Charming homes in the best small towns

Leave the beaten path

Imagine living in a small town with all its charm and history, but still remaining within reach of a vibrant city.

We used Smithsonian Magazine's 2012 and 2013 lists of the Best Small Towns in America to locate some great homes for sale in communities with fewer than 13,000 residents.

Square footage, number of bedrooms and unique amenities vary, but there's one thing these homes all share: They're all off the beaten path.

While all seven homes on our list are near a metropolitan area, they're far enough out of the way to serve as an ideal vacation getaway — or a year-round home that always feels like a vacation.

Prices range from $182,500 to $394,000, or a monthly payment of about $750 to more than $1,600, assuming a 20% down payment and today's average mortgage interest rates.

But pay close attention to the difference in price per square foot, which is one of the best ways to measure how far your housing dollar will stretch in each town.

Oberlin, Ohio

Population: 8,286
Address: 339 West College St.
Price: $220,000
Square feet: 2,158
Price per square foot: $102

This charming English Revival home offers the best deal in our roundup in terms of price per square foot. It features a spacious four bedrooms and two full bathrooms. Both baths and the kitchen have been remodeled. The kitchen features Corian counters, a Corian sink and an all-in-one range that combines a gas cooktop with an electric oven. There's also a gas stove in the family room. The exterior includes a new deck, a back porch and a concrete driveway.

Named Best Hometown in 2012 by Ohio Magazine, Oberlin is just 45 minutes outside Cleveland and is known for music events like the Friday night "Organ Pump." But Oberlin College — the first to offer bachelor's degrees to women and one of the first to admit black students — is the heart of the community and a big reason the town made the Smithsonian Best Small Towns list.

Kaye Norenberg: Keller Williams Realty, 440-935-6862

Taos, New Mexico

Population: 5,716
Address: 205 Upper Ranchitos Road, Unit 8
Price: $310,000
Square feet: 1,350
Price per square foot: $230

You'll pay a little more per square foot to live in the desert. But the location alone might be worth the extra cash. This freestanding condo with two bedrooms and two bathrooms is located on the north side of Taos, an old adobe town in the upper valley of the Rio Grande. The home has an open design, and there's a wall of windows in the living area. You'll find standard appliances and counter tops in the kitchen. Outside there's a walled, covered private patio. Easy access to the slopes at Taos Ski Valley and other activities make this an attractive buy for outdoor enthusiasts. Homeowners association fees are $609 quarterly.

It's not just adventure seekers who flock to this town located about 1½ hours north of Sante Fe. Smithsonian Magazine says that writers, photographers and artists are especially attracted to Taos, following in the footsteps of greats like artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

Diane Enright: Prudential Taos Real Estate, 866-758-5478

Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Population: 9,614
Address: 906 Mount Sopris Drive
Price: $359,800
Square feet: 1,660
Price per square foot: $217

This Rocky Mountain townhome on the outskirts of Glenwood Springs is an attached three-bedroom, two-bathroom and one half-bath home. It includes lofted ceilings and hardwood floors, which give the home a cozy lodge feel. The kitchen features granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. There's a fireplace in the living room and a deck off the back. Homeowners association fees are $400 per month.

This home is located within a few minutes of the world's largest hot springs swimming pool, skiing at Sunlight Mountain Resort and many miles of hiking trails. If you need to get to the big city, you can reach Denver in less than three hours. Just don't leave town before the annual Summer of Music festival at the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts, which features performers and food vendors.

Ryan Jennings: Mason Morse Real Estate, 970-704-3202

St. Augustine, Florida

Population: 12,975
Address: 1079 Cedar Cove Drive
Price: $394,000
Square feet: 2,202
Price per square foot: $179

This home, located in the historic Spanish Colonial town of St. Augustine, is the most expensive on our list. But it's cheaper per square foot than a couple of the other homes. With four bedrooms, three full bathrooms and a three-car garage, this ranch-style house will give any owner some space to stretch out after a day of exploring. The highlight, though, is the screened-in saltwater pool that overlooks a pond. The kitchen includes granite counter tops and standard appliances.

The home, less than an hour from Jacksonville, sits just a few miles from the beach and is nestled in Sea Pines, a private community with a pool, a park and a playground. And the town's attractions are priceless. Among them are a restored fortress and central plaza. There are also numerous museums, including the Dow Museum of Historic Houses. And you can't miss the lighthouse or Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

Diane Grady: Coldwell Banker Premier Properties, 904-392-7355

Gig Harbor, Washington

Population: 7,126
Address: 11418 40th Ave. Court NW
Price: $289,000
Square feet: 1,931
Price per square foot: $150

Located just 25 minutes outside Tacoma, this Gig Harbor home wins for the easiest commute. It's also one of the cheapest per square foot on our list. This split-level home on a dead-end street includes three bedrooms and three full bathrooms. A number of the rooms include hardwood flooring, like the kitchen, which has granite counter tops and standard appliances. The real selling point: The exterior, which has three decks surrounding a 14,797-square-foot wooded lot.

This home is about 4 miles from scenic Sunrise Beach Park, which features both great views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. Gig Harbor, a working fishing village, made Smithsonian's Best Small Towns list because of its art galleries, sailboats and local wines. Summer events, like chowder cook-offs and festivals that celebrate boats, also make this a one-of-a-kind town.

Constance Cassell: Windermere Real Estate Gig Harbor, 253-851-7374

Red Bank, New Jersey

Population: 12,206
Address:155 River St.
Price: $249,000
Square feet: 1,329
Price per square foot: $187

Less than an hour from New York City, this single-family home built in 1915 is close enough for commuting but still off the beaten path. The renovated interior features three bedrooms and two new full bathrooms. There's a new eat-in kitchen with solid surface counter tops and standard white appliances. There are hardwood floors throughout. You'll also find a mud room with two closets. The living room and dining room are both spacious. And there's a covered front porch that runs the width of the colonial-style home.

Music enthusiasts take note: Red Bank, located along the Navesink River, is where William Count Basie — famous jazz pianist, organist and bandleader — grew up and learned his craft. This small town boasts some music history that locals have embraced, Smithsonian Magazine notes, with a waterfront park used for jazz concerts and a refurbished theater that features music and performances.

Ali Ross: Heritage House Sotheby's International Realty, 732-615-9898

Galena, Illinois

Population: 3,429
Address: 8 Shorewood Drive
Price: $182,500
Square feet: 1,356
Price per square foot: $135

This three-bedroom, two full bathroom Galena home is the cheapest on our list but offers some great amenities. All the flooring, except in the two upper bedrooms, has been upgraded to wood and tile. In the kitchen, you'll find granite counter tops and standard black appliances. There's a covered porch, a large deck area and a fire pit in the back. This home also comes with a detached garage and nice landscaping. Furniture is negotiable.

This home is only about 6 miles from downtown Galena, which is known as the "outdoor museum of the Victorian Midwest," according to Smithsonian Magazine. Eighty-five percent of Galena has been declared a national historic district. Downtown you'll also find art galleries, antique stores and boutique shops. Galena is just a 30-minute drive from Dubuque, Iowa, and you can make Chicago in less than 3 hours.

Pete Brennan: Coldwell Banker Network Realty, 815-238-2878