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 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.
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).
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.
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.)