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Asheville, North Carolina city view with mountain backdrop

Best Places To Live In North Carolina

Jeannette Baum17-Minute Read
September 18, 2020

North Carolina, also known as The Tar Heel State, is packed with variety. From rolling mountains blanketed in tall pines to hot sandy beaches and bustling cities, the state can entertain almost any style of adventure.

Maybe that’s why the U-Haul migration trends for 2019 revealed North Carolina to be No. 3 on the list of Growth States out of all 50 states. Growth States are ranked by the number of moving trucks entering the state compared to the number leaving the state. North Carolina’s population has grown by about 850,000 residents since 2010.

Just in case you’re one of the many looking to call North Carolina home, we pulled together a list of cities from all over the state to help you choose where to plant your roots. Deciding where to live can be difficult, so we break it down for you. In this article, we take a look at things like cost of living, average commute and all the unique amenities each city has to offer.

Let’s see how cities in the Tar Heel State stack up.

10 Top Cities In North Carolina

Before we dive in, here’s a list of the national averages so we can compare.

 

Population: 328,239,523

Median Household Income: $60,293

Median Home Price: $311,927

Median Monthly Rent: $1,023

Average Commute: 26.6 minutes

Unemployment Rate: 10.2%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $3.27

 

1. Raleigh

view of Raleigh driving towards downtown with red flowers along road

Population: 469,298

Median Household Income: $63,891

Median Home Price: $275,318

Median Monthly Rent: $1,074

Average Commute: 23.7 Minutes

Unemployment Rate: 7.2%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $2.20

Amenities Rating: 8/10

 

It’s only right that the state capital would rank in the top 10, but being the capital city isn’t the only thing that makes Raleigh stand out. As the second largest city in North Carolina, Raleigh hosts around 1,200 restaurants with a wide range of prices and cuisines.

Raleigh has been coined the “Smithsonian of the South” on account of its free museums and many historic attractions. The city has multiple bus lines to take its citizens wherever they need to go. Raleigh used to have trolleys too, but buses replaced those lines in 1933.

See homes for sale in Raleigh and explore Raleigh real estate trends.

2. Asheville

Asheville, North Carolina Skyline at dusk with mountains in back

Population: 92,452

Median Household Income: $47,803

Median Home Price: $ $359,268

Median Monthly Rent: $1,001

Average Commute: 17.9

Unemployment Rate: 8.9%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.86

Amenities Rating: 9/10

 

Sometimes called “The Land of the Sky,” Asheville’s skyline is sprinkled with both skyscrapers and mountains. It’s tucked in between two massive mountain ranges, the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville offers residents the best of both worlds. Spend the morning hiking to Craggy Pinnacle to get an epic view of the sunrise on the Blue Ridge Parkway, then head downtown for a romantic candlelit dinner at one of the city’s many fine restaurants. There are also houses for sale in Asheville suburbs if you want to plant roots somewhere in between nature and civilization.

The outskirts of Asheville include Biltmore Forest which houses the grand 250-room Biltmore Estate, built by George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 1800s. Asheville has many attractions, but the Biltmore Estate is by far the most popular in the area.

Ashville has a few different bus lines for locals to get around as well as trolly services complete with fully narrated tours. There’s nothing like having the chance to act like a tourist in your own city. The average commute to work in Asheville is significantly lower than the national average, and lower than most cities in North Carolina. Since the city is nestled in the Smoky Mountains, your commute is likely to be a scenic one, too.

On top of all these great amenities, the cost of living in Asheville is about 4% less than the national average.

See homes for sale in Asheville and explore Asheville real estate trends.

3. Durham

Durham, North Carolina skyline

Population: 274,291

Median Household Income: $55,851

Median Home Price: $ 275,626

Median Monthly Rent: $1,005

Average Commute: 22.7

Unemployment Rate: 7%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.87

Amenities Rating: 8/10

 

Durham was originally noted for its tobacco and banking industries. Both are still strong influences in the area and the city’s rich history is still well represented, but the healthcare industry has taken over as king. Durham is now called “The City of Medicine, USA” due to its booming field of healthcare, and the city now houses over 300 healthcare companies.

Universities moving in years ago paved the way for a more youthful revitalization of the city. All of these companies and prime education have drawn plenty of young professionals to the area. Foodies be warned, Durham is nationally recognized for its incredible food scene. So, if you enjoy locally sourced coffee, carefully crafted brews and farm-to-table dishes made by passionate chefs, you might get reeled in for good.

Durham is a bit smaller than Raleigh and Charlotte, so what the city has for public transportation are buses.

But Durham is merely a 30-minute drive from Raleigh, meaning anytime you’re craving the feel of a bigger city, you’re a hop skip and a jump away.

See homes for sale in Durham and explore Durham real estate trends.

4. Charlotte

Charlotte Skyline

Population: 872,498

Median Household Income: $46,863

Median Home Price: $278,150

Median Monthly Rent: $655

Average Commute: 20.5

Unemployment Rate: 8.4%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.82

Amenities Rating: 10/10

 

Ah yes. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Queen City, the largest city in North Carolina. Charlotte is overflowing with amenities. Whether your interests lie in museums, theatres, sports, concerts or even pimento cheese, Charlotte is able to provide.

The University of North Carolina, the nation’s first public university, is tucked into the north-eastern section of the city and draws many young professionals to the financial hub. Charlotte not only has a bus system, but also has an 18-mile-long light rail called the LYNX that runs from the University all the way through the city. You can even opt for comedy tour buses and horse-drawn carriages if that’s your style.

The city has plenty of parks and trails for those who enjoy spending time in the outdoors, along with amusement parks to keep kids entertained. Plenty of homes in Charlotte have kept their historic charm, giving the city more character. Even with all of these attractions and amenities, Charlotte still lies beneath the average cost of living in the U.S. about 5%.

See homes for sale in Charlotte and explore Charlotte real estate trends.

5. Winston-Salem

Winston-Salem

Population: 246,328

Median Household Income: $44,311

Median Home Price: $174,985

Median Monthly Rent: $782

Average Commute: 20.8

Unemployment Rate: 7.9%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.92

Amenities Rating: 8/10


As the name suggests, the Twin Cities were originally two cities founded a mile away from each other that eventually grew and merged. Winston-Salem is also called the “Camel City” for its history hosting the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company and their famous Camel cigarettes. Not only is the cost of living in Winston-Salem 9% less than the national average, but housing expenses are 32% lower than the national average. As far as public transportation, Winston-Salem has bus lines throughout the city to take citizens to restaurants, shopping, entertainment and more. The city has many different kinds of entertainment, including art and history museums, parks and even a gas station shaped like a shell. The downtown area is sprinkled with over 120 restaurants, shops and even breweries for whenever you’re craving a cold one. There are also 45 wineries in the area, perfect for the oenophiles among us.

Winston-Salem is home to Wake Forest University, a private institution originally named after the city where it spent its first 122 years. In the 1950s, the university moved its classrooms to Winston-Salem and has been growing ever since. The school was named by U.S News & World Report as one of the top 30 National Universities in 2018 for the 23rd consecutive year, and has a diverse community of students.

If you still aren’t sold, Winston-Salem is the birthplace of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Need I say more?

See homes for sale in Winston-Salem and explore Winston-Salem real estate trends.

6. Wake Forest

Wake Forest, North Carolina at sunset

Population: 44,046

Median Household Income: $88,394

Median Home Price: $315,422

Median Monthly Rent: $1,083

Average Commute: 29.2

Unemployment Rate: 7.2%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $2.20

Amenities Rating: 6/10

 

Wake Forest is a town of full of parks with a variety of hiking trails. It’s a small, close knit city, perfect for families and those who value the small-town community feel. The city is just north-east of Raleigh, meaning an escape from the small secluded town for a night out in the city is just a short 30-minute drive away. The same bus system that services Raleigh, GoRaleigh, runs a bus route through Wake Forest called the Wake Forest Loop that will take you right into Raleigh and back for an evening out. If you’re wanting to stay in town, Wake Forest has breweries, recreation areas and history museums to keep you busy, including a museum dedicated to the history of Wake Forest University.

Wake Forest’s three main industries are government, education, and health care, a solid combination to withstand most recessions. While cost of living is a bit higher in Wake Forest, the household income makes up for it. The city’s median household income is nearly $30,000 greater than the national average and notably higher than surrounding areas.

Wake Forest was recently named the Top Spot to Retire by Where To Retire magazine. With all the opportunities for entertainment and relaxation, it’s no wonder. Whether you’re enjoying the summer breeze watching a concert series in the park or teeing off on the green, you’re sure to find ways to enjoy the quaint town of Wake Forest.

See homes for sale in Wake Forest and explore Wake Forest real estate trends.

7. Chapel Hill

gazebo on a campus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Population: 60,988

Median Household Income: $68,640

Median Monthly Rent: $1,172

Median Home Price: $359,500

Average Commute: 19.6

Unemployment Rate: 7%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.81

Amenities Rating: 8/10

 

Perhaps what Chapel Hill is best known for is being home to the nation’s first public university, the University of North Carolina. The city is bursting with diversity thanks to the award-winning school and proudly celebrates its multicultural makeup.

You’ll find public art installments and murals all throughout the city. Once you’re done marveling at all of the unique pieces on display, you can take a stroll down Franklin street to grab a bite to eat. The street is situated in Downtown Chapel Hill and hosts a slew of restaurants, bars and shops. From casual southern classic American bites to a variety of fares inspired by cuisines from all over the world, you’re likely to find an enticing spot to get your grub on.

If you’re looking to get outdoors, Chapel Hill has a Riverwalk near dozens of hiking trails and parks to get some fresh air in-between bites or classes.

While housing costs are on the higher end here, having a higher household income and a wide array of amenities makes up for it.

See homes for sale in Chapel Hill and explore Chapel Hill real estate trends.

8. Wilmington

riverside walk in Wilmington, North Carolina

 

Population: 122,607

Median Household Income: $45,450

Median Home Price: $263,178

Median Monthly Rent: $938

Average Commute: 18.7

Unemployment Rate: 7%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $2.00

Amenities Rating: 10/10

 

If living near the beach is important to you, Wilmington should definitely be on your list of places to check out. Wilmington is known for its relaxed coastal atmosphere and celebrated local history.

Just a short drive from Downtown you’ll find three island beaches, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach, each offering its own unique experience. You can fill your days with surfing, kayaking and animal encounters or opt for luxurious resorts and fresh ocean-to-table dining.

Should you choose to spend time in Downtown Wilmington, you’ll find yourself surrounded by outdoor restaurants, markets, live music and more as you stroll down the 2-mile Riverwalk bordering the city and Cape Fear River. Should the local history pique your curiosity, you can wander into the 230-plus block historic district, one of the largest in the nation.

Wilmington is situated in the Outer Banks area, recently made famous by the Netflix series named after the area. Those aren’t the area’s only ties to Hollywood. The hit show “One Tree Hill” filmed the majority of its episodes in the Wilmington area. There’s even a self-guided walking tour die-hard fans can take to visit spots where some of the show’s most iconic scenes were filmed. It’s no wonder the show chose this area to film. With its proximity to the water and well-preserved historical charm, Wilmington could draw anyone in. And even with all of these amenities, Wilmington is still quite affordable. While median housing prices in Wilmington are higher than surrounding cities, they’re still well below the national average of $311,927.

See homes for sale in Wilmington and explore Wilmington real estate trends.

5 Best Places In North Carolina For Families

1. Morrisville

Morrisville, North Carolina pier

Population: 27,453

Median Household Income: $96,489

Median Home Price: $342,250

Median Monthly Rent: $1,330

Average Commute: 21.9

Unemployment Rate: 8%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $2.20

Family-Friendly Amenities Rating: 6/10

 

Morrisville is a smaller city smack dab in the middle of North Carolina. It lies in the center of The Research Triangle, a region known for three major research universities – Duke, North Carolina State and UNC Chapel Hill – that make up the shape of a triangle. Morrisville is within 20 minutes of each of these universities, and the city has strong school systems that funnel into them. 67.7% of Morrisville citizens over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree. That’s more than double the national average of 31.5%. The median household income in Morrisville are well over the national average as well, sitting at about $36,000 higher. Morrisville’s largest industry is technology, and even the headquarters of tech giant Lenovo calls the city home. With Morrisville being so close to multiple North Carolina cities, citizens also have the option to make a short commute and gain access to larger job markets in the area.

When it comes to things to do, Morrisville is sure to keep you entertained. You could head to the RDU Observation Park where the kids can play and watch the planes take off and land. Lake Crabtree County Park is another family favorite to get outside. Here you’ll find a large man-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.

After a long day at the lake, you can head to one of Morrisville’s many restaurants. In addition to casual barbeque spots that the South is famous for, you’ll find a range of cuisines from many different countries. Morrisville also hosts an annual festival, East Meets West, where cultures and food from all over the world are represented, leaving your stomach full and your thirst for adventure sufficiently quenched. Morrisville is also a short 20-minute drive to Raleigh, should you ever want to visit a bigger city.

See homes for sale in Morrisville and explore Morrisville real estate trends.

2. High Point

sign above High Point, North Carolina train station

Population: 112,791

Median Household Income: $45,373

Median Home Price: $174,846

Median Monthly Rent: $856

Average Commute: 20.5

Unemployment Rate: 10.3%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.85

Family-Friendly Amenities Rating: 9/10

 

The city of High Point was the highest point on the North Carolina railroad in 1856, which is how the city’s name came to be. High Point is historically known for its prevalent involvement in the textiles and bus manufacturing industries. These industries are still major employers of citizens of the area, but healthcare and banking now have a large presence as well.

High Point boasts a prestigious selection of schools, both private and public, and even offer 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 activities families can take advantage of year-round. 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.

See homes for sale in High Point and explore High Point real estate trends.

3. Huntersville

pier over lake in Huntersville, North Carolina

Population: 58,098

Median Household Income: $97,320

Median Home Price: $339,864

Median Monthly Rent: $1,288

Average Commute: 29.1

Unemployment Rate: 9.8

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $1.82

Family-Friendly Amenities Rating: 9/10

 

Huntersville has plenty of amenities families can take advantage of. 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.

Huntersville also offers plenty of shopping and dining. Head down to Birkdale Village, the outdoor community where you’ll find a variety of boutiques, live music and restaurants.

If cars and racing are of interest to you, you can walk through the Joe Gibbs Race S hop and watch authentic NASCAR vehicles being built by the team. Lake Norman is nearby the race shop 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 will be sure to get a great sleep, and so will you.

See homes for sale in Huntersville and explore Huntersville real estate trends.

4. Holly Springs

bridge on trail in Holly Springs, North Carolina

Population: 36,749

Median Household Income: $90,827

Median Home Price: $374,721

Median Monthly Rent: $1,213

Average Commute: 38.5

Unemployment Rate: 7.8%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $2.20

Family-Friendly Amenities Rating: 8/10

 

A charming Southern town 20 minutes from Raleigh, Holly Springs was voted the Best Place To Raise A Family In North Carolina. Holly Springs has grown 70% in the last 5 years, and it continues to grow. 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.

See homes for sale in Holly Springs and explore Holly Springs real estate trends.

5. Mooresville

lake in Mooresville, North Carolina

Population: 38,431

Median Household Income: $67,656

Median Home Price: $285,594

Median Monthly Rent: $1,079

Average Commute: 25.1

Unemployment Rate: 8.5%

Cost Of A Gallon Of Milk: $2.16

Family-Friendly Amenities Rating: 7/10

 

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 man-made lake, Downtown Mooresville has Holiday festivals, Food-Truck Festivals, Art Shows and even Wine Tastings for when mom and dad need a date night. You’ll find you can hear live music at the restaurants downtown while you stroll the street lined with southern boutiques and 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.

See homes for sale in Mooresville and explore Mooresville real estate trends.

Factors Considered When Choosing Where To Move In North Carolina

Cost of Living

North Carolina’s cost of living as a whole is slightly less than national averages, so most cities in the Tar Heel State will be relatively affordable. However, North Carolina has picturesque rolling mountains and miles of pristine Atlantic Ocean coastline. These features and more can draw in tourists from all over. In cities where there are many tourists, there are usually higher rates overall. It’s important those looking to plant their roots in North Carolina do their research on individual cities to make sure the cost of living balances out with their expected income, and the standard of living they’d like to maintain.

Safety

You’ll want to ensure you and your family can work and play safely in the city you choose. Digging through local crime data, not just for the city as a whole, but for the individual neighborhood you plan on purchasing in can give you peace of mind. You don’t want to be looking over your shoulder in your own front yard. Evaluate the safety of a neighborhood by visiting and discussing with the locals before decide to close on a house.

Unemployment Rate

When you move to a new city, check the unemployment rate. If you find yourself out of work at any point, you’ll want the process of finding a new job to be as smooth as possible. The higher the unemployment rate, the more people who are seeking out positions you might be interested in. Consider seeking out a low unemployment rate when deciding which city to purchase in.

Quality Of Public Schools

If you don’t quite have children, but you know they’re a possibility in the future, it’s a good idea to look into the quality of the public-school systems where you’re moving. Even if you don’t end up having children, the proximity to high-quality public-school systems can make or break a buyer’s decision to purchase your home when you look to resell it.

Local Amenities and Culture

You’ll be spending the majority of your time in the city where you purchase your home. A good tip is to visit as a tourist first. See if you mesh well with the local culture, and if the restaurants and the other amenities there are enough to keep you entertained. If you’re a history buff, consider somewhere like Wilmington, the city with so much history, it might take you a lifetime to comb through it all. If your favorite thing to do is hike to the top of the mountains to get rewarded with sweeping views, a mountain town like Asheville might be more your speed. If you’re looking to settle down in a close-knit, family-oriented community to raise your kids, check out the kind folks and small businesses in Holly Springs. Travel to a few places and visit if you can’t make up your mind. You never know, you might end up somewhere that wasn’t on your radar in the first place.

Summary

The Tar Heel State has plenty to offer no matter what you’re looking for, but it’s important you take this guide as a place to start. Wherever you’re considering purchasing a home, be sure to sufficiently research the cost of living, safety, the quality of public schools, the unemployment rate and the local amenities and culture.

For more information on the best places to live and for homeowner tips, head to the Rocket HomesSM Blog.

*Most of the data presented is from the U.S. Census Bureau. The unemployment rates are from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The median home price is from Rocket Homes Real Estate, LLC trend reports and reflects July 2020 pricing. 

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Jeannette Baum

The Rocket Homes blog is here to bring you all you need to know about buying, selling and making the most of your home. Whether you’re thinking about becoming a homeowner, selling your current home or looking to keep your place in tip-top shape, our writers and freelancers bring their experience and expertise to meet you right where you are.