Ms. Independent: Top 10 cities where millennials are living alone

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Kelley Libby lives in an apartment with a view of the Richmond, VA skyline from her balcony. She rides her bike downtown regularly for dinner and a show, or sometimes to take a cool dip in the river.

A top-of-the-millennial-pile 34 years old, she is among the 15 percent of millennials who live alone in Richmond, the metro area where a greater share of millennials live solo than anywhere else in the country. Others in the top 10 are Pittsburgh; Buffalo; Columbus, OH; Virginia Beach; Cleveland; New Orleans; Austin; Kansas City and Oklahoma City.

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"With home prices and rents rising as fast as they are, it's a common assumption that young adults in many cases cannot afford to live alone," said Zillow Chief Economist Svenja Gudell. "Though that may be true in some markets, there's still a large number of amazing places across the U.S. that are prime for millennials to thrive independently. These are places where young adults can easily find jobs at a competitive salary, and where housing expenses won't eat up the majority of their income, enabling them to save more."

Low rents help

Rents are relatively easy on the budget in many of the metros where millennials live alone. In Richmond, people of all ages typically spend 26 percent of their incomes on rent, compared to 30 percent nationally, according to Zillow Research. In a place where millennials living solo make a healthy $49,500 a year (median) and employment is up 3.6 percent since a year ago, that makes for an attractive package.

"It's a good place for young, single people, because there's lots to do as far as cultural activities and outdoor stuff," said Libby, who's a public media producer working on a national project called Finding America. She pays $960 a month for her 1-bedroom, which is in a new apartment complex and has that sweet balcony.

It's also a great place to settle down, and many of her friends are snapping up real estate. "I have so much more of a chance to buy a place here than I would in big, popular cities," she said.

She lived for several years in nearby Charlottesville, where "I couldn't dream of buying a house." The median home value there is $232,700, well above Richmond's $193,200, according to Zillow data.

'I don't need 100 channels on cable'

With 21 percent of millennials still living with their mothers, and 32 percent of all working-age adults living with someone else, it can be a big deal when millennials step out on their own.

Often they do it in places where rents are more affordable — areas like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Oklahoma City, where rents take up around 25 percent of people's incomes. They also go solo in metros like Virginia Beach where they can afford to buy homes, and places like Austin with strong employment growth.

Malory Berschet has lived on her own in Columbus for a year, following stints with her parents and with a college roommate. She enjoys it, but she's had to cut back to make her $1,125 monthly rent.

"My biggest thing was spending money like I was made of money," said Berschet, who's 25. "I would eat out all the time or buy lunch rather than pack it. And I don't need 100 channels on cable."

Millennials living alone make $38,800 a year (median) in Columbus, where people spend 26 percent of their incomes on rent.

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Cincinnati, Ohio 
Average Starting Annual Salary: $48,348
Unemployment Rate: 4.9 percent

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Raleigh, North Carolina
Average Starting Annual Salary: $48,609
Unemployment Rate: 4.8 percent

Photo credit: Getty

Austin, Texas
Average Starting Annual Salary: $50,035
Unemployment Rate: 3.7 percent

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Washington, DC
Average Starting Annual Salary: $51,310
Unemployment Rate: 4.9 percent

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Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota
Average Starting Annual Salary: $49,950
Unemployment Rate: 4.1 percent

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Sioux Falls, South Dakota 
Average Starting Annual Salary: $43,849
Unemployment Rate: 3.9 percent

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Fargo, North Dakota
Average Starting Annual Salary: $44,163
Unemployment Rate: 3.0 percent

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Madison, Wisconsin
Average Starting Annual Salary: $51,163
Unemployment Rate: 3.9 percent 

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Atlanta, Georgia
Average Starting Annual Salary: $48,991
Unemployment Rate: 5.3 percent 

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Seattle, Washington 
Average Starting Annual Salary: $54,024
Unemployment Rate: 4.4 percent

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Berschet knows coworkers at Cardinal Health, where she's a market manager, who save money by living in Dublin, the suburb where the company is headquartered. They pay less in rent and have better commutes, Berschet said, but "they're a good 20 minutes from downtown." She likes being close in, where she can easily walk or Uber to visit friends and eat out.

Less solo-friendly cities

At the other end of the spectrum, she has a friend who's moving to San Francisco and said the rent is $3,500 for an apartment smaller than Berschet's 1-bedroom — which makes her place seem like a steal.

Only 9.4 percent of millennials live alone in the San Francisco area. It's not the smallest share of independent millennials in the country — that's Riverside, CA, with 6.1 percent. They make good money — $66,000 for millennials living alone in San Francisco and $72,000 in Riverside (medians) — but people who live in those places spend 46 percent and 36 percent of their incomes, respectively, on rent.

Prices like that can make roommates — and even Mom's basement — look mighty appealing.

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