Living in the Charleston metro area is just slightly more expensive than the national average, and that's mostly due to utility bills, according to several popular cost-of-living calculators.
However, those easy-to-use online calculators don't tell the whole story.
There's incredibly detailed data available about what things cost in different places, from the price of a house to the cost of toothpaste, but some big-ticket items, such as property taxes and flood insurance, are usually not included. Charleston residents do pay high utility bills, but, burrowing into the numbers used to compare different cities, it’s apartment rents that really jump out.
“Right now, I’m living in one of the old houses downtown and we’re each paying $800 for a bedroom. What can you do?" said Macy Adams, who graduated from the College of Charleston in May with a master's degree in public administration and works for a nonprofit.
Cost-of-living estimates can help people decide where to work and where to retire because wages or retirement benefits will buy more in places with lower costs of living and less in others.
Housing costs are large parts of the equation — usually the largest — but many calculators don't consider property taxes and combine home prices and rents into a single number meant to represent the cost of housing.
The price of a home in the three-county Charleston Metropolitan Area is not all that high by national standards. But the rents – whew!
The nonprofit Council for Community and Economic Research, a data source used by the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, says the average home price in the U.S. is $347,000, and $288,601 in Charleston. But they also say apartments rent for $1,339 per month in Charleston versus $1,087 nationally.
So, according to C2ER, as the nonprofit is known, Charleston has the 48th-highest rent among 291 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
For home prices, the area ranks 161st. That makes Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties a relative bargain for buyers and a higher-priced place to live for renters.
For apartment-dwellers, tri-county rents are on par with metro areas such as Austin and Dallas in Texas, as well as Atlanta and New Orleans. For home buyers, Charleston ranks along with Grand Rapids, Mich., and Rochester, N.Y.
“Most of the apartments are more in the urban areas, and therefore have more city-prices than Goose Creek or Summerville," said Jacki Renegar, a research analyst at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, which helps collect data for the C2ER reports. "Houses — you have more options."
Of course, whether the cost of living is higher or lower depends on where a person relocates, to or from. Someone moving from San Francisco would not find Charleston-area rents to be high, but someone moving from Greenville or Columbia would. The Charleston area is less expensive than Hilton Head but more than Charlotte.
The Charleston region is quickly becoming a place only the wealthy can afford to live.
“If you look at this one (the C2ER report), they are looking more at the homes and services an executive might buy. That’s one thing to keep in mind," Renegar said.
The federal Bureau of Economic Analysis says rents in the tri-county Charleston metro area are the 84th highest out of 383 metropolitan areas in the U.S., slightly more affordable than in the C2ER study but still in the top 25 percent nationally. The urban areas with the highest rents are in California, Hawaii and Alaska, along with metro areas that include Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Alice Tew and her husband used to live in the D.C. metro area in Fairfax County before they retired to Isle of Palms four years ago. She's found that the property tax on their home is lower, but many other expenses are higher than in Virginia.
The sales and income tax rates are higher, as is the property tax on their cars, utility bills and insurance.
"Car insurance in particular is much more expensive," Few said. "When we moved here, we kept the same cars, and the exact coverage here was almost twice as expensive as what we paid in Virginia."
"I can’t imagine having moved here from a less expensive area of Virginia — not sure I would’ve survived the shock," she said.
South Carolina's relatively high annual property taxes on vehicles also make a difference. For a couple with two vehicles worth an average of $15,000 each, annual taxes would amount to about $50 a month for that household.
Two dozen states have no property tax on vehicles. Among those that do, South Carolina's is the seventh-highest, according to rankings by WalletHub.
The property tax on owner-occupied homes, however, is very low compared to most states. South Carolina property taxes are the seventh-lowest in the nation, also according to Wallethub.
In New Jersey, the owner of a $250,000 home would get an annual property tax bill of more than $6,000, the financial website estimates. The bill would be at least $4,000 in the 10 states with the highest property taxes in the U.S.
In South Carolina, the owner of a house worth the same $250,000 home would get a property tax bill of about $1,500, depending on the city and school district.
So, people moving from high-tax states with high home prices can save thousands of dollars yearly by moving to the Charleston area. Renters, however, don't benefit from the low property taxes and instead pay high rents.
Steve Reinschmidt said that when he and his wife moved to the Charleston area from the Chicago area in 2000, their property taxes dropped sharply but their insurance costs greatly increased. But that's not why they moved.
"Cost of living was a consideration but outweighed by our dislike for winter," he said. "We both accepted pay cuts to move here."
Bankrate.com's cost-of-living calculator says someone earning $50,000 a year in Greenville would need to make $53,780 in Charleston to have the same quality of life. By contrast, someone earning $50,000 in Jersey City, N.J., could earn $39,238 in Charleston and live just as well.
Add it all up, and there are 201 urban areas that are less expensive than Charleston, and only 69 that are more expensive, according to C2ER's cost-of-living index. What that means to an individual relocating to the area largely depends on where they are moving from and whether they will own a home or rent one.