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As the top state for low cost of living (CNBC, 2023), Iowa is a great place to prosper within your budget. The state boasts a variety of affordable housing opportunities, from purchasing a beautiful home to renting a stylish apartment. Learn how these Iowa transplants found a home they can thrive in.

Meet Stephen & Emily Stiles
California → Hull

Stiles family standing in front of their new construction home
Stiles family in front of their home in Hull

After leaving California to attend Dordt University in Sioux Center, Stephen and Emily Stiles knew they wanted to call Iowa home someday. They returned to California, where they remained for a decade and had four children. After experiencing the chaos of Los Angeles’ suburbs as parents, Stephen and Emily (a Pella, Iowa, native) decided they wanted to raise their family in a smaller community with a slower pace. They fondly remembered Iowa’s four seasons, vast blue skies and kind people, and wanted to raise their kids somewhere they could “get dirty” and be part of a community. So, they set their sights on Iowa.

They came back on a family vacation in 2020 to scope out their options, and quickly fell in love with a piece of land outside of Hull. They purchased it and began building their dream home, looking forward to a future where their children could play in a large yard and watch nearby farmers in the fields but also be close enough to town to ride their bikes to the community pool.

“Looking back to California, our kids couldn’t really run around, so we wanted land here where they could play outside and get dirty and we didn’t feel like we were stuck in our space,” Emily said. “When we visited and saw the neighborhood right outside of town, we knew this was a good compromise.”

The family packed up their entire lives into a U-Haul and traded their 1,800-square-foot California home (then valued at $950,000) for an 8,800-square-foot home on a 1.7-acre lot (valued at $850,000) in Iowa’s calm countryside. They were immediately welcomed by their new neighbors, who helped them unload their belongings, entertained the kids and even delivered fresh sweet corn and veggies straight from their gardens.

“People joke about ‘Iowa nice,’ but it’s so true. The day we arrived, they were willing to show us kindness not even knowing who we are and met us with such hospitality,” Stephen said.

Now that they’re settled into their new home, the Stiles family is taking full advantage of their yard, from watching crop dusters soar over the nearby farmland to shooting off fireworks and jumping on their trampoline.

Along the way, Stephen landed his dream job as the brewmaster with Late Harvest Brewery in nearby Sioux Center, turning his hobby into a career. He also serves the community as a volunteer EMT. Meanwhile, Emily is happy being a stay-at-home mom and watching their tractor-obsessed son and cow-loving daughters embrace their Iowa life.

Meet Sarah Booz & Kyle Kirwan
New York City → Des Moines

Kyle Kirwan and Sarah Booz at Mainframe Studios in Des Moines

As Sarah Booz and Kyle Kirwan looked around their crumbling Hudson Valley apartment, they began hatching a plan to leave New York. They listed their priorities for their next home, which included good food, walkability and a separate art space for Kyle, a designer toy artist. Like the “elder Millennials” they are, they turned to Google for help and found Des Moines at the top of every result.

“We read a lot of listicles and watched YouTube videos highlighting quality of life with low cost of living,” Sarah said. “At first, we were like, ‘Stop saying Des Moines, Iowa, that’s a really weird suggestion,’” Sarah laughed.

But, when they started researching Iowa’s capital, they were impressed by the city’s vibrant arts and culture scene and set their sights on moving here. Again, they looked to Google, this time for finding an apartment. During the search, Kyle applied for an affordable art space at Mainframe Studios, a downtown Des Moines building that’s known as the largest nonprofit creative workspace in the nation. Then, they signed a lease for a pet-friendly building in Des Moines’ Historic East Village and made the move with their cat and bird.

Their new home soon started checking everything off their list. It has in-unit laundry, a balcony with stunning views of the State Capitol and is three times cheaper than a similar apartment in New York.

And everything they could imagine is within walking distance – a variety of restaurants (Sarah has created a name for herself as a foodie micro influencer) and popular Des Moines events like the Des Moines Art Festival, World Food and Music Festival, CelebrAsian and more. They’ve also enjoyed cycling the city and plan to upgrade their bikes to take full advantage of the metro’s 800 miles of connected trails.

“When we talk to people in New York, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we live right downtown in the cool neighborhood,’” Sarah said. “We can walk to all the events we want to go to – but the cost is shockingly lower.”

Kyle bikes to his studio space, where he quickly discovered the benefits of the Mainframe community paired with Iowa Nice.

“There’s a lot of creative energy that I can tap into and it’s also constructive. This is one of the only places I’ve been where it’s not cutthroat,” Kyle said. “People are happy for others to succeed. Chasing the dream is a lot of effort, and to come out here and sort of pool all our resources was really interesting and cool.”

#1 State for Millennial homeowners

US Census Bureau, 2022

Meet Lily Allen-Dueñas
California → France → West Des Moines

Woman standing in front of a plant and fireplace
Lily Allen-Dueñas at her home in West Des Moines

After Lily married her husband and followed him from California to his home in France, where they lived for five years, the couple began searching for a new home. They wanted to live somewhere they could afford a house and feel like part of a community, and Lily convinced him that Iowa was a great place to plant roots. So, they packed up their French home and fulfilled their dream of being homeowners in West Des Moines.

“He said, ‘It’s time to go back to the U.S., let’s go back to California,’ and I said, ‘No, let’s pick a city we could really thrive in,’” Lily said. “And for us, that was Des Moines. It’s the right size and is so vibrant. My friends in California can’t believe there’s so much to do here.”

Though she grew up in California, Lily spent her summers at camp in Okoboji, which resulted in an immediate love for the Midwest. She returned to attend the University of Iowa and, after graduating, worked for various nonprofit organizations in the area.

After returning to Iowa yet again, Lily and her husband first lived in an apartment in Des Moines’ historic East Village to get a feel for their new community. When they decided it was time to “level up,” they purchased a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a quiet West Des Moines neighborhood.

In this new space, their large, south-facing living room windows let in endless sunlight to nourish their plants, their spacious backyard is home to a stunning maple tree and one of the bedrooms acts as Lily’s home office, from which she runs her business The Wild Yoga Tribe. The couple is also enjoying getting to know their neighbors and becoming more involved with local organizations.

“I was so excited to be able to afford a home here. I know cost of living and property is astronomical elsewhere, and for us to be young professionals and not have to save $1 million for a house, it felt more realistic here,” Lily said.

Now, Lily’s business is also thriving from its new homebase. The Wild Yoga Tribe provides resources to a global community of students and teachers as they embark on their wellness and wholeness journeys. Through her company, Lily offers online yoga classes and a podcast from her new home office and leads retreats and workshops around the world.

Her new community has welcomed them with open arms and even helped elevate Lily’s business. Since the move, she’s since been a guest on several local news shows. She has also partnered with area events and organizations to lead stretches at the Special Olympics of Iowa’s annual conference, teach inclusive chair yoga and promote wellness and holistic health alongside the Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau and more.

This strong support has inspired her to give back to show her appreciation for their “Iowa Nice” welcome. Following her passion for building connections and creating collaborations, Lily dove headfirst into getting involved in her community. She joined the local chamber’s program for young professionals and has a leadership role on the board of a young professionals networking group.

“I love networking and building connection for collaborative opportunities,” Lily said. “And I think it’s really exciting how many things there are that I can do and activities that are targeted for young professionals in this area.”

While Iowa is one of the best states for homeownership, many communities are also prioritizing adding affordable apartments to their list of resident amenities. By transforming historic buildings into modern living and business spaces, these communities are enhancing the opportunities that Iowa’s downtown lifestyle has to offer.

Upper Story Living Spotlight

Hilltop Campus Village, Davenport

Davenport’s Hilltop Campus village is a vibrant area comprised of historic buildings, educational institutions, parks, shops and a diverse collection of restaurants. Now, the community is placing a newfound focus on turning its mid-century structures into stunning mixed-use areas with upper story living, providing attractive housing options near local colleges and attractions.

One of the area’s most successful and unique housing projects turned the 1967 Brenton First National Bank into The Brenton Lofts, a mixed income building. The building’s high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows were preserved and now provide stunning features to the industrial-style studio and one-bedroom apartments. The rest of the building was transformed into charming community spaces paired with historic charm – the bank’s original basement vault now serves as a one-of-a-kind gaming room.

Three people eating southeast asian food
Miss Phay Cafe, Davenport

Located just down the street, Miss Phay Café, a popular Southeast Asian eatery, claims the lower part of an 1859 historical landmark building while offering a pleasant one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment above. Similar one- and two-bedroom loft-style apartments can also be found above The Brewed Book coffee shop and bookstore.

“We’re the gateway to downtown, so having these old buildings revitalized and getting that interest into the neighborhood, it’s become the place that people want to be, and the businesses have followed,” said Hilltop Campus Village Executive Director Brian Kramer.

#1 State for low housing costs

Wallethub, 2023


Located in the rolling Loess Hills of western Iowa, Woodbine and its vibrant downtown offer all the best aspects of big city living. For the past decade, the city has been heavily investing in revitalizing the historic downtown’s buildings to offer upper story apartments. Now, residents can take advantage of 38 upper story living units throughout the community, and the plans to add more continue far into the future.

Stairwell and living space in an upper story apartment
Woodbine Artisan Lofts, Woodbine

One of their largest projects transformed the prominent former Odd Fellows Lodge (1878) and the adjacent Siebel’s Department Store (1901) into a thriving restaurant, office and retail spaces below with seven two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments above. Similar apartments can also be found above the old Artisan building just down the street. Now, residents can live above the popular restaurant, appropriately named Good Fellows, and explore the Brick Street Historic District’s many boutiques, community art, bike trails and more.

“The downtown resident population is an energized, mixed demographic,” Deb Sprecker, the executive director of Woodbine Main Street, said. “People enjoy living downtown because the storefronts are filled with a balanced mix of retail, service and entertainment businesses, and the sidewalks are blooming and studded with sculptures and pocket parks. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”


Home to Iowa’s largest town square and 119 buildings on the National Historic Register, Centerville is a bustling community in the heart of southern Iowa. While the town square is packed with specialty shops and restaurants and exciting events, the community started prioritizing downtown living opportunities and invested in transforming the square’s empty upper stories into stunning apartments.

“Over half of the upper stories in our historic downtown sat empty and unused for decades,” said Delaney Evers, the tourism and Main Street director at PACT (Promoting Appanoose and Centerville Together). “Our goal was to create desirable apartment living downtown as a way to attract a younger demographic and potentially some boomerangs wanting to come back without the commitment of owning a home.”

One such project targeted the 1880 Milani Building, which has been a hallmark on the town square since its completion. A local couple purchased the building and, using grants and their own funds, repaired and restored the façade and revitalized its many historic features, such as the ornate plasterwork and Italianate windows. Now, Cox Law Firm calls the lower-level home, and the upper story storage space has since been transformed into two apartments – a one-bedroom unit and a two-bedroom unit.

Another project renovated an abandoned downtown building into the Douglas Fir multi-unit apartment building. Formerly an armory, a local couple purchased the dilapidated structure and transformed it into modern apartments that now feature a mix of short-term and long-term units as well as furnished apartments. The apartments have since been flourishing and provide an attractive option for newcomers and short-term workers alike.

These apartments make it easy to take advantage of the community’s many attractions – they’re within walking distance of a museum, theater, clothing stores, coffee shops, the library and a variety of restaurants. Centerville is also a short drive away from Rathbun Lake’s water recreation opportunities.

Published June 13, 2024

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