I began writing this post about finding your ideal retirement location a few weeks ago. In the process of writing, I realized I put the cart before the horse. So this has turned into part 2 of a post I published last month.
In the first post, I shared the three key questions you need to answer to help determine where you should live in retirement. I focused on whether you should relocate or stay where you are.
That post prompted a great discussion. Several readers commented that answering those questions helped them solidify their assessment that they should stay where they already are. Others, like we did, will decide that retirement from your career provides a chance for a fresh start in a new location.
There is a world full of options for those who decide to relocate in retirement. How do you narrow the options to find the region, state, city and eventually neighborhood and house that is right for you?
Narrowing the Options
While there is literally a world full of options of places where you can retire, we never considered leaving the United States. We focused on finding the right retirement location domestically.
We started by thinking about the region of the country where we wanted to live. In my prior post, I outlined our criteria that centered around moving to an accessible and affordable ski town. We considered the northeast and mountain west.
The primary reason we entertained staying in the northeast is that it is closer to our families. However, our hearts were on a fresh start in an entirely new place. Kim and I frequently discussed our love of the bigger mountains and laid back culture of the mountain west.
We started by considering a number of places that we’d visited and loved. They included Jackson Hole, WY, Flagstaff, AZ, Boise, ID, multiple locations in CO, and our ultimate destination in the Salt Lake City/Ogden, UT area. We also did some general internet searches.
I’ve recently found two resources that weren’t available when we were making our decision. Both are worth giving a look to assist your search.
Tools For Finding Retirement Locations
The first resource is a free, interactive, online tool from Marketwatch that provides a starting place to find different locations you may not have otherwise considered. You start by choosing the region of the country where you’d like to live.
You then pick 5 “Must Have” and 5 “Nice to Have” features for your retirement location. The tool gives you ten cities or towns that meet your criteria. It is easy to tweak your choices and quickly get a number of different possibilities that you can research in more detail.
The second tool is a collection of resources from the blog Accidental FIRE. Dave, who writes Accidental FIRE, is one of my favorite bloggers for his ability to analyze demographic data and create maps to convey information in unique ways.
He’s put together a page of Geoarbitrage Resources. These resources will be useful when you start to narrow down your options. They give insight on factors including housing costs, transportation, walkability, taxes, and population trends.
The internet is a great place to start your search and narrow down early retirement locations. I can’t imagine making such a large decision as relocating in retirement without spending time test driving potential locations.
Values and Value
As I discussed in my previous post, you have to find a location with a culture that is a good match for your personality and values. You also have to find a place you can afford.
Areas we loved like Jackson Hole, WY, Vail or Breckenridge, CO and Park City, UT are great vacation locations. Each would have been a major financial challenge as an early retirement location for us.
So we zoomed back out a little to see if we could find locations that offered similar amenities with lower living (primarily housing) costs. Essentially, we tried to find a location that met our values while paying attention to financial value.
This allowed us to narrow our choices down to our final three locations that we would visit. Those final three choices in order of desirability based on our initial research were Driggs, ID on the back side of the Tetons near Grand Targhee Ski area, Granby, CO in the Front Range and near Winter Park ski area, and Ogden, UT in the Wasatch mountains and near Snowbasin and Powder Mountain ski areas.
Boots on the Ground
After narrowing our finalists down to three, we decided we’d spend some time in each prior to making a final decision. We are grateful that we did.
The first location we visited was Granby, CO. My wife was in Colorado for work, so I flew out to meet up with her for a long fall weekend.
On paper, this looked like a great location for us. Housing was affordable. Winter Park Ski resort is about 20 minutes south. Winter Park is also the home of the National Sports Center for the Disabled, a world class organization that I was excited to visit to explore potential volunteer or encore career opportunities. The Grand Lake entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is 20 minutes north.
The things that looked good on a computer screen were as good or better when we visited. However, we downgraded this location after only a long weekend there.
Getting a Feel
It’s hard to get a sense of a town’s personality by looking at demographic data and photos on the internet. Spending a few days on the ground gave a much clearer picture.
We spent a weekday afternoon looking at real estate in Winter Park and Granby. Both places felt like ghost towns with few people or cars on the streets.
We learned that a large portion of the homes in this tourist area are not owner occupied. Many people used them as vacation rentals while others used them as second homes to visit on the weekends. The actual community of locals was small and dispersed.
We knew that Granby had only one school with about 100 students per class. We didn’t realize that the students came from three towns separated by approximately 60 miles. There were few alternatives aside from home schooling.
Aside from a large modern library there was little we found appealing in Granby. It had one grocery store and only a few restaurants. Almost everything would require driving at least 20 minutes.
It all felt small and claustrophobic. We were worried that if our daughter didn’t fall in love with outdoor activities, there would be little else there for her to do in this small mountain town. We also were concerned that her educational opportunities would be severely limited if she was an above or below average student.
In addition to providing a fun getaway, spending a couple of days in one of our potential early retirement locations gave us more clarity on what we were looking for. We elevated our third choice, Ogden, UT up to number one. We bumped the smaller, less diverse, and harder to access mountain towns of Granby, CO, and Driggs, ID, that upon further reflection we realized shared many of these characteristics, down on our list.
Test Driving Your Retirement Town
Having been to Ogden for ski trips in the past and having more clarity on what we were looking for, we decided to spend more time there. I advise doing something similar and not approaching this as a vacation.
Get away from tourist locations and hotel living and imbed yourself in the actual place you want to consider locating to for as long as possible. Spend some time in the area the way you would in retirement.
Use an AirBNB for accommodations in a neighborhood you think you might like to live in. Shop in the grocery stores and visit local attractions like hiking trails and the library. Walk, bike, and drive around at different times of day. The more information you can gather before making such a big decision, the better.
I was still working full-time when we decided to do our trip. We took a little over two weeks. Rather than burning up her vacation time, Kim worked remotely on our trip as she would when we lived here.
Visiting the schools and seeing all of the family friendly options gave us confidence this would be a great place to raise our daughter. Going to the local farmer’s market, seeing people in the neighborhood walking and biking to trailheads, exploring the numerous public and charter school options, attending a few free live concerts, and seeing kids playing in the streets reinforced this was the type of place we wanted to live.
Rent or Buy
In response to part one of this blog post, a commenter wrote “When you write the second part of your article, what about addressing the concept that not everyone might want to retire to just one place, but continue to seek new experiences?…What suggestions do you have for those who want to be ‘eternally itinerant’?”
Darrow has covered the Rent vs. Buy debate in great detail, ultimately deciding to be a renter in retirement. I covered some of our reasons for choosing home ownership and the planning implications of that decision.
This is ultimately a personal decision. The biggest factor for us was the level of confidence that we found the right location and not wanting to move again.
Our transition away from my career and to a new location was timed around my daughter starting school. We desired stability for her and couldn’t imagine living an itinerant lifestyle for at least 10-15 years, at which time it may be desirable.
We were also moving to an area where home prices and rents are increasing rapidly. For that combination of reasons, it made sense to buy a house and lock in that expense.
For those with less certainty about where you want to live for the long term, renting likely makes more sense. In this scenario, another alternative that may make sense is to buy or rent a “home base” in a lower cost of living area. You can then slow travel for weeks or months at a time, test driving alternative locations as described above until you find one that may be a good long term fit.
Retirement marks the end of life revolving around your career. It is the start of a new phase of life that you can design in whatever way you desire.
Where you choose to live is one of the most important decisions impacting the quality of your retired life. Open your mind to the possibilities, have fun exploring, and make the best decision for your personal situation.
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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at email@example.com.]
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