Considering a move to Boulder and wondering why the city is so expensive? Keep reading for a former local’s perspective!
After growing up in Lakewood, Colorado, I moved to Boulder in 2015 after finishing college and grad school in Massachusetts. I had immediately fallen for the city when I first visited as a high school student, and as an adult I reveled in the unique opportunities and outdoor access I found there.
During the five years I spent living in Boulder, a semi-permanent fixture of conversation was the cost of living in this Colorado city. I wouldn’t categorize any Colorado city as “affordable,” but Boulder is uniquely expensive.
A friend once met with a real estate agent around when the Google campus first opened. The agent told him that most Google employees couldn’t afford to buy in the city. She had instead been directing them to buy in nearby Louisville or Lafayette, where prices were a little lower.
In this post, I’ll give an overview of the factors driving Boulder’s high costs, as I see them.
Why is Boulder So Expensive? 13 Top Reasons
Boulder is inarguably an expensive place to visit and live, and has been for many, many years. In my view, no single reason explains Boulder’s sky high prices. The problem is not quite as simple as high demand and low supply, though that certainly is a factor.
As someone who lived in Boulder, here are my top explanations when asked, “Why is Boulder so expensive?”
1. Boulder is a wonderful place to live
Sometimes things are popular for a reason. Boulder is a great example, because it really is a fabulous place to live. When I was in my 20s, I loved being in Boulder. I could hike in the mornings before work, spend the weekends adventuring in the mountains, and go out for a drink with friends on Pearl Street any night of the week.
Similarly, I loved living in a city that aligned with my personal values. Boulder’s progressive politics and dedication to sustainability were welcome
The appeal wore off slightly when I got a little older and wanted to have a bigger space of my own. This is around the same time that many of my friends bought houses near Boulder, after having been priced out of the city.
2. Strict limits on new buildings
Boulder has intentionally avoided the population boom that other Colorado (and US) cities have experienced in recent decades. The City Charter restricts Boulder’s long-term growth to 1% per year, a rate intended to preserve, “its unique environment and its high quality of life.”
Additionally, in 1971, Boulder passed a City Charter with an ordinance that restricted the height of new buildings within city limits to 55 feet.
Between the limits on growth and the restrictions on the sizes of new buildings, there’s essentially nowhere for Boulder to grow except for outside of its city limits.
3. Rules about how many unrelated people can live in a house
There have long been occupancy rules in Boulder, dictating how many unrelated people can live in a house. When I lived in Boulder, this number was capped at three – meaning that no more than three unrelated roommates could share a house. So, for example, two unmarried couples could not share a house together because they would count as four total unrelated people.
This was especially limiting for college students, who typically rent a room in a house to try to secure affordable rent.
In August of 2023, the rule changed to five unrelated people in one house. This change should create some additional affordable housing options in Boulder.
4. High levels of demand and low supply drive up housing costs
The aforementioned restrictions on municipal growth and the availability of housing, combined with the ever-ballooning numbers of people seeking to move to Boulder, contribute to Boulder’s high costs. Put simply, there just isn’t enough housing for everyone who would like to live in Boulder, so the housing that does exist is pricey.
The effect is visible outside of Boulder, too. The adjacent areas of Louisville, Lafayette, and, to a lesser extent, Longmont, are all feeling the squeeze, too. These areas that were once affordable, family-friendly suburbs are also becoming unattainable as demand swells.
5. Highly educated locals
Boulder consistently ranks among the most highly educated cities in the US. On average, Boulderites have about 16.8 years of education, over two years more than the nearby city of Denver. Over 63% of the city’s residents aged 25 and older have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 35%.
Of course, high levels of educational attainment don’t necessarily make a place more expensive. They do, however, contribute to other socioeconomic factors that attract affluence and commensurately higher prices.
6. High paying jobs
To compliment its highly educated locals, Boulder boasts a number of highly paid sectors. Think of it like the opposite of brain drain; Boulder actively attracts highly educated workers who, in turn, work in highly skilled (and highly paid) jobs.
Some of the biggest industries in Boulder include aerospace, tech, biotech, and natural/organic products. Employers include the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Google, and the University of Colorado Boulder.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean average wage in Boulder is about $73,000 per year. That’s substantially higher than the national average, which is about $58,000 per year.
7. Locals don’t want Boulder to grow
Like the “Keep ___ Weird” campaigns you’ll often see in other US cities, Boulderites love their city’s eccentricities and unique atmosphere. On some level, Boulder is necessarily small and intimate – it contributes to the feeling of community.
As mentioned above, the city is capped at a 1% growth rate per year. Although Boulder residents and officials want more affordable housing options in their city, there’s very little desire for the city to grow larger.
Even when talking to the city’s progressive locals, you’ll notice that growth is not among their chief concerns. They like Boulder the way it is, they just want it to be more affordable.
8. Restaurants’ costs are very high
Just like the price of housing can be unmanageable, so, too, can the prices for commercial space. For this reason, Boulder has a seemingly endless parade of restaurants that set up on Pearl Street, survive for a few years, and then go out of business. Even the Cheesecake Factory had to shutter its Pearl Street location in 2018.
The high costs associated with running a restaurant in Boulder mean that there are very few family-oriented restaurants at affordable prices in the city. You might be able to find a great meal with friends in Boulder, but it probably won’t be cheap.
Similarly, you can find a trendy coffee shop or happy hour spot in Denver, but the options are still expensive. The difference is the most stark when comparing Boulder and Colorado Springs. When compared to Denver and Boulder, the options in Colorado Springs are far more affordable and varied.
9. Boulder has its own taxes
In 2016, Boulder voters approved a Sugar Sweetened Beverage Distribution Tax. This is an excise tax, not a sales tax, so it’s up to distributors whether or not to pass the increased costs onto consumers. The tax funds are used to support overall health, wellness initiatives, and chronic disease prevention, with an aim towards addressing community health disparities.
This tax is just an example of the types of public policy priorities that are popular in Boulder. Depending on your habits and lifestyle, living in Boulder could be more expensive than other Colorado cities because of these taxes. For a current list of Boulder’s tax rates, see the city’s tax information page.
10. Sustainability is important to Boulderites
Sustainability and environmental regulations are very important to people in Boulder, and they’re willing to put their money behind it. There is a city-wide $.10 bag fee for all disposable paper and plastic bags at Boulder grocery stores to encourage people to use reusable bags.
In 2022, Boulder passed a Climate Tax that will raise $6.5 million per year to promote wildfire resistance and energy system upgrades. The tax also supported an e-bike incentive, which offset the initial cost of purchasing an electric bicycle for income-eligible applicants.
There are other initiatives throughout the city, like a project promoting solar gardens and household solar grants. These taxes and programs are indicative of the deep commitment that the community feels towards reducing carbon emissions and working towards climate justice.
11. Demand for housing in Boulder has driven up prices in nearby cities
As mentioned earlier, the demand for housing in Boulder far surpasses the city’s available housing units. Further confounding this problem is the fact that Boulder has strictly limited its growth to 1% annually, so there’s no relief in sight. So, as people move to the area and search for housing, they’re often forced to look further and further from downtown Boulder.
The increased housing prices in Lafayette and Louisville mean that there are even fewer options for affordable accommodations in the Boulder area. As a result, you often can’t find a cheap restaurant or bar for a night out in Boulder, even if you’re willing to drive 20 or 30 minutes.
12. Boulder is considerably safer than nearby Denver
One of the biggest differences between Denver and Boulder is the relative safety and security you’ll find in Boulder, making it a more attractive place to live for some. Neighborhood Scout gave Boulder a score of 6 out of 100 for safety, while Denver received a 1 out of 100 (both near the lowest possible end of the scale for neighborhood safety). Denver was significantly below average for safety in Colorado, while Boulder was somewhat above average.
As you may know, the city was rocked by a mass shooting at a local grocery store, King Soopers, in 2021. Boulder voters have attempted to pass an assault weapons ban in the past, and the Boulder County Commissioners have publicly called for a statewide assault weapons ban.
13. Tourism may have a negative impact
Colorado is a year round destination for tourism because of its infamous snowy winters. However, Boulder sees most of its tourism during the warm summer months. Academic research has linked tourism to negative impacts on housing affordability. So, the waves of summer tourism may be partly to blame for the high prices.
The biggest contributing factor is short term rental sites, like Airbnb and VRBO. Airbnb recently sued the City of Boulder over its taxation of the Airbnb service fee. Currently, short term rentals need to be licensed by the city, but there have been community concerns over lax enforcement.
Boulder is certainly not the only city to be concerned over the link between tourism and unaffordable housing. Still, in a city with housing as scarce and unaffordable as Boulder, many locals think it’s worth asking if short term rentals are making the problem worse. In case you’re wondering, Boulder also has some great hotels.
FAQs: Why is Boulder So Expensive?
Considering a move to Boulder and still have questions about how expensive it is? Keep reading for the answers to some common queries.
Why is the cost of living so high in Boulder?
Many factors drive the high costs of living in Boulder. These include regulations that strictly control the size of the city, Boulder’s popularity as a great place to live, and the influx of students who attend the University of Colorado Boulder every year.
Is Boulder, Colorado a rich area?
Yes, Boulder County, Colorado is a wealthy area in Colorado. In addition to being one of the most expensive cities in the country, its residents have a median household income of more than $99,000 per year. The median value of an owner-occupied home in Boulder is $671,000.
Is Boulder one of the most expensive cities?
Boulder is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. A recent US News and World Report study ranked Boulder the 23rd most expensive city in the country. Denver ranked 16th. The report gave Boulder a score of 7.7 out of 10 for quality of life, the highest of the 25 cities on the list.
Why is Boulder so famous?
Boulder is famous for being the highly educated city at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The eccentric locals are both affluent and liberal, and they have a passion for the outdoors. Boulder is also known for being home to the CU Boulder campus and a walkable pedestrian mall, Pearl Street, that regularly draws tourists.
Conclusion: Why is Boulder So Expensive?
Boulder, Colorado is a remarkable place to live or even visit. The city’s quirky charms, interesting downtown, and focus on sustainability draw in visitors and would-be locals alike.
One of the best parts of living in Boulder is the access to the outdoors. There are hikes throughout Boulder County, including a number of trails that start in Chautauqua Park. When I lived in Boulder, I hiked all of the time and it was a major pastime with friends.
Unfortunately, the Boulder lifestyle can be unattainable for many due to the sky high cost of living. There are a number of reasons for those high prices, most of which don’t show any signs of subsiding anytime soon. Whether you’re planning to move to Boulder or just doing casual research, I hope this post gives you a sense of why Boulder is so expensive.