Inviting and Progressive, Chapel Hill, North Carolina Has a Funky, Academic Vibe, Leafy Neighborhoods, Good Medical Facilities and Great Restaurants
Cost of Living: Above the National Average
Lush, leafy and academic, Chapel Hill (population 60,000) is in north central North Carolina and is a slightly rural college town that grew up around the University of North Carolina (26,000 students), the oldest state-supported university in the United States. It is part of the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill "Triangle," with North Carolina State University, Duke University and one of the largest and most reputable high-tech research parks in the nation, the Research Triangle Park, just down the road. Professors, university staff and RTP employees live in Chapel Hill, and as a result, its residents are generally liberal, affluent and well-educated.
In fact, 73% of locals hold at least a four year college degree. Residents overwhelmingly lean to the left politically, and 23% of them are age 45 or better. The crime rate is below the national average. Chapel Hill has grown by 50% within the last couple of decades and is racially diverse.
The overall cost of living is 30% above the national average, and the median home price is $350,000. The city dates from 1752, and its long history is reflected in much of its architecture. Many beautiful, older residences and country homes with lots of Southern character give lush, tree-canopied neighborhoods a regal flavor. Prices in the $400,000s and $500,000 in such neighborhoods are common. There are newer homes, too, many built in the years building up to the Great Recession. Some of the more affordable home developments, although not age-restricted, include Briar Chapel-Newland and Rosewalk at University Lake.
North Carolina is not particularly friendly when it comes to taxes and retirement. Social Security is still exempt from taxation, but the state taxes most other retirement income (IRAs, 401(k)s, private and public pensions), less a $15,000 deduction for married people and a $7,500 deduction for single people, at a flat rate of 5.49%. The Bailey exemption keeps some retirement benefits received by state and federal government retirees if they had five or more years of service as of August 12, 1989 safe from taxation. There is also a tax credit for long term care insurance premiums, up to $350 per person per year. Real estate is assessed at 100% of fair market value, but people age 65 or better with less than $29,000 annual income may have the greater of $25,000 or 50% of the appraised value of their home excluded from the taxpayer's assessment. The state also has a circuit breaker tax deference program in place for residents age 65 or better. In North Carolina, the annual taxes on a $350,000 home are approximately $2,905.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Cosmopolitan but with a small town warmth, Chapel Hill is known for its engaging music scene, stimulating foodie culture and funky hospitality. Well-kept neighborhoods, a healthy downtown, agreeable weather and good medical facilities are a few reasons why retirees come here. It is a very livable place and exudes the easygoing confidence of a generally prosperous city. And while the University definitely gives parts of Chapel Hill a very youthful atmosphere, there are sections of the city that have a very settled, suburban feeling.
Chapel Hill has plenty of activities to keep any retiree happy and involved. For people who appreciate a college atmosphere and all that goes with it, downtown is the place to be. More than 300 shops, music venues, pubs, bookstores (The Bookshop has one of the largest collections of used and collectable books in the South), cafes, coffee shops, boutiques and other various specialty stores attract tourists and locals alike.
Musical acts as diverse as James Taylor and the Squirrel Nut Zippers have gotten their start in Chapel Hill, and today new acts continue to hone their skills in dozens of clubs and taverns. Jazz and bluegrass festivals, concerts and fairs bring neighbors of all ages together for good food, great music and in the process bolster a strong community fabric.
Several of the city's markets and restaurants, in particular Foster's Market and Caffe Driade, have achieved a certain level of fame by being featured on such shows as Martha Stewart Living and $40 a Day with Rachael Ray. There are outdoor markets, gourmet markets and specialty markets, including Fresh Market and Weaver Street Market, one of the largest organic markets in the U.S.
One gourmet market in particular, the award-winning Southern Season, spreads out across 60,000 sq. ft., brings in world-renowned chefs to teach cooking classes and has been described by the New York Times as "a wall to wall and floor to ceiling visual and gustatory delight." Eateries range from posh, white table cloth establishments to more down home spots such as Breadman's, the original 24-hour restaurant. In fact, Chapel Hill has such a robust foodie culture that Bon Appetit magazine has called it "America's foodiest small town."
Museums, historic plantation homes, the Coker Arboretum, the Forest Theatre, the Morehead Planetarium, Montrose Gardens and more contribute to Chapel Hill's cultural menu. Parks, wooded areas and even the beautiful UNC campus give residents ample green spaces for walking, bicycling or rollerblading.
And, of course, the UNC Tar Heels give residents plenty of exciting sporting events to attend during all seasons. For people who would rather participate in games than watch them, golf courses are plentiful throughout the city, and the city's parks and recreation department has programs and events for people age 55 or better. The surrounding region abounds with lakes for boating, swimming and fishing, and two hundred hiking and bicycling trails are within a 60 miles radius.
Award-winning, 800-bed North Carolina Memorial Hospital (NCMH) is owned by the state of North Carolina and is part of a non-profit integrated health care system that stretches throughout seven North Carolina counties. NCMH, accredited by the Joint Commission, is a Level I Trauma Center and a teaching hospital. It accepts Medicare patients. The UNC School of Medicine is a top research and training facility, and 11 miles down the road in Durham, Duke University Hospital is another nationally-ranked medical center. Durham also has a VA outpatient clinic and a VA hospital.
Chapel Hill Transit, the local bus system, is completely free and is thorough enough that a car is almost unnecessary. The Raleigh-Durham International Airport is just 18 miles away.
The Seymore Senior Center is managed by the county and is in a modern building. It has a hot lunch program, wellness classes, computer classes, trips abroad and more.
The climate is moderate, with mild winters (temperatures in the 30s and 40s) and warm, sometimes hot, summers (temperatures in the 80s and 90s). On average, the city receives 45 inches of rain and 5 inches of snow per year. On the comfort index, a combination of humidity and temperature, Chapel Hill comes in below the national average. The sun shines 215 days of the year.
A Chapel Hill retirement does have some potential drawbacks. The city's recent growth has brought increasing traffic and housing sprawl. The poverty rate is above the national average (but much of this is attributed to the large student population). UNC has a lively party scene (but it does not spread across the city).
Despite these possible downsides, Chapel Hill remains a very appealing place. People looking for a liberal, progressive Southern city with a rich quality of life will want to add Chapel Hill to their list of great places to retire.
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