Some who consider relocating to the Midwest think culture and city amenities may be few and far between. Des Moines breaks those stereotypes – and many more. Serving as Iowa’s capital and center for much of the state’s economic and cultural activity, you get the best of both worlds in this pleasant Midwestern city. Des Moines offers a small city, big life experience. While some might find Iowa to be a drive-through or fly-over state, living in Des Moines offers much more than meets the eye.
With over 80 insurance companies in Des Moines, low cost of living, and a thriving job market, it’s also known as “Hartford of the West.” The housing market is growing but still affordable, and you‘ll have easy access to a fantastic array of culture and entertainment. You’re going to love your new home. Living in Des Moines is lovely, and you’ll see why.
Living in Des Moines, IA: What to Know Before Moving to Des Moines
Des Moines is an incredibly dynamic place to live. The greater metro area has a population of 655,410, but Des Moines proper has about 216,850 residents, as well as many lovely historic neighborhoods around the city’s center. As Iowa’s capital and most populous city, Des Moines offers culture, a low cost of living, and bountiful outdoor activities. And famously, the first caucuses of the presidential primary cycle are held in Des Moines.
Pros and Cons of Living in Des Moines
Here are some pros and cons introducing you to the common reasons people like and dislike life in Des Moines.
- Housing costs below the national average – the median cost of a home in Des Moines is nearly $50,000 less than the US average
- Low average commute time – with an average commute time 6% less than the national average, Des Moines residents on average spend 20 minutes getting to work
- Tons of outdoor adventures – nearly 600 miles of hiking, biking, and leisure trails
- Ranked #5 by US News for ‘Places to Live’ – Des Moines residents aren’t the only ones who love the city; US News ranks Des Moines 5th overall in the country for its quality of life, low cost of living, and offerings for everyone from young professionals to retirees
- Poor public transportation – Des Moines lacks a succinct, organized public transit system, so having a car is highly recommended
- Cold winters – Des Moines residents deal with some frigid winter temperatures
- Desirability is low among non-Iowa residents – chances are if you didn’t grow up in Iowa, Des Moines is not the top of your list for places to move
- Low school ratings – Many public schools in Des Moines rate below average
- Property Taxes: The average property tax rate in Polk County is 1.789%, higher than the average in Iowa and nationally. Des Moines residents paid a median property tax of $4,473 in 2019.
- Sales Taxes: The sales tax for Des Moines residents and visitors is 7%.
- Income Taxes: Iowa features a graduated income tax, which means that the percentage you pay increases with your earnings. As you’ll see from this chart breaking down the income tax bracket in Des Moines, residents pay less in income tax than many Midwest counterparts like Michigan, Kansas, Illinois, and Minnesota.
Des Moines housing costs are lower than the national average, and many love the “bang for your buck” you can get from living in Des Moines. As of November 2019, the median home value was $146,555 – well below the US average of $227,025. Over the past year, home values increased by 3.8% and Zillow.com forecasts a 6.7% increase in 2020. Because of the affordable home prices, many more people buy in Iowa than rent.
However, if you choose to rent, you’ll pay an average monthly rent of $1000. Whether renting or buying, many of the older, historic neighborhoods like Waterbury or Waveland Heights outside Des Moines’ metro area are the most costly places to live. The least expensive neighborhoods are Fairground, King-Irving Park, Kirkwood Glen, Carpenter, and Cheatom Park.
Cost of Living
On top of cheaper housing costs, everything from childcare costs to transportation makes Des Moines a very budget-friendly home for families. With a Best Living cost of living index score of 85.9, based on a US average of 100, Des Moines is one of the most inexpensive places to live that still offers a high-quality lifestyle. Health care is rated 114, making it a bit more expensive than the national average. Transportation, utilities, miscellaneous costs, housing, and grocery costs also score under 100, making them more affordable than the US average.
According to epi.org, a family of four would need an annual income of $77,584 to live a moderate lifestyle in Des Moines. The median household income is $46,430 compared to the US average of $53,482.
Weather and Natural Disasters
If you’re a four seasons sort of person, you’ll get it all in Des Moines. The area’s humid continental climate means you can expect cold, snowy winters and warm to hot and humid summers. Spring bursts out in flower and fall is showy with turning leaves. January and February are the two coldest months with average highs in the low to mid-30s and average lows in the high teens and low 20s. In the summer, both July and August have average highs of around 85 degrees with lows in the mid-60s.
The annual average rainfall is 36 inches, with over 4 inches falling, on average, each month between May through August. Des Moines gets an average of nine inches of snowfall each month in December, January, and February with a grand total of 35 inches of snow annually.
Common natural disaster threats include wind damage, flooding, and severe snow and ice from strong winter storms. While tornadoes aren’t as common in Des Moines as they are in some parts of Iowa, emergency preparedness in Polk County helps keep you and your family safe in the event of a crisis. It’s a great idea to check their website before you move and develop an emergency plan before a natural disaster threatens.
Economy and Job Market
Jobs in Des Moines increased by 2.7% in 2018-19. Over the next ten years, job growth is forecast to grow 37.4% compared to the 33.5% US average growth. Unemployment, at 3.0%, is below the national average of 3.9%.
Des Moines is a major hub of the US insurance industry, plus there are significant financial services and publishing sectors. Over 80 insurance companies in Des Moines hire thousands of workers, helping to keep the average salary in Des Moines near the national average at $50,000. Other major industries are logistics and distribution.
Major employers include Wells Fargo, Electronic Data Systems, The Meredith Corporation, Mercy Medical Center, UnityPoint Health, MidAmerican Energy Company CDS Global, UPS, and Drake University. The Des Moines Register keeps a job board with lists of part-time and full-time work in several sectors. Polish up your resume if you’ll be looking for work.
Traffic and Transportation
Even though Des Moines doesn’t have heavy traffic, except at rush hour, it’s an auto-centered city because of limited public transportation. Over 90% of people own a personal vehicle. According to walkscore.com, non-car options for travel aren’t ideal; Des Moines has a walk score of 45/100, a transit score of 30/100, and a bike score of 38/100.
I-235, which runs east-west just north of the heart of the city, connects downtown Des Moines to outlying areas. Des Moines also sits at exit 182 on I–35, a north-south route spanning between Minnesota and Texas. Perhaps the largest thoroughfare in Des Moines is I–80, connecting the city on its western border to the interstate which stretches from San Francisco, CA to New Jersey.
During commute times, from 7 – 9 am, and 4 – 6 pm, traffic is heavy in and out of the city. That said, the average commute time is 20 minutes. DART, the city’s bus system, features very limited routes, and very few rides on evenings and weekends. When flying, Des Moines National Airport is only 15 minutes from the city and features flights from all major carriers.
What to Do
From being the cultural hub of Iowa to offering terrific recreation, Des Moines has activities, events, sites, and attractions for everyone. Two major performing arts centers bring in major acts like nationally touring musicals and other shows. The Des Moines Art Center is a center for local and regional artists, as well as several seasonal exhibits throughout the year.
As Des Moines is the capital of Iowa, the Capitol building is also a popular draw. The Des Moines Botanical Gardens sits on the east bank of the Des Moines River and provides gorgeous landscape backdrops in every season. Six miles south of the gardens is the Blank Park Zoo, home to penguins, lions, and giraffes, among other popular animals. Of course, be sure to check out the Iowa State Fair which takes place in Des Moines and serves up as many political stump speeches from presidential hopefuls as it does delicious carnival-style food.
Many outdoor activities keep Des Moines residents busy. Across 4,000 acres, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department works to improve the already expansive trail system. Gray’s Lake, an area favorite, features boat rentals and sponsors several competitive runs all year long. Greenwood-Ashworth provides a nice blend of sightseeing with rose gardens and ponds, as well as activities like a splash pad and multiple playgrounds. The fun doesn’t stop when the temperatures drop and the city programs the winter months with tons of fun family-friendly activities.
The Iowa Cubs, an AAA farm system for the Chicago baseball team of the same name, is a huge draw for fans all over Iowa. There are also minor league hockey teams, an arena football team, and a basketball team.
Schools and Universities
Des Moines Public Schools is the largest school district in Iowa and features over 63 elementary, middle, and high schools. Other smaller districts serve specific parts of the city. The city’s college readiness score, according to US News, is 5.7/10, and the 15:1 student-teacher ratio allows for more manageable classrooms. The area’s top school, Downtown School, is rated 8/10 and Merrill Middle School is rated 6/10. According to greatschools.org, the remainder of Des Moines public schools rate 6/10 and lower.
Several private colleges and universities serve Des Moines and the surrounding area. Most notably, Drake University draws in many out-of-state students and ranks in the top 200 for public and private universities nationwide. Grand View University, Mercy College of Health Sciences, and Des Moines Area Community College also provide post-secondary education.
Crime in Des Moines is above the national average. On a crime scale of 1–100, violent crimes in Des Moines rate 37, with the national average at 23. Likewise, property crimes, at 61, are above the national average of 36. The highest pocket of crime sits in the city’s center. Suburban neighborhoods experience significantly less crime than the heart of Des Moines.
- Electric and gas: MidAmerican Energy, a major provider in the state, provides electricity and gas service to the city. Access their website or phone number to open your accounts as quickly as possible.
- Water and trash collection: Des Moines Water Works provides all other major services, including water, sewer, trash, and recycling. On their website, you can alert their offices of your new move and get trash and recycling picked up the same week you arrive. Sign up online to receive text notifications about water outages, service issues, and more.
- Cable and internet: Internet providers CenturyLink is the only area provider offering fiber optic cable networking, meaning speeds and service are often higher than traditional DSL connections.
Best Neighborhoods in Des Moines, IA
If you’re ready to commit to Des Moines but don’t know where to look for housing, explore the best Des Moines neighborhoods here!
It’s not hard to see why Waterbury is one of Des Moines’ best neighborhoods. Waterbury ranks consistently as the top neighborhood of the city, as well as Iowa overall. Its boundary runs from I–235 south to Grand Ave, and east-west from 63rd to Polk Blvd.
Central to the city’s top amenities and parks, Waterbury puts its residents in the heart of what makes Des Moines a great place to live. The majority of homes are Victorian-style that have been a part of the neighborhood for decades. While the cost of living is 11% above the Iowa average, it’s 2% lower than the national average. It also features the lowest crime rate in the city, as well as access to Des Moines’ best schools.
Families love Waterbury for the high graduation rates and national test scores that are over 60% better than the rest of the country. Between opportunities for children and easy access to some of the top employers in Des Moines, Waterbury is home to some of Des Moines’ happiest residents.
- Population – 2,740
- Home Price – Median home value is $245,600
- Rent Prices – $588 on average to rent
- Schools – Valley High School (2/10), Stilwell Junior High (7/10), Samuelson Elementary School (4/10)
- Things to Do – See what’s on exhibit at the Des Moines Art Center
Downtown Des Moines
Urban life is overwhelming for some, but Downtown Des Moines is a manageable and affordable way to enjoy city life without the common drawbacks. The boundaries run south from Park Street to Raccoon River, which also makes up its western border as it heads east to the Des Moines River.
Downtown is a favorite area for singles and young professionals, as well as couples not quite ready to set up shop on a common suburb-style subdivision. Many of the homes are modern, plus there’s a healthy mix of apartments, condos, and traditional single-family homes. While rent is a bit higher in this area than Waterbury and other areas a bit further out, home prices on average are lower for those looking to own. As to be expected, a huge perk of living in Downtown Des Moines is proximity to everything you’ll ever need.
Whether it’s entertainment, a nearby job, or places to eat and drink, you can’t get closer to the hot spots of Des Moines than living Downtown. If you’re craving city life but want a bit more manageable space to enjoy it in, you’ve come to the right neighborhood.
- Population – 2,576
- Home Price – Median home value is $238,700
- Rent Prices – $718 on average to rent
- Schools – Downtown High School (8/10), Merrill Junior High (6/10), Jefferson Elementary School (5/10)
- Things to Do – Check out Bubba, a hip spot for Southern fare and whiskey
Waveland Park is a great deal more affordable than our first two neighborhoods. Still, it sacrifices no element of Des Moines charm, nor numerous things to do and places to see. Waveland Park is located south of Franklin Ave all the way down to I–235. Its area spreads east from 55th Street to 42nd street.
This community is a popular place for families with young children, as more than 50% of the neighborhood’s residents having kids under 18. Single-family homes built in the 70s or 80s comprise most of the housing in this area. Older homes help keep housing costs down, and while exteriors often look a bit dated, the bungalow style designs give the neighborhood character. While the average home value is still higher in Waveland Park than Des Moines on average, the proximity to some of the area’s top downtown employers as well as attractions and things to do makes the neighborhood well worth the slight increase in cost.
Waveland Park is well known for its gorgeous parks and natural areas to explore with your family. With fewer apartments in the area than Des Moines’ average, prospective homeowners are often ecstatic to find this family-oriented area so close to the heart of the city.
- Population – 3,214
- Home Price – Median home value is $168,533
- Rent Prices – $861 on average to rent
- Schools – Roosevelt High School (2/10), Merrill Junior High (6/10), Hubbell Elementary School (5/10)
- Things to Do – Learn about the stars at Drake Municipal Observatory
Significantly smaller and less populated than other Des Moines neighborhoods, Ingersoll Park is a great place for a quieter living experience. West of the Downtown Des Moines area, the Ingersoll Park neighborhood is wonderful for families with kids. The neighborhood begins below I–235 and goes down to Grand Avenue in between Polk and 42nd Street.
Many of the homes are modeled after a turn of the century design, and while single-family units make up the majority of housing options, there are newer apartment complexes that offer modern living for those looking to rent. Just three miles from the heart of downtown, Ingersoll Park provides a more traditional, suburban-style living with all the amenities of a major city just a few minutes away. Thanks to the dense number of homes in the neighborhood, as well as the multitude of nearby restaurants and coffee shops, there are few reasons residents need to venture far from home.
Thanks to easy access to several local parks, families enjoy Ingersoll Park for its small-town comforts and proximity to big city attractions and resources.
- Population – 798
- Home Price – Median home value is $179,500
- Rent Prices – $742 on average to rent
- Schools – Roosevelt High School (2/10), Merrill Junior High (6/10), Windsor Elementary School (4/10)
- Things to Do – Try Jesse’s Embers on Ingersoll Ave for a solid neighborhood meal
A huge perk of cities that have existed for decades are the historic neighborhoods that provide aesthetic and style. Greenwood is a historic neighborhood nestled south of Downtown Des Moines. Moving south from Grand Avenue to Lincoln Place Drive, the east-west boundaries run from 38th to 31st.
Like many of the nicer areas of Des Moines, Greenwood is a popular place for families with children. Most of the homes are cottage style with four to five bedrooms. These are very nice homes, and despite many being built in the 1880s and 1890s, the affluent property owners keep their properties up to the best standards. Greenwood is nearby Des Moines University, so if you work for the school or want to take classes, you can’t beat the convenience.
Home prices are higher than Des Moines average, but the neighborhood offers two things many Des Moines neighborhoods do not. For starters, these homes are often in historic areas of the city that provide postcard-like streets and backdrops. Plus, they’re nearby some of the best amenities the city has to offer. With just under 1200 people in the neighborhood, Greenwood is also a quieter option without being too far from the city’s downtown area.
- Population – 1191
- Home Price – Median home value is $324,600
- Rent Prices – $867 on average to rent
- Schools – Roosevelt High School (2/10), Callanan Middle School (2/10), Greenwood Elementary School (4/10)
- Things to Do – Take a tour of Salisbury House & Gardens
A popular area for families as well as older individuals, nearly three-fourths of Linden Heights residents own their homes, so it’s a great place to settle down and enjoy the booming housing market. The neighborhood is situated from Greenwood Drive south to Bill Riley Trail, and west as far as Greenwood-Ashworth Park to Glenview Drive.
Linden Heights is full of large modern homes, many of which boast brick facades and grand yards. Craftsman style homes offer lots of room for privacy, but still, provide that suburban neighborhood feel. Just a little larger than Greenwood, Linden Heights is just north of the city’s largest park and forest area. Linden Heights is a great neighborhood if you’re into the outdoors and recreation. You’ll be enjoying many walks in the Denman Woods
Many of the largest employers in both the health care and insurance industries are nearby, so it’s a big plus to move to Linden Heights if you’ll be working in these sectors. Plus, the cost of living in this lovely affluent area is still well below the national average.
- Population – 1,787
- Home Price – Median home value is $326,700
- Rent Prices – $892 on average to rent
- Schools – Roosevelt High School (2/10), Merrill Middle School (6/10), Hanawalt Elementary School (5/10)
- Things to Do – Stroll the Clare and Miles Mills Rose Garden
If you have a hard time choosing between suburban or urban living, Westwood is a great hybrid of the two. A large neighborhood, sitting southwest of the downtown district, Westwood is near several great Des Moines amenities but still far enough away to give you the feeling that you’re in a suburban area of Iowa.
Shaped like a triangle, this neighborhood sits south of Grand Avenue, east of Denman Woods, and west of Greenwood-Ashworth Park. Most of the houses in Westwood are Victorian-style homes and two- to three-story bungalows. There are also many rental options, including apartments inside older homes and recently built multi-unit buildings. A great thing about Westwood is the ability to find affordable rentals. The average rent prices in the neighborhood are lower than in the downtown area.
An incredibly diverse area of people and families, you’ll find Westwood to be one of the more inclusive, dynamic areas of Des Moines. With international influences and cuisines, it’s a great place to settle if you want to live among the people who make Des Moines special.
- Population – 5,237
- Home Price – Median home value is $214,313
- Rent Prices – $776 on average to rent
- Schools – Roosevelt High School (2/10), Merrill Middle School (6/10), Hanawalt Elementary School (5/10)
- Things to Do – Enjoy the change of seasons at Greenwood Ashworth Park
When it comes to the total experience of living in Des Moines, few neighborhoods beat Salisbury Oaks. The neighborhood stretches south of Grand Avenue to Water Works Park and extends from Glenview Drive to 38th.
Many of the homes are stucco designs, including a few traditional craftsman models in the mix as well. The entire neighborhood feels very historic, thanks to heavily wooded streets and quaint subdivisions. Within a short distance, you can entertain yourself and others with arts and culture, as well as the numerous attractions such as Blank Park Zoo, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens, and the Art Center.
If you have kids or you want to adventure on your own, the metro-suburban hybrid experience of living in Salisbury Oaks helps provide residents with a little bit of everything. It’s even a popular place for older residents, with an average age of 59 years old for the people living in this great neighborhood.
- Population – 3,778
- Home Price – Median home value is $325,593
- Rent Prices – $828 on average to rent
- Schools – Roosevelt High School (2/10), Merrill Middle School (6/10), Greenwood Elementary School (4/10)
- Things to Do – Take a walk along the Raccoon River
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