Wilmington sees influx of new residents as working remotely increases in popularity

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If you’re reading this on a laptop from your work-at-home setup, you may be among the growing number who appreciate the changing nature of the traditional office setting that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. Since spring 2020, N.C. coastal communities have seen waves (no pun intended) of visitors who would rather work from the beach than their usual metropolitan-ville. 

The result? Many stay, buy and move to the coast.

A United Van Lines survey shows Wilmington as the No. 1 city for in-bound moves in 2020. (New York City was No. 1 for outbound migration.)

What does this mean for coastal economies?

“[It] presents an opportunity for us to stretch our tourism season further,” says Natalie English, CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, who adds that economic development partners are “working with a number of companies” interested in relocating or seeking commercial real estate. 

Real estate site Zillow says Wilmington’s housing market saw an average 6.7% price increase in 2020 and is expected to rise another 10% this year. Local TV station WWAY reported this month that Brunswick County, just south of Wilmington, set a real estate record in 2020, with nearly $2.2 billion in total residential sales volume, up 51.3% from 2019.

Part of Wilmington’s attraction, according to Hypepotamus, a startup and tech media company, is its blossoming status as a fintech hub. There’s a trend of tech-savvy people leaving highly populated centers such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, in favor of smaller cities with high quality of life and low cost of living. Wilmington is already home to big names in the fintech industry such as Live Oak Bank, which launched back in 2005 and has become a national small-business lender that focuses on a couple dozen specific industry groups.The company has spun off cloud-based banking platform nCino, which went public last year and is now valued at more than $7 billion.

Having new residents with money to spend is great for the local economy. But it’s not all sunshine and surfboards.

Karen Brown, president and CEO of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce in Kill Devil Hills says “the new housing market is going crazy. They can’t build houses fast enough to meet demand.”

“The residential housing market is booming. People are trying to move into the area permanently, or they are looking to purchase a second home so they can escape the city whenever they can,” Brown says. “[Realtors] are selling houses as soon as they hit the market, often sight unseen. There are cash buyers ready to move. This is creating a logjam for our ‘closers’ and mortgage brokers as well as our inspectors, our contractors who do renovations, etc.”

The downside is that there are fewer “rental homes available for our workforce who can’t afford to purchase a home or can’t find something in their price range,” Brown notes.

Realtor.com shows Kill Devil Hills listings in the 1,300-square-foot range marked for $319,000 and more.

Brown also notes that restaurants are in survival mode since they are limited in the amount of customers they are allowed to serve with pandemic restrictions. “With shortened hours of operation, limited capacity and lack of workforce, it is difficult for them to keep up.”

With work-from-home residents entering the market, coastal areas also are pushing for improved broadband access and expanded utilities. English says Wilmington “has a bit of work to do” to assure access to broadband is available to everyone and that the community has plans in place to extend water and sewer to unsupplied areas. Tom Kies, president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce, says, “There are already a number of housing developments underway and more in the planning stages. In some municipalities, there is talk about expanding utilities and there is a broadband committee of county and community leaders actively looking for ways to expand broadband and increase its speed.”

Like Brown, Kies says he’s seen “a number of new companies that have expressed interest in coming here. There’s plenty to do here including kayaking, boating, fishing, hiking, and just taking it easy.” 

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