Fairfax County vs Montgomery County: Where Should I Live?

Fairfax County and Montgomery County may share the border between Virginia and Maryland, but they may as well be a world away, if you ask some of the residents in each county. That's because they are so often considered competitors for people looking to live in the Washington DC area. Let's just say there's a bit of a neighborly rivalry.

If you're thinking about living and/or working in either county, here are some of the most important factors to consider:

Population

The 2014 estimate for the population of each county are as follows:

Montgomery County: 1,030,447
Fairfax County: 1,137,538

According to the most recent IRS migration statistics, 2,155 people moved to Fairfax County from Montgomery County in 2007, while 1,776 came to Montgomery from Fairfax. Though, in the previous year, the migration rate slightly favored Montgomery County, 2,162 to 2,126.

School Quality

Whether you are buying a home or renting, parents want the best educational opportunities for their kids. As we mentioned in a previous blog, even if you don't have children, there are good reasons to consider the quality of the school district you are living in.

Both Fairfax County and Montgomery County have some of the best schools in the nation. Let's take a look at how the top schools in each county compare:

Elementary schools - The top elementary school in Montgomery County (according to the Cruvita scoring system) is Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland. We also have it ranked as the number one school in Maryland, and seventh in the United States.

The top elementary school in Fairfax County is Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia. It also ranks first in Virginia, but "only" 37th in the United States.

Winner: Montgomery County

Middle schools - The top middle school in Montgomery County is Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, also in Bethesda, Maryland. It also ranks first in the state and seventh in the nation.

The best middle school in Fairfax County is Cooper Middle School in McLean, Virginia. It ranks second in the state and 84th in the nation.

Winner: Montgomery County

High schools - The top high school in Montgomery County is Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, which is also fourth in the state and 88th in the nation.

The best school in Fairfax County is Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia. It ranks third in the state and 14th in the nation.

Winner: Fairfax County

To be fair, this is only a comparison of the single best schools in each county, not the counties as a whole. That said, as you can see the area schools rank well at the state level and compete at national levels as well.

Job Opportunities

According to 2010 data from the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight, Fairfax County had about 200,000 more jobs than Montgomery County.

The March 2015 unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Fairfax County has a very slight edge on Montgomery County, with a 3.9 and a 4.0 unemployment rate respectively. Both are well below the 5.6 percent national average.

In 2011, Forbes ranked Fairfax County as the third wealthiest county in nation, with an annual median household income of $104,259, which is all the more impressive with its considerably high population of more than 1.1 million residents. In 2011, Montgomery County had a median household income of $92,213, making it the 10th richest county in the U.S.

One of the key reasons the Fairfax County job market is so strong is its dominance in the federal government job sector. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Fairfax County had 107,597 public sector jobs in 2007, compared to 88,488 in Montgomery County.

But it's not just about direct employment with government agencies, companies that depend on federal dollars for their business, such as Freddie Mac or any number of government contractors, prosper in their close proximity to Washington DC and the favorable tax structure of Fairfax County.

One of the reasons Fairfax County has a higher volume of job opportunities comes down to the amount of land available for commerce. Montgomery County's Office of Legislative Oversight said that 38 percent of its land is saved in agricultural preservation programs and parkland, whereas Fairfax County has 15 percent of its land reserved for parkland.

Taxes

Outside of a few relatively minor exceptions, Fairfax County wins the battle for better tax rates. Fairfax County residence, on average, tend to be wealthier and taxed less than their Montgomery County counterparts. For instance, the personal income tax range in Montgomery County is 5.2 to 9.45 percent, while Fairfax County's range is 2 to 5.75 percent. The corporate income tax rate in Montgomery County is 8.25 percent, compared to Fairfax County's 6 percent rate.

Fairfax County does have a Business/Professional/Occupational License tax, which is only about $30-$50, if gross receipts are under $100,000, but above that, a rate is set based upon the business classification.

Housing Market

According to the United States Census Bureau, the median home value in Fairfax County is $476,600, and $446,300 in Montgomery County. The DC area remains one of the more expensive housing markets in the country, due in large part to the high paying jobs and job security that often comes with government-related careers.

Recreational Activities

Both Montgomery County and Fairfax County share the luxury of neighboring Washington DC with its rich history, on display in everything from historical government buildings to the vast educational opportunities in the Smithsonian Institute's museums. But both counties have their fair share of interesting activities.

In fact, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is in Chantilly, located in Fairfax County. Also, one of the most historically significant homes in our nation's history is located in Fairfax County: George Washington's Mount Vernon estate.

Montgomery County boasts over 33,000 acres of parkland in over 400 parks, so obviously outdoor activities abound here. Since agricultural land is plentiful, you can also support Montgomery County farmers and eat fresh and healthy by attending the farmers markets.

Of course, Montgomery County isn't all parks and farmland. There are plenty of cultural activities, including The Strathmore arts center or the Sugarloaf Craft Festivals, where you can enjoy the works of talented artisans.

There are many things to consider if you're debating which county is best for you. Everyone's individual needs and interests will dictate most of the decision making process. Hopefully this helps at least get the ball rolling for you.