50 Suburbs Rated

The route home for a growing number of metro Milwaukee residents stretches the definition of suburbs. For many, the drive first includes 20 to 30 minutes of freeway cruising past city neighborhoods, inner-ring communities and beyond. Exit, and the rest of the route meanders along rustic roads, with no hint of a metropolis in sight. Home may be in the village of Jackson, Saukville or Fredonia; the town of Summit, Merton or Erin; the city of Oconomowoc, Grafton or Port Washington. It may be lakeside, wooded, in a clear-cut subdivision cropping up on former farmland or skirting a small downtown…

The route home for a growing number of metro Milwaukee residents stretches the definition of suburbs. For many, the drive first includes 20 to 30 minutes of freeway cruising past city neighborhoods, inner-ring communities and beyond. Exit, and the rest of the route meanders along rustic roads, with no hint of a metropolis in sight. Home may be in the village of Jackson, Saukville or Fredonia; the town of Summit, Merton or Erin; the city of Oconomowoc, Grafton or Port Washington. It may be lakeside, wooded, in a clear-cut subdivision cropping up on former farmland or skirting a small downtown business district. It’s all there; it’s merely a matter of direction – north or south on highways 45 or 43 or west on I-94.

In the 50 metro Milwaukee suburbs included in our 2005 roundup, nearly 533,000 people live in the outer ring, which comprises 34 communities like the Brookfields, the Pewaukees, the Delafields (yes, there are two of each, a city and town or village of the same name). Fewer than 285,000 live in the first ring of suburbs, established communities within 10 or 15 minutes of Downtown, such as Shorewood, St. Francis, West Allis and Whitefish Bay.

The sprawling outer ring appears sparsely populated, with expansive vistas of undeveloped countryside and farm fields. Staunch new construction, however, sprouts readily and reliably. Country roads west, north and south of Milwaukee wind through lands that seem at once unblemished by new development and yet teem with growth. Rural roads bordered by farms, prairie grass or woods suddenly give way to swank subdivision signage marking the area’s newest premier developments.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Administration’s Demographic Services Center completed its January 1, 2004, estimates for the state. Data reveal that the population of the 34 outer-ring suburbs included in this rating is up 4.5 percent from the 2000 census. Population within the first ring, meanwhile, declined just shy of 1 percent during the same period. Put another way, since 2000, the population growth of more than 23,000 among the outer-ring suburbs was nearly nine times the decline of 2,737 among first-ring suburbs.

The lure of the suburbs is the sense of serenity and privacy, the promise of a simpler life. It is pursued by those earning, on average, an adjusted gross income of nearly $70,000. These homeowners pay, on average, nearly $5,500 in property taxes (based on a suburban average net property tax rate of $20.25 on a home that sold for $269,115, the average sale price for suburban homes in 2004).

Census data reveal that in our increasingly mobile society, those choosing to live in the outer-ring suburbs have consistently added minutes to commute times each decade. “No one worries about driving 20, 30, 40 or even 50 miles to work one way,” says William R. “Bob” Rathsack, 72, who this spring ended a 12-year tenure as president of the Village of Fredonia, population 2,111. “Small villages like this are comfortable places to live, a good place for children to grow up, and residents can commute to work.”

Fredonia is among the new communities added to the 2005 list of 50 suburbs at the urging of real estate executives who use a broad brush to outline Milwaukee’s suburban boundaries (in previous surveys, we included 40 suburbs). Located in northern Ozaukee County, Fredonia is a fledgling among the new suburbs. The village can’t quite boast a downtown – “Well, there’s a Main Street, and we do have a nice lumber yard,” says Rathsack – but it can boast a quality of life particular to small towns. Rathsack paints a picture of Fredonia as a community that offers precisely what most say they look for when choosing where to live – low crime, good schools, low taxes.

To live in Fredonia, or any place like it, Rathsack cautions, requires a certain affection for small-town life. “There are big-city people who like the big city. Out here, it is slow-paced and comfortable.… We are striving to keep it that way as long as we can.”

It may not be a lifestyle choice for everyone, but it’s one made by a growing number of metro-area residents, namely “the boomers.” Baby boomers, now about 40 to 60 years old, continue to drive trends in various consumer markets, and real estate is no exception. It’s the boomers under age 50 who are earning good incomes and are in search of larger homes and lots, and they’re making these purchases at historically low mortgage rates, says Sammis White, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor in the department of urban planning. “The stock market collapse taught a lesson to many – that maybe stocks aren’t where you ought to be,” says White. “Real estate is safer, and you can enjoy it every day rather than having to read about it in the paper.”

So what makes a slice of real estate particularly desirable? Milwaukeeans affirmed in a 2004 Public Policy Forum survey what we found in a survey seven years ago. The top factors in choosing where to live include low crime, low property taxes, high-quality schools, parks and open green space. Our survey also indicated that homebuyers value solid home appreciation, ease of resale and high government safety and other services. Experts told us these eight categories remain a valid basis for the 2005 rating of 50 metro Milwaukee suburbs, 11 of which are new to the list.

The results: Two new additions (Merton, #3, and Summit, #8) earned high enough scores to put them among the top 10 suburbs. Five previously top 10-ranked suburbs moved down the list slightly. And one former top 10 placeholder, the City of Franklin, fell from the number 10 spot it held just four years ago to number 41 in this ranking.

Franklin’s fall to the lower half of the 50 suburbs rated is due to less-than-average scores in seven of the eight categories used for the ranking (the same categories used in 1998 and again in 2001). The only category in which Franklin bested the average was parks. Only a seven-point spread existed between Franklin’s crime score and that of the top-ranked suburb – part of a low-crime trend seen across the state and nation. Combined with the other less-than-average scores, however, even a notch below average in crime hurt. Taking a toll on Franklin’s score was its five-year real estate record, which was just average in terms of home appreciation and ease of resale. Also affecting Franklin’s score was its net 2004 tax rate of $24.47, 20 percent higher than the suburban average.

Also dropping lower on the list in 2005 were Cedarburg, Whitefish Bay, New Berlin and Mequon, but the slides weren’t as dramatic. Whitefish Bay moved from number 6 to number 13, due primarily to its higher tax rate and fewer park acres per 1,000 population. Mequon (14), Cedarburg (15) and New Berlin (19) – in 2001 at slots 9, 3 and 7, respectively – all took hits primarily due to home sale performance. Mequon and Cedarburg homes were slower to sell; New Berlin homes did not appreciate at the pace of the suburban average (although its 6.6 percent home appreciation average from 1999-’04 is solid).

Ousting River Hills from the top spot, which it held in 1998 and 2001, is Hartland (ranked number 9 in 1998 and number 4 in 2001). Bayside retained its number 2 spot for the third consecutive time. River Hills remained in the top 10, this year at number 5. Muskego, number 5 in 2001, moved to number 10 this year. The City of Delafield (4) and Menomonee Falls (6) each returned to the top 10 in 2005, and each regained the same spots held in 1998. (See www.milwaukeemagazine.com to compare the 2005 survey with those from 2001 and 1998.)

New to the list of 50 and making the top 10 were the towns of Merton (3) and Summit (8). Located in Waukesha County’s Lake Country, both earned top marks with low crime, high home appreciation and low taxes. Merton pushed ahead of Summit with its higher school score.

Glendale and Germantown made it into the top 10 for the first time this year. Despite staking claim to the dubious distinction of worst crime score of the 50 suburbs, Glendale secured the number 7 slot. Why? If crime is high, so is safety spending, which is perceived as a value. Glendale’s government services spending did the trick for this inner-ring suburb, as it pushed far beyond the suburban average. But people say they value garbage pickup, parks and other such services, pushing Glendale into the top tier.

Germantown makes its first appearance in the top 10, at number 9. The village was 26 in 2001 and 18 in 1998. Two key reasons for Germantown’s move up: low crime and good schools. Germantown also gained ground in its real estate market performance. Its homes appreciated in value an average 9.2 percent (nearly 2 percentage points better than the average) and sold within a couple of months (two weeks faster than the suburban average).

Pursuing the American dream of owning a home in metropolitan Milwaukee is an exercise in sifting through the options – from the more urban-like suburbs to the pastoral settings farther west, north and south. Despite the somewhat dire prognostications regarding the state’s and metro Milwaukee’s economic health in terms of job creation and job loss (the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute states in a recent report that the news contained within its pages “does not bode well for Wisconsin in the new millennium”), metro-area suburbs appear to be humming along.

The WPRI report reveals an employment decline of more than 30,000 jobs in the metro area between 1999 and 2003. The decline began a turnaround late last year, and it continues, with recent job gains almost exclusively in the service sectors of health, education, financial and business services, notes White, author of the report. Milwaukee and its metro area remain very livable, says White. And the suburbs are faring well, as the central city, once the major source of employment, now makes up less than 45 percent of metro Milwaukee’s employment.

Historically, economic issues fan tension between a city and its suburbs, and this tension remains taut in Milwaukee. But Robert Greenstreet, dean of UWM’s School of Architecture and City of Milwaukee director of planning and design, finds this tension irrelevant. “Cities need their suburbs and suburbs need their cities. Downtown housing isn’t any better than suburban housing,” says Greenstreet. “It is just a question of choice, and that is one of the great things – to be able to have that choice.”

The city’s current administration is keeping tabs on its suburbs, Greenstreet says, although less out of a sense of rivalry than a recognized need to improve dialogue between the two. “The suburbs give the city a fair degree of wealth, and that is very important,” says Greenstreet. “[Suburbanites] work in the city. They increase the tax base in the city. They spend their dollars at restaurants and entertainment venues in the city. It is all part of the same organism.”

The most commonly cited characteristics suburbs cite as making them desirable places to live are a rural atmosphere and excellent schools. And both the furthest and closest suburbs are quick to boast of their proximity to the city. Rathsack, a resident of Fredonia for three decades, is a season-ticket holder for the Milwaukee Admirals and the Milwaukee Symphony and is a member of the Public Museum and County Zoo. He and his wife, Fern, brought their daughter up enjoying frequent excursions to Milwaukee’s cultural venues. And it is now routine for another generation as well, their 19-month-old granddaughter, Sofia, who stays with Bopa and Gramma during the day while her dad runs Rathsack’s Fredonia machine shop and mom works as a cardiac nurse at St. Luke’s Medical Center. (Sofia and her parents live in Oak Creek, a more convenient location in terms of job commutes.) Milwaukee, a mere 35-minute drive, according to Rathsack, serves as Fredonia’s arts community. “Even in this area,” he says, “we still have access to the arts.… We just commute.”

Proximity to Milwaukee is increasingly becoming more loosely defined as home and lot prices escalate. With communities in the farther reaches of Washington, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties making real estate professionals’ list of top suburbs in the metro area, as does northern Racine County’s town of Caledonia, the connection to Milwaukee is palpable, even as the distance to it grows. It is a function of  limited supply and growing demand, says Jon Spheeris, president of Spheeris Development and vice president of the Oconomowoc Prudential realty office.

Consider the City of Brookfield, for years a hotbed of commercial and residential development. Lot prices in Brookfield currently range between $275,000 and $325,000, according to Matt Moroney, executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association. Even in the tiny Town of Summit, lot prices have more than doubled in recent years – from $40,000 to a new low of $90,000 and pushing as high as $350,000, depending on lot size and the exclusivity of the development.

And these are lot prices only. Add to that the average cost of a new home, which in 2004 was $329,000, according to Moroney, and it’s little wonder that small towns and villages that once only hit the radar screen as quaint backdrops for Milwaukee’s more established suburbs are now evolving as Milwaukee’s new, even top-rated suburbs.

Access to the suburbs, however, diminishes as the cost of housing widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots, according to White. As new construction competes with existing home sales, and new homes are larger and sport more amenities, home sale prices for existing homes bid up as well. The average home price in the well-established suburb of West Milwaukee, which earned top rank in terms of best return on investment, is $141,239. In contrast, the average home price in the top-rated community of Hartland is more than double that, at $337,557.

But despite the disparity in home prices, home ownership is an ideal that a growing number of people achieve; it’s at an all-time high, nationally and in the metro Milwaukee area. The U.S. Census Bureau reports a first-quarter 2005 national home ownership rate of 69.2 percent. The rate in the Midwest is 73.1 percent; in metro Milwaukee, it’s a record-high 72 percent.

Fueling high home ownership rates is the fact that buying a home is no longer relegated to couples and families. Singles are just as likely to move into a home on the same block shared by the elderly couple whose children are grown and gone, the young couple expecting their first child or the middle-aged parents saving money for their high schooler’s college education.

Diversity in the metro area’s housing product opens the door to higher levels of home ownership, says Scott Bush, vice president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors. Some people love the hustle and bustle; others like to be farther away from it. Some can afford the average suburban home price of $269,115 and so can settle farther from the central city. Others, due to lower income, may be able to access only first-ring suburbs, where the average home sale price is in the $140,000 range. Regardless of preference or the dictates of earned income, the growing number of homebuyers are investing with confidence, as housing translates into a sound investment. The reason: Milwaukee’s real estate market is conservative, marked by an absence of drama and unmarred by sharp upswings or downturns in home values.

Perhaps the more precious value of metro Milwaukee’s real estate is that home appreciation is most reliably assured. A housing bubble, like bubbles in the stock market that are prone to burst, is a rather alien concept in the metro area. The toughest years in terms of home appreciation were in the late 1990s, when home value increases held to an overall suburban average of 3 percent. By 2001, an overall five-year suburban home appreciation average hit 4 percent. Since then, the suburban home appreciation average has nearly doubled, to 7.5 percent, according to 1999-’04 home sales data from the Metro Multiple Listing Service. Although unlikely to be viewed as brilliant appreciation in other areas of the country, it certainly is not lackluster.

Each suburb, to a certain extent, appears cut from similar cloth, each bragging like qualities. In recent surveys of Milwaukee-area residents and potential homebuyers, for instance, crime is cited as the top concern in deciding where to live. Each Milwaukee-area suburb could argue low crime as a top draw. The suburban average number of crimes per 1,000 in population is 2.14, and 96 percent of that crime falls into the category of nonviolent property crime.

Each suburb also seems to believe that the school district serving its children is among the best in the state, even the nation. The suburban average high school graduation rate is a solid 97 percent. High school students taking the ACT earn an average score of 23.1, a full three points higher than the national average.

Property taxes may be a sticking point, but people value security and services – police, fire, ambulance, garbage pickup, recycling, parks and recreation – all of which require tax dollars. The suburban average property tax rate in 2004 was $20.25. Those keenly tuned to tax rates will find property tax rates below that average in 31 of the 50 suburbs included in our survey. Every value, however, has its equal and opposite. The financially savvy are quick to point out that a low tax rate may be a lure, but consider the location. The lowest tax rates are found in suburbs with some of the highest housing prices, thus sweeping away the benefits of a low tax rate when put into the perspective of the many thousands more in property taxes a homeowner will pay.

Within the next decade, metro Milwaukee-area suburbs will continue to grow, especially those in outlying areas. According to the state Demographic Services Center, major cities such as Milwaukee are expected to grow their resident populations by 12.9 percent in the next 20 years. Small towns and villages, with populations of 5,000 to 10,000, will experience the fastest growth in the next two decades. Villages are projected to grow by 25.8 percent; town populations will follow, with a projected growth rate of 20.7 percent. How metro Milwaukee’s new suburbs will manage this growth remains to be seen, but that is a topic for another story and likely a factor in how they’ll stack up five years from now.

Laura J. Merisalo, who has written extensively on real estate, rated the suburbs for Milwaukee Magazine in 1998 and 2001. Photographs by Kevin J. Miyazaki.