The following is the 2009 edition of MoneyWatch's 'Real Best Places to Retire' analysis. Click here to see the 2010 update.
If you're thinking about where to retire, you've probably stumbled on at least one of those Best Places to Retire lists online, in magazines, or in books. But which lists are credible? And which suit your circumstances? To find out, MoneyWatch.com reviewed them and came away with surprising results.
Since you shouldn't choose a place to live using outdated information, our analysis of retirement-places lists excludes any created before 2008. That left five leading raters: U.S. News, Money, Smart Money, TopRetirements.com, and RetirementLiving.com; together, they name 454 places.
The key thing to remember: The rankings vary widely in the scope of the places they consider and the statistical rigor they bring to their ranking. Some of the rankers, such as TopRetirements.com and RetirementLiving.com, consider a wide variety of reasonable criteria to get at a more rounded picture of "livability." Others focus on one or two key factors to produce a very narrow sense of what makes a place "best." U.S. News, for instance, lists best-retirement places ranging from ones that lean Republican (hello, Cincinnati) to ones filled with parks (Albuquerque).
Perhaps the best way to use the "best retirement places" rankings is to start with a narrowly focused list (such as cities dotted with golf courses or ones with affordable homes) and find a handful of potential winning destinations. Then, use other lists and Web sites to see how these places stack up on broader criteria, such as livability or recession resistance.
Here's how these "best places to retire" raters rate on MoneyWatch.com's scale of one to five stars. (Another site, FindUtopia.com, doesn't compile rankings but has a wealth of useful information about choosing a place to retire.)
How it rates places: This site’s Best 25 Places to Retire list is essentially a popularity contest. It includes the towns with the most online visits among the 208 featured at TopRetirements.com. The site also sells an eBook of its Top 100 Retirement Towns ($12.95).
What’s good: Site editors and members of the public have visited the winning places. Zagat-like descriptions note the negatives, too. So although No. 1 Asheville, N.C., gets high marks for climate, water activities, downtown, and senior housing, a commenter warns that “overdevelopment is coming.” Top places include the familiar (Sarasota, Fla., and San Diego) as well as the not-so-familiar (Paris, Tenn., and Green Valley, Ariz.).
What’s not good: The fairly small database of places limits possible winners. You can’t sort the list to find places matching your own criteria.
Best for: Finding places that other retirees like.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ★★★★
How it rates places: U.S. News doesn’t have one grand Best Places to Retire list. Instead, working primarily with Onboard Informatics, a data-gathering firm, the magazine regularly churns out narrowly defined Top 10 lists from its database of 2,000 retirement places. Its latest lists: Healthiest Places; Low-Tax Places; Places for Swinging Singles to Retire; Cities for Job-Seeking Retirees; Brainiest Places; Outdoorsy Places; Places for Golf Nuts; Places for Winter Sports Nuts; Places for Football Fans; Greenest Places; Places for Foodies; Places for Democrats and Republicans.
What’s good: The data-driven picks are reasonable and worth reading if you’re looking for places matching their screens. The Best Cities for Job-Seeking Retirees list, created with RetirementJobs.com, is especially timely. (Winners: Bellevue, Wash.; Bismarck, N.D.; Charleston, W.Va.; Charlottesville, Va.; Ithaca, N.Y.; Huntsville, Ala.; Lubbock, Texas; Oklahoma City; Rochester, Minn.; and State College, Pa.)
What’s not good: U.S. News doesn’t reveal its data, so you can’t tell whether the magazine’s criteria would match yours. Some lists are anecdotal and random: Best Retirement Places for Foodies, for instance, came by asking “a handful of chefs and culinary experts” for recommendations and surprisingly includes McMinnville, Ore. A few choices seem way off: Clearwater, Fla., is a great place for “winter sports nuts?”
Best for: Choosing a place based on one factor that matters a lot to you.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ★★★
How it rates places: Money created its three lists by selecting discrete criteria — towns near water, affordable homes, and long life expectancy — and layering on additional data.
What’s good: The 6 Terrific Towns on the Water list factors in livability factors such as crime, weather, and activities. (Winners: Dunedin, Fla.; Sequim, Wash.; St. Joseph, Mich.; Beaufort, S.C.; Durango, Colo.; and Marble Falls, Texas.) The Affordable Homes winners have Google Maps showing homes for sale and the prices of recent sales. Winners on all three lists have data displays showing how they fare on key measures such as weather, property taxes, crime, movie theaters, and libraries, as well as how the areas compare with Money’s Best Places Averages.
What’s not good: The Best Places for a Long Life and Affordable Homes lists don’t include livability data. The Long Life list’s criteria seem strange: Counties with the longest life expectancy at birth but whose median family income was not more than 5 percent below the state median.
Best for: Anyone looking for pleasant towns near water or places with either low house prices or long life expectancies.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ★★★
How it rates places: Smart Money’s article, “7 Places to Retire During an Economic Downturn,” had experts choose “recession-proof” places.
What’s good: College towns typically are recession-resistant, so winners Gainesville, Fla., (University of Florida) and Ithaca, N.Y. (Cornell University), whose unemployment rates are around 6 percent, make sense.
What’s not good: The list needed more rigorous criteria. Two winners — Portland, Ore., and Orlando, Fla., — are facing rough times with double-digit unemployment rates.
Best for: People who care most about healthy local economies.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ★
How it rates places: This site, from Retirement Living Information Center, lists 210 Top Retirement Destinations in 33 states, based on its research and visits. The site also lists 94 Great College Towns for Retirement in 38 states.
What’s good: Each Retirement Destination listing is information-rich and packed with related links, saving time if you want learn more about an area’s arts, recreation, senior programs, hospitals, weather, or taxes.
What’s not good: There are no rankings, so every place seems equally “great.” Hawaii has no listings, and many Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states are left out. You need to pay $24.95 to gain access to the detailed Top Retirement reports, which omit drawbacks. The College Town list is just a series of links to the towns’ and colleges’ sites.
Best for: Learning about places already popular with retirees.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ★
Standbys and Surprises
While no one can compile a list of “best places to retire” that fits everyone — the assessment process is necessarily subjective, as are each retiree’s needs and desires — it is possible to use the lists that are out there to narrow your choices and to discover some plausible options you might not have otherwise considered. Here are some examples of places that were included on multiple “best places” lists, and what’s good — and bad — about each one. Some are predictable perennials in Florida, California, and Arizona, but there are also several in states you might not ordinarily think about, including North Dakota?
|Austin, Texas||U.S. News Greenest and Football Fans; TopRetirements.com; RetirementLiving.com||Popular with retirees, quirky, cosmopolitan, great music scene, plenty of parks and football games||Hot and humid summers, may be too busy for some retirees|
|Portland, Ore.||U.S. News Greenest and Golf; Smart Money; RetirementLiving.com||Funky, enviro-friendly, affordable, great for hikers||Rains 155 days a year|
|Beaufort, SC||Money Towns on Water; TopRetirements.com; RetirementLiving.com||Popular with retirees, quaint, seaside homes, recession-resistant with military bases||Hot and humid summers, touristy, a little slow for some|
|Bismarck, ND||Money Affordable Homes; U.S. News Jobs for Retirees; RetirementLiving.com||Low cost of living, good job opportunities||Frigid winters, less than cosmopolitan|
|Burlington, VT||U.S. News Winter Sports and Foodies; RetirementLiving.com||Great skiing, hip restaurants, college-town flavor||Frigid winters, too small for some|
|Cincinnati||U.S. News Football Fans, Foodies, and Republicans||Big-city sports and restaurants||Too conservative for some, cold winters|
|San Diego||U.S. News Greenest; TopRetirements.com; RetirementLiving.com||Popular with retirees, great weather, plentiful parks||Too busy for some, expensive, California traffic|
For more on best places to retire, watch MoneyWatch’s Editor-at-Large Jill Schlesinger on CBS’ Early Show.
About the Author
Richard Eisenberg created Money magazine’s “Best Places to Live in America” franchise but is no longer affiliated with the magazine.