Are you thinking of moving to Charleston, SC?
So is everyone else, it feels like.
In fact, 28 people move to the three counties of the Charleston metro region every day.
Plenty of articles and people (especially real estate agents) will list all kinds of fantastic qualities of the experience of moving to Charleston.
An abridged list includes:
- The beaches
- The history
- The friendly people
- The world-class food scene
- The beauty of Lowcountry nature and abundance of outdoor activities
- Beautiful weather (especially compared to the Northeast and Midwest)
And there’s no question these are all huge selling points for living in Charleston.
But there are a few things I, as someone who was previously thinking about moving to Charleston before picking up and settling here, would have appreciated knowing beforehand.
Many Charleston travel tips and tricks apply here as well, but this list is more focused on living here.
So, without further ado, my list of things I’ve learned about Charleston after actually living here. I also threw-in some observations others have mentioned to me. While they don’t bother me, they may matter a lot to other potential future Charlestonians, so they’re included.
23 Things to Consider if You’re Thinking of Moving to Charleston, SC
Of course, no place is perfect. There are positives and negatives to anywhere in the world you live.
That said, you do need to make sure that you can live with the negatives of a place, and hopefully before you arrive.
Charleston is no different. While I love living here, there are a few drawbacks. Many of them stem from it being a small town that’s growing rapidly, and its location.
The belief that Charleston, South Carolina, was a small, sleepy historic town used to be true, even until the past decade or so.
But now, the city and nearby towns are growing rapidly. Large areas that used to be woodland, farmland, or empty lots are now getting turned into major residential developments.
Downtown Charleston has been a construction zone since 2012, with at least two cranes hovering over the skyline at any given time since then. No neighborhood in downtown Charleston has been left untouched, and that growth is extending throughout the area.
There is a serious risk that the rising property values and shifting of the local economy to accommodate tourists may turn Charleston into a museum. That is, full of historic sites but not a lot of people actually living downtown, akin to Venice.
The process is slow, but steady, with each grocery store or local hangout getting sold and turned into an expensive restaurant, hotel, or luxury condo complex.
Yes, the traffic here doesn’t compare to major cities like New York, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. But considering the size of the population, it’s worse than it should be.
It’s mostly related to the fact that we’re a coastal city. Bridges to cross channels create chokepoints in traffic that wouldn’t be an issue elsewhere, for example.
There are other issues that I’ll cover later, like driving skills of locals and flooding. But we’ll leave it at the limitations of coastal infrastructure for now.
Some common roads to keep an eye on and avoid when possible during busy times include:
- Maybank Highway on James Island and Johns Island
- Highway 526, or the beltway from West Ashley through North Charleston and Daniel Island to Mount Pleasant
- Bee’s Ferry Road in West Ashley
- Ashley Phosphate in North Charleston
- Highway 17 (in Mount Pleasant) and Savannah Highway (in West Ashley)
The Charleston County School District is one of the best school systems in South Carolina.
But that isn’t sayming much.
Like a lot of other states, if you have kids or are planning on having kids while you’re here, keep an eye on where you settle and what school district your kids will or would be attending.
Charleston again does not compare to the Northeast in terms of taxation. But it’s still fairly high, especially when compared to other parts of the South.
A couple examples of taxes on non-necessities:
- Restaurant alcohol tax is 15%
- Restaurant food tax is 10.5%
- The combined sales tax rate in Charleston is 9%
South Carolina property taxes are among the lowest in the country, but that’s cold comfort if you’re renting.
There is a lot to love about Charleston’s prime location on the coast. But that may not be the whole story for everyone moving here.
Beaches near Charleston
As I mentioned before, the beaches near Charleston are fantastic. And people come from all over the South and Midwest just to have their beach vacation here.
And living so close to the beaches means you can take advantage of them in ways people who spend a fortune to visit can’t. For example, you can easily hit the beaches at the end of the day after you get off work, if only for a few hours before the sun goes down.
The Charleston International Airport
For such a small town, the airport here is quite good. The Charleston International Airport is convenient from anywhere in town and easy to get through in terms of lines and security. Plus, there are plenty of connections to other places in the United States.
The “International” part of the name is a joke, though. But you can easily get a flight to one of the major international hubs, like JFK in New York City, and travel out from there.
Charleston’s Proximity to Other Towns and Cities
Nestled on the coastal edge of South Carolina, Charleston is surrounded by ocean on one side and vast expanses of rural farmland on the other. Towns and cities in the South in general are fewer and farther between than the Northeast.
As such, there are few quick day trip opportunities from Charleston, but plenty of road trips. A few of the most popular road trips from Charleston include:
- Beaufort (an hour and a half hour drive)
- Savannah (a 2 hour drive)
- Columbia (a 2 hour drive)
- Charlotte (a 3 hour drive)
- Augusta (a 3 hour drive)
- Greenville (a 4 hour drive)
- Asheville (a 4 hour drive)
- Atlanta (a 5 hour drive)
Outdoor Activities and Things to Do in Charleston
The Lowcountry and its marshes and creeks is the perfect place for all sorts of water-based outdoor activities:
- Surfing (while not the biggest waves, there’s a sizeable surfing community centered around Folly Beach)
The Lowcountry has its name for a reason though: it is flat, with few exceptions.
In that regard, biking in Charleston is a breeze. But it’s also often a dangerous activity, especially with the way people drive here.
Plus, hiking is non-existent. I don’t even call it hiking around here, instead I go for terms like, “walking in the woods”, or “swamp walk”. If you miss hiking (as I do), you have to drive at least 4 hours to the Upstate of South Carolina or western North Carolina.
No list of things you need to know about Charleston would be complete without mention of the weather.
Most of the year, the weather is consistently fantastic. August and early September can be brutal in terms of heat and humidity, and there are usually two weeks in February that are brutally cold. But October here is the best weather month you’ll find anywhere.
Provided there’s no flooding event, as there has been the last few years.
Charleston has had a major flooding episode almost every year the past four years or so. They were either hundred-year floods or hurricanes. But that’s what happens when you build the 75th largest metro area in America on a marsh.
Find a historic map that shows what former roads and streets downtown used to be creeks or marsh. Then remember to never go near those streets during heavy rains, high tides, and especially when both happen at the same time.
A water-tolerant vehicle wouldn’t hurt either. My low-to-the-ground station wagon never sounded the same after I foolishly tried to drive across the peninsula during the hundred-year flood.
Heat and Humidity
The heat never gets too severe here, but it’s the humidity that will kill you. The most hot and humid days will feel as if you’re swimming in the air.
Fortunately, everyone else will be sweaty and gross, too, so you won’t be embarrassed by your profuse sweating. But with an average year-round humidity of 73%, don’t say you weren’t warned before you got here.
But to quote a Northerner who lives here, the summers in Charleston are like the winters in New England; you enjoy the outdoors when you want to, and stay indoors as much as possible when you don’t.
At the same time, Charleston gets colder than people realize before moving here. There is a two-week period in about February when most native Charlestonians go on vacation to warmer places. While it doesn’t often snow here (and the city shuts down when it does), the air stays wet no matter how cold it is. As such, the cold penetrates your clothes and sticks to your bones when you’re outside.
Seasons in Charleston
We don’t really have them.
Seriously, though, you better like summer here, because we have a long one. Winter typically feels like a long autumn period for Northerners, while Spring is a short burst before the long slide into summer.
The hottest months are June through September, with August being the worst. But October, November, and often December are fantastic months.
Hurricanes (and Maybe Earthquakes)
People sometimes forget this, but we are in hurricane country. We haven’t had anywhere near as big of one come close since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. That said, we’ve had some close calls, and the city still gets inundated even when it gets missed.
A silver lining is that a hurricane is an opportunity to remind yourself why you’re a renter as you ride-off on a roadtrip to another nearby Southern city.
Also, my cousin who works as an engineer reminds me on a regular basis that Charleston is on a fault-line as long as the San Andreas fault. It’s been a long time since Charleston had an earthquake, and she gleefully reminds me that we’re long overdue for one.
The last earthquake caused more damage to Charleston than the Civil War.
Charleston is a great place to practice a lot of sports. It’s not as strong of a place if you prefer to watch live sports.
There are no major sports teams in Charleston. The closest ones are in Charlotte, 3 hours away, and Atlanta, about 5-6 hours away.
That said, there are minor league teams:
- Hockey (South Carolina Stingrays)
- Soccer (the Charleston Battery)
- Baseball (the Riverdogs at the Joseph P Riley stadium)
Cost of Living
This is a big one. No one pointed this out to me before I moved here!
When I first moved here, Charleston looked cheap. But everywhere looks cheap when you’re coming from the New York area.
The cost of living in Charleston is about 15% higher than the national average. The median home value here, for example, is about $300,000. That’s significantly higher than the national average of $216,000.
On top of that, wages are depressed. I’d say they’re lower by about 15% as well compared to national averages.
In reality, it makes sense: lots of people move here to enjoy the quality of life, not because of how much money they’ll make. And with a pull like that, they are less likely to care how much it costs to live here.
But if this matters a lot to you, look elsewhere.
The rest of this list runs the gamut from drinking to diversity.
Each town, area, and neighborhood of Charleston is different from the others and has its own values, local culture, and cost of living.
I live in downtown Charleston, but some other favorite areas include: Avondale, Park Circle, and Folly Beach. Other areas that may be more suitable for you include Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island, North Charleston, and Summerville.
Drinking is Everyone’s Pastime in Charleston, Except Bureaucrats
Collectively, Charleston is a heavy drinking community. We even have a brewery district in the Neck of the Charleston peninsula now.
Charleston’s craft breweries brew enough beer to sell 32 pints to every adult in Charleston county, if that says anything. It was a struggle to get my office to move away from only offering happy hours as social gatherings.
That said, the local government does work to curtail availability of alcohol. Charleston’s strict liquor laws prohibit Sunday sales, and you can’t buy hard liquor except from what locals call “red dot stores”, which generally close after 7:00 p.m.
In addition, all downtown Charleston bars close promptly at 2 am. And that means everyone has already left by then, with last-call at 1:30 am. In other parts of town, bars still close at 2 am, but they don’t get fined for still having people onsite, so they’re not forced to chase you out.
Drivers are Scary Here
Speeding and careless driving combine their powers to make South Carolina drivers the third worst in the country. That obviously makes insurance more expensive, going back to the cost of living here.
Lots of Live Music, But Not a Lot of Big Names
There are an abundance of venues for live music, to name a few:
- The Pour House
- Charleston Music Hall
- Music Farm
- Royal American
But most big name music artists and bands don’t come to Charleston. Just like the major sports teams, you have to make the trek to Charlotte, Atlanta, or even Florida.
There are a Ton of Events in Charleston
There is one major event almost every weekend from March to June. After a summer respite, it picks up again in September until December. They make pretty much any time the best time to visit Charleston.
On top of that, there are multiple smaller events going on every weekend. Don’t develop a fear of missing out: go for the ones you really want to attend, and remember that they’ll be happening again next year.
The ones worth repeating, anyway.
That said, there are no carnivals here. They’re a mainstay up north in the summer, but non-existent down here.
Unemployment is Low, But Diversity is a Problem
Charleston has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. Jobs are easily had, but the majority are in hospitality, either tourism, lodging, or restaurants.
While the tech industry is growing, the Charleston job market still feels more like a who you know kind of place in terms of getting a job. While I didn’t have a job lined-up when I moved here, I was fairly lucky.
The better recommendation would be to have a job lined up before you head down here.
Diversity is a Problem, Again
For people from areas with high diversity in the population, be ready for the difference of a Southern city. The combination of the African-American and white community makes-up over 90% of the Charleston community.
While this is changing slowly as Charleston grows, other communities are small. Ethnic restaurants are a rarity, though you have more options in North Charleston.
And racial inequality is still a problem in Charleston.
The Art Scene is Traditional
There are a few liberal and post-modern artists centered here, but the majority of art you’ll find in galleries and museums is focused on scenic, coastal, and nature art.
Dogs, Dudes, and Dames
And a couple random thoughts:
The official female to male ratio is 52% / 48% in Charleston, but it feels more lopsided than that to more than a few people here. People also marry fairly young here, especially compared to up North.
But many people don’t have time for love, as their focus is on their dogs. Charleston loves dogs, and there are more than a few dog-friendly restaurants, bars, and most public places welcome them.
Still Thinking of Moving to Charleston, South Carolina?
Wow, you actually finished that list? Good for you.
But seriously, Charleston is a great place to live, with plenty of positives to outweigh the negatives or just the annoyances. But the only person who will be able to say if Charleston is the perfect place for you is you.
Come for a visit. Maybe come a couple times. Poke around, check-out neighborhoods you’re interested in living in, then rent for a year to make sure you’ve made the right decision.
Then let me know you’re in town.