The Best North Carolina Cities for Young Families

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(To see the 2015 version of this study, click here.)

North Carolina has grown in the past 20 years, with a population increase of 1.5 million in the last 10 years alone. But which cities are the best for young families, who want a thriving economy and good schools for their kids?

NerdWallet’s analysis

NerdWallet focused on the following questions to find the best cities and towns across the state:

Are the public schools good? We measured schools’ academic performance with ratings from GreatSchools. This nonprofit compares a school’s standardized test scores to the state average to obtain a rating on a 1 through 10 scale, with 10 representing the highest score. Higher ratings led to a higher overall score.

Can you afford to live there? We looked at average home values in each location and monthly costs, including mortgage payments, taxes, insurance, utilities, fuel and other bills. Lower costs led to a higher overall score.

Is the city growing and prospering? We assessed a city’s economy by examining average annual household income and income growth over the past decade. Higher income and greater growth led to a higher overall score.

The best North Carolina cities for young families

1. Morrisville

Morrisville is in the middle of Raleigh and Durham, putting it in the heart of the Research Triangle. The town has done its fair share in building a strong support system for the technology startups in the area. Organizations like the Morrisville Innovation Foundation give entrepreneurs a place to network and learn how to make it in today’s economy.

2. Mooresville

Mooresville is just north of Charlotte, and it features some of the most historic buildings in the area. While Mooresville ranks No. 100 out of 115 state school districts in the number of dollars spent per student, it has been quite successful, with the third-highest test scores in the state and the second-highest graduation rate. The Mooresville Campus of Mitchell Community College, which offers a variety of college credit and continuing education programs, recently built a new facility to address growth. Mooresville is known as Race City, USA, home to a number of NASCAR and IndyCar teams and drivers.

3. Holly Springs

In 1990, Holly Springs had fewer than 1,000 residents. Today, over 20,000 people live in this growing town in the Research Triangle. In recent years, the town cemented its ties to that technology hub with the construction of the Triangle Expressway and other road improvements and infrastructure upgrades.

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4. Indian Trail

The people of Indian Trail are supported by Charlotte’s financial services industry, including giants like Wells Fargo’s East Coast division and Bank of America. Homes are relatively inexpensive in Indian Trail thanks to construction that’s managed to keep pace with the explosion in population growth.

5. Apex

Like Holly Springs next door, Apex is building a tighter relationship with the Research Triangle with the help of the Triangle Expressway. The downtown area maintains a classic feel — it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — and residents will find fine dining, antique shops, ice cream parlors and more.

6. Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill is a quintessential university town. It is home to 30,000 students, and residents here benefit from the cultural life on a college campus: concert venues, an array of dining options and shopping. While life may center around the university, jobs are diverse. Many residents work at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, and technology companies USAT Corp. and RealTime Ops call this city home.

7. Matthews

The schools are especially strong here, earning a rating of 9 out of 10 at GreatSchools. There is ample opportunity for parents to thrive, too. A number of successful companies have set up shop in Matthews, including the headquarters of Harris Teeter grocery store chain. 

8. Cary

Like other places on our list, Cary is tapped into the Research Triangle, just 10 miles away. Companies in the city include LexisNexis, Epic Games and the SAS Institute, which employs over 4,000 people from around Cary. A number of other groups help small businesses hit the ground running. Duke’s Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum, for example, works with local businesses to help solve their challenges.

9. Wake Forest

Wake Forest is almost 20 miles north of Raleigh — connected enough to give residents access to a strong economy in the Research Triangle, but far enough away to give this town its own character. Fostering that small-town feel is a historic downtown district, which the city has continued to develop and expand. On the town’s outskirts, a number of lakes offer relief on summer days.

10. Havelock

Havelock is best known as the home of Cherry Point, the world’s largest Marine Corps air station and a major employer in the city. Havelock is a center of recreational activity, too: it’s located about 20 minutes from the beaches of the Outer Banks and historic New Bern, the site of a Civil War battle. Throughout the year, Havelock hosts an abundance of cultural events, including the Cherry Point Air Show, a popular chili festival, and hunting, fishing and boating opportunities. Craven Community College’s Havelock campus is home to the Institute of Aeronautical Technology, which provides workforce training for the civilian and military aviation community.

The best North Carolina cities for young families

Scroll right to view all data categories.

RankCityNearest big cityGreatSchools ratingMedian home valueMonthly owner costsMedian household incomeGrowth,'99-'11Overall score for young families
1MorrisvilleRaleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill10$271,500$1,862$78,08838.09%75.8
3Holly SpringsRaleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill8$234,600$1,665$89,42128.57%66.8
4Indian TrailCharlotte8$182,000$1,440$63,61922.59%64.3
5ApexRaleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill8$254,200$1,727$86,78222.14%64.2
6Chapel HillRaleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill8$368,200$2,188$58,41549.25%63.8
8CaryRaleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill8$301,900$1,880$91,99722.46%63.3
9Wake ForestRaleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill7$246,500$1,754$72,15537.95%61.9


The overall score for each city was derived from the following measures:

  1. GreatSchools city ratings are calculated by averaging the weighted overall rating for each school in the city, weighted by the number of students enrolled at the school.
  2. Median home value is from the 2011 American Community Survey, a division of the U.S. Census Bureau.
  3. Monthly homeowner costs are from the 2011 American Community Survey.
  4. Median annual household income is from the 2011 American Community Survey.
  5. Income change from 1999 to 2011 is from the U.S. Census Bureau.

This analysis of 58 North Carolina places examined locations with populations over 15,000.

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