Best places to live in North Carolina in 2021

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Over the past decade, North Carolina’s population has increased upwards of 950,000 residents, according to Census Bureau data, and that trend seems poised to continue. Major companies like Bank of America, Lowe’s and Advance Auto Parts have their corporate headquarters in the state, which has earned plenty of praise for being a good place to do business.

North Carolina isn’t all about work, though. It’s also a great place to play, with more than 340 breweries and brewpubs, hiking and biking trails through the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains and 300 miles of beaches along the Atlantic coast. From downtown living to oceanfront waves, residents can choose from a wide range of lifestyles. Here are the best places in the state consider.

Best places to live in North Carolina in 2021

We looked at the 20 largest cities in North Carolina to help narrow down where you can find a balance of career opportunities and outside-of-the-office enjoyment. While what makes a city ideal for you will not be a perfect match for someone else, there are common factors that everyone seeks when searching for a new place to settle. Here’s a rundown of the key factors that shaped our research:

  • Affordability – Buying or renting a home is typically the No. 1 expense on anyone’s list. We analyzed each city’s cost of living compared with its average salary per worker. To get a feel for the pulse of the housing market, we looked at median home prices from real estate brokerage Redfin.
  • Safety – Safety is an essential contributor to well-being. We analyzed FBI statistics on violent crime and property crime incidents in the biggest cities in The Tar Heel State.
  • Job market – We looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics city-level unemployment data from the fall of 2020 to see how each of these cities is recovering from pandemic-induced economic hurdles. In addition to having a job, we also considered how much of each day is consumed by getting to and from work (if you’re required to be there, that is) based on average commute times from the Census Bureau.
  • Educational attainment – Education translates to achievement, so we looked at Census data on the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees in each of these areas.
  • Culture – Everyone has unique preferences about what to do outside of work hours, so our cultural metrics are a subjective evaluation of opportunities to see, do and experience these cities. As you think about relocating, make sure to do your research to determine which places offer the lifestyle that fits your personal needs.

1. Raleigh

Affordability: 6 out of 10
Safety: 9 out of 10
Job market: 8 out of 10
Education: 9 out of 10
Culture: 8 out of 10

Biggest upside: Safety, education and a healthy job market
Biggest downside: More people are moving here each day, and housing costs are rising

Raleigh is more than the best place to live in North Carolina; in 2021, we think it’s the best place to live in the entire country. That’s because the city is managing to establish itself as a destination for top IT talent, competing on a level with Silicon Valley while managing to avoid the insane housing costs typically associated with tech boom towns.

Big names like IBM and Walmart are some of the major employers in the area, and smaller companies are cementing a bigger footprint here, too. For example, communications company Bandwidth is gearing up to build a new campus that will create more than 1,000 jobs in the city. As Raleigh’s business infrastructure continues to expand, the city’s nightlife and arts scene is keeping pace, with plenty to do downtown to suit a variety of interests.

2. Charlotte

Affordability: 7 out of 10
Safety: 4 out of 10
Job market: 7 out of 10
Education: 8 out of 10
Culture: 10 out of 10

Biggest upside: A cultural scene that’ll keep your calendar packed with things to do and tasty food to eat
Biggest downside: The standard safety-related concerns in a major metro area

Charlotte is the biggest city in North Carolina, with 885,000 residents and counting. Plenty of people want to move to the city to take advantage of opportunities at companies like Lowe’s, Bank of America and the recently-relocated Honeywell, and they can stretch their paychecks fairly far here. With a median home sale price of $300,000 as of early December 2020, according to real estate brokerage Redfin, the Queen City offers urban amenities and competitive salaries at a non-overwhelming price point.

If you’re in financial services, Charlotte is the place to be. The city gained a big corporate headquarters with Truist, the newly merged BB&T and SunTrust bank, relocating here. The city’s food scene, too, naturally delivers plenty of Southern comfort-style cuisine, but you’ll also be able to sample an array of international flavors.

3. Durham

Affordability: 7 out of 10
Safety: 6 out of 10
Job market: 8 out of 10
Education: 9 out of 10
Culture: 6 out of 10

Biggest upside: It’s a bit more affordable than Raleigh
Biggest downside: Higher crime rates and the potential for a long commute to Raleigh, which has more opportunities

Durham is often lumped in with Raleigh, at only 25 miles away from the No. 1 city on our list, and the international airport here has both places in its name. However, Durham deserves its own spot for a number of reasons.

Duke University, the biggest employer in the area, is located in Durham, and the city supports a unique arts and music scene. The distinctly Durham experience comes with a more affordable price tag, as well. Redfin data shows that the median sale price for a home was $297,000 as of early December 2020 — nearly $30,000 cheaper than in Raleigh.

4. Wilmington

Affordability: 6 out of 10
Safety: 7 out of 10
Job market: 8 out of 10
Education: 7 out of 10
Culture: 7 out of 10

Biggest upside: Coastal charm and safety
Biggest downside: A lot of people want to live by the beach, so you’ll pay more for oceanside living

If you’ve never been to Wilmington, you’ll probably still recognize this beachside city in North Carolina. That’s because it’s served as the filming location for plenty of TV shows and movies, earning it the nickname “Wilmywood.” Moving here means you can be a star in your own life and take advantage of job opportunities at companies including PPD, Corning and Verizon.

Before the pandemic, people were already flocking to Wilmington, and now that more people are searching for ways to enjoy the outdoors, you can expect that growth to continue. If you’re one of the newcomers, you can do more than simply soak up the sun on the beach. The city’s extensive network of running and biking trails make maintaining your well-being a breeze.

5. Asheville

Affordability: 5 out of 10
Safety: 7 out of 10
Job market: 8 out of 10
Education: 9 out of 10
Culture: 9 out of 10

Biggest upside: A thriving cultural scene and high educational attainment
Biggest downside: A bigger portion of paychecks goes toward housing costs here

High educational attainment, low unemployment and a bustling food and arts scene have helped Asheville make many people’s short lists for a new place to call home. With under 100,000 residents, this is the smallest city on our list.

If you’re looking to replace the hustle and bustle of a crowded city with the slower pace of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is an ideal place to land. The city does skew toward the retiree crowd, with more than 18 percent of residents aged 65 or older. However, the area’s arts and culture offerings, coupled with a huge craft brewing culture, also makes Asheville a promising destination for young professionals.

Next steps

You can’t choose a place to live simply based on a ranking; you need to see for yourself. After you have a chance to explore North Carolina (or elsewhere) in-person, it’s time to focus on how you can buy a home in the area. You can count on Bankrate’s homebuying guide to help prepare you for your homebuying journey.

Learn more:

Written by
David McMillin
Contributing writer
David McMillin writes about credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. David's goal is to help readers figure out how to save more and stress less.
Edited by
Mortgage editor