By Ellen Hoffman What's the best place to live when you retire? How you answer this question could make a big difference in your lifestyle, your budget, and maybe even your physical and mental health over a couple of decades or more.
With the baby boomers on the verge of retirement, the options for retirement living are proliferating to include everything from a golf-course community to a university town, or -- a popular choice -- simply a different house or apartment in your current neighborhood or metropolitan area.
The 2000 Census found that of 6.2 million people age 55 to 64 who moved from 1995 to 2000, 3.6 million did so within the county where they lived, 1.3 million moved elsewhere in the same state, and 1.3 million moved to a different state. In Retirement Migration in America, a book to be published later this year, author Charles Longino of Wake Forest University lists the most popular destinations for people age 60 and older. Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix) and Palm Beach, Fla., are the top two, and 7 of the top 10 are in Florida.
UPSIZING A NEST EGG. This and other census data suggest that climate is a major factor in choosing a retirement location, but you should consider many others: proximity to family and friends, cultural offerings, financial issues, and what you plan to do in retirement -- from travel to playing golf and taking classes. Ideally, your choice should take all these into consideration.
Here's an example of how it worked out for one woman in her early 60s. When she retired from her corporate-management job, proximity to her former workplace was less important. She moved about 20 miles, downsizing from a three-bedroom townhouse to a less-expensive, two-bedroom condominium in a gated community. Now she can choose from a variety of activities, including a fitness club, photo lab, sewing class, and computer club. She feels safer -- a big plus as people age -- because of the gated community. Plus, she was able to pocket extra cash in her nest egg from the sale of her townhouse.
Whether you're thinking of staying nearby or moving far away, you'll need to set some criteria to identify possible locations. For state- and county-level data on areas you may be considering, start with Web sites such as the Census Bureau's Census Quick Facts, which offers snapshots on issues such as population, age of population, education level, and income. Want to know what the tax bite might be? You can find state-by-state information on income, property, sales, or estate taxes at the Retirement Living Information Center's Taxes by State site.
MANY INTANGIBLES. On some interactive Web sites, you can express preferences about climate, health-care facilities, proximity to an airport, safety and crime considerations, and cost of living. Such sites -- using search terms such as "best places" and "retirement places" -- help pinpoint some key criteria. However, they have their limitations. When I entered my priorities on one site, it listed my ideal retirement spots as 25 towns in New Jersey. With 25 options, I would've expected more diversity in location.
As that experience suggests, deciding where to live should also be based on additional, more personal, criteria -- and often more subtle. Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says the ideal retirement location should be "a vital community in terms of social interaction" and offer opportunities for intellectual and cultural challenges and stimulation. It should also provide access to "backup resources," such as good health-care services.
"Social interaction" criteria encompass proximity to family and friends. It requires you to think about whether, if you move far away, you'll be able to make new friends easily and how important it is to be near your family.
WALK THE WALK. Cohen suggests that you search for a retirement location with lots of potential for social contact and for intellectual experiences and challenges, such as taking courses or learning a new hobby. Why? Because research shows these factors are actually "associated with positive health outcomes" as we age.
What happens next, once you've done preliminary research on basics such as climate and cost of living? The best way to find a place where you might want to live in retirement: visit and spend time there -- perhaps on more than one vacation -- so you get a feeling for the lifestyle and the culture.
Depending on the type of environment you want, several varieties retirement-living situations could satisfy Cohen's criteria. One is to move a short distance from the suburbs where your kids grew up, into a center city, such as Washington, D.C. This would offer easy access to educational, cultural, and medical resources, and the opportunity to stay in touch with friends in the area. Alternatively, you could move to a small town that's within, say, an hour's drive to a city.
BUDDING MARKET. You could also look for one of the select but growing number of "elder-friendly" neighborhoods, such as the 10 in the AdvantAge Initiative. This is a network of communities around the country that are consciously building a system of social, health-care, and other opportunities and services to enable residents to remain in their homes -- even if they become frail and ill in later years.
Lastly, "retirement communities," usually restricted to people 50 or 55 or older, offer a wide range of activities to stimulate your mind and body, as well as the convenience of nearby transportation, shopping, and health care.
The prospect of millions of mobile, well-educated, economically secure baby boomers approaching retirement has stirred the real estate industry not only to build and sell homes in retirement communities but also to develop a training program and credential, the "Seniors Real Estate Specialist," for brokers and agents who want to specialize in working with older clients. You can find one of these certified agents at the Seniors Real Estate Specialists site.
THE PAYOFF. Bill Buss, a Laguna Hills (Calif.) agent who holds this certification, says he has created a network of colleagues to help him work with older clients. They include accountants, attorneys, and moving companies. He has even included an expert in antiques and collectibles who can advise downsizing clients on items to keep, toss, or sell when moving.
After all, Buss says, choosing a place to retire "isn't just about buying another house. It's a transition to another phase of life." Securing the quality you want in this phase of life deserves concerted time and attention because chances are, after all, you'll want to want to make this not only your last home, but your best. In addition to writing Your Retirement for BusinessWeek Online, Hoffman is the author of The Retirement Catch-Up Guide and Bankroll Your Future Retirement with Help from Uncle Sam. You can contact her through her Web site, www.retirementcatchup.com