You have a lot of good options here. I am a REALTOR and an investor myself. I think it is wise to work with someone who also invests her own money in real estate. It is easier to spend someone else's money than one's own, so the way I look at it is to think about whether I would invest my money in a particular project assuming that my goals were similar to yours...and they are. For most real estate decisions, location is the most important criterion. Do you want secure areas or more transitional areas that are poised to take off? If they will take off, is that in 3 yrs, 8 yrs, 15 yrs? Are you aiming for particular kinds of tenants? (Absolutely no undergrads!) How much renovation do you want to tackle?
Most definitely I would recommend leveraging your money so that you can own more properties. Again, that does depend on your situation and what you need in terms of cash flow and tax breaks.
I am from the Palo Alto/Stanford area, love Saratoga--that whole area is not affordable for investing. I assume that is why you are looking at NC which has had great press recently.
Whether you work with me or not, I'd be happy to talk with you.
Vivian Olkin, aka CrazyViv