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Top 10 Cheapest Places to Live in North Carolina, 2021

By: Susan Finch
July 8, 2021

North Carolina is known for its sandy beaches, rich marine history, railroad roots, and gorgeous landscapes. Whether you want to take a day trip to the mountains or live along the seashore, you can find it in the Tar Heel State. Perhaps most impressive, living in North Carolina is surprisingly affordable despite the state’s economic growth and rich culture.

Ready to move South? Discover some of the cheapest places to live in North Carolina.

Note: The data provided below comes from our rent estimates. These numbers expand beyond what’s listed on our platform. For further information, learn about our methodology.

1. Winston-Salem

  • Population: 247,945
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $956
  • Median Household Income: $45,750

If you don't know much about Winston-Salem, you may think it sounds like a tobacco haven. True to its name, the city flourished during the heyday of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company's Camel cigarettes. Today, the city is home to universities, including Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State. You can stay in the know by falling in line with the locals and calling your new home city, Winston.

Winston-Salem attracts college students, young professionals, and retirees looking for a moderate climate and a booming downtown area with hotels, restaurants, and luxury apartment complexes. Despite its influx of newcomers, the city's growth has been slow and steady and still retains a small-town feel.

The city may have deep tobacco roots, though you can now find healthy industries around every corner in Winston-Salem. Healthcare, public education, financial services, and higher education are some of the biggest employers in the city. Tobacco manufacturing is still going strong through employer Reynolds American. Winston-Salem is a win between the healthy job market and the low cost of living if you're looking to grow your career.

There are top-notch amenities in Winston-Salem, with stops like Old Salem Museums & Gardens and Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Bailey Park offers a grassy reprieve, a colorful mural, and a flavor-packed food truck court for some outdoor time. Tennis enthusiasts play at Hanes Park at the 20 tennis courts. Baseball diamonds, open fields, a track, and playgrounds also entertain locals looking for some afternoon fun.

2. High Point

  • Population: 112,791
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,013
  • Median Household Income: $47,234

High Point, North Carolina, is situated in the Piedmont Triad region of the state and is one of the most affordable places to live in North Carolina. True to its name, High Point was the highest point of the 1856 North Carolina Railroad located between Charlotte and Goldsboro. Cotton, lumber, and other raw materials came through the region, and Europeans settled the area. It soon flourished into a woodworking, tobacco, and textile town. However, High Point is known for more than its manufacturing roots. In 1924 High Point University was established and drew undergrad and graduate students to attend the top-ranked college.

High Point is ideally located for students, career climbers, and families looking for an affordable city. It's a mid-sized city that is centrally located between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the beach. You're never far from parks, lakes, and access to shopping and dining. Unlike much of the South, the average low in High Point is 42, and the high is 79. It's hard not to feel comfortable in this quaint North Carolina city.

High Point has a great reputation for retail and home furnishings. The city is known as the "Furniture Capital of the World," filled with prestigious furniture companies. It started showcasing its first furniture show in 1905 to compete with New York and Chicago. The current median age of people living in High Point is 35-years-old among a mix of families and college students.

Furniture also makes for some of the most popular attractions around High Point. Visitors stop to take selfies with the World's Largest Chest of Drawers standing at 36-feet tall in the middle of the city. You can also browse the 4,000 furniture and design books at the Bernice Bienenstock Furniture Library. Beyond furniture, High Point is home to stops like the All-A-Flutter Butterfly Farm and the largest haunted house in the state. You can also stop by the High Point Museum to soak up some local history.

3. Greensboro

  • Population: 296,710
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,018
  • Median Household Income: $48,964

Greensboro grew to prominence when the state government designated it as a stop along the new railroad line. Goods were soon transported to and from cotton textile mills, and workers' housing started springing up in mill villages. As a result, Greensboro was nicknamed "The Gate City" in the late 1800 as one of the biggest railway hubs and transportation centers in the South. As textile companies went under in nearby cities, they continued to thrive in Greensboro and grow new industries in its wake.

Greensboro is home to many economic opportunities, affordable housing, and urban amenities. The population is diverse and is home to young professionals, students, and newcomers looking for Southern charm and urban amenities. Newcomers have their choice of nightclubs, restaurants, shopping, and local attractions. The city also attracts students attending higher education institutions, including the University of North Carolina Greensboro, Greensboro College, and North Carolina A&T University.

Major industries in Greensboro include manufacturing, wholesale trade, real estate, and service sector. So whether you want to work in textiles or electronics, you can find the right career for you. Like many cities that faced a setback during the pandemic, Greensboro has seen a decline in unemployment and a more promising economic outlook.

More than an affordable place to live, Greensboro offers opportunities for dining and attractions. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum, the Greensboro Science Center, and the Greensboro History Museum showcase exhibits from Native American heritage to local history. Outdoor stops include the Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden and the Greensboro Arboretum.

4. Fayetteville

  • Population: 211,657
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,018
  • Median Household Income: $45,024

Fayetteville, North Carolina, flourished as an inland port and hub of the early "Plank Roads" system. The primary industries include government and commerce services and trade due to the city's prominent location. New shops and buildings cropped up in Fayetteville during the twentieth century, including the city's first skyscraper built-in 1916.

Over the decades, the downtown area grew out of the need for more service industries catering to nearby military bases. Fayetteville is a cultural arts and historical beacon with a Cape Fear Museum of History, Airborne and Special Operations Museum, art museum, and symphony.

Fayetteville attracts young professionals looking for employment in healthcare and social services, retail trade, and educational services. Families also come to the city for the affordability and kid-friendly vibe. However, Fayetteville is primarily known for its military presence next door in Fort Bragg and Pope Army Airfield.

Locals get a taste of the Cape Fear Regional Theatre culture with local performers and actors from the Screen Actors Guild. Popular watering holes include the veteran-owned Bright Light Brewing Company. However, beyond the city of Fayetteville, there are also natural attractions to explore. Cape Fear River Trail offers a paved path through old-growth hardwood trees. The Cape Fear Botanical Garden also showcases over 2,000 varieties of flowers and foliage.

5. Concord

  • Population: 96,341
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,092
  • Median Household Income: $67,984

Concord sits in the Charlotte metropolitan area, settled in the 1750s. Its name means "harmony" and was chosen after a dispute between German Liteherns and Scottish Irish Presbyterians. After becoming the county seat, Concord solidified its prominence as a cotton train and producing region. Concord became a mill town and made history when the Coleman Manufacturing Company became among the first cotton mills owned by African=Americans.

Concord is excellent for families looking to settle down near quality public schools and greenspace. College students attend nearby universities like United North Carolina - Charlotte, which is a significant employer for the metro area. Young professionals also grow their careers around Concord while taking advantage of city amenities and dining.

Job opportunities around Concord range from finance to healthcare and tech. The unemployment rate in Concord is lower than the rest of the United States and boasts a more robust future job growth than the rest of the country. Combining high median income and an affordable cost of living, Concord is an attractive option for career climbers.

Concord is a champion of barbecue and brisket with iconic restaurants like the Smoke Pit. Beyond savory barbecue dishes, locals have their choice of trattorias, cafes, and bistros. After dinner, locals sip on cold drinks from hometown breweries like the Cabarrus Brewing Company. Beyond the food scene, locals are close to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Great Wolf Lodge Water Park, and SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord Aquarium.

6. Jacksonville

  • Population: 72,436
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,092
  • Median Household Income: $44,956

Jacksonville's history is firmly rooted in naval shops, lumber, and tobacco crops. The city rapidly grew in 1941 after the founding of Camp Lejeune, a complete amphibious base in Onslow County. The city's proximity along the New River makes it a desirable location for the military and is just a stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean.

Jacksonville's population is a stomping ground for college students and young adults with an average age of 23 or younger. Despite its small size, there are plenty of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Locals are also a short drive to glorious Outer Banks beaches. The weather is temperate, luxury condos are expanding, and residents love the coastal lifestyle and charm.

Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station, the Marine Corps base and training facility, are the leading employers in Jacksonville and draw newcomers. The city is also home to service industry jobs, especially in hospitality catering to visitors to the military base and nearby beaches. Businesses catering to military personnel are also popular around Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is home to military-inspired attractions like the Veterans Memorial and the Montford Point Marine Museum. Watering holes are a must with a visit to Walton's Distillery serving up concoctions of peach or salted caramel moonshine. On warm, coastal days, locals stop by the Lejeune Memorial Gardens and family-friendly attractions like the Lynwood Park Zoo.

7. Wilmington

  • Population: 123,744
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,149
  • Median Household Income: $47,580

Wilmington is a port city on the southeastern coastal edge of North Carolina. The city didn't see much action until they built the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad in 1840, which traveled from the backwoods to the Wilmington marketplace. By the end of the 19th century, most of Wilmington's population was African-American. In the early 2000s, the city was designated as a Coast Guard City and drew students to the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In 2020, it was declared the first World War II heritage City in the country and gave the nod to the battleship USS North Carolina moored across from Downtown.

The average Wilmington resident is in their mid-30s and the city is known for its historic river district and sandy beaches. Its stunning landscape attracts newcomers and location scouts from the television and film industry. Its tight-knit community is home to hip breweries, fresh seafood, and annual events like the three-day Riverfest. Alfresco dining along the oceanfront is the norm, including a floating bar and grill called Anne Bonny's Bar and Grille.

Wilmington's major industries ranging from healthcare to banking to trade to and manufacturing. Hospitality is also a growing market serving tourists and nearby beachcombers. Unemployment in Wilmington is currently lower than in the rest of the US and boasts a more robust job growth than the rest of the country.

Nearby beaches are the main draw around Wilmington, including Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach. History buffs flock to the Battleship North Carolina or Bellamy Mansion Museum to soak up a piece of regional history. Airlie Gardens is home to terrariums, an aquarium, and a Butterfly House for a more picture-perfect stop. Wilmington is also home to cultural attractions, including the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science and Cameron Art Museum.

8. Chapel Hill

  • Population: 64,051
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,194
  • Median Household Income: $73,614

Chapel Hill is synonymous with higher education and was founded to serve the University of North Carolina in 1819. The town sprung up to serve university students and staff looking to pursue their higher education pursuits. The city was named after the New Hope Chapel that stood on a hill.

As the country's first public university, Chapel Hill is steeped in Southern charm and history. The city is called the "Southern Part of Heaven," which still boasts a quaint small-town feel with a cosmopolitan twist. Locals ranging from well-heeled families to college students.

Considering its historical roots, it's no surprise that Chapel Hill's primary industry stems from higher education. The city's vibrant population ranges from young college students to professors enjoying strong job growth and economic outlook. Healthcare and social assistance and scientific and technical services are also significant employers around the city.

A tour of the iconic campus at the University of North Carolina is the draw around Chapel Hill. As a college town, Chapel Hill is home to pubs, restaurants, and cultural hotspots. Beyond campus, Chapel Hill is also home to the Carolina Basketball Museum, North Carolina Botanical Garden, and Moreland Planetarium and Science Center.

9. Durham

  • Population: 278,993
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,196
  • Median Household Income: $58,905

Like much of North Carolina, Durham was established in 1849 as a railway depot. The city also founded the American Tobacco Company, followed by a growing textile and electric power. Like Chapel Hill, Durham is also known for its foundation in higher education and is home to Duke University and North Carolina University.

Beyond the college scene, Durham is known for its healthcare industry and the Duke University Health System. It earned the moniker as the City of Medicine with over 300 medical and health-related companies and related clinics. Beyond medicine, Durham is a sports town where locals pledge their allegiance to Duke, UNC, or North Carolina State.

Significant industries around Durham include higher education and medicine. Locals build their careers in the Research Triangle Park, named for its location in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The park is known for its three major research institutions: North Carolina State University, Duke University, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tech and healthcare, and the city of Durham also employ locals.

Higher education draws visitors to tour Duke University, where they can take in a collegiate basketball game or explore the Chapel. Outdoor attractions include Sarah P. Duke Gardens and Eno River State Park. For a culture stop, Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens with 55-acres of rolling lawns and flowers.

10. Charlotte

  • Population: 885,708
  • Median 2-Bedroom Apartment Rent: $1,231
  • Median Household Income: $62,817

Charlotte is the most populous city in North Carolina and the 15th most populous in the country. Situated in the Piedmont region, Charlotte consistently ranks as one of the fastest-growing metro areas. Nicknamed the Queen City, Charlotte was named after the German princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The city was established as a railroad junction before becoming a cotton mill hub. Today, Charlotte is a premier banking and financial center.

Its well-educated population attracts college students to millennials and retirees looking for culture and amenities. The sports scene thrives with the NFL's Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets. Whether you want to enjoy a concert or indulge in fine dining in Charlotte neighborhoods like Uptown (which is actually Downtown), you can find it in the Queen City.

Beyond banking and finance, Charlotte is home to advanced manufacturing plants, with over 3,000 in the region. Locals also have their choice of working in the automotive industry, healthcare industry, and information technology industry. Charlotte is set to outpace the US's future job growth and is among the fastest-growing cities in the country. The city also saw a population influx when locals from New York and San Francisco fled for affordable living during the pandemic.

Despite Charlotte’s affordable cost of living, the city is a major metropolitan city with attractions to match. There’s something for everyone in the Queen City from sports lovers to culture aficionados. Locals stop by the NASCAR Hall of Fame or Uptown for fine dining, pubs, and live entertainment.

Learn more about moving to Charlotte.

Final Thoughts - Where Should I Move to In North Carolina

From coastal gems to modern cities, these are the cheapest places to live in North Carolina. The best places to live in the state are steeped in history, Southern charm, and a promising job market. Ready to make a move to the Tar Heel State? Sign up for Apartment List to find an affordable apartment in North Carolina.

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Susan Finch is a freelance writer and content manager focusing on local experiences, travel, and anything relating to really good food and craft brews. Her work has appeared in travel guidebooks and national magazines and newspapers. Read More
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