Asheville, North Carolina city view with mountain backdrop

Best Places To Live In North Carolina

Jeannette Baum12-Minute Read
November 04, 2021

Whether you want oceanfront views of the Atlantic, bustling nightlife or a gorgeous sunset over the Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina has got you covered. This variety could be why the Tar Heel State has experienced such a surge in popularity over the last decade, with over 900,000 new residents since 2010.

To help narrow things down, we're looking at some of the best places to live in North Carolina. Whatever’s important to you – affordability, career growth or family – these cities can fit any adventures your future may hold. 

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Top 8 Cities In North Carolina

North Carolina is a great place for nature lovers to settle down, with mountainous views and beachfront access aplenty. This coastal state has also ranked #7 by U.S. News in both fiscal stability and education, making it an attractive location for families or young professionals.

Our best North Carolina city rankings are based on a variety of indicators connected with comfortable living, including the cost of living, population density and job market growth. 

1. Raleigh

view of Raleigh driving towards downtown with red flowers along road

Population: 467,665

Median Household Income: $69,720

Median Home Price: $266,900

Median Monthly Rent: $1,175

Average Commute: 23.4 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 7.2%

Unemployment Rate: 3.0%

Like many other state capitals, Raleigh is one of the largest cities in North Carolina, second only to Charlotte. With approximately 1,200 restaurants and an assortment of free museums and historic attractions, the City of Oaks is a great way to get that metropolitan feel without big-city costs.

Explore homes for sale in Raleigh today or check out Raleigh real estate trends with our housing market report. 

2. Asheville

Asheville, North Carolina Skyline at dusk with mountains in back

Population: 94,589

Median Household Income: $53,621

Median Home Price: $291,800

Median Monthly Rent: $1,084

Average Commute: 17.8 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 3.0%

Tucked between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains lies Asheville, the Land of the Sky. With spectacular mountain views and stunning skylines, Asheville provides residents with the best of both worlds. 

Spend the morning hiking to Craggy Pinnacle for an epic sunrise then head downtown for drinks or dinner at one of the city’s finest eateries. Another plus? Asheville’s average commute time is significantly lower than the national average of 27.6 minutes – that means getting where you need to be, faster.

Explore homes for sale in Asheville today or check out Asheville real estate trends with our housing market report.

3. Durham

Durham, North Carolina skyline

Population: 324,833 

Median Household Income: $62,812

Median Home Price: $241,800

Median Monthly Rent: $1,103

Average Commute: 22.5 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 2.9%

Once best known for its banking and tobacco industries, the health care industry has taken over Durham. The City of Medicine houses over 300 health care companies, plus prominent tech giants like Epic Games, Lenovo and Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions.

Besides the thriving job market, Durham is also highly regarded for its incredible food scene. From locally sourced coffee to craft beer and freshly farmed food, this northern city is sure to satisfy any foodie’s cravings. Durham is also a quick 30 minutes from downtown Raleigh, meaning brighter city lights are just a car ride away.

Explore homes for sale in Durham today or check out Durham real estate trends with our housing market report.

4. Charlotte

Charlotte Skyline

Population: 874,579

Median Household Income: $65,359

Median Home Price: $235,000

Median Monthly Rent: $1,185

Average Commute: 25.3 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 3.7%

We’d be remiss not to mention the Queen City, the largest in all of North Carolina. Whether your interests lie in museums, theater, sports, concerts or even pimento cheese, Charlotte can provide.

As one of the cities which is home to the University of North Carolina, the nation’s first public university, Charlotte draws many young professionals to the financial hub. And with so much city to see, not only can you use a bus system, but there’s an 18-mile-long light rail called the LYNX, which runs from the University all the way through the city. You can even opt for comedy tour buses or horse-drawn carriages if that’s more your style.

For those who enjoy the fresh air, Charlotte also has plenty of parks, trails and playgrounds for any little ones. If you’re looking for a home outside of the cookie-cutter, many Charlotte houses have maintained their historic charm.

Explore homes for sale in Charlotte today or check out Charlotte real estate trends with our housing market report.

5. Winston-Salem

Winston-Salem

Population: 249,545

Median Household Income: $47,269

Median Home Price: $152,000

Median Monthly Rent: $827

Average Commute: 20.6 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 3.5% 

As the name might suggest, the cities were originally founded independently, just 1 mile apart, before merging in the late 19th century. Winston-Salem is often referred to as the Camel City for its history of housing the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company and its famous Camel cigarettes. 

Industry aside, Winston-Salem’s median monthly rent falls far below that of the average American renter, who pays $1,326. With affordable housing and a downtown area that includes 120 restaurants, shops and breweries, this city could be your next dream home.

Still not sold? Winston-Salem is the birthplace of Krispy Kreme donuts. Need we say more? 

Explore homes for sale in Winston-Salem today or check out Winston-Salem real estate trends with our housing market report.

6. Wake Forest

Wake Forest, North Carolina at sunset

Population: 47,601

Median Household Income: $100,162

Median Home Price: $314,200

Median Monthly Rent: $1,190

Average Commute: 29.1 minutes 

Unemployment Rate: 3.6% 

For those seeking out a more small-town feel, Wake Forest is perfect. Packed with a variety of hiking trails, this close-knit city is still part of the bus system which can take you right into Raleigh for the occasional night out.

Wake Forest’s three main industries are government, education and healthcare, a solid combination to withstand most recessions. While the unemployment rate and housing costs are a bit higher than our other picks, both still fall below the national figures.

Wake Forest was recently named the Top Spot to Retire by Where To Retire magazine, with breweries, recreation areas and history museums to keep your body and soul fed. History buffs can enjoy the museum dedicated to Wake Forest University history and families are sure to love the local park’s summer concert series or teeing off on the green.

Explore homes for sale in Wake Forest today or check out Wake Forest real estate trends with our housing market report.

7. Chapel Hill

gazebo on a campus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Population: 61,960

Median Household Income: $75,249

Median Home Price: $435,500

Median Monthly Rent: $1,221

Average Commute: 19.7 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 2.9%

Chapel Hill is also home to one of the University of North Carolina’s campuses and is bursting with diversity thanks to the award-winning school. With a proud multicultural makeup, you’ll find public art installations and murals all throughout the city. 

Take a stroll down Franklin Street for a bite to eat at the slew of restaurants, bars and shops downtown. From casual southern classic American bites to cuisines from all over the world, you’re sure to find an enticing spot to get your grub on. 

If you’re looking for a little fresh air, Chapel Hill has a Riverwalk near dozens of hiking trails and parks, perfect for strolls between classes or shopping. Although Chapel Hill has the highest home price on our list, it’s also home to the #1 ranked school district in the state.

Explore homes for sale in Chapel Hill today or check out Chapel Hill real estate trends with our housing market report.

8. Wilmington

riverside walk in Wilmington, North Carolina

Population: 115,451

Median Household Income: $51,137

Median Home Price: $264,600

Median Monthly Rent: $1,008

Average Commute: 18.8 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 3.2%

Best known for its laid-back coastal atmosphere and a celebrated local history, Wilmington is the epitome of beachfront access. With Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach all a short drive from downtown, the saltwater-filled fun doesn’t have to end. Spend your days surfing or kayaking, or opt for a luxurious stay at a beachfront resort with fresh ocean-to-table dining. 

Should you find yourself downtown, you’ll be surrounded by outdoor restaurants, markets and live music as you peruse the 2-mile Riverwalk bordering the city and Cape Fear River. Check out the local history by wandering the 230-plus-block historic district, which is among the largest in the nation.

Explore homes for sale in Wilmington today or check out Wilmington real estate trends with our housing market report.

5 Best Places To Live In North Carolina For Families

Searching for a new home with family in mind? Consider these five family-friendly locations, ranging from small cities to suburban communities. 

1. Morrisville

Morrisville, North Carolina pier

Population: 29,630

Median Household Income: $100,495

Median Home Price: $333,500

Median Monthly Rent: $1,459

Average Commute: 21.9 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 2.9%

Located in central North Carolina and in the heart of the Research Triangle - a region known for three major research universities, Duke, North Carolina State and UNC Chapel Hill, lies the small city of Morrisville. There’s just a 20-minute drive between the city and each of these universities, not to mention, strong school systems which funnel into them.

When it comes to things to do, Morrisville is sure to keep you entertained. Head to the RDU Observation Park where the kids can play and watch the planes take off and land. Or spend the day at Lake Crabtree County Park, which is home to a large human-made lake surrounded by trails and picnic areas. You can rent pedal boats, kayaks, canoes and more to enjoy your summer days relaxing on the lake.

Explore homes for sale in Morrisville today or check out Morrisville real estate trends with our housing market report.

2. High Point

sign above High Point, North Carolina train station

Population: 114,059 

Median Household Income: 49,649

Median Home Price: $162,000

Median Monthly Rent: $880

Average Commute: 20.5 minutes 

Unemployment Rate: 4.1%

Formerly the highest point of the North Carolina railroad in 1856, High Point was a big player in the textile and bus manufacturing industries. Though these industries are still major employers, banking and healthcare have grown a substantial presence in High Point since.

This small city also boasts a prestigious selection of schools, both private and public, and even offers a robust homeschool network. Not only will children in High Point have access to a great education, but there are plenty of fun things to keep them busy when they're not in class. You'll find zip lines, high ropes, laser tag and more at Kersey Valley Attractions for kids to let off some steam.

You can take advantage of the museums in the area to learn more about history or head to the theatre to immerse yourself in the arts. High Point University also hosts a variety of year-round, family-friendly festivities. For families that love the outdoors, High Point has 42 public parks full of greenways, hiking trails and a plethora of organized sports clubs to join.

Explore homes for sale in High Point today or check out High Point real estate trends with our housing market report.

3. Huntersville

pier over lake in Huntersville, North Carolina

Population: 61,376

Median Household Income: $100,789

Median Home Price: $318,000

Median Monthly Rent: $1,363

Average Commute: 27.6 minutes 

Unemployment Rate: 4.7%

Huntersville has plenty of amenities families can enjoy. For science lovers, parents can take their kids to Discovery Place, a museum and nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the community with high quality science education experiences. They have unique exhibitions, hands-on learning programs and even allow kids to pet animals like mangrove monitors and groundhogs. If your family enjoys learning about history, you can take a tour around Huntersville's historic landmarks, some dating back to the 1700s.

If cars and racing are of interest to you, try walking through the Joe Gibbs Race Shop and watch authentic NASCAR vehicles being built by the team. Lake Norman is also nearby and rich with community events and family-friendly parks and playgrounds where the family can relax and play.

For a day of gaming, bumper cars and carnival rides, head to Frankie's of Charlotte in Huntersville. After a day of fun at Frankie's, the kids are bound to get a good night’s sleep, and so will you.

Explore homes for sale in Huntersville today or check out Huntersville real estate trends with our housing market report.

4. Holly Springs

bridge on trail in Holly Springs, North Carolina

Population: 41,239

Median Household Income: $110,758

Median Home Price: $354,500

Median Monthly Rent: $1,489

Average Commute: 27.8 minutes 

Unemployment Rate: 3.3%

A charming Southern town 20 minutes from Raleigh, Holly Springs was voted the Best Place To Raise A Family In North Carolina. More than $100 million has been invested in public infrastructure and parks and recreation in the city. Holly Springs has over 20 miles of greenway paths, meaning there are plenty of places for families to spend time in the great outdoors.

In Holly Springs, you and your kids can get involved in local theatre and organized sports, and spend time learning about the Civil War history and landmarks in the area. There are free concert series held in the park in the summertime and holiday festivals in the winter. Your family will have plenty to explore living on the outskirts of Raleigh in the city of Holly Springs.

Explore homes for sale in Holly Springs today or check out Holly Springs real estate trends with our housing market report.

5. Mooresville

lake in Mooresville, North Carolina

Population: 50,193

Median Household Income: $70,625

Median Home Price: $245,900

Median Monthly Rent: $1,176

Average Commute: 25.5 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 4.7%

Didn’t we just go over this? Nope! Not to be confused with Morrisville, Mooresville is located just north of Charlotte, right on the north end of Lake Norman. A stone's throw away from the large human-made lake, downtown Mooresville has holiday festivals, food truck festivals, art shows and even wine tastings perfect for date night. You can hear live music at the restaurants downtown while you stroll the street lined with southern boutiques and discover a family favorite, Mooresville Ice Cream.

Mooresville is a close-knit community celebrating the arts, love for the outdoors and like many other North Carolina towns, the rich history still alive in the many museums and landmarks.

Explore homes for sale in Mooresville today or check out Mooresville real estate trends with our housing market report.

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How To Choose The Best Place In North Carolina For You

When looking for a new place to call home, it’s best to tailor the location to your unique preferences. That said, there are a few things that many of us are looking for. Here are some of the factors that you should consider when researching a new place to live – especially if you’d be moving to a new state. 

Cost Of Living 

Cost of living investigates how affordable it is to live somewhere. New York and California have notoriously high costs of living due to large populations and scarce housing. Where does North Carolina fall? Every city in our rankings excluding Chapel Hill had a lower median home price than the median home price across the whole U.S. – $407,600. Granted, the housing market has reached new highs in recent times, but there’s no doubt that North Carolina’s affordability is one of its best features. 

Safety 

Home is where we eat, sleep and for some, raise families. That’s why safety should be a top priority when moving somewhere. Crime rates vary greatly so be sure to do your research specific to where you’re planning to move, down to the neighborhood if possible.

Tools like Family Watchdog or other crime mapping services can help you conduct risk assessments, but the best way to get a sense for neighborhood safety is to chat with the locals. Many neighborhoods have community Facebook pages – try reaching out to a resident with a quick message or ask the neighbors when visiting the area. 

Unemployment Rate 

Even if you have a steady job right now, you can’t always anticipate a career change in the future. It’s best to check the unemployment rate of a city before moving – not only can unemployment rates indicate the health of an area’s job market, but it will also give you a better sense of how many people you would be competing with when searching for a new role.

Moving somewhere with a low unemployment rate can help you ease into a new job down the road or expose you to new industries. 

Quality Of Public Schools 

Whether you’re already a proud parent or you’d like to be in the future, you’ll want to do some digging on the public school system’s quality. Access to reliable academic resources and programs can give children significant advantages in the future.

Education Week’s annual Quality Counts reports are a great way to gauge the financial health and success of school districts across the U.S. and sites like Niche let residents grade cities based on numerous factors, including education. 

Local Amenities And Culture

You frequently hear people gush about the energy of big cities and there’s ongoing (and unsettled) discourse surrounding West Coast versus East Coast culture. All this to say that every state, and certainly every city or town, has its own unique vibe and culture.

Influenced by things like the weather, attractions and local community, it’s important to mesh well with your area’s culture.

Don’t shy away from touring the area before starting your home search. If you don’t like an area as a tourist, chances are that you won’t like it as a resident. Taste the local cuisine, experience a night on the town or spend the day at some of the parks, beaches or nature trails. 

The Bottom Line: North Carolina Is A Great Place To Live

North Carolina has plenty to offer no matter what you’re looking for, but doing your research is a good place to start. Be sure to sufficiently research the factors we discussed and if possible, take a trip to North Carolina before making any decisions.

Feel ready to tackle your home search? Apply for mortgage approval today. 

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Jeannette Baum

Jeannette is a Marketing Communications Manager for Rocket Mortgage, and she heads up a team of publishers for the Publishing House. She is well-versed in home decor, marketing, and recruiting, interviewing, and hiring for Fortune 500 companies. Jeannette holds a Bachelor Degree in Marketing and loves writing informational blogs.