Remember when you went off to college for the first time? You were excited, eager for challenges and psyched to try something new. Retire to a college town and you can re-create that horizon-broadening experience and sense of adventure.
See Our Slide Show: 10 Great College Towns to Retire to
In these ten towns, including our top choice, Oxford, Miss., the university generates intellectual and cultural sizzle for local residents and opens the door for retirees to take free or low-cost classes. College sports bring the entire community together (and sometimes impel retired alums to move back). On-campus attractions, such as concerts, lecture series and games, are open to all comers, not just undergraduates.
But universities aren’t the only reason these towns are great places to retire. Most are in states that are tax-friendly to retirees (the others are in states where the tax picture is mixed). They present a rich assortment of restaurants, generally reasonable home prices and access to good health care. As for size, they range from tiny Oxford (population 20,865) to midsize Lexington, Ky. (308,428), not counting college students. And most are close to or below the national average for the cost of living index (100).
College: University of Mississippi
Median home price: $210,000 (natl. median, $213,400)
Cost of living: Not available
Wikimedia -- Adam Jones, Ph.D.
Here’s Oxford in three words: football, Faulkner and food.
Football: Conversations sooner or later turn to the Ole Miss Rebels and the elaborate tailgating ritual in the Grove, at the edge of campus, that precedes each home game. During the pregame partying, you might run into legendary Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning or his son Eli, who has a home in Oxford.
Faulkner: William Faulkner wrote his most famous novels and stories while living at Rowan Oak, a 29-acre estate now owned by Ole Miss. Faulkner’s influence and the presence of other writers, including John Grisham, as well as Square Books, the famous independent bookstore, have inspired an active arts scene. On Thursday nights, you can stop by Off Square Books, a few doors down from the main store, to hear the live broadcast of the radio show Thacker Mountain, which features author readings and bluegrass music.
Food: The Square—the heart of Oxford, anchored by the old Lafayette County courthouse—hums with activity when diners visit its dozen or so restaurants. Locals as well as visiting celebrities enjoy the southern cuisine at City Grocery, founded by chef John Currence (the shrimp and grits has been on the menu for 22 years). On a recent evening, you might have dined next to Morgan Freeman or Dolly Parton.
Eight years ago, Dave and Betsy Dyke moved from Great Falls, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb, to a home in the Grand Oaks development of Oxford, bordering on one of two local golf courses. Dave, 78, is a retired United Airlines pilot. Betsy, 71, attended Ole Miss. The Dykes found a welcoming group of fellow retirees through the Oxford Newcomers Club, as well as a range of activities, from book clubs to volunteer opportunities.
If you buy a home here, you might want to wait until after a losing Rebels season. The team’s record is one predictor of home prices, says real estate agent Steve Vassallo. Another predictor: proximity to the Square. A three-bedroom home within a few blocks can top $600,000, and a stately 19th-century house will fetch $1 million or more. But a two-bedroom condo just a seven-minute walk from the Square is on the market for $179,000. Three-bedroom homes within a five-minute drive of the Square sell for $200,000 to $500,000. Beyond the tidy downtown, new apartments will serve the expanding student population, now nearly 19,000. Traffic on game days slows to a crawl.
Mississippi is tax-friendly toward retirees: Property taxes are low (as are insurance and utilities), and retirement income is exempt from state taxes. More than 100 specialists are associated with the 217-bed Baptist Memorial Hospital–North Mississippi.
The university is a hub of culture as well as spectator sports. Broadway plays come to the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and one university course per semester is free to retirees. The town is actively recruiting tech companies and other businesses, but retirees who want to work part-time have to compete for scarce jobs. Some retirees share their experience through the incubator business network or do other volunteer work. Others apply for the program at Ole Miss that allows retirees to fill in for absent professors.
Oxford sits among rolling hills, unlike the flat terrain of the Delta or Gulf area. Summers are hot, but Oxford has four seasons and no hurricanes. Before settling there, be sure you know how to pronounce Lafayette, the county name: The accent is on the second syllable—so you render the name in a drawl that’s patient and unhurried.
-- Mark Solheim
Ann Arbor, Mich.
College: University of Michigan
Median home price: $226,500
Cost of living: 102.4
Courtesy of VisitAnnArbor.org
What makes this college town so attractive that retirees will endure Michigan’s fierce winters?
Intellectual engagement is one big draw. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute—one of a number of university-based noncredit educational programs for adults 50 and older—offers lectures, classes and study groups on philosophy, religion, history and the arts. The institute is located in the University of Michigan’s Turner Senior Resource Center, which offers a variety of wellness and fitness programs. The three-week Ann Arbor Summer Festival showcases more than 100 events, including dance, local bands, comedy and outdoor movies.
Ann Arbor is home to dozens of restaurants, from Caribbean to vegetarian to Tex-Mex. Transplanted New Yorkers will feel right at home sampling the bagels and pastrami at Zingerman’s Deli, an Ann Arbor institution since 1982.
Ann Arbor’s health care facilities attract people from across the U.S. and around the world. The University of Michigan Health System is one of the largest hospitals in Michigan and offers a broad range of specialties, including geriatrics.
All those assets help make Ann Arbor one of the more expensive communities in Michigan. Retirees can find more affordable options if they’re willing to live at least five miles outside the popular downtown area, says Frank Moore, a certified financial planner who has lived in Ann Arbor for 35 years and plans to retire there. Michigan has a mixed tax picture: Social Security benefits aren’t taxed, but residents born after 1945 may have to pay state taxes on some of their pension income.
For retirees who want to escape the cold winter months (or the crowds headed to the Big House during U of M football games), Detroit Metro Airport is only 25 miles away.
College: University of North Carolina–Asheville
Median home price: $215,000
Cost of living: 105.7
Courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com
UNC-Asheville is a small campus of about 3,700 students, but it has an outsize influence on retirees. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offers more than 300 courses a year, usually in six- to eight-week terms. One of the institute’s most popular programs, says director Catherine Frank, is its Creative Retirement Exploration Weekend, designed for working people who are considering relocating when they retire. Many of those who attend the weekend end up moving to Asheville, Frank says.
It’s not hard to see why. In addition to the extensive educational offerings through the Osher Institute, Asheville has a world-class symphony, a vibrant local arts scene, and lots of breweries and restaurants. There are quirky pleasures, too. Every Friday during the warm-weather months, locals bring their drums to Pritchard Park to participate in a drum circle, an Asheville tradition since 2001. The event attracts a surprisingly large number of seniors, Frank says. “When you go out to a concert or drum circle or restaurant, you see a wide range of ages,” she says.
In North Carolina, Social Security benefits are exempt from state taxes, but some other types of retirement income are taxable. Homeowners age 65 and older may qualify for a homestead exemption of $25,000 or 50% of the home’s appraised value, whichever is greater. Asheville’s extensive health care network dates to the late 1800s, when wealthy northerners such as industrialist George Washington Vanderbilt came for the healing benefits of mountain air and never left. His home, Biltmore Estate, is open to visitors.
College: University of Georgia
Median home price: $137,000
Cost of living: Not available
Les and Bobbi Shindleman have lived in Atlanta and Chicago, so they’re used to city life. But since moving to Athens last year, they’ve never been bored.
Bobbi, 67, teaches a class in knitting and crocheting at the University of Georgia. Les, 68, a retired management consultant, teaches seminars at the university’s business school. Both are active in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program at UGA, which offers classes and lectures on everything from tai chi to Civil War history. At night, the couple attend concerts and plays and check out local farm-to-table restaurants. “The food in Athens is phenomenal,” Bobbi says.
Athens is also the center of a lively and diverse music scene. Locals hoping to catch the next R.E.M.—which, along with the B-52s and Widespread Panic, got its start in Athens—can check out up-and-coming bands at the 40 Watt Club or the Georgia Theatre.
Athens offers a variety of housing, from older homes in historic neighborhoods to new condos downtown. Georgia is tax-friendly for retirees: Social Security benefits, along with up to $35,000 in most other types of retirement income, are exempt from state taxes. Residents have access to health care through the Athens Regional Medical Center or St. Mary’s Health Care System. Atlanta, 70 miles away, offers a more extensive hospital network (along with an international airport).