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The View From Unretirement: What’s the best place to live in retirement?

Sarasota, Fla., say both U.S. News & World Report and Travel & Leisure. (U.S. News’ top four places are in Florida.) No, says Money.com, it’s Carmel, Ind. Wrong, claims AARP, it’s Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Actually, it’s not a city at all. It’s a state, note The Motley Fool, Moneywise and WalletHub, proclaiming their top spots as Maine, Iowa and Florida respectively.

As a newly unretired person contemplating with my unretired wife, Liz, where we might move one day in retirement, the disparate rankings are disconcerting.

Why place matters

But I’ve scrutinized more than a dozen of them and talked to retirement-location smarties for their insights that could help us — and you — make a smart choice. (I also created Money magazine’s Best Places to Live in America ranking in 1986 along with data cruncher Bert Sperling, so I’ve been studying places for a while.)

“It really does matter where you live as you get older,” says David Rehkopf, a Stanford University professor who co-published a November 2021 Milbank Quarterly article comparing states for successful aging. “People may need to give this a little more thought than they normally do. The place itself may have a lot to do with how well you’re going to age.”

I’ll share what I’ve learned for this column, plus a few pointers Liz and I picked up during our recent trip to the Los Angeles metro area scouting possible retirement spots for us.

We expect to put down stakes there since it’s where our screenwriting sons Aaron and Will and their wives live, we’re tired of our frigid New Jersey winters and L.A. is bursting with features that matter most to us, such as excellent healthcare and restaurants, plus topnotch performing arts venues and museums.

Doing your relocation research

Ryan Frederick, author of “Right Place Right Time: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Home for the Second Half of Life” says taking a year or more to do your desktop research as well as experiential learning through on-site visits is essential before making a residential move in retirement.

But many people don’t, he notes.

“A lot of times people look at [moving in retirement] superficially,” he told me. “They don’t give ‘place’ the respect it deserves around this foundational element of health, well-being and happiness.”

In some cases, Frederick says, “it’s like: ‘OK, where’s the weather better? Where’s the tax burden a little bit less?’”

You really need to instead zero in on the things that would matter most to you in a place — community, neighborhood and type of residence. Then, scour the internet and talk with people to find places with them.

Determining your priorities

For instance, is walkability essential to you? The real-estate company Redfin publishes Walk Score numbers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a National Walkability Index. Looking for a low cost of living? There are a bunch of free online calculators letting you compare cities for affordability.

Liz and I thought a lot about our priorities for a home and talked through them before asking a Los Angeles real-estate agent to show us condos in L.A. and its Pasadena and Glendale suburbs.

We don’t have trouble with steps now but might one day, and watched our parents struggle with mobility. So, we agreed that a one-floor condo would be better for us to age in place rather than a house steeped with steps.

We also wanted a neighborhood with greenery for walking our dog, Joey. And we hoped for somewhere walkable to coffee shops and other kinds of comfort spots sociologist Ray Oldenburg has called “third places” (home and work are first and second places).

We knew we wouldn’t be making any offers yet and told our agent Alice we were just starting our search for a future move.

What we learned on our on-site visit

Our tour of a Glendale condo with her convinced us to take that suburb out of the running because the building, like others in the vicinity, looked over a noisy freeway and had no nearby grass for Joey.

But Pasadena proved a pleasant surprise (we’d only known it from the 1964 Jan and Dean ditty about the little old lady there and from the Rose Bowl) and is high on our list now.

Although we didn’t care for the particular units we saw in L.A.’s Brentwood and Wilshire Corridor neighborhoods — one was dark, one had minimal closet space — we felt we could see ourselves living in either area.

Armed with this intelligence, we’re now ready to zero in on possible spots when the time comes.

If you’ll relocate in retirement, you, too, might want to move near your grown kids, making the decision somewhat easy. But if you’re open to potential places around the U.S., it’s helpful to do some detective work. (Full disclosure: MarketWatch has a nifty free tool called “Where’s the best place for me to retire?” that gives you a customized list based on what matters to you, as well as a Where Should I Retire? column that helps people find the right spot.)

What to know about best places to retire rankings

As part of your research, you might want to review the latest Best Places to Retire lists. “They serve to broaden your vision of what might be possible,” says Bestplaces.net’s Sperling.

But exercise caution.

The rankings’ usefulness varies enormously because each one is so different. For instance, U.S. News reviews the 150 most populous; Forbes compares 800 communities with over 10,000 people and Money.com considers only small-and-medium size places with populations of 25,000 to 500,000.

And the factors the rankings consider, as well as the weightings those factors receive, may be much different than what matters to you and can change from year to year. “Every article that does this does seem to have a different methodology,” U.S. News’ senior editor for retirement, Emily Brandon, told me.

How rankings differ and change

Her list added air quality and crime rates in its latest rankings and U.S. News changes the weightings slightly each year, based on its survey of retirees and near-retirees.

WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez conceded her site’s rankings “can only point out facts related to the three main categories [we] included: affordability, quality of life and healthcare. There are also other factors that should be taken into account when choosing a place to retire, that depend on each person’s needs.”

Some rankings, like U.S. News and Niche, survey the U.S. population or residents of communities to determine their ratings. Says Niche’s senior pr specialist Natalie Tsay: “We believe the real experience of residents should affect how well their town is graded and ranked.”

Sometimes, however, the types of data combed for best places to retire rankings are odd. For example, RetirementLiving’s Best Cities to Retire in 2022 looks at the cost of assisted living.

In other instances, what’s strange is what isn’t included.

The U.S. News & World Report’s 2021-2022 Best Places to Retire rankings, for instance, doesn’t use weather as one of its metrics. But I do like its use of the Sharecare Community Well-Being Index to compare residents’ health-related behaviors and happiness.

Although certain rankings are quite detailed about their methodology and weightings — kudos Money.com, U.S. News, The Motley Fool and Bankrate — others are too vague to know exactly what went into their recipe (looking at you Forbes, AARP and Moneyrates.com).

I applaud Forbes, however, for noting that an area’s climate change danger is part of its criteria. As Next Avenue science writer Craig Miller has written, factoring in climate change has become increasingly important when choosing where to live in retirement.

Occasionally, a ranking’s top choice suggests a possible conflict of interest. Las Vegas is No. 1 in RetireBetterNow.com’s 22 Best Places to Retire in the U.S. in 2022, but the site describes itself as “an online platform showcasing the best of Las Vegas real estate and 55+ communities.” It’s based in Vegas, too.

A word to the wise about the next round of best places to retire rankings: the FBI just said it won’t release quarterly crime estimates for 2021 due to a lack of data. So, the crime stats included in upcoming rankings may be outdated or thin.

An intriguing best places to age successfully survey

One outlier survey, “A US State Index of Successful Aging: Differences Between States and Over Time,” is wonky, with data that’s a few years old, but its criteria is novel.

Here, academics from Stanford, Penn, Columbia and The Aging Society Research Network looked at how well states did for residents 65+ in five categories: productivity and engagement (work for pay and volunteering); security (economic and physical); equity (the gap between the “haves” and “have nots”); cohesion (social connectedness) and well-being.

The cohesion category is especially intriguing. The researchers used U.S. Census data on the frequency of people 65+ eating dinner with others in their household, talking with neighbors and doing favors for neighbors.

“That was getting at something that a lot of other surveys didn’t get at, which I think is important for place — how connected you are to place and within your household,” said Rehkopf. one of the study’s co-authors.

Key factors to consider

If you’ll be working part time in retirement like me, be sure a place you’re considering has a strong, stable economy, where job possibilities are ample.

Sperling says he’s found that college towns and state capitals tend to be recession resistant. He’s also partial to metropolitan areas for retirement because they offer the biggest choices for medical care, airports and culture.

Sperling and Frederick also stress looking for a place where you can find people who share your interests. As Frederick says: “Are you going to find your people?”

The popular Florida retirement community The Villages tilts conservative in politics. Jimmy Buffett’s Latitude Margaritavilles, described in brilliant detail in the New Yorker, are for laid-back Parrotheads. Walnut Creek, Calif.’s Rossmoor active adult community leans liberal.

One way to help figure that out, he notes, is by checking the area’s voting records. Sperling also suggests searching online for Meetup groups around your passions in retirement.

Making scouting visits useful

In-person visits can be eye-opening, too. Think of them as the later-life equivalent of college visits.

Frederick and Brandon suggest trying to spend at least a week in an area you might want to live in so you can see what it’s like there for residents, not tourists. If possible, they say, visit during different seasons.

Try to find a real-estate agent who can show you the kinds of residences you prefer. Frederick says you might want to work with a Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES), the National Realtors Association designation for a pro with expertise helping people 50+ find homes.

One last tip from Frederick: enjoy your hunt looking for the best place to live in retirement.

“You should continue to have dreams that you’re excited about, and place helps enable that,” he says.

The U List

Since unretirement, to me, means working part time in retirement, I want to recommend two excellent new sources for the latest trends and ideas about working.

One is The Wall Street Journal’s entertaining “As We Work” podcast, hosted by former public radio host Tess Vigeland. It’s been looking at topics ranging from The Great Resignation to pay transparency.

The other is the forthcoming book I got a sneak peek to read, Kerry Hannon’s “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in the New World of Work.” Hannon, a Yahoo Money columnist and author who I had the pleasure of working with at Next Avenue and Money, spins out smart suggestions for finding a job, keeping one, switching fields and working remotely.

If you have thoughts, concerns or questions about unretirement or want to tell me about your experience, I’d love to hear from you. I suspect what I hear will lead to future topics for this column. Please email me.

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