Up and Coming Places to Retire: Are you Willing to Take a Chance?

Category: Retirement Real Estate

May 14, 2013 — Here you are in a strange, not yet “rediscovered” town. You can see there are some obvious problems. But look – here’s a pleasant street lined with stately Victorian, Queen Anne, and Georgian homes. Some are proudly restored, and others are in various stages of rejuvenation. You keep walking through the old downtown, past quirky shops and nice looking restaurants. By the time you reach the waterfront with its bobbing sailboats and beautiful views, you can feel your attitudes changing.

We’re willing to bet we’re not the only folks visiting a possible retirement town who’ve been surprised to find themselves going from “no way” to “maybe” and perhaps all the way to “why not”. First we are skeptical – there’s no way we could retire here… too many negatives… empty storefronts on main street… pockets of poverty and crime. But then as the place grows on us and we see baby boomers proudly planting flowers in their beautiful front yards we start to ask – could this become a great retirement spot?

Just this week we heard again a comment that applies to any town not on the “best place to retire” lists: “Should I take a chance on a place to retire before it gets so popular that real estate prices get out of reach?” It’s a really interesting conundrum, one that became especially clear after your editor’s recent visit to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. This article will explore the pros and cons and conflicts that come with this “should I take a chance and buy early, or play it safe and possibly find myself priced out of the market” dilemma.

Harbor of Hospitality
But first, lets talk about Elizabeth City, a town we bet not that many of our readers are familiar with, yet which shares many attributes with other possible retirement towns dotted across the U.S. The city is located in northern North Carolina, south of Norfolk and just west of Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks. The Pasquotank River flows through this old seaport on its way to the nearby Albemarle Sound, the body of water on the landward side of Hatteras. Located on the Intercoastal Waterway, many serious boaters pass through or tie up here (48 hours dockage is free at the city docks).

The harbor at the Intracoastal  in Elizabeth City

The harbor at the Intracoastal in Elizabeth City

The appeal of Elizabeth City (population 18,683, motto “Harbor of Hospitality”) becomes apparent once one gets to the downtown – the incredible array of beautiful homes on Main Street and Church Streets (to a lesser degree) makes anyone ask, how did this town come into such obvious wealth? Homes here range from those restored to all their Victorian Majesty to others slowly rotting behind overgrowing shrubbery. The soaring Episcopalian, Baptist, and Methodist churches on critical intersections must have had wealthy patrons in their past. At the waterfront there are the town docks with visiting sailboats, condos, parks, historic buildings, and the giant Museum of the Albemarle. Open spaces in the landscape suggest unfinished urban renewal, presumably the sites of old mills and warehouses. Nearby is the campus of Elizabeth City State University, part of the University of North Carolina system and a historically African-American college. The College of the Albemarle is also in town.

The city owed its early economic success to the Dismal Swamp Canal, built in 1793, which permitted Elizabeth City’s establishment as a mercantile and industrial center. During the Civil War both sides of the conflict were represented. Although the area was mostly made up of supporters of the rebellion, there was also an active underground railroad. Occupied early on by Yankee forces, there was considerable guerrilla activity against them. After the war the city’s new railroad connections let it become wealthy as a shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing center – paper, lumber and other products were produced in abundance. Many of the homes owe their opulence to these industries. We stopped to talk to a homeowner outside her gorgeous Victorian, who told us it was built by the owner of the local newspaper in the 1880’s. Obviously prospering in his day, the publisher also built the slightly smaller home next door for his daughter. Today this baby boomer is sharing the Victorian with her daughter and grandchildren.

A grand mansion in downtown

A grand mansion in downtown

Today Elizabeth City’s economic development owes much to its county and federal courthouses, as well as Elizabeth City State University. The Coast Guard Station at Elizabeth City is also a key employer. There is some tourism thanks to the Albemarle Museum and an energetic Chamber of Commerce.

The Good and the Not So Good
Elizabeth City is like a lot of places we have visited or heard about. These cities have many attractive sides to them. Usually there’s a backbone that comes from being a wealthy town at one point in their history. They often have a beautiful siting on the water or in the mountains. And like Elizabeth City, there is usually an energetic tourist bureau or city government that is working hard to attract new residents and retirees. Property values seem like a bargain compared to established, top tier retirement destinations like Asheville (NC) or Prescott (AZ). And there is a plentiful stock of stately homes that can be fixed up and turned into proud residences.

But for all of the good things about towns like Elizabeth City, there are plenty of minuses: vacant lots, for sale signs, the occasional abandoned house, crime or gangs, and poverty. There are plenty of empty windows in the beautiful old downtown, mostly because merchants have fled to strip malls and big box stores just outside town on Route 17. (Pictured: Exquisite, but unused, Art Deco movie theatre).

Handsome Art Deco Movie House

Handsome Art Deco Movie House

Making the Transition
There are plenty of towns that have made the successful transition from town on the ropes to retirement hot spot. Some of the more prominent examples are: Beaufort(NC), thanks to its charming waterfront on the Intracoastal and great old housing stock; Key West (FL), where at one point in the 70‘s there were scores if not hundreds of beautiful homes in need of rescue, but now where realtors are begging people to list their homes to take advantage of a hot market. There are also plenty of cities well along in the transition from troubled town to desirable place to live – some examples include Fernandina Beach (FL). Below them there is a range of cities and towns like Elizabeth City that could go either way – Thomasville (GA), Bisbee (AZ), Vicksburg (MS), Chestertown (MD), New Haven (CT), and many of the towns listed on Topretirements for Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas (See our State Directories).

What tips the balance – No go zone to hot real estate market
Many of our Topretirements colleagues have spent quite a bit of time discussing what makes the difference between hit and miss in the successful retirement town lottery. Certainly many towns have what it takes when it comes to bones – great old houses, a central downtown with attractive buildings, and great natural locale. But no one can predict which ones will get the right buzz and make it, and which ones won’t.

Bright and beautifully restored

Bright and beautifully restored

Here are some of the factors that make the difference between hot town and cool backwater:
A committed local government, tourist board, or chamber of commerce. If they can invest in key projects and spend promotion money wisely, they can make a big difference
Strong infrastructure. A university or college, committed business, or energetic wealthy and civic minded individual(s)
Developers. If a big regional or strong local developer decides to invest in a major project in the area, the future of the closest town with infrastructure gets strengthened considerably. Mesquite, Nevada is one beneficiary of that type of building
Good buzz. Popular word of mouth about a particular site is priceless in terms of turning a town from a place that people are nervous about investing in to one where buyers are fighting over homes to restore. No one can really predict or control this kind of buzz, although many try. Skillful public relations and a good story to tell are certainly key factors in the differences between successes and failures.

Pros and Cons of Investing in a Market on the Balancing Point

– You face less risk if you love the area anyway, or have experience or relatives there
– If you make the right choice, you will have made a solid real estate investment
– You will get to have a more desirable lifestyle for less money than if you buy into an already developed market
– You will be rewarded with more and more amenities and attractions as shops and restaurants are attracted to the area
– In a town like Elizabeth City you could easily get involved and help build a strong community because of the scale of the place
– You will have the satisfaction of making a smart bet

– If the market does not develop as you hope, your investment won’t grow, and could even be illiquid
– Expected infrastructure won’t come if the area doesn’t take off
– Crime will be a problem if gentrification and critical mass lag
– You will regret your decision

For further reading:
See our review of nearby Edenton, NC, “A City So Pretty It Hurts”, the oldest continually settled town in NC.

Comments: What are your thoughts about moving into a town with possibilities, but no recent track record? What would it take to convince you, one way or the other? What are some places you think have made the successful transition to hot spot, and which ones are on the cusp? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below. (Note: All of the photos in this article are of Elizabeth City. The large white mansion is in the very center of the downtown.)

Posted by Admin on May 14th, 2013


  1. At this stage in my life (mid 60s) I’m too old to hope a place develops into something I want it to be. This might be fine for a middle age person who has time to wait it out and the energy to try to make it happen. For me, I want to know what I’m buying into as much as I can and I want what I want right now. I’d rather pay more and be assured that the location is stable and won’t place my investment as risk.

    by LS — May 15, 2013

  2. I think it would be great to be part of something like this.

    by easilyamused — May 15, 2013

  3. I agree with LS. I am approaching 60 and feel that i need to be smart in my decisions that would affect my finances, my safety, and the ability to enjoy a community i may move to …the choices I make now are vital to my future well being. Just as we are informed in our investments….now is the time for conservative risks not taking higher risks…especially with one of your bigger assets …. Your home.

    by Iwashere — May 15, 2013

  4. I think it’s very important to spend time in the potential location. I also have a google alert for certain places, and the news headlines for some of them are enlightening. For example, the small town of Vandergrift, a former steel mill town in SW PA, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh, was the home of my mother’s family. As my aunt declined in health and I had to make more trips there, and eventually move her to NY and then deal with the emptying and sale of her house, I saw many of the great parts of this small town, in terms of community spirit among people who’d lived there for generations. However, I also saw firsthand a forlorn downtown and from the google alert read many headlines, most of which dealt with drugs and a high crime rate. And yet, also from that alert I found that some media source had designated Vandergrift as an “up and coming small town”–because of the good PR efforts of the chamber of commerce and other boosters!! I am always leery of all these “best” and “worst” lists, and when I saw that article, I thought, people sit in their offices and read press releases and do a bit of google research, but nothing beats seeing a place for months on end. I guess whether you decide to buy in a “potential” retirement area has to deal with your own personal comfort for risk, how much you have to be able to gamble on the risk, and how the pros outweigh the cons. I also suggest you really look into local services available to seniors–check out the local senior centers–do they really have the classes and environment you want? Check out the local library–if it’s not great, it’s doubtful that it will become great, as that money is almost all government dependent, and if there’s little tax base…And check out your medical offerings. If those are subpar, you might not have time, as a retiree, for that area to grow and attract the physicians nad medical infrastructure you will need. you might be healthy now, but believe you me, things can turn on you at the drop of a hat. BUT….all that said, from someone who’s relatively risk-averse, I applaud those people who are able to, and comfortable with, taking the risk to help places turn around!

    by Paula — May 15, 2013

  5. We bought in a small college town 16 yrs ago, refurbishing a century old home. The town has been on the rebound since we arrived. However, now we have decided to move closer to our daughter. We’ve had our house on the market for well over a year, and it hasn’t sold. In other words, we cannot get the value of our investment back. So to those out there wanting to take the risk, beware that if you change your mind you may not be able to get your investment back.

    by Cynthia — May 15, 2013

  6. It wouldn’t be for me. I agree with those who want to be retired, not speculating about real estate and community development. And I didn’t hear a word about hurricanes. That area doesn’t get them as frequently as Florida, but when they do come ashore there, look out!

    by Brent Cole — May 15, 2013

  7. I am confused about the reference to “Mesquite, Arizona” I believe Mesquite is in Nevada, and its proximity to Las Vegas has made it somewhat of a touristy spot with nice golf courses and some casinos. If there is a Mesquite Arizona, where is it located?

    Editor’s note: Sorry, that was our mistake, now corrected. Mesquite is in Nevada (but close to Arizona). Good catch!

    by Janet Farrell — May 15, 2013

  8. Interesting but not for me, I have been to some of these places twenty or more years ago and they were not much back then either so while you can get a great place for less moving somewhere hoping it will prosper is too risky for me. If you want to gamble I recommend blue chips.:wink:

    by Bob — May 15, 2013

  9. Mesquite NV is a place I would avoid like the plague. We bought there in August ’12 and sold in December ’12 and made a few buck above break-even. The people are not people I would want to call neighbors (edited)

    by Dean-Ross Schessler — May 15, 2013

  10. We relocated from south Orange Country CA 11 years ago to Bend, OR, then touted as being a very conservative up and coming retirement city with lots of growth potential in tourism and technology. But, we saw the local politics drift away from being conservative to liberal in short order due to incoming transients from CA, WA, and Portland, OR. Property owners keep getting hit time and again with new taxes for this and that. A lot of taxpayer money is spent on builidng round-a-bouts and parks which seldom are used. The has been minimal support for “big box” national stores as the people with money travel over to Portland or Seattle to do their shopping. Then in late 2006 the real estate market bubble burst and property values tanked. Real estate interest has finally started to grow again… and as soon as we can sell our home we’re definately moving out of Oregon for good and better.:sad:

    by Winston — May 15, 2013

  11. Winston, I’m curious. Where will you move? What state or area?

    by Kathy — May 15, 2013

  12. Lots of good comments. Paula,I am of a similar mindset – spend time (30 days or more) in the area you are looking at retiring to. Live like the locals before making a decision. With that said, I’ve been in several small coastal or near coastal NC towns that are not necessarily meccas for rich retirees, but which are cozy, friendly and relatively inexpensive places to live. Being a “water baby” I could probably be happy in a shack if it was within 10 miles of a beach or inlet of some type. Of course in this utopian attitude I am not allowing for serious medical care or adjusting to a completely new place with no one around that I know. So, again, living like a local for a month or two would be helpful in making sure I don’t make a mistake that will affect my quality of life long term.

    by NCGenie — May 16, 2013

  13. I just retired; my wife will retire in about a year. We live on Long Island. Both of us love the West and have vacationed out there for over 25 years and in the last 10 with an eye for a retirement location. We have decided on New Mexico. Bernalillo and Los Lunas are active adult communities near Albuquerque that we have visited several years ago and have been eyeing their progess. They are lagging behind their projections due to the economy and because very few people know they are there. However we will be making another trip very soon to see them firsthand. We would like to rent a place there for a while just to get a real feel for the place before we commit as at this late date we don’t want to mess up and get stuck.

    by Basil — May 16, 2013

  14. Dean-Ross Schessler

    I would be very much interested in communicating with you to get some in-depth comments concerning your experience. We just built a house in Sun City Mesquite, and will be moving there next week. My e-mail address is paulnbonnh@yahoo.com I very much look forward to hearing from you.


    by paul & Bonnie — May 17, 2013

  15. My criteria that I’ve used whenever I thought of relocating is first climate then: 1. within 10 miles of an excellent hospital and medical services, 2. within 30 – 45 minutes of a major or moderate airport, 3. within 20 – 30 minutes of a college, 4. within 10 minutes of grocery shopping, 5. within 10 miles of water recreation, 6. within 30 minutes of a mall or major shopping area, 7. within 30 minutes of stable employment and industries, 8. within 5 minutes of a growing area, never move to an area that is stagnant or unstable in any way These are all factors that I take into consideration; the order is variable and some can be more dominant.

    by George Candella — May 18, 2013

  16. Elizabeth City, N.C. sounds interesting. I have almost ruled out east of I95
    because of cost and hurricanes. Elizabeth City is right off I95. Waterfront sounds interesting. I now like swimming and kayaking and when I am too old to
    do more than sit on the porch, I would like to watch water activity.

    I would definitely want the support of a retirement community moving to a new place without friends or family. Does Elizabeth City have that?
    Perhaps C of C or other email contacts?

    by Moving South — May 18, 2013

  17. Hurricanes are a problem, and Elizabeth City was hit hard years ago. I was down there for a visit, and I didn’t see any reason to move there. Son was assigned there for training w/Coast Guard, and he didn’t care for the place. A lot of people go north to Norfolk, VA for some things. If you need a job, gooood luck. A lot of people sit on their porches and watch the world go by.

    by Edward — May 24, 2013

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