Thinking about moving to Oregon? Well, it’s a big place, and there are a lot of candidates for the best place to live here. As far as small cities, though, we think that Bend and Eugene are hard to beat.
We’ll cover all of your possible Oregon landing spots before going into detail about what makes Bend and Eugene two of the best places to live in Oregon. We’ll also put them head-to-head, going into detail on their housing markets discussing the pros and cons of living in each, so scroll down for the Bend vs. Eugene showdown.
Oregon’s population is still low (4.2 million people as of 7/2019), but it’s extremely diverse geographically, with temperate coastal rainforests, high desert, fertile valleys, soaring mountains, and everything in between.
If you’re looking for a more urban lifestyle, Portland is the obvious choice. In truth, it’s the only choice: Salem, Oregon’s 2nd biggest city, has only 176,000 people, compared to Portland’s 659,000.
Portland is a great place to live. Home prices are steep, but they haven’t yet skyrocketed to the same extent as Seattle or the Bay Area. Portland’s unique culture and unmistakable vibe have, for better or for worse, put it on the map. Love the vibe or hate it though, Portland is one of the most livable large-ish cities in the United States.
Conversely, there are any number of options for the small-town life in Oregon. If what you crave is peace and quiet with ready access to stunning nature, you’ll find it here in spades.
It’s hard to go wrong anywhere on the Oregon Coast, but you can start your search with Newport, Florence, Lincoln City, Astoria, or Brookings. Going inland over the Coastal Range and into the Willamette Valley, you’ll find plenty of small towns and, if you’re looking for a more rural lifestyle, small acreages.
In the foothills to the west of the Cascades and the high desert of Central Oregon to the east, towns are more scattered. If you’re wanting to live on a bigger piece of land, there are plenty of larger ranch and farm properties to be found in Central and Eastern Oregon. Southern Oregon is one of the most beautiful parts of the state and features Ashland and Grants Pass.
If what you want is something in between a small town and a big city, though, there are only a handful of choices. Excluding Portland’s larger suburbs, only four Oregon cities have more than 75,000 but less than 200,000 people: Salem, Eugene, Bend, and Medford.
What Makes Bend and Eugene the Two Best Small Cities in Oregon
With all due respect to Salem–it’s the state capital, after all–Oregon’s 2nd largest city has spent most of its years firmly in Portland’s shadow.
In a few notable ways, it isn’t really in the same league as Bend and Eugene. Salem’s restaurants, performing arts, nightlife, shopping, walkability, and public transportation just aren’t quite up to snuff. (Its proximity to Portland does help on some of those counts.)
Our take on Medford is a similar one. Take away the beautiful scenery, and what’s left is a fairly typical small American city. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but both Bend and Eugene have features that put them over the top.
Before we proceed further, it’s necessary of course to disclose our biases. We live and work in Bend and Eugene, and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, whether in Oregon or elsewhere.
Certainly, neither city is among the cheapest places in Oregon. Housing prices in Bend have skyrocketed in recent years, making it one of Oregon’s most expensive markets. Home prices in Eugene have also been on a steady rise. The cost of living in Salem (real estate included) is slightly lower than in Eugene and significantly lower than Bend.
If you can afford the price of admission, though, there are plenty of tangible quality-of-life benefits that go along with living in Bend or Eugene. Of course, what translates to “quality of life” of course depends on your particular wants and needs.
Both cities have their own very particular flavor, and that has to align with your life. We’ve already written primers on why people are moving to Bend and why people are moving to Eugene, so we won’t go into too much detail here. What you will get is a summary of some of the features that make both of these cities unique and how the cards fall in terms of Bend vs. Eugene and Eugene vs. Bend.
At the same time, this isn’t just a puff piece, so we won’t skirt around the possible downsides of living in either city. Let’s start with Bend.
Why Bend is One of the Best Places to Live in Oregon
The part of Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains defines the state for many people. After all, the vast majority of Oregon’s population lives in its western quadrant.
Head east of the Cascades, though, and the landscape changes dramatically from farmland and lush forests to high desert and vast, open vistas of mountains and sky. The air is fresh, the water pure, and the homes some of the most beautiful you’ll find anywhere in Oregon. Granted, there’s a cost – we’ll get to that in a bit.
Of course, that’s all just the backdrop for what you’ll find in Bend’s city limits: a thriving small city with a bustling downtown, numerous parks both small and large, a full slate of festivals and other events, highly-ranked schools, great eateries, nationally-renowned breweries, and plenty of boutique shopping.
Bend’s core (which includes the Old Town, River West, and Southern Crossing neighborhoods) is one of the most walkable you’ll find anywhere, but that’s also true of pretty much anywhere in the city. A pleasant stroll – or even a hike or mountain bike ride – is never far away, and an extensive network of bike lanes makes cycling a breeze.
The hills on Bend’s northwest side offer seclusion on large lots with some of the best mountain views you’ll find anywhere in town. There are plenty of gated and golf course communities with excellent amenities, making Bend a great place to live out your twilight years.
Of course, Bend is just as well known for what lies outside the city limits as what lies within. Head north, west, east, or south, and countless outdoor adventures are waiting, from hiking, mountain biking, and fishing to rock climbing, boating, and skiing.
The one constant throughout Bend’s history is that it’s always been a hub of the great outdoors, and that’s a big factor that’s driven its population to more than quadruple in the last 30 years. You don’t need to be a huge outdoors buff to enjoy what makes Bend special, though.
If you live in Bend, the experience is always something in between being at home and being on vacation, particularly in the summer. It’s hard to get too caught up in the grind, but you might also start to feel like you’re in a kind of bubble, however pleasant it might be.
Bend is definitely its own entity, self-contained geographically and also culturally. That’s actually a good segue into some of the things that might give you pause if you’re considering relocating here.
Reasons Why Bend Might not be Right for You
We’ve already hinted at several of the biggest cons to living in Bend. None of them are enough to make us change our minds about it being one of the best places to live in Oregon, but it’s good to hear both sides of the story.
First of all, it’s expensive. The cost of living in Bend is high and getting higher, especially after a record-setting wave of buyers bought homes here in the summer and fall of 2020, leading prices to climb almost 20%. Bend ranks number 5 among Oregon’s most expensive cities, with only Portland’s most expensive suburbs and nearby Sisters coming out above it.
Even if you can afford to buy a home in Bend, it’s not going to be easy to find one. Inventory is now so limited that bidding wars are common at most price points.
If you want to live in Bend’s most walkable core, the competition is going to be especially stiff, as is the price tag for even a modest renovated 2 bed 1 bath bungalow. We could write paragraphs and paragraphs about the challenges facing Bend buyers, but you can find plenty about Bend’s real estate market elsewhere on our site.
Bend is also growing rapidly, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. Growth has brought a lot of great new businesses and fresh faces to Bend. At the same time, traffic is getting increasingly worse, and there still isn’t much in the way of public transportation.
Look beneath the bustling surface, and Bend’s laid-back, outdoorsy vibe is still well-intact. At the same time, the reminders are inescapable that Bend isn’t the same sleepy little mountain town it used to be.
We mentioned that Bend is sort of its own bubble, and at the end of the day, it may feel more like a place that you want to spend a couple of weeks or maybe a summer than necessarily living here year-round. The weather is another factor that can’t be ignored.
Bend sits at an elevation of 3,623 feet, and that means snow. Because Bend’s climate is dry, snowfall averages under 3 feet per year, but we do get occasional snowstorms that ground everything to a halt. You might need to be prepared to shovel some snow, especially if you’re living a bit outside of town at a slightly higher elevation.
Why Eugene is One of the Best Places to Live in Oregon
While Bend and Eugene are both distinctly Oregonian in their own ways, they’re actually quite different places to live. Eugene is almost twice the size of Bend, with a slightly more urban-feeling city center. Really though, it’s hard to compare Eugene to anywhere else in the United States.
Eugene is unique, but sometimes the “weird” side of Eugene gets played up a bit too much. The politics certainly gravitate toward the progressive end of the spectrum, and the counterculture has been a presence here since the sixties. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else having more cannabis dispensaries per capita (okay, give credit to Missoula, MT – Eugene is actually number 4 nationwide).
Get past the image though, and more than anything else Eugene is simply a close-knit, community-centered, and eclectic but unpretentious place to live, work, raise a family or retire. Whatever your niche, you’ll find an opportunity to thrive here, but Eugene is also a place where you can just relax and enjoy the simpler things in life.
The University of Oregon is a defining presence, with close to 25,000 students from all around the world and plenty of academics at the forefront of their disciplines. This student presence does a lot to enhance the city’s art, music, and performing arts scenes, and of course, Duck athletics have made their mark nationwide. Eugene’s status as “Track Town U.S.A.,” centered on the U of O’s recently-renovated Hayward Field, speaks a lot to the city’s active yet earthy vibe.
Eugene features plenty of great restaurants, breweries, cafes, teahouses, locally-owned shops, galleries, performance venues, independent cinemas, and food carts spread all throughout the city. Sure, you won’t find too much in the way in the fine dining or glitzy boutiques, but there’s still a ton of stuff to do and see around town.
Outside the downtown core, there are a number of traditional neighborhoods with great parks and schools. Going up into the hills on the south side of town offers plenty of fresh air and seclusion with an extensive network of hiking trails but easy access to the heart of the city.
Geographically speaking, you get the best of both worlds with easy access to the ocean just an hour’s drive west and the Cascades Mountains less than two hours to the east.
Closer to home, Eugene is right in the heart of the southern Willamette Valley’s own wine country. Numerous wineries are less than an hour’s drive (or a Saturday morning bike ride) away. The nearby McKenzie River is a good go-to for hiking, fishing, rafting, and mountain biking, and Willamette Pass has your skiing and snowboarding needs covered. We could go on about the sheer variety of day trips possible from Eugene, but we think you get the point.
Reasons Why Eugene May not be Right for You
Let’s get the most obvious thing right out of the way first: it rains. November through March is the rainiest time of the year, and while the rainfall is nowhere near-constant, it can start to get you down during the few times per year that we have decent stretches without much sunshine. Average snowfall is only a few inches each winter, but Eugene does get the occasional snow or ice storm once every few years.
Between June and mid to late September, though, it doesn’t rain much at all, and with average highs in the low to mid-80s, the weather is perfect for all your summer adventures, or just sitting in your backyard and tending to your vegetable garden (that’s big here). Allergy sufferers should take note though: grass seed allergies are common in the summer, while tree pollen hits a lot of folks hard in the spring.
Like most cities its size, there are parts of Eugene that are a bit rough around the edges. That doesn’t translate, though, to any of Eugene’s neighborhoods feeling unsafe. Even the Whiteaker district, formerly the rougher part of town, has cleaned up significantly in recent years. Eugene’s downtown has also made big strides, with new businesses, increased foot traffic, and upscale apartment and condo complexes.
We’ll look forward to seeing Eugene’s downtown continue to become more vibrant after the Coronavirus pandemic comes to an end. A new parkway on the riverfront will be a positive addition. That being said, Eugene’s downtown just isn’t quite there yet when compared to, say, Bend. Notably, homelessness remains a visible issue, exacerbated by Eugene’s lack of housing inventory.
That brings us to perhaps the biggest issue with Eugene: no matter what price point you’re looking at, it’s difficult to find a home. Simply put, new construction hasn’t kept pace with Eugene’s growth. Not only is inventory low, but the inventory that is available is also more likely to be dated.
That’s particularly the case in many of South Eugene’s most desirable neighborhoods, where most homes were built prior to the 1980s. Nicely remodeled 50s and 60s-vintage ranch and mid-century modern homes do come on the market, but the competition is almost always stiff.
If you’re looking for a decent amount of square footage, it can be hard in general to find a single-story home in Eugene. Available land for new construction is extremely scarce, and most of the lots that remain are either on a slope or located relatively far from the city center, mostly in the northmost part of town.
Compromise tends to be the name of the game when navigating Eugene’s housing market, but none of this is to say that you won’t find a home that you love. It just takes persistence, and maybe a bit of creativity.
Bend Vs. Eugene: What’s the Verdict?
If you’ve followed us this far, it won’t come as a surprise, but we’re not going to crown a victor here. In spite of being just 120 miles apart, Bend and Eugene are quite different places from one another. The question isn’t whether Bend or Eugene is better, it’s which one is better for you.
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: a big part of the equation is how much money you have to spend. Bend is more expensive than Eugene. During the second half of 2020, the median sale price for all residential properties in Bend was $559,000, compared to $362,500 in Eugene.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. Bend’s overall market definitely skews toward the upper-middle and luxury ends of the spectrum, while Eugene has a very limited market for $1 million+ or even $700k+ homes.
The question of how far your dollar will take you in either market is therefore a bit complicated. On average, you can expect to pay perhaps $100-150k more for a home in East Bend than you would in most parts of Eugene. West Bend is significantly more expensive, but the quality of homes is generally higher.
At present, it’s near impossible to find a sub-$350k home in Bend that isn’t a total fixer-upper, but it’s also getting harder in Eugene. Most of the cheaper inventory is located in the less desirable northwest quadrant. If you’re looking for a home in South Eugene in the $300-400k range and don’t want to take on significant cosmetic fixes, bidding wars are becoming more and more common.
On the other hand, buyers are often surprised to find that even $600k+ homes in Eugene often have dated finishes or architectural features. Many homes in the upper-middle end of Eugene’s market were built in the 80s or 90s, when interior design and architectural sensibilities were quite different. More contemporary premium homes can be found in the Southwest hills or the North Gilham neighborhood, with a few scattered elsewhere, but your options are limited.
Bend’s market, by contrast, offers a huge variety of premium homes. Most of them are contemporary builds, and the quality of construction is very high across the board. If you’re looking for a lot of square footage, though, you’ll generally pay quite a bit more in Bend than you would in Eugene, particularly in West Bend. 3000+ sq ft homes that are relatively affordable aren’t nearly as rare in Eugene.
Real estate aside, the question of Bend vs. Eugene is going to come down to a few different factors. We often use the word “vibe” when we’re talking about different places to live in Oregon. That’s because we feel it’s important to acknowledge that there are intangibles at play.
At the same time, there’s a risk of over-generalizing and also of weighing an area’s “vibe” too heavily. Wherever you and your loved ones land, you’re going to be working and living out your ordinary life there. Your overall quality of life will be the sum of many different factors, and it’s important to consider each of them carefully.
The articles we write are intended to help you do as much initial due diligence as possible. Still, you won’t really know whether Bend, Eugene, or Oregon in general are a good fit or not until you spend some time here.
At the end of the day, you can either picture yourself living here or you can’t. No one can answer that question for you, but part of what we do is provide you with as many data points as possible so you can make sense of what you see on the ground and make an informed decision.
In a way, this article has been a tease, but we hope it gives you a bit of guidance in beginning your journey toward possibly relocating to Bend, Eugene, or elsewhere in Oregon. We are most certainly available to pick up the conversation where we’ve left off here, so feel welcome to reach out to us any time, and cheers to your new adventure.