comfortable place to live and the confidence to investigate.”
Claire Easley is senior editor, online, for Builder.