Wichita, Kansas tops our 2008 list of livable bargain markets. (© Panoramic Images)

Wichita, Kansas tops our 2008 list of livable bargain markets.

If your income doesn't top six figures, making it in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco can be tough. It can take more than a decade to save up enough money to buy a house; and even then, the size of that mortgage payment might keep you up nights.

But if you're willing to look beyond these urban hot spots to midsize cities in the middle of the country, there are cheap places to live where the economy is strong, home prices are appreciating and the quality of life is good.

To develop the 2008 MSN Real Estate Most-Livable Bargain Markets list, we asked Bert Sperling of Sperling's Best Places to evaluate the most affordable housing markets from the 100 largest U.S. metro areas and pinpoint the nine most livable areas: places where unemployment is low, commute times are short and there's enough interesting entertainment or recreation to keep most people busy. We defined affordability by the ratio of median income to median home price.

Moving to one of these cities could allow you to "sell your two-bedroom bungalow in Southern California … and buy a house on a number of acres and suddenly have a nest egg you've never had before," Sperling says.

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The cities chosen for our list have a population of at least 500,000 between the major city and surrounding county. They range in size from Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa., with a population of 525,380, to one of the nation's largest metropolises, Dallas-Fort Worth, with a population of 6 million. Three are state capitals, and many have universities or colleges to provide cultural amenities.

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Here's a look at what makes these cities in the middle of America great, and the drawbacks you might find in moving from another area.

Wichita, Kan.
Wichita is one of the most affordable places in the study, and has some of the best numbers for employment and job growth, thanks to a boom in agriculture and ethanol.

Houses are appreciating in value, even in today's tough economy. And commute times are blessedly short. The downtown area is being revitalized with new restaurants, shopping centers and parks. Arts and entertainment facilities are stronger than one might expect for a city this size, and the community feel is strong.  And there's a new convention center along the Arkansas River.

Cons: It's fairly isolated, with Tulsa and Kansas City each nearly 200 miles away. The flat landscape lacks breathtaking natural scenery. Its climate can swing to extremes, with hot, humid summers, short periods of extreme cold in winter and a lot of rain in between.

Omaha-Council Bluffs, Neb.-Iowa
Job prospects are bright in this town, with the lowest unemployment of any city on the list. That's due in part to the large number of young people leaving the area after college. But that's starting to change. Thanks to an emerging alternative-music scene in Omaha, more restaurant and entertainment choices in its Old Market redevelopment downtown, and new high-rise residential developments along the waterfront, more young professionals are choosing to stick around and work for the area's insurance and food-processing companies.

Outside of downtown, families can find shaded streets and well-established suburbs covering the hills north and west of town, while newer developments lie in the flatter areas to the west.

Cons: Like many Midwest cities, Omaha is not very ethnically diverse. Its winters are harsh. And some residents on Sperling's site complained of bland scenery, conservative attitudes and too many chain restaurants. 

Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.
Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania. And like other capital cities, it has a built-in buffer against economic storms with its large base of government employment.

It's a quiet city in the central part of the state, an hour and a half east of Philadelphia. Once economically depressed, Harrisburg's economy is now slowly shifting out of manufacturing and into logistics and distribution, life sciences and technology-support services.

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Jobs at these companies are pulling in more young professionals like Brian Reilly, a 23-year-old coordinator for Harrisburg's business innovation zone, which helps form partnerships between industry and the area's universities. "I really like it here," Reilly says. "Coming from Philadelphia, where you can only get to know one section of the city really well, I feel like I know the whole city and its amenities. There are a lot of different festivals that are always going on, and a strong group of young professionals."

There also are history museums and a strong fan base for the area's minor-league sports teams, many of which play on City Island, a waterfront sports-themed development.

Cons:  Some complain of a lack of things to do if you're not a sports fan. Public transportation is limited. Reilly and others on Sperling's site complain about the poorly planned roads and freeway system. And it's an hour and a half away from the nearest large city. 

Madison, Wis.
Madison, Wisconsin's capital, has appeared at the top of recent Best Places lists for the natural beauty of its outdoor scenery, the recreation opportunities afforded by its surrounding lakes and its progressive, pedestrian-friendly downtown.

The city is home to the University of Wisconsin, and numerous buildings and museums celebrate the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who made his home here. People here are friendly says Doug Braun, a real-estate developer who moved to Madison several years ago from Atlanta. "They have a genuine interest in each other, and each other's well-being," he says. "They'd rather help you than get you out of their way."

Commute times are low, with rush hour adding very few minutes to total travel time. Agriculture, insurance and health-care companies provide employment outside the university.

Cons: Madison has rugged winters, with an average temperature of 19.4 degrees from December to February. It also has higher property taxes than many other areas. The town is the least affordable of our list, with an affordability index — or ratio of income to median home price — of 4.6, compared with our most affordable city, Wichita, with an index of 2.7.

San Antonio
For such a big city — eighth-largest in the nation — San Antonio feels remarkably like a town. It has a strong sense of community and plenty of festivals, shopping, theme parks and other entertainment to keep most families happy. The modern city is home to numerous historic neighborhoods and sites including the Alamo, the Spanish Governor's Palace and the River Walk, which contains shops and outdoor restaurants along the San Antonio River, just below street level downtown.

Thanks to the current demand for oil, the economy here is booming and there is a mix of neighborhoods catering to just about every taste and income level. The Texas Hill Country, which surrounds the city, provides numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation and tourism.

Cons: The city's biggest drawback can be summed up in one word: heat. Extreme heat and humidity in the summer can make it hard to enjoy the city's wealth of cultural and recreational amenities. And crime is higher here than in other cities of the same size. 

Indianapolis
Indianapolis, once a poster child for Midwest blight, has now become a model for urban renewal. It has a diverse economic base ranging from agriculture to financial services to industrial automation and technology. It also serves as headquarters to pharmaceutical and research giant Eli Lilly.

Its downtown has undergone substantial renovation and now boasts attractive new buildings, pedestrian zones and a state-of-the-art sports arena.

Spectator sports, including the NBA Pacers, NFL Colts and a few minor-league franchises, are a huge draw. The venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and other events.

"There's a ton of stuff to do here," says Brad Slack, a 35-year-old surgical supplies salesman who moved here from Walnut Creek, Calif., nine years ago. But, he says, it's also a city from which you can escape. "You can be out in the wilderness within a 20-minute car ride of the city."

Arts and cultural opportunities are abundant, thanks to the nearby Indiana-Purdue joint campus and Butler University. Affordable residential neighborhoods spread out in all directions from the compact downtown, with the most desirable to the north. Higher incomes and affordable housing give city residents more buying power than most others around the country.

Cons: It is less ethnically diverse than many major cities. And it has minor growth and sprawl problems, as well as higher crime rates than some of the other cities on the list.

Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh has shaken off its steel-town image to be an attractive and desirable location for families and retirees. In addition to housing many major corporations, it is home to Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon universities. The employment picture is solid, but not as robust as some of the other picks on this list.

It's easy to afford a home here and there are more than 90 recognized neighborhoods to choose from, each with a unique identity and personality. Steep hills rise on all sides of town, with some of these neighborhoods accessed by a19-century incline tram from the central city. The population is ethnically diverse and the downtown area is vibrant, with nightlife along the river and plenty of places to shop. The area is well-known for its sports, education and cultural amenities. Pittsburgh has major-league teams in football (Steelers), hockey (Penguins) and baseball (Pirates). Fan support and interest is legendary.

Overall, Pittsburgh is a solid place, locals say, rooted in traditional values.

Cons: The city is known for its gray, rainy weather and cold winters. This year it surpassed Los Angeles on the list of small-particle pollution offenders. And it may not be the most exciting city for singles.

Dallas-Fort Worth
The only true mega-metro to be included on our list, Dallas-Fort Worth's appeal can be summed up in two words: jobs and housing. A center for much of corporate America, jobs are plentiful here and the base of employment is diverse, ranging from oil and gas to technology. And affordable housing stock means people can get much more house here than they can in other places.

Just ask Karen Robinson-Jacobs, a business reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who moved here from Los Angeles in 2003. Robinson sold her two-bedroom condo in an L.A. neighborhood with low-ranking schools for $100,000 more than she paid for her five-bedroom house here in Richardson, which boasts some of the state's top schools. "Our jaws dropped open at the kind of house you could get here versus what we were looking at over the years in L.A.," she says.

Cons: Summers are hot. The landscape is flat and somewhat unattractive. Outdoor recreation outside the city is limited. Commute times are longer than in some other areas. And Jacobs has found the city to be somewhat racially segregated, with blacks and whites living on opposite sides of the city.

Tulsa, Okla.
Some describe Tulsa as the place where the South meets the American West, mixing genteel hospitality with rugged ambitions and terrain. It's a center for the energy industry, which means the economy is hopping. However the city, located in the northeastern part of the state along the Arkansas River, also contains high-tech, banking and telecommunications employment as well. Tulsa's downtown is beautiful, with numerous parks, gardens and historic areas, such as the Art Deco district. It's a good city to raise a family, with appealing and affordable suburbs to the east, northeast and south of the city.

Cons: Summers are hot. There is a higher crime rate than in other cities of similar size. And the gently rolling grassland that makes up the landscape is not particularly awe-inspiring.