Flagstaff, Ariz.: A Smart Place to Retire

Retirees can enjoy biking, skiing and a “brewery trail” in this high-altitude corner of the Grand Canyon State.

(Image credit: (C) 2016 Tom Roche ((C) 2016 Tom Roche (Photographer) - [None])

Population: 73,964

Cost of living: 116

Median home price: $362,000

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College perk: Northern Arizona University works with retiree volunteers to partner with the city’s dozens of nonprofits.

At an elevation of 7,000 feet, this mountain town swaddled by sweet-smelling Ponderosa pine trees has plenty to offer retirees by way of outdoor activities, top-tier dining, volunteer opportunities and seasonable weather. Snowbirds, take heed: This is not the sun-bleached Arizona you may be thinking of. Despite its crisp lack of humidity, it regularly receives about 100 inches of snow every winter.

Residents can enjoy four beautiful seasons in Flagstaff, says Meg Roederer, of the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau. She graduated from Northern Arizona University (located at the heart of Flagstaff) 30 years ago and never looked back. “Between the student, professional and retirement populations, the city has a real vibrancy,” she says. Don’t be fooled by downtown Flagstaff’s sleepy western vibe. “It’s really a mountain-foodie town,” Roederer says. It has more than 200 restaurants and award-winning craft beers in abundance along a “brewery trail.”

Single-family homes in Flagstaff aren’t cheap: Expect to pay $500,000 or more for a three-bedroom, two-bath home. Condos and townhomes are available for about $200,000 to $300,000. Rents for luxury apartments run about $1,200 to $1,400 a month.

The Flagstaff Medical Center, a regional hospital, has a five-star rating from Medicare.

Designated a “Bicycle Friendly Community” by the League of American Bicyclists since 2006, the city offers more than 130 miles of bike lanes and another 56 miles of multi-use “urban trails.” If skiing is your thing, Arizona’s tallest mountains, the San Francisco Peaks, are a 30-minute drive from the city. (If skiing isn’t your thing, there’s a chairlift that offers breathtaking views.) The Grand Canyon is roughly 90 minutes north by car.

Northern Arizona University offers events year-round that are open to the public, including free summer seminars, symphony concerts with reduced admission for seniors, and community-welcome events staffed by NAU students for both new and longtime Flagstaff residents. But maybe the most compelling draw to the city can be found in a squat, beige building on Northern Arizona’s campus. Through NAU’s Civic Service Institute, retirees can find volunteering opportunities at any of the dozens of nonprofits that call Flagstaff home—everything from supporting Habitat for Humanity to tutoring elementary students. “A lot of new re­tirees find that getting involved in this kind of work is a great way to build community and find like-minded people,” says Erin Kruse, the senior program’s project director.

Arizona exempts Social Security benefits from state taxes, along with up to $2,500 in income from military or Arizona state and local pensions. Income from IRAs and other retirement plans is taxable at a top rate of 4.54%.

For population figures, we used the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. Cost-of-living data comes from the Council for Community and Economic Research (100 represents the national median). Median home prices were provided by Redfin, Zillow and local associations of Realtors.

Brendan Pedersen
Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Brendan joined Kiplinger in 2018 and writes about technology, security and money. A Chicagoland native, he graduated from DePaul University with degrees in journalism and political science. Before moving to Washington, D.C., Brendan covered local politics for NBC Chicago and daily news for BusinessDen in Colorado.