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Previously, the so-called “Durham” metro area was part of the larger Research Triangle triumvirate of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metro area. Now Raleigh, and the large suburban enclave of Cary, have been split off into a metro area of that name, leaving the western half of the former metro area under the name Durham. The Durham area includes Chapel Hill, so on the surface, the two major cities in the area are both college towns – Durham is home to Duke University, while Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina. But that’s where the similarities end. Durham is an old tobacco town, not too prosperous, not too interesting but livable. Some of the old tobacco processing plants in town add some historic interest.
Chapel Hill, on the other hand, is a model college town, with the usual nice small-shop and restaurant oriented downtown, plenty of trees, and a vibrant, moderately upscale feel. Homes in the Chapel Hill area are set on large wooded lots and are noticeably more expensive. Employment is strong and stable throughout the area, anchored by the immense and unique Research Triangle Park business and technology complex which actually straddles the line between the Durham and Raleigh-Cary areas.
The Durham side is more peaceful with a slower pace and relatively easier commutes to the center, and is somewhat less affected by urban sprawl. While cost of living is low on a national scale, it is relatively high for the region. While home prices for the area in general are reasonable, prospective residents will find prices in Chapel Hill much higher. Balanced positives across all ranking categories help drive the high ranking.
Durham and Chapel Hill are located in a transitional zone between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont Plateau. The surrounding terrain is rolling and heavily wooded and becomes more so in Chapel Hill and west. The central location between the mountains and coast means a favorable climate aside from some summer heat. The mountains form a partial barrier to cold-air masses, resulting in few winter days with temperatures below 20 degrees.
During summer, tropical air is present over eastern and central sections of North Carolina, producing warm temperatures and high humidity. Rainfall is well distributed year-round with most occurring in summers as thunderstorms, some of which can be intense. The area is far enough inland to reduce the effects of coastal storms. While snow and sleet usually occur each year, excessive accumulations are rare.