Article By Dawn Smith
For those lucky enough to receive orders for a PCS to Charleston, South Carolina, it can be a difficult area to understand and navigate when looking for housing if you do not have knowledge of the area previous to your house hunting trip. My hope is to give you a head start before a move is planned.
As your research begins, it’s beneficial to read reviews, home, and school descriptions, as well as general advice offered from other military families. This information is centrally located on Military Town Advisor. MilitaryByOwner is the other crucial site to visit for real estate options. Understanding property values and rental prices versus BAH is always a consideration.
There are a few main entities that compose the military presence in the greater Charleston areas. Charleston Air Force Base and the Charleston Naval Weapons Station have merged to create the USAF controlled Joint Base Charleston (JB Charleston) near Goose Creek. The Coast Guard Charleston Base, in downtown Charleston, also contributes to the military existence in the region.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Charleston area, also known as the Lowcountry, a quick geography lesson is useful. The city and its surroundings are located on a peninsula, with downtown Charleston located at the most southern point. Moving north, the city of North Charleston leads you to JB Charleston and further inland away from the Charleston Peninsula shorelines. The cities of Summerville, Ladson, Hanahan, and Goose Creek are conveniently located near JB Charleston and are heavily populated by military families.
Across the Ashley River, to the west of the peninsula, lie the major cites of West Ashley (Charleston zip code 29414) and James Island. The very popular Mount Pleasant is found to the east of the peninsula and is separated by the Cooper River. Daniel Island and the Isle of Palms are also found in this direction, but tend to be populated by locals and tourists.
The metro area is served by Interstate 526 in an arch pattern which has ending points in West Ashley in the west and Mt. Pleasant to the east with points in North Charleston in the middle. In the south, Interstate 17 connects West Ashley, Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant to form a crude circle with Interstate 526. Beginning in Charleston, Interstate 26 bisects the circle and continues into the state headed toward the capital city, Columbia.
If you happen to be familiar with the Hampton Roads, Virginia military installations, this is a helpful reference point to understand Charleston due to the importance of bridges, traffic patterns, and the severe congestion issues that coincide.
Housing and Schools
Military housing is an option for all service members assigned to the area. Housing is found on JB Charleston and is provided by Balfour Beatty Communities. However, the Navy Family Housing Office manages assignments and requests for housing begin there. Carefully study commute times between military housing and work stations, as the traffic is an issue. For example, for those stationed at the Coast Guard base in downtown Charleston, the trek home to JB Charleston will not be an easy one during peak commute times.
Public schools in the Charleston area are varied to the extreme. Low and high performing schools are mixed in every neighborhood, to include the housing areas at JB Charleston, so it is critical to research which schools are assigned to your housing preferences. It is not uncommon for families to compete for magnet and charter schools or invest in the expense for private school.
For your reference, JB Charleston is surrounded by three separate school districts: Charleston (CCSD), Dorchester District 2 (DD2), and Berkeley (BCSD) County School Districts. These are the districts that military children attend, and are all within the commuting area to the base. Where you live on base determines which school your child will attend.
From the Newcomer’s Fact Sheet Assembled by the U.S. Air Force:
Children living in Air Base housing attend Charleston County Schools. Residents of Hunley Park attend Hunley Park Elementary School, and those living on Main Base are zoned for Lambs Elementary. Zucker Middle School (6-8) and Stall High School (9-12) serve the older children. Families who locate on the Weapons Station side of Joint Base will attend Berkeley County Schools. Marrington Elementary and Marrington Middle School of the Arts are located on the base. Goose Creek High School also serves the housing area.
Families who locate on the Weapons Station side of Joint Base will attend Berkeley County Schools. Marrington Elementary and Marrington Middle School of the Arts are located on the base. Charleston County has a large array of successful magnet and charter schools available, with most providing transportation. Contact the School Liaison for specific information about school choice.
Military families arriving in Charleston County Schools after December may apply to district magnet schools under the Resolution for Military Families. The School Liaison Officer (843) 963-4438 or (843) 963-4406 has more information on this amazing program which allows these military families extended application deadlines for magnet programs. There are many private and religious schools in the area, as well as a number of homeschool families.
A quick search of MTA or Great Schools will show why many military families stationed at JB Charleston choose homes in Summerville, Ladson, and Hanahan. Others will travel further southeast on 526 to live in Mt. Pleasant, specifically because the schools rate higher. The counter to this point, of course, is the price of the homes increase while the size of the home might decrease. Similarly, Coast Guard base employees in downtown Charleston will consider living in West Ashley, James Island, and Mt. Pleasant to attend schools zoned for those areas.
Life in the Lowcountry
For many service members (particularly from areas similar to coastal California or the Washington D.C. area), a move down south means a drastic cost of living shift. Expect to see larger homes for less in most areas, except for those in the most desirable or historic areas, such as downtown Charleston or beach/tourist areas. Gas, groceries, and general expenses are all typically less expensive.
The weather is a huge draw for those who choose to relocate to the Charleston area. Mild and short winters, a flower-filled spring season, and the best place in the country to spend an October make Charleston a year-round activity filled destination. Although a sea breeze helps to cool the coastal areas, summers are brutally hot and humid in addition to long lasting. The further inland you reside, the higher the temperatures rise.
As a peninsula, the area is surrounded by rivers, the ocean, and its tributaries, which offer not only fresh seafood supplied directly to local restaurants, but beaches that are dotted with tourist destinations as well as local hangouts and neighborhoods. Luxury getaways and high-end golf retreats are regularly found, particularly as you move into the coastal islands such as Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island, and, in the opposite direction, Isle of Palms located beyond Mt. Pleasant.
Charleston has been a leading U.S. tourist city for decades; however, it has experienced a resurgence of sorts during the last several years, drawing new visitors as well as transplanted residents. A large part of the attraction is due to the bursting culinary scene. Local cuisine is regularly featured on popular cooking shows with hosts such as Rachael Ray and Anthony Bourdain, in addition to many others.
Although featured nationally, restaurants remain true to Charleston’s historical flavors, including influences from Africa and the Caribbean. Expect to see variations of traditional favorites such as shrimp and grits, Frogmore Stew, biscuits, cornbread, and oysters (to name only a small representation) on many of the leading menus.
Military members and their families are served well by the opportunity to attend one of several colleges throughout the Charleston region. The schools provide a college town feel, particularly in the downtown area where College of Charleston students use the city as part of its campus. The College, as it is affectionately known, is also the backdrop for many art endeavors, which the city in turn harnesses for additional cultural and tourist attractions.
The other schools in the area that are well known include The Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston Southern University, Trident Technical College, and The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. It is not required to serve as an active duty member after leaving The Citadel, but its many students do find themselves in a military career after graduation.
Charleston’s historical ties remain strong, as does its hospitable and gracious attitude. While welcoming visitors daily, modern growth in manufacturing, academia, and real estate continues to expand and bring young professionals and retirees alike to the region to stay and make the Lowcountry home. This in turn makes this PCS stop a perfect opportunity to consider a permanent residence in the Charleston area.