21 Pros and Cons of Living in the Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Outer Banks area of North Carolina is a 200-mile long line of barrier islands that sit in between the North Carolina coast and the Atlantic Ocean. These islands are only about 3 miles wide, making the Banks a very long and skinny strip of land sitting right on the Atlantic Ocean. 

The Bank’s natural purpose is to absorb the energy of ocean storm waves and winds, thus protecting the coastal bays and wetlands that lie to the west of the islands. 

Much of the Outer Banks lies inside of Dare County and this article will primarily focus on statistics related to Dare. 

It is undeniable that the Outer Banks is a great vacation spot for beach lovers, but in the following, we will discuss what it is like to live as a full-time resident in the Banks. 

A photo taken from the ocean looking back towards the shoreline. Several brightly colored beach houses can be seen. There are people on the beach

Are the Outer Banks a Good Place to Live?

If you are passionate about beach life then you should consider moving to the Outer Banks area. However, you will need to be willing to deal with the following main drawbacks of living in a beach resort town:

  • The cost of housing is 40% above the national average
  • High-paying and year-round jobs are difficult to find
  • Summers are going to be crowded with tourists and traffic is going to be bad

If having 365-day access to the beach is worth overcoming the above challenges, then the Outer Banks may be the right home for you.

Can You Live in the Outer Banks Year-Round?

Yes, there are 34K people that call the Banks home year-round. The area infrastructure operates 12-months out of the year, so the towns are always “open”. 

The difficulties in living in the Banks during the winter is that the tourist industry grinds to a halt so many of the area jobs also take a seasonal pause. In addition, many of the area restaurants, stores, and attractions close down for the winter.

13 Benefits of Living in the Outer Banks – Pros

In the below, we will summarize the benefits of calling the Outer Banks a full-time home, and not just a vacation spot.

1. Beaches 

A photo looking down the sandy beach. To the left are folks swimming. To the right are vehicles that were driven onto the beach. Many tire tracks can be seen in the sand

Obviously, folks become full-time residents of the Outer Banks because they want 365-day access to the beaches and ocean. The Banks have over 100-miles of coastline. If you own a truck that can drive on the sand you can have access to very private beaching spots.

In addition to having access to many miles of ocean shoreline, the west side of the Banks borders against the shallow waters of the sounds, and the many rivers that empty into these sounds.

Residents of the Outer Banks have full-time access to any water activity they wish to partake in.

2. Fishing

The Outer Banks are in an ideal geographic location for fishing, with the warm Gulf Stream passing just 15 miles from shore, and the continental shelf and associated canyons being around 30 miles away. 

The Banks area is home to both commercial and sport fishing. Folks not only fish offshore in boats, but also fish from the shoreline surf, from piers, and from bridges.

Fishing not only occurs in the ocean, but the brackish rivers and sounds also have abundant fishing opportunities. 

In total, there are over two dozen fish species commonly caught from the shores and waters of the Outer Banks.

3. Weather

The Gulf Stream water stays at a reasonably steady temperature from 60-80 degrees throughout the year. This helps to keep temperatures in the Outer Banks moderate; raising temps a few degrees in the winter and cooling a few degrees in the summer. 

The Outer Banks area experiences all four seasons. Winter lows dip to the upper 30s and summer highs are in the upper 80s. 

The location of the Banks makes it prone to wind coming off the waters. These winds are pleasant in the summer but can cause a biting wind chill in the winter.

Overall, the area experiences decent weather for the Spring, Summer, and Fall months. 

4. Schools are Decent

The Dare County Public School system is quite small, having just 10 total schools within its jurisdiction, so that won’t leave parents with too many local schools options to choose from. Thankfully, the Dare County schools are decent, ranking in the Top 10% of school districts in North Carolina. 

The average per-pupil expenditure in the state of North Carolina is only $9,377, putting North Carolina as the 8th worst funding in the country. However, Dare County gives its education budget an extra boost, spending $11,666 per student. This puts Dare funding around the national average. It is likely that Dare is benefiting from the expensive housing in its area, and using property tax revenue to help fund schools.

5. Excellent Community (2-Year) College

The Outer Banks area is home to the Dare Campus of the College of The Albemarle. This college has been ranked as the #2 community college in the country and is known for its excellent nursing program.

6. Reasonably Close to Norfolk, VA

An aerial photo of the city of Norfolk showing water in the foreground and a variety of tall and short buildings

The Outer Banks lack some of the luxuries that a big city usually has, such as an international airport, major hospitals, universities, and sporting events. Thankfully, Outer Banks residents can reach the metropolitan area of Norfolk, VA in about 2-hours. While a 2-hour drive is not exactly convenient, it is manageable when needed, and far better than the options available to other remote areas of North Carolina. 

7. Multiple World-Class Water Treatment Plants

Many cities produce drinking water by digging deep wells. Unfortunately, the deep wells in coastal towns are often contaminated by saltwater. To overcome this, coastal towns are investing in reverse osmosis technology that allows them to turn brackish water into pure freshwater.

North Carolina has a total of 12 reverse osmosis water plants and nearly half of them are located in the relatively small area of Dare County. This puts the Outer Banks ahead of many other coastal towns in securing a water source into the future.

8. Not Many Drug Deaths

America is in an opioid crisis and every town has residents or visitors that are addicted to drugs. Certain towns are just in worse shape than others when it comes to the level of addiction, overdose deaths, and addiction treatment. 

The Outer Banks area is in decent shape when it comes to drug overdose deaths, averaging just 20 deaths per year in a state with a total of 2,500 deaths each year. That means Outer Banks drug deaths represent just 0.80% of the North Carolina total, which is pretty close to zero. There are some counties in North Carolina averaging 100+ and even 200+ deaths per year.

9. Public Ferries

A photo of a ferry transporting several cars

The State of North Carolina operates the second-largest state-run ferry system in the country moving people and cargo across the various sounds and rivers of the Outer Banks area.

The ferry system includes 21 vessels, launching from 12 ports, along seven routes. Each year the ferries carry approximately 1.8 million people and 800K vehicles. Every day the ferries make more than 200 sailings and cover 1,200 miles. 

Most of these ferry trips are free, while a few cost a couple of dollars. The ferry ride between Knotts Island and Currituck is the longest fare-free ferry route in the world, traveling 5 miles each way in around 45 minutes.

10. Plenty of Restaurant Choices

Being a tourist resort area, the Outer Banks has over 400 national and locally-owned restaurants to entertain both tourists and residents. There is a restaurant to meet every craving and every budget. Given the commercial and sport fishing in the area (Pro #2), you will have plenty of fresh, reasonably-priced seafood to choose from. 

On the downside, though, you may need to battle the tourist crowds during the warm months, and many restaurants close down during the cold months. 

11. Plenty of Festivals

The Outer Banks area has become a go-to location for organizations looking to run a festival. The festival options available are endless, especially in the warm months. These festivals cover a wide variety of subjects such as art, history, health, sports, holidays, music, food, and more. 

If you are willing to battle tourist crowds, you’ll never get bored in the Outer Banks.

12. Plenty of Nightlife

Residents and tourists of the Outer Banks will also never get bored at night because the towns offer a variety of family-friendly and adult-only nightlife opportunities. 

Again, you’ll need to battle tourist crowds and some places may shut down in the cold months.

13. Surfing

Given its unique geology and geographic position, the Outer Banks is known as the surfing capital of the east coast. The storms that pass by the region may chase away the beach-dwellers, but surfers flock in to ride the storm waves. There are more than a dozen popular surfing spots scattered up and down the Bank coast. The annual surfing competition draws contestants from around the world.

8 Drawbacks of Living in the Outer Banks – Cons

Now we’ll turn our attention to the not-so-great aspects of living in an area dedicated to seasonal tourism.

14. High Cost of Living/Housing

A photo of 3 beach homes in the back, and sand dunes in the front

Being a beach resort town, it should be no surprise that the cost of living in the Outer Banks is 9% higher than the US average, driven mostly by the fact housing costs are 40% above average ($325K Banks versus $231K US). There are only 26K houses on the Banks, meaning supply is low while demand is high.

Income on the Banks is right around the US average at $31K per person and $55K per household.

Expensive homes on an average salary mean the cost of living will feel high and you’ll need to work to stretch every dollar.

15. Shortage of Year-Round Employment

Unless you are retired, folks thinking about becoming year-round residents need to figure out where to find gainful employment in the area. 

Top Employers on the Banks include:

  • The public schools
  • Dare County administration
  • Retail (Food Lion, Walmart, McDonald’s)
  • Several Realtors

The entire economy of the Outer Banks revolves around beach tourism which plummets during the winter months. There are no factories, manufacturing, or industrial jobs directly on the islands. There are very few upper and middle management positions. 

Even blue-collar jobs like construction and equipment servicing are low on work during the winters (there is no plumbing to repair if the hotels, restaurants, and rental homes are shut down for the winter). 

As a result, government data shows the unemployment rate in Dare County during the summer months is around the national average of 3%. However, every January, the unemployment rate spikes to a whopping 15%-20+%. 


16. Hurricane Risks

A satellite image showing the white clouds of a large hurricane heading towards the east coast of america

The average elevation of the Outer Banks is 3 feet. A Category 1 hurricane can produce 5 feet of storm surge, while a Category 5 can produce nearly 20 feet.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene made landfall at the very southern tip of the Outer Banks as a Category 1 storm and caused $53 million in damage just in Dare County. 

It is only a matter of time before an even larger storm makes a direct hit to the Banks.

Government data shows the Banks get hit with a small hurricane every 5 years and a major hurricane every 16 years. That makes this area one of the most hurricane-prone areas in America, having the same risk as the Miami/Keys area in Florida.

Potential residents of the Outer Banks should be reminded that your home will be sitting on a barrier island, designed by nature to absorb the pummeling energy of major storms.

17. Climate Change Risks

The average elevation of the Outer Banks is 3 feet. In 2010, scientists produced a report warning that the Outer Banks could see over 3 feet of sea-level rise by 2100, thus covering much of the Banks with seawater. The politicians reacted by passing a 2012 law denying the scientific predictions and prohibiting state agencies from making plans for addressing accelerated sea-level rise.

Potential residents of the Banks should look at what is actually happening today; beaches are getting smaller, houses are being moved away from the water, there is flooding when it rains, small storms tear up roads and beaches, and the government is spending millions to pump sand back to where it used to be.

Time will tell whether the scientists or politicians are correct, but potential residents of the Banks should be reminded that their home will be sitting on a 3-foot high, 3-mile wide sliver of land that is surrounded on both sides by water that has been slowly rising for the last 150 years.

18. Crowded in the Summer

The number of full-time residents (eligible to be counted in the census), is only 34K people. With a size of 383 square miles, the Outer Banks area appears to have a light density of just 78 full-time residents per square mile. However, this only counts the year-round residents.

During the offseason (December-April), the area receives an estimated 85K temporary visitors per month or a total increase of around 450K people. During the beach season (May-November), the number of Outer Banks visitors spike to an average of 317K per month, for a total increase of around 2.2 million people.

That is a lot of people on a relatively very small sliver of land. This means the main areas of Banks can feel busy and crowded during the summer.

19. Traffic is Bad

There are basically two major roads on the Outer Banks (158 and 12), and three bridges that connect the Banks to the mainland. Per Con #18, the summer months have around 2.2 million people visiting the Outer Banks. 

That is a lot of people on just a few roads and bridges. This means there is a lot of traffic during the summer months. 

Imagine sitting in beach traffic full of tourists when you just want to get to work or get your kid to a soccer game.

20. Lack of Diversity

The Outer Banks area proudly advertises the friendly nature of their people, and there is no evidence to refute the area as being welcoming. However, the demographic statistics, as well as online reviews, points to the area as lacking diversity.

The racial demographic of the Outer Banks is 92% White, 7% Hispanic, and 2% Black. Approxatimetly 95% of the residents were born in America, and the majority of residents are over the age of 50. 

Despite being few in number, a large percent of the minority population lives below poverty (46% Black, 24% Hispanic, versus just 7% of White).

The politics are a bit more balanced with 60% voting Republican and 40% Democrat.

21. Crime Rates are not Great

Online reviews consistently paint the Outer Banks as a safe area where full-time residents keep in close contact with each other. However, we are unable to find any statistics that we can use to apply a low crime label to the area.

For example, Nags Head is in the bottom 24% of cities for violent crime and the bottom 5% for property crime. As you get further away from the main tourist areas, the crime rates improve, but they never seem to beat national averages. 

FAQ:  Where Do Locals Live in the Outer Banks?

The area between the 158 and 12 highways is considered to be oceanfront and is a prime vacation rental property. The locals tend to avoid living in this area as the houses are more expensive, you risk having to live next to bad tourists, and anyone owning a house in this area will probably be better off financially to rent it out rather than living in it.

So the locals tend to stay on the West side of the islands, closer to the sounds. The most popular neighborhoods for locals tend to be: 

  • Colington Harbor
  • Southern Shores
  • Manteo or Wanchese on Roanoke Island
  • Westsides of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head
An old man is seen repairing a fishing net with thread and needle.

If you wish to find the “real locals” who have been on the Banks for generations, then you need to head south on Route 12 to Hatteras, hop on two ferries, and look for one of the tiny fishing villages listed below. If you hear people that talk in an odd accent, then you have found the High Tider people. 

  • Harkers Island 
  • Ocracoke Island
  • Atlantic
  • Sea Level

FAQ: Is it Expensive to Live in the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks is a beach resort, so yes the area is expensive to live in. 

The cost of living in the Outer Banks is 9% higher than the US average, driven mostly by the fact housing costs are 40% above average ($325K Banks versus $231K US). There are only 26K houses on the Banks, meaning supply is low while demand is high.

Income on the Banks is right around the US average at $31K per person and $55K per household.

Expensive homes on an average salary mean the cost of living will feel high and you’ll need to work to stretch every dollar.

Related: Cheapest Places to Live in the Outer Banks

FAQ:  Are There Alligators in the Outer Banks?

An alligator, head sticking out of the water, mouth wide open

There are some alligators in the Banks, but they are rare, as the alligator doesn’t thrive in North Carolina winters. However, as temperatures warm due to climate change, the range of the alligator is slowly creeping up further North. Every now and then a Bank fisherman or boater catches a glimpse of a random gator.

The Outer Banks area is home to the Alligator River and its associated National Wildlife Refuge. Please note, that despite its name, this river is not infested with alligators. However, the refuge is home to the strongest population of black bears on the East Coast.

It is worth mentioning that there are zero alligator-related fatalities ever reported in North Carolina. In general, they are rare, with the entire country averaging just one death per year.

FAQ:  What is the Crime Rate in Outer Banks, North Carolina?

Online reviews consistently paint the Outer Banks as a safe area where full-time residents keep in close contact with each other. However, we are unable to find any statistics that we can use to apply a low crime label to the area.

For example, Nags Head is in the bottom 24% of cities for violent crime and the bottom 5% for property crime. As you get further away from the main tourist areas, the crime rates improve, but they never seem to beat national averages. 

FAQ:  What is the Outer Banks Population in the Summer?

The number of full-time residents (eligible to be counted in the census), is only 34K people. 

During the offseason (December-April), the area receives an estimated 85K temporary visitors per month or a total increase of around 450K people. During the beach season (May-November), the number of Outer Banks visitors spike to an average of 317K per month, for a total increase of around 2.2 million people.

Related: 17 Pros and Cons of Living in North Carolina