Answer: Hayes-Barton in Raleigh, Hope Valley in Durham and Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Duh!
But, if you don't have millions of dollars, you'll be asking a slightly different question: What are the next hot locations? The undiscovered goldmines where regular folk can put their pan in today and hit the jackpot within, say, five years?
My first answer to that question is to check along the route of the Triangle Transit Authority's commuter rail line. As car traffic worsens on I-40 and N.C. 54, public transportation is going to be a desirable commodity. The TTA line is especially well set up for downtown Durham, both coming from and going to RTP and Raleigh. Condominiums like the ones developed by Blue Devil Ventures in the old tobacco warehouses off Main Street in Durham called West Village, seem like a can't-miss proposition, though the time frame may be more than five years. (The TTA line is currently scheduled to start operation in 2008.)
In the near term, five places come to mind based on their location, location. They are close to downtowns or centers of employment, but just outside the current, red-hot orbit. Pleasant, convenient to shopping, but so far unrecognized ... which means they have an excellent chance to be next if you get there first. They are:
1. Caraleigh in Raleigh. There's opportunity awaiting on both sides of South Saunders Street as you drive into or out of downtown Raleigh (toward Garner). The community is dotted with old industrial locations, the Walnut Terrace public housing complex, two prisons and Wake County's biggest homeless shelter. But wait. Walnut Terrace is nice enough, and it occupies a smashing piece of rolling land next to a city park, Washington Elementary--a G.T. magnet school-- and an old cemetery with the best skyline view in Raleigh. The Raleigh Housing Authority is tearing down the old complexes--Halifax Court is gone, and Chavis Heights will be next--and chances are that Walnut Terrace, too, won't survive the decade.
Whether it does or doesn't, however, most of Caraleigh is small, well-maintained houses on pretty city streets within a mile (yes, one mile) of downtown. And on the west side of South Saunders Street, there's actually open land. But despite it's location off South Saunders, which everyone knows is, well, you know--"shady"-- good buys are still there for the taking. Houses that would sell for $350,000 a mile or two away can be had in Caraleigh for one-third as much or less. The neighborhood isn't completely undiscovered, however. Driving through last weekend, I was struck by how many Hispanic families were out and about, fixing up, working on their gardens, playing with their children.
Can gentrification be far behind? Murray Gould, a local developer, is making plans to spend $10 million renovating the old Raleigh water company plant at the southern edge of Caraleigh--restaurants, shops, offices--and if he does, it could turn out to be just what he says it will: "the southern anchor of the new gateway to the city."
2. Mordecai in Raleigh. Speaking of fixing up, did everyone in Mordecai sign a contract to be out repairing their houses last weekend? Mordecai is the neighborhood just to the north of downtown Raleigh, and it is hopping. The removal of a public housing complex is one spur for all the activity--Halifax Court is being replaced by a mix of new single-family houses and some apartments for senior citizens--but the main one is that Mordecai is a stone's throw from the state government center. Now that Oakwood's up and running, Mordecai's next, and the infill condos and shops are starting to sprout along Wake Forest Road.
Like Caraleigh, the neighborhood benefits from its gently rolling terrain and the interior streams around which the streets were organized early in the 20th century. Houses are both old and new, big and small, spiffy and "needs work." But even the fixed-up ones aren't off the price charts--yet. An 1,800-square feet bungalow from the '20s, 3BR, 3 1/2B (!), "lovingly renovated" and adorned on four sides by gardens, is on the market for $220,000. In other words, Mordecai's heated up a little, but there's still time to get in before it's hot.
3. East Durham off N.C. 70. Don't want an older home in an in-town location? How about something brand new, near the airport, just off I-540, and only minutes to RTP or Crabtree Valley? I'm talking about Pleasantville subdivisions with basketball hoops in the cul-de-sacs and baby strollers on the lawns. And for under $100 a square foot.
Yes, if I were like the young couple I met recently, both Duke Ph.D candidates in biology and buying their first home--and figuring to trade up before too long to a pricier, doctorally appropriate location somewhere else in America--this is where I'd buy, too. It's Durham, so compared to North Raleigh--so 20th century, after all--this is new. Like Olde Raleigh, though, East Durham's also old(e), as in Olde South Homes' Pagemore subdivision, where a 2,100-square foot house is yours for $187,490. Realtors say new houses appreciate quickly as the landscape heals from the bulldozers and the new shrubbery grows in. For more immediate satisfaction, try the no-longer-new Ashley Forest subdivision off Page Road, to which Pagemore (get it?) connects.
4. Northside on the Carrboro-Chapel Hill line. Speaking of location, on the other end of Franklin Street houses sell for $500 a square foot, yet here, just north of where Franklin Street runs into Carrboro, is a neighborhood considered down at the Tar Heel. But if mid-town Raleigh is too distant, and suburban Durham too whatever, and if you're looking for a neighborhood in which your well- chosen investment can hardly go wrong, this is the place.
Northside, a racially diverse community, is full of houses occupied by UNC students--usually three per house, at least on the rental sheet, at $500 a month per customer. But it's also a place where Empowerment Inc., the nonprofit crackerjack, is buying up rundown houses, fixing them up as single-family units and then reselling them to modest folk at affordable prices. Block by block, Empowerment is racing private investors who are also in the market, according to Mark Chilton, its executive director. The investors are sometimes in it to resell, sometimes to rent. Gradually, given the proximity of Northside to the highest-priced neighborhoods in Orange County, it seems likely the single-family houses will push out the rentals.
But if the investor is you, what do you care?
5. Bynum in Chatham County off 15-501. Thomas Perry, a man who was about to go fishing in the Haw River there the day I passed through, said: "Bynum used to have it goin' on, but it's a ghost town now."
It's a ghost town because they closed the little bridge across the river and replaced it with the one on N.C. 15-501, which if you haven't been out this way lately is being turned, bulldozer load by bulldozer load, from a country road into a major highway between Pittsboro (actually, the I-64 bypass) and Chapel Hill. Huge housing developments are planned all along 15-501, and maybe they'll be good buys and maybe they won't. But if you want a rural location ... a place where they have country music at the general store ... and everybody knows the owner, Jerry Partin, who also runs the post office ... why not take the turn for Bynum and check it out. That's Jerry in the picture on the wall with the soon-to-be-famous Tift Merritt, who has a new CD coming out.
There's going to be a party for her on Sunday, June 9, at the store. Starts at 4. This Friday, May 18, 7 p.m.: Wiffer Creek.