Wide Rivers, Grand Homes, a Slower Pace and More Than Three Hundred Years of History Greet Retirees in Charming New Bern, North Carolina
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
New Bern (population 31,000 and pronounced Noo-bun by longtime locals) sits in North Carolina's Inner Banks region where the Neuse River and Trent River converge. It is about 30 miles inland from the mid-coast's Pamlico Sound and Atlantic Ocean and is often overlooked by tourists as they hurry on their way to North Carolina's Outer Banks.
This is too bad for the tourists but good for New Bern residents who are left to enjoy their charming town in relative peace and quiet. Settled by Swiss and German immigrants in the early 18th century and named after Switzerland's capital city, this 306-year-old port is the state's second oldest town and served as its capital for a time.
It nearly burned to the ground in the Great Fire of New Bern in 1922, but today it is an affordable, growing riverfront community popular with retirees seeking a peaceful lifestyle in a generally mild climate. Forty-one percent of the population is age 45 or better, and most residents lean to the right politically. The city is racially diverse and has grown by 75% in the last decade or two. The crime rate meets the national average.
The cost of living is 8% below the national average, and the median home price is $155,000. Housing is diverse and includes single family homes, town homes and condominiums, many next to the water. New Bern's historic districts consist of elegantly renovated homes, as well as houses waiting to be restored to their original dignified condition.
The downtown historic district is one of the most beautiful in all of North Carolina. Dotted with homes from the late 1700s and early 1800s, it has elegant mansions, neat bungalows and is zoned residential and commercial. The Ghent Historic District, dating from 1913 to WWII, has classic residences, many with screened-in porches and antebellum column fronts. This neighborhood started out as a "trolley car" suburb and today has large flowering fruit trees, tidy lawns and old-fashioned street lamps. Homes run from about $100,000 to the $300,000s.
The Degraffenried District, just north of Ghent, may be New Bern's most distinguished neighborhood, with many stately two-story Federal brick homes on large lots with dogwoods, azaleas, red crape myrtles and cypress trees thick with Spanish moss.
Prices in this area run from around $200,000 to about $450,000. Riverside, built from 1896 to WWII, has a nice mix of home styles, from bungalows to high-peaked, two-story Victorian structures with wrap around porches. Prices range from approximately $100,000 to $500,000 or more.
New Bern also has a good selection of newer neighborhoods, many with country club amenities, including golf, boating, tennis and swimming pools. A few of these are Trent Woods (homes from $200,000s), Fairfield Harbour (homes from the low- to mid-$100,000s), Greenbriar (homes from the low- to mid-$100,000s) and Taberna, which is popular with retirees (homes from the mid- to high-$100,000s). More modest but well tended neighborhoods, many with one story dwellings and small yards, include Sellhorn Heights, Derby Park and Jimmies Creek. Apartments are not in great supply.
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 New Bern, the annual taxes on a $155,000 home are approximately $1,450.
Sailors, power boaters, fishermen and other water devotees love New Bern. Nestled along the banks of the two wide, gentle rivers, one with direct access to the Intracoastal Waterway, and surrounded by deep navigable creeks, the city abounds with marinas, docks and piers. This ideal riverfront location is what prompted Baron Christophe von Graffenreid, New Bern's founder, to settle here in 1710. By the early 19th century New Bern was a major lumber and ship-building center, and that tradition continues, if to a lesser extent, with Hatteras Yachts, a luxury watercraft company, headquartered here. New Bern is also the birthplace of the state's first public school, the state's first newspaper and Pepsi Cola, the soft drink giant.
The 56-square-block downtown, where the rivers meet and create a cityscape of white fishing trawlers, blue water and historic real estate, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has structures spanning three centuries. Pedestrian friendly and charming, this section of town boasts cute shops, cafes, art galleries, antique stores, clothing retailers, banks, public art, coffee houses and more. The farmers' market is open on Saturdays.
When not boating or enjoying a good restaurant, New Bernians have plenty to do (although nightlife, other than a leisurely stroll along the waterfront after a tasty meal, is practically non-existent). Tryon Palace is worth a visit and boasts four beautiful homes furnished with 18th century antiques and art, a variety of lovely gardens and well-done demonstrations of period crafts, cooking and blacksmithing. The Croatan National Forest, a battle site during the Civil War, offers venues for camping, picnicking, hiking and fishing.
For live performance buffs, the New Bern Civic Theatre presents varied dramas, comedies, musicals, and other entertainment. The New Bern-Craven County Public Library City is small but has computers with Internet access. Craven Community College offers lifetime learning opportunities from computer courses to film and lecture series. Tours by trolley or carriage along with the Firemen's Museum, the Bank of the Arts, the New Bern Academy Museum, a monthly art walk and seven golf courses are further ways to stay active.
The New Bern Parks and Recreation Department has a good menu of activities for all ages and has a number of programs specifically for people age 55 and better, including a Golden Age Club, Senior Activity Days, Senior Appreciation Day, Seniorcise and more. It also sponsors the Neuse River Senior Games and Silver Arts Show, a health-promoting event for adults age 55 years and better. Craven County Senior Services, located in New Bern, provides services and activities, too, including exercise programs, yoga, self-help and supportive services, health screenings and various enrichment classes in cooperation with Craven Community College. Lunch is provided, and the agency operates the county's Meals on Wheels program. The Senior Pharmacy Program assists seniors age 60 and better with costs for prescription medications.
New Bern also has a "Newcomers Club" that makes transitioning to town that much easier. It has a good menu of activities, including dinner parties, wine socials and trips, and groups, including a book club, a singles group and a boating group. The Club meets on the second Wednesday of each month and charges $25 to $30 per year.
CarolinaEast Medical Center (350 beds) is the primary health care provider. It has dedicated units for heart care, critical care, intensive care, women's care, orthopedic care, surgical care, cancer care and more. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, the nearest VA hospital is in Fayetteville, 100 miles away. Midway Park, 30 miles away, has a VA outpatient clinic.
This area's climate is humid subtropical, which translates into hot, damp summers with thunderstorms and somewhat chilly winters with a trace of snow. Summer temperatures are in the 70s and 80s, occasionally reaching the low-90s. Winter temperatures are in the 30s, 40s and 50s. On average, the area receives 55 inches of rain per year. The air quality and water quality are both above the national norms, and the sun shines 213 days of the year.
Public transportation is provided by CARTS. It is fixed route service with a call ahead service that caters to older residents and disabled folks. Thirty-five vans and mini-buses travel to Wal-mart, Twin Rivers Mall and CarolinaEast Medical Center, among other stops, and fares are $1 to $6.75, depending on distance. Seniors ride for half price. The Coastal Carolina Regional Airport provides passenger air service with flights daily to Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.
Retirement in New Bern has a few drawbacks. The poverty rate is above the national average, and manifestations of this can be seen in some neighborhoods. Higher-end retailers and nicer restaurants are not the norm. The town is set back 30 miles from the Atlantic, but it has been brushed by hurricanes and will be again (2016's Hurricane Matthew and 2017's Hurricane Irma brought some flooding, downed trees and toppled power lines). The chance of a tornado is 25% greater than the national average.
Despite these downsides, New Bern brims with Lowcountry hospitality, gentle charm and easy living. Its deep roots and Southern traditions create a strong sense of place. Women in wide-brimmed hats tend to Victorian gardens. Men inspect their water vessels before heading out for a long day of fishing. The sweet aroma of magnolias hangs in the air. For many people, Noo-bun comes close to retirement heaven.
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