Where is the cheapest place to live in California?

Lifestyle bargains can be found in California according to a new study that shows the cost of living in nine of the state’s smaller metro areas runs below what the typical American pays.

Once a year, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis releases its “price parity” report comparing living expenses in 389 U.S. metropolitan areas. The math involves the cost of goods, services and housing and provides a yardstick for potential cost-of-living bargains. The report shows a 49% difference between California’s most-affordable community and its priciest.

El Centro is the state’s cheapest place among California’s 26 metros, by the bureau’s math using 2019 data. The index says living in this inland, border region is 9.6% cheaper than a typical U.S. metropolitan area. Still, that’s no deal on a national scale, ranking 163rd out of the 389 metros.

Housing is a key reason El Centro tops this list. The report says shelter expenses are 33% below the average U.S. metro, giving El Centro the state’s cheapest housing.

Of course, there’s a key reason El Centro’s so cheap. Most of its jobs are low wage and farm-related. Plus, it’s not very steady work. Unemployment was 16.4% in November — the highest in the state and the nation.

At the other end of California’s cost-spectrum was San Francisco. Living by the bay was scored as being 35% pricier than the U.S. average, fifth-priciest nationally.

Why? It’s housing costs run double U.S. norms and is No. 2 in the state. But its latest unemployment rate was 6.1%, the sixth-lowest highest in California.

Here’s how the rest of the 26 California metro areas ranked for cost-of-living — plus November’s unemployment rate. Let’s start with the metro with below-average expenses …

2. Madera: Costs run 5.3% than the U.S. average, ranking No. 248 out of 389 metros tracked nationally. Its housing costs are 19% cheaper vs. U.S. norms but second-cheapest among 26 metros in state. Unemployment? 8.1% — 11th highest in state.

3. Hanford: 4.8% cheaper than U.S., No. 254. Housing? 19% cheaper than the U.S., third most-affordable in the state. Unemployment? 8.9% — No. 7 highest in state.

3. Visalia: 4.8% cheaper than U.S., No. 254. Housing? 18.6% cheaper vs. U.S., No. 23 in state. Unemployment? 9.8% — second-highest in state.

5. Merced: 3.3% cheaper than U.S., No. 282. Housing? 13.5% cheaper vs. U.S., No. 22 in state. Unemployment? 9% — No. 5 highest in state.

6. Bakersfield: 3% cheaper than U.S., No. 287. Housing? 11.6% cheaper vs. U.S., No. 21 in state. Unemployment? 9.4% — No. 4 highest in state.

7. Yuba City: 2.8% cheaper than U.S., No. 292. Housing? 10.7% cheaper vs. U.S., No. 20 in state. Unemployment? 8.6% — No. 8 highest in state.

8. Fresno: 2.5% cheaper than U.S., No. 297. Housing? 10.1% cheaper vs. U.S., No. 19 in state. Unemployment? 8.6% — No. 8 highest in state.

9. Redding: 2% cheaper than U.S., No. 300. Housing? 7.5% cheaper vs. U.S., No. 18 in state. Unemployment? 6.5% — No. 19 highest in state.

And where the cost-of-living is above national norms …

10. Chico: Costs are 0.6% above U.S. average, ranking No. 327 nationally. Housing is 2.6% pricier vs. U.S. norms, 17th priciest in the state. Unemployment? 6.8% — California’s 15th highest.

11. Modesto: 1% pricier than U.S., No. 331. Housing? 4.8% pricier vs. U.S., No. 16 in state. Unemployment? 8.3% — 10th highest in state.

12. Stockton: 2.2% pricier than U.S., No. 338. Housing? 9.9% pricier vs. U.S., No. 15 in state. Unemployment? 9% — fifth-highest in state.

13. Sacramento: 5.2% pricier than U.S., No. 350. Housing? 26% pricier vs. U.S., No. 13 in state. Unemployment? 6.7% — 16th highest in state.

14. Inland Empire: 7.3% pricier than U.S., No. 361. Housing? 21% pricier vs. U.S., No. 14 in state. Unemployment? 7.9% — 12th highest in state.

15. San Luis Obispo: 10% pricier than U.S., No. 365. Housing? 52% pricier vs. U.S., No. 11 in state. Unemployment? 5.4% — second-lowest in state.

16. Salinas: 11% pricier than U.S., No. 366. Housing? 61% pricier vs. U.S., No. 10 in state. Unemployment? 7.7% — 13th highest in state.

17. Santa Barbara: 12% pricier than U.S., No. 368. Housing? 69% pricier vs. U.S., No. 7 in state. Unemployment? 5.8% — fourth-lowest in state.

18. Ventura County: 17% pricier than U.S., 17th priciest nationwide. Housing? 75% pricier vs. U.S., No. 3 in state. Unemployment? 6.3% — 20th highest in state.

19. San Diego: 18% pricier than U.S., 15th priciest. Housing? 72% pricier vs. U.S., No. 5 in state. Unemployment? 6.6% — 18th highest in state.

20. Vallejo: 18.3% pricier than U.S., 14th priciest. Housing? 48% pricier vs. U.S., No. 12 in state. Unemployment? 7.5% — 14th highest in state.

21. Los Angeles-Orange County: 19% pricier than U.S., 12th priciest. Housing? 70% pricier vs. U.S., No. 6 in state. Unemployment? 9.6% — third-highest in state.

22. Santa Rosa-Petaluma: 20.6% pricier than U.S., 11th priciest. Housing? 62% pricier vs. U.S., No. 9 in state. Unemployment? 5.5% — third-lowest in state.