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From the sandy dunes and stunning ocean views of the Outer Banks to the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina’s natural beauty is awe-inspiring. But there’s more to the Tar Heel State than meets the eye.
In July 2022, North Carolina was ranked as America’s top state for business. Add to the mix access to good education — the state is home to several top-rated universities — excellent job prospects, a high quality of life that comes at an affordable price, mild weather year-round, and it’s no wonder North Carolina has attracted about 100,000 new out-of-state residents in 2022 alone.
And while many newcomers settle in the state’s large metro areas such as Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina is also home to smaller communities that offer the perfect work-life balance. With that in mind, here are eight of the best places to live in North Carolina, according to real estate experts.
Charlotte’s ideal location — about three hours from the lush Blue Ridge Mountains and less than four from the picture-perfect beaches of North and South Carolina — is certainly a draw for newcomers to this bustling urban area. As American Airlines’ second-largest hub, the city’s Douglas International Airport is an easy, direct flight from major domestic and international destinations.
Of course, Charlotte, which is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, has plenty more to offer those who settle in here — namely, a rich cultural scene with Broadway shows, ballet performances, musicals, museums, and art galleries; world-class sports facilities and teams; hundreds of parks and green spaces; and excellent public education.
“Job creation, a low cost of living, a great climate, and friendly people have created a strong housing market with low inventory,” Catharine Pappas, VP of relocation at Dickens Mitchener, told Travel + Leisure. In fact, Zillow named Charlotte the hottest real estate market in 2023 for its home value growth and high number of homeowners.
“The calling card that makes life in western North Carolina so special is the way that natural adventures live side by side with a multifaceted, award-winning cultural scene,” said Josh Smith, North Carolina native and broker at Walnut Cove Realty of Allen Tate/Beverly-Hanks. “You can hike, bike, or hunt for hidden waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway and — on the very same day — check out a Grammy-winning musician or dine in one of the best restaurants in the country.”
And Asheville, surrounded by spectacular mountain vistas, is the perfect option for those seeking the convenience of city amenities blended with a casual, laid-back lifestyle. The mild climate, thriving job market (especially for hospitality and health care professionals), renowned music scene, and easy access to outdoor recreation have transformed the city into a desirable option for newcomers.
Smith also explained that Asheville’s real estate market tends to resist nationwide stock market volatility and instability because the city is surrounded by protected land, which restricts new developments, keeping real estate demand strong.
“Asheville’s real estate market is very diverse, and we have homes that will fit almost everyone’s budget. There are adorable cozy bungalows around $300,000 and magnificent $9 million estates all located within the city limits,” said Leslie Young of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty.
Wilmington, sandwiched between the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean, is a dream home destination for water sports enthusiasts.
“After all, who doesn’t mind living near the beach,” said Lake Slacum, vice president at Intracoastal Realty, adding that among the many draws of Wilmington are also its temperate climate, coastal lifestyle, and “unmistakable Southern charm.”
“From horse-drawn carriage tours in the quaint historic district to its proximity to golf courses and surrounding beach communities, the area has a lot to offer,” he noted.
Newcomers also have a lot of choices when it comes to their home base. With a median home value of $376,635, marking a roughly 10 percent increase since last year, according to Zillow, the Wilmington real estate market remains fairly affordable.
Landfall, a large gated community near Wrightsville Beach with golf courses, tennis courts, and a country club, is popular with those seeking resort-style amenities. Wilmington’s Midtown area, Slacum explained, offers new construction neighborhoods and districts with well-established colonial-style homes such as South Oleander and Forest Hills.
Durham, together with neighboring Raleigh and Chapel Hill, makes up the so-called Research Triangle in North Carolina, home to the state’s most prestigious universities (Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University). This not only attracts tens of thousands of students to the area, but it also brings in highly skilled and educated employees. Excellent job prospects, a vibrant entertainment scene, and a seemingly endless list of outdoor pursuits make Durham one of the top spots to relocate to in North Carolina. And the city’s real estate market is just as hot.
“In Durham, at the moment, we are finding that the average buyer is seeking a single-family detached home with at least a quarter acre lot, and they’re often able to achieve this in the $400,000 to $700,000 range,” brokers Giselle Feiger and Aileen Stapleton of Hodge & Kittrell Sotheby’s International Realty said in an email, noting that potential homeowners on a tight budget can also find residences under $350,000. “Downtown Durham will also have many more luxury condos and townhouses soon, as construction is underway on several developments. These will range from $500,000 to $1,000,000-plus.”
And for those not necessarily looking to be at the center of the action, Julian Jahoo of Fonville Morisey at Long & Foster recommends southwest Durham, The Hills at Southpoint, Colvard Farms, and Hope Valley.
“Maida Vale, a luxury gated community with a Mediterranean-style design, is also in southwest Durham, and they’re building on the last nine lots right now. In central Durham, the hot neighborhoods are Duke Forest and Forest Hills, and in northern Durham, Croasdaile,” she added.
This popular vacation destination, which encompasses several small towns on a chain of barrier islands along the North Carolina coast, is also the perfect spot to raise a family and live year-round.
“The Outer Banks has a small-town feel, close-knit communities, and a mix of residents who were born and raised here, as well as those who wanted to escape city life and move their families to a quieter, safer environment, and those who retired here and are enjoying their next adventure,” said Lynn Sherman, who moved to the area from Ohio 20 years ago and is currently a broker with Howard Hanna Outer Banks Realty. “Because we have a good mix of locals and ‘new locals,’ the [destination] is rich with restaurants and shops that embody classic Outer Banks with new ideas and flavors brought in from those outside the area.”
Of course, with 100 miles of shoreline, the main draw here remains the beach and laid-back lifestyle it affords its residents.
Sherman said that as the COVID-19-led buying frenzy has subsided, now is a great time to buy property here. Luckily, new residents have a lot of options regarding their dream neighborhood.
“Oceanside in Kitty Hawk is hot right now,” she explained. “This is an older section that’s undergoing a lot of renovation. Homes range from classic, three-bedroom beach boxes to larger, eight-bedroom, three-level reverse floor plan homes.”
Also popular is Duck, a quaint, dog-friendly town with charming shops and a great music scene.
Between 2015 and 2020, more than 60 people moved to North Carolina’s capital each day, making it the second-fastest growing metro area in the country. So, what is life like in the City of Oaks? Its central location, which ensures easy access to North Carolina’s mountains and beaches, plays a major role in its residents’ lives.
“The business climate is superb; our economy is robust and resilient, diversified across health care, tech, banking, and education,” said Van Fletcher, a broker with Allen Tate Realtors and a Raleigh resident, adding that the city’s proximity to Duke University Hospital and UNC Medical Center contribute to its excellent health care system. Property taxes and cost of living also remain low in Raleigh, especially compared to other major metro areas along the East Coast.
Fletcher added, “The hottest neighborhoods tend to be located near work and retail centers, such as Raleigh’s downtown and midtown areas, as well as communities in close proximity to the Triangle’s nearly complete ‘Outer Loop,’ [a major 69-mile highway expansion] that encircles Raleigh’s perimeter and neighboring towns.”
This dynamic city attracts students and young professionals with its top colleges, including Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina School of the Arts; affordable cost of living; stable job market (unemployment was at 3.6 percent in January 2023); excellent health care facilities; and many recreational activities such as hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. The city is also a 1.5-hour drive from scenic Yadkin Valley, home to dozens of wineries.
“Despite the growth, Winston-Salem has been able to maintain its Southern charm with quiet streets gently rolling through established neighborhoods with beautiful large trees that create a small-town feel,” Pam Matthews, a broker with Allen Tate Realtors, told T+L. “Sherwood Forest, Buena Vista, and Ardmore are some of the premier urban areas located near the heart of downtown, offering convenience and peaceful, scenic streets.”
Nicknamed the “Southern Part of Heaven,” Chapel Hill is the smallest of the three major destinations in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. However, this college town of a little more than 60,000 is bustling with creative energy. It offers top-notch cultural experiences, excellent health care, fantastic weather, and world-class education, thanks to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Or, as Fonville Morisey broker Amy Guskiewicz summed it up for T+L: “You have everything at your fingertips, but none of the big-city traffic.”
Options abound when it comes to real estate, too. According to Guskiewicz, Chapel Hill’s market is performing exceptionally well, with the current median home value at $577,881, which marks a roughly five percent appreciation since last year.