How to Pick the Best Place to Retire
Narrow your choices by doing online research, and then plan to visit in person before settling on a new locale.
Marlene Pedersen, 57, and her husband, Lars, 58, are taking their time choosing a retirement destination. With their two children grown and out of the house, the couple plans to retire in about 10 years. They intend to sell their house in suburban Manalapan, N.J., and move to a condo in a midsize city with a warmer climate and lower property taxes.
They're already visiting prospective retirement communities, weighing the pros and cons of North Carolina's Wilmington and Raleigh-Durham metro area. Next on their research list is Charleston, S.C. "We're not sold on a new city yet," Pedersen says. Other items on their checklist include proximity to an airport so their kids can visit often and convenient shopping. Once they choose a spot, they will buy a condo and rent it out until they move.
Most baby boomers intend to stay put or downsize in or near their current community during retirement. Still, a fair number are looking for a new adventure or at least a cheaper locale. Moira McGarvey, founder of GangsAway.com, estimates that more than 30% of visitors to her retirement-planning Web site are researching new destinations. And Bert Sperling, who runs Sperling's Best Places (www.bestplaces.net), which ranks 370 metro areas on various factors including quality of life in retirement, says that about 15% of people in households with incomes of more than $100,000 move to new destinations when they retire.
Yet many new retirees fail to do the necessary research and planning before they embark on this major life transition. They may focus too much on the climate, for example. "Weather alone is not as meaningful as how you want to engage in your life in your golden years," says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, a think tank in Santa Monica, Cal., that rates 352 metro areas on "successful aging" issues. "People live longer, and they want their lives to be filled with meaning and purpose."
Another common mistake is to plan for retirement as one life stage, rather than as several, with each stage requiring adjustments. With longer life spans, moving to Florida or Arizona and staying there may no longer be practical. "Often people don't account for inevitable changes in their mobility and health because it's not fun to think about," Sperling says. Retirees who move away from family members may need to expect that at some point they will return, he says.
What works at age 60, such as moving with a spouse to a rural area, may be a disaster at age 80, or whenever one spouse dies. "You have to think about living in that place alone, 365 days a year, under three feet of snow," says Steve Vernon, a consulting research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University.
Retirees also must realize that intangibles such as fitting in socially and politically may be even more important in choosing a destination than a place's lower cost of living and a state's favorable tax structure, Vernon says. He recalls one couple who moved from the pricey San Francisco area to the Tennessee Bible Belt, only to find that they didn't have much in common with their politically conservative, church-oriented neighbors. "They moved again after a year, but they lost a lot of money in real estate transactions in both places," he says. (BestPlaces.net provides political party registration breakdowns for thousands of communities.) Vernon's advice: Keep your options open by renting out your current house and renting in the prospective retirement locale for a year.
Dig Deep to Find a Good Match
If you're at the beginning of your search, you can get some ideas by looking at some of the best-places-to-retire lists on the Internet, such as TopRetirements.com. Milken's "Best Cities for Successful Aging" index (http://successfulaging.milkeninstitute.org) examines 84 factors that it determined are important to retirees. Criteria include job opportunities for older residents, housing options, crime rates, hospitals offering geriatric services, levels of senior volunteerism, access to fitness centers, investment in public transportation, and the availability of arts and education institutions.
Topping Milken's 2014 list were two college towns. Madison, Wis., which is the home of the University of Wisconsin, led the large-metro list; and Iowa City, Iowa, which is the home of the University of Iowa, led the small-metro list. "College towns often offer vibrant health care systems, good cultural opportunities and good public transit," says Milken's Irving.
Meanwhile, FindYourSpot.com will conduct a customized search for you. You answer dozens of questions on your preferences for climate, recreation, community size and more, and the tool suggests possible destinations. With NeighborhoodScout.com, you can zero in on individual neighborhoods and find the percentage of residents who are 65 and older, the educational attainment of neighbors, housing types and other data.
Experts agree it's crucial to spend at least a week at a prospective destination, and preferably two or three weeks there, on multiple trips in different seasons. "You should go when the weather is worst, to Vermont in the winter and Florida in the summer," says travel writer Clark Norton, who writes a boomer travel blog (www.clarknorton.com). Scouting should begin a year or two before retirement, in case you decide you will need more money and have to work longer.
Norton and his wife, who are in their mid sixties, are planning to move soon from upstate New York to Tucson, Ariz., where their son lives. They have found that as they age, their needs have changed. "We live on a four-acre property with beautiful views," Norton says. "But we have too much lawn, and too much property maintenance, and we have to drive three miles into town if we need milk."
Once you arrive at a place you are checking out, live like a local. Walk around, eat in restaurants, visit the farmer's market and the senior center, and talk to as many people as possible. Web sites and local newspapers list cultural and sporting events, and they provide a snapshot of recreational activities. Check in with a local real estate agent, even if you're not ready to buy.
Pedersen and her husband recently spent a few hours at an agent's office in Wilmington. Using a map on her laptop, the agent showed them many details about various neighborhoods, as well as the cost of houses. "It gave us a solid overview, and then we drove around on our own," she says.
Be clear about your priorities. If you want to work part time, explore job opportunities for people your age on Web sites and local newspapers, and move to an area where the local economy is thriving. Attend a service at a church or synagogue you might join, and a lecture at the town library. If you have a hobby such as do-it-yourself building projects, visit the hardware stores.
You should get some sense of the cost of groceries, utilities, transportation and other common expenses. You can find this information on Sperling's Web site. If you envision a retirement filled with cultural events but don't want to shell out big bucks on theater productions, for example, check local listings for free activities. The same goes for golf green fees.
You may be considering a move from a state that taxes income to one that doesn't. But keep in mind that sales and property taxes can take a big bite as well -- and can differ from one part of a state to another. While Florida, for example, does not tax income, it ranks relatively high when it comes to property and sales taxes. (Check out Kiplinger's State by State Guide to Taxes on Retirees.)
Access to good health care is a must. You may be in perfect shape now, but that is likely to change. If you already have a medical condition that requires regular treatment, be sure a highly regarded specialist is available and taking on new patients. "Wherever we go, we want quality medical care within a 20- or 30-minute drive," says Pedersen.
Also consider the community's proximity to friends and family. "Don't underestimate the importance of having friends within an hour's drive," says GangsAway.com's McGarvey, who says she hopes to persuade some friends to retire within driving distance of wherever she goes.
If that's not possible, be sure that you can easily visit friends and family by plane. Look at the number of connections you'll need to make. Travel facilities also will be important if you're planning a lot of overseas trips.
It is probably impossible to check off every item on your list, and your spouse's list may contain different items. "At some point, we will have to decide what we're willing to give up," Pedersen says. She and her husband are already making compromises. "I'm not going too far north, and he's not going too far south. Florida is too hot for him, and Maine is too cold for me." For now, that still gives the Pedersens plenty of territory to investigate.