The Guy Who Picks the Best Places to Live
EVERY so often, a report comes out listing the best (or worst) cities to live in, the most romantic, the most child-friendly or the most affordable.
The cities at the top gloat; those at the bottom ignore the findings or dismiss them as skewed or irrelevant.
But in one part of the country, little changes. The man responsible for many of those rankings, Bert Sperling, continues to plug away, dividing his time between Portland and Depoe Bay, Ore., compiling yet more data for yet more lists, just as he has for the last 20 years.
On Monday, the second edition of “Cities Ranked & Rated: More Than 400 Metropolitan Areas Evaluated in the U.S. & Canada” (Wiley Publishing), 850 pages that Mr. Sperling wrote with Peter Sander, will thud onto bookstore shelves. Gainesville, Fla. (No. 1) will be cheering, and Modesto, Calif. (No. 373) will be fuming.
But who is Bert Sperling? And what gives him the right, as he has done in previous surveys, to put Flower Mound, Tex., on the map as one of the most affordable places to live with children? Or Wenatchee, Wash., as one of the greenest cities in America? Or St. George, Utah, as the safest place to live?
It is a lot of power for a man who started his career as an accountant and industrial engineer who just happens to enjoy writing computer software. One of his first programs was an early example of artificial intelligence that he wrote for the United States Tax Code for tax preparers.
“Before 1984, that sort of complex number-crunching was not available to the common person,” Mr. Sperling said.
Perhaps it was his early years as a Navy brat, moving from city to city, that got Mr. Sperling, 56, interested in the nature of where people live.
“I was born in Brooklyn, lived there for about a year, then in San Diego, then Oslo, Key West, Carmel,” he said. Once he graduated from Oregon State University, though, in 1974, he stayed put in the Portland area.
“I was tired of moving all over,” he said.
In 1984, he founded his own software company, Fast Forward, which he and his wife, Gretchen, still own. USA Today printed a piece about his research and data-collection methods; the editors of Money magazine liked what they saw, and a relationship was born in 1987 that continues to this day — with a few breaks — developing the magazine’s “best cities” lists.
This has blossomed into a virtual industry. There is Sperling’s Best Places (bestplaces.net), where you can plug in any city and get a wealth of information. The site gets about 20,000 hits a day, he says.
Then there are the specific projects, for which he charges an array of clients $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the scope. For seven years he performed an annual study for Ladies’ Home Journal on the best cities for women, and he still does a yearly study for Self magazine on the healthiest cities for women.
Then there are the companies, like Korbel, the California champagne maker, which commissioned Mr. Sperling to find the most romantic city (West Palm Beach, Fla.), or the Hartz Mountain Corporation, which makes pet supplies (and flea collars), and wanted to discover the most flea-ridden city (stay away from Hot Springs, Ark.).
Mr. Sperling also sells access to his database to companies like Yahoo, MSN and The Wall Street Journal.
He does all this with the help of his wife and five researchers.
The crux of his work is researching and ranking metropolitan statistical areas, and the first edition of “Cities Ranked & Rated,” written with Mr. Sander, was published in 2004.
The Census Bureau estimates that about 39 million Americans, or 14 percent of the population, change addresses every year, and Mr. Sperling wants to help them choose the right place to land.
He has developed a set of 10 broad categories into which he feeds an array of government statistics. The 10 are economy and jobs; cost of living; climate; education; health and health care; crime; transportation; leisure; arts and culture; and quality of life, which includes physical setting, downtown core, heritage and overall appearance.
Points are assigned to each category and weighted. So some areas, like New York-White Plains (No. 251, down from No. 40 in 2004) may do very well in arts and culture, education and leisure, but may fail miserably in the economy and cost of living. Same with the California towns that score high in climate, leisure, and arts and culture, only to bomb in cost of living and transportation.
The highest-ranked place in the New York City area is Bergen County, N.J. (No. 77), just below Pueblo, Colo., but just ahead of Madison, Wis.
The lists have shifted quite a bit over three years, and that, Mr. Sperling said, is because there have been changes in the information he uses and in the weight given to certain data.
For example, he said, three years ago people were much more focused on the state of the economy and the job base of particular cities. Now, housing affordability is of much greater concern, and Mr. Sperling has altered his rating system to reflect this.
That is partly why four California areas — Modesto, Visalia-Porterville, Yuba City and Merced — rank at the bottom of the latest list.
“California is a wonderful place to live, but housing is sky-high,” Mr. Sperling said. “What pushed them to the bottom was the high housing cost — and you don’t get great weather, no college towns, there’s not much else to offset it.”
Not that there is any family bias against California. The Sperlings’ two grown sons live in Los Angeles (No. 93).
Being No. 1 is not all it’s cracked up to be. Charlottesville, Va., hit the top spot in the 2004 rankings, but slipped to No. 17 this year. Why? The median house price jumped from $177,000 to $345,000, and the cost of living more than doubled, to the highest in the state, the book says.
What does Charlottesville think of the drop?
“Good!” said Kathy Uriss, the director of information services for the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Of course, she appreciated all the people who mentioned the No. 1 ranking when they called for relocation packages — especially those looking for places to retire. The president of the chamber was so proud, Ms. Uriss said, that she had bumper stickers made up that proclaimed, “We’re the No. 1 City in America.”
“We were proud and honored, but maybe things will come back to the ground,” Ms. Uriss said. “As housing prices have gotten out of hand, we’ve certainly seen a curtailing in the number of calls we’re getting.”
No. 17 suits her just fine, “though I guess we’ll have a lot of bumper stickers” left over,” she said.
Mr. Sperling feels the weight of his responsibility.
“The best places to live and retire are constantly evolving as we get feedback,” he said. “These studies are a snapshot, but some people take it as gospel. It’s very important that they do their own research — get local newspapers, stay in a place for at least a week.”
Surprisingly, he said, cities at the bottom of the list don’t send him hate mail. Oh, there was the time he did the survey on the cities that were the most fun for families, and New Orleans and Las Vegas took offense that they weren’t on it.
They didn’t seem to get the idea, Mr. Sperling said, that most families’ idea of fun is “not to lose money or take your top off.”
Another time, an official from a small Southern city, “which will remain nameless, said he had a problem with my crime statistics,” Mr. Sperling said, adding that after a brief discussion, it turned out “the numbers were right — he just did not want them published.”
But over all, he said, even the places at the bottom of the lists aren’t too disgruntled.
“Anytime a town appears at the bottom — like Tacoma was listed as one of the most stressful — we’re not telling them anything they don’t already know,” he said. “City administrators say: ‘This is how we’re perceived. Let’s use it as a learning tool.’ ”
Well, yes and no. Stockton, Calif., was relatively close to the bottom in the 2004 list of city rankings.
“Sometimes it’s giving us confirmation about what we already know,” said Connie Cochran, Stockton’s public information officer. “Sometimes we think it’s unfair.” For example, she said, not all cities and states categorize crime statistics in the same way, so there may not be a direct correlation when doing comparisons.
“We know we have the best weather in the U.S., we’re an earthquake-free zone and we’re on the water” — the San Joaquin River,” Ms. Cochran said. “We just need to be better at sharing it.”
Despite being somewhat dismissive of the list, she couldn’t help expressing some glee when told that her California neighbor to the south, Modesto, was at the bottom this year.
Although Mr. Sperling may grab headlines for the rankings, his Web site is what is really useful for people planning a move, said Richard Florida, the Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. It offers various cost-of-living calculations, as well as information about schools and amenities, and allows users to take a quiz to help find the best place to live.
“You need information based on life stage, job and a cluster and bundle of amenities, such as schools, health care, culture,” Professor Florida said, and Mr. Sperling “tends to be good at assessing most, if not all, of that.”
Thomas Wetzel, the president of the Retirement Living Information Center, a for-profit advisory service in Redding, Conn., says he sends people who are searching for places to retire to Mr. Sperling’s site. “I think it’s the only one that does the comparisons people are looking for,” he said. “It’s one tool to use.”
Ranking cities using census, crime and other government statistics has some scientific basis. But judging the most romantic city?
“Like the best piece of art, it’s very subjective,” Mr. Sperling said. “But using various surveys, we looked at what people think are romantic things to do such as a walk on the beach, or getting flowers. So we looked at sales figures for flowers given as gifts, at places with water nearby. Looking at a sunset is romantic, so you need non-overcast days. We looked at champagne sales.”
He is even prouder of the survey on the most flea-ridden city.
“We knocked that one out of the park,” he said. “We looked at the life cycle of fleas, and how over a certain time of year there has to be a certain moisture and temperature range,” he said. “We looked at the sale of flea controls and powders.”
Mr. Sperling travels quite a bit and has visited some of the cities that have ranked as the worst places to live. He said he was surprised that they did not seem very different from places much higher on the list.
“On the surface, you wouldn’t know they are troubled,” he said. “Every town is someone’s hometown.”
He says he’s always happy to go back to Portland (No. 3).