(MoneyWatch) Is it worth your time thinking about where you'll live in retirement? You betcha! Housing is the biggest item in most retirees' budgets, and where you live has a tremendous influence on your enjoyment of life. If you're in research mode, there's no lack of information and opinions on the best places to retire.
For example, Kiplinger's just released its annual "Retiree Tax Map" that compares the tax loads for retirees in all 50 states, along with the rankings of the 10 most tax-friendly states (headed by Alaska, Wyoming and Georgia) and the 10 least friendly ones (topped by Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut).
But taxes aren't the only thing to consider when selecting a place to retire. First and foremost, the best question to ask yourself is, how do I want to live? Important considerations include being near friends and family, taking care of aging parents, your interests and hobbies, and whether you need to work. Answering this question will help you focus on the location that best meets your criteria.
Most people want to age in place, meaning that they want to stay where they currently live -- either their current house or at least their current community -- so they can be close to family and friends and in familiar surroundings. Aging in place is examined extensively in the book "Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America," a book edited by the Stanford Center on Longevity that assesses the state of housing in America as it relates to an aging population. According to the book, the most important considerations should probably include the layout of your immediate neighborhood, including whether you have close access to shopping and public transportation, the walkability of your neighborhood, and the services offered by your surrounding community. (I explored these concepts further in an article I recently wrote for Next Avenue, an online PBS publication.)
Then there's the physical structure of your house to consider to see if it's designed to make life easier for you (and your visitors) as you age, including wheelchair access to appliances and work areas, curbless showers, wider hallways, lever doorknobs, single-story residences, and comfort height toilets. An emerging architectural concept is the kind of universal design that makes living easier for people of all ages, not just the elderly. For example, a wide door with lever handles is not only easier for the elderly, but it's also helpful for a young mother with two toddlers and a bag of groceries in her hand. In some cases, a traditional home can be remodeled using universal design concepts, and in other cases it might be easier to relocate to a newer home with these features.
As baby boomers get older, more attention will be paid to "elderburbias," places where people aren't isolated by cars or separate senior communities, but where seniors thrive as essential citizens in their community. For many people, the home you grew up in or raised your family in might not best suit your purposes in your later years. But you might not have to move very far to get what you want as more communities recognize the need to serve an aging population.
The bottom line when it comes to finding a place to live during your retirement years: Design the best life you want, then select the best place -- including the best house -- to retire to that supports this chosen life.