Finding Your Ideal Retirement Location
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 about 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.
* * *
- The Best Retirement Calculators can help you perform detailed retirement simulations including modeling withdrawal strategies, federal and state income taxes, healthcare expenses, and more. Can I Retire Yet? partners with two of the best.
- New Retirement: Web Based High Fidelity Modeling Tool
- Pralana Gold: Microsoft Excel Based High Fidelity Modeling Tool
- Free Travel or Cash Back with credit card rewards and sign up bonuses.
- Monitor Your Investment Portfolio
- Sign up for a free Personal Capital account to gain access to track your asset allocation, investment performance, individual account balances, net worth, cash flow, and investment expenses.
- Our Books
- Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence
- Can I Retire Yet: How To Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life
- Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence
* * *
[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.]
* * *
Disclosure: Can I Retire Yet? has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Can I Retire Yet? and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Other links on this site, like the Amazon, NewRetirement, Pralana, and Personal Capital links are also affiliate links. As an affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases. If you click on one of these links and buy from the affiliated company, then we receive some compensation. The income helps to keep this blog going. Affiliate links do not increase your cost, and we only use them for products or services that we're familiar with and that we feel may deliver value to you. By contrast, we have limited control over most of the display ads on this site. Though we do attempt to block objectionable content. Buyer beware.
Join more than 18,000 subscribers.
Get free regular updates from "Can I Retire Yet?" on saving, investing, retiring, and retirement income. New articles weekly.
Thanks a bunch for mentioning my Geoarbitrage Resources page Chris, it took a lot of effort to find all of those and I’m always on the hunt for more.
I love the breakdown of your thought process and how you weeded out some locations. I’ve been to Granby, CO many many times and would also not want to live there, even though the natural setting around it is gorgeous. It has a bit of a deserted and creepy vibe to me (no offense intended to anyone who lives there). Sounds like where you settled has everything you need, with close proximity to Salt Lake and all of it’s resources.
You’re welcome. It’s a great resource.
Yes, it’s an odd place. It seemed like it would be a great option based on online research, but it only took a couple days to know it wasn’t a place we would want to live.
Well done and thanks Chris. You make good points. Your idea of using Air BnB rentals is a good one and will give much more of a local feel than will hotel stays. My girlfriend and I recently went through the same vetting process in choosing our retirement location. I learned some of the following points in the process.
-Know thyself. Very clearly identify those search criteria/values that are most important to you and your partner if you have one. Write them down. Prioritize them clearly. Tradeoffs will have to be made in your choice.
-There are no free lunches and you usually get what you pay for (e.g., Granby). Try as we might to find “undiscovered gem” locations, those are non-existent or are very, very rare. Places are cheap for good reasons. They do sell magazines though!
– If weather is high on your priority checklist as it was ours, visit the prospective location during the crappiest weather season to get an idea if you can hack it. We visited Tucson in August, for example.
-My opinion is that is very difficult to get a feel for a place until you have lived there for a while, not just a long weekend visit. I advise renting for at least six months before making the major financial commitment of buying a home. Use that time to explore various neighborhoods as potential permanent locations. Your location preferences may very soon change after you’ve spent some time there.
-I found the user community at https://www.city-data.com/forum/ very helpful for long-distance research.
-If you relocate to a location far away from where you currently live, Do not underestimate the challenges involved in building new relationships, networks, and friends. This does not happen as naturally as it does when you are older and retired vs. when you are younger and working.
Mark Twain said it well – “Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Thanks Bill. All great points & I agree with you 110%. Appreciate you taking the time to share your insight.
“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. ”
For us, relocating for early retirement with school aged kids can be a particularity tough trade-off since they’ve settled in. They have friends and activities that they’ve settle into now. For school aged kids, especially as they get older, have many more options available in major metro areas. There are many more academic options if your kid is smart, many more competitive sports leagues if your kid is athletic, more choice in schools/therapy/specialist if your kid has special needs, etc. We’re in the situation where the need for these services and desire to keep stability for our kids are great enough that I can’t see us moving until the kids are adults.
So many variable to consider, depending on each person’s/family’s unique situation.
Agree Philip. We likely made things more stressful than ideal in leaving my career, buying/selling a house, and moving cross country in a 6 month time frame, but like you we didn’t think we’d want to uproot our daughter once she started school. So we felt some self induced pressure to make the move now or likely having it be something we never did and always wondered “what if?”.
Excellent post. Any specific reasons why Flagstaff did not make the final cut? Housing costs?
We really love Flagstaff, but we wanted to live in a ski town. While they do have the Snowbowl, it seemed kind of small and limited. If Ogden didn’t end up being such a good fit for us, I think we would have reconsidered Flagstaff or Boise over Driggs or Granby, which are little mountain towns that we probably over romanticized and didn’t have the diversity we desired for our daughter or the convenient access to air travel that we wanted.
another great tool: https://www.theearthawaits.com/
Thanks for sharing James. Looks similar to the MarketWatch tool I shared but with an international flavor.
As you say, there’s a world of relocation options, and I focused on the world, outside the U.S. My first, good-on-paper choice was Panama, which I realized wasn’t right for me when I visited. I’m lucky that I had a job with frequent business travel to Europe and Latin America, so I added on a lot of short trips to explore different locations. By the time I retired (corporate layoff), I’d narrowed it down to Portugal or Mexico.
It was a tough choice, but I think I would’ve been very happy in either place, although they’re completely different. I opted for Mexico, due to
low cost of living well, warm & sunny weather all year, a friendly community of both locals and expats, and an indoor-outdoor lifestyle that includes a covered terrace with outdoor living and dining room where I spend most of my time and a big pool. Speaking the language is crucial in a new country, and I’m fluent in Spanish.
I rented four different homes in the first year, to get to know neighborhoods and types of housing, and make sure I’d chosen the right city and felt like I belonged in the community. This year I bought a wreck, and started a year-long renovation of an old colonial house. It’s not the neighborhood or type of house I expected to choose, but I learned a lot in my first year here, and will end up with my dream house. (A lot of expats buy a house immediately, and sell it in a few years as they become more familiar with the city and their own lifestyle here).
Very interesting Laurel. Thanks for sharing. Do you have family or anyone/else that brings you back to the states often? If so, any second thoughts since the pandemic. I’m always curious to hear others stories and insights.
Family is the one thing that gave us hesitation about moving across the country. For us, the pandemic has made it harder since travel is so much more difficult and we definitely miss being able to easily hop on a plane to go visit. At the same time, being stuck in one place has reinforced why we’ve moved to a place that has things we love to do on a day to day basis.
Good post and great topic – which now applies to a much wider audience, since many more people are thinking about geo-arbitrage thanks to COVID. It seems like I’m talking with someone almost every day (across all age ranges) who is either living somewhere else (usually outside their big home city) or actively thinking about it. We are starting to call out the state level tax & budget forecasting people are doing when comparing relocation scenarios in our planning tool https://www.newretirement.com/
Yes. I’m curious to see how this all plays out with decisions like living in metro vs. suburb vs. more rural areas, renting vs. owning, trends in savings rates, etc.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Chris. I think as we get older, we get to entrenched into what we know and less interested in what “could be”. I am 57 and trying to keep the fire burning for what “could be”. I am from the Midwest, my wife from the East, where we moved 21 years ago. I have prepared my Son (20) To the fact that we will not stay in NY when we retire. He doesn’t quite understand, but is at an impressionable age, wanting to keep his high school friends. The Midwest taxes are very high and I won’t become a resident, but hope to spend good amounts of time with my family and friends in the summer. I like the idea of basing ourselves in a low tax state and travel to check out places we might want to land. Although I am on a traditional path, I enjoy listening to you and other FIRE bloggers thought processes and ideas. I don’t know if I will retire on my own terms or that of my employer, but as prolific savers, your ideas help me to worry less about what if I am forced to retire and that there are other creative options. Keep up the good work, you help others think “out of the box”!
Thanks for the kind words Dave. I just recorded a podcast where we talked about why we all tend to get “entrenched into what we know and less interested in what “could be”.” I’m sure the older you get, the more pronounced it gets b/c you get entrenched in the same patterns for longer. The thing I love about the FIRE community though is that they push people to think differently.
I know we were just getting started out down a very standard path. Even when we found the FIRE community, we just followed that narrative that you get your savings rate as high as possible to retire as quickly as possible.
It took a while for us to realize that not only don’t you have to retire at 65 or 70, you also don’t have to retire as soon as possible, or retire completely, or retire ever if you don’t want to. There are many things like this that we just accept w/o asking questions and it transcends finance.
Coming to that realization has been life changing for me and is the reason I became passionate enough about it to start writing and sharing my story.
Chris, you always do such an excellent job of detailing your thought process. For that, thank you. Back when my husband and I were just married, I would have guessed that we’d end up with a retirement home on a lake in the mountains somewhere. After traveling throughout this grand and glorious country of ours for four decades, we now have a different perspective on a retirement location – we don’t want just one. Currently, the plan is to keep the home (in the mountains, no lake) which we built ourselves, and in which we raised our two kids, for the foreseeable future. Rather than invest in a retirement home, we purchased a top quality travel trailer with a floor plan that allows us to live very comfortably for weeks (or even months) at a time. This lets us choose and change our “retirement location” at whim, depending on our interests and the weather. Although many people live and travel full-time in their RVs, we prefer having our beloved home base to return to. I know our retirement location solution wouldn’t work for everyone – or even for many – but it fits our active, outdoor lifestyle to a T.
Thank you for the kind words Mary. They mean the world. I think the key is to recognize, as you have, that you have to find what works for you rather than get caught up in what you “should” do.
Always enjoy reading your thoughtful, autobiographical pieces.
I think FIRE types with young kids would do best to consider, as you did, that with a few exceptions (PoF is a notable one) most folks with young families are going to want to stay rooted in a single geographic community from elementary through high school age. It’s as much about the kids’ needs (stable school and social environment) as it is about the parents’ social attachments to the parents of their children’s peers.
That support system, which I was initially a bit cynical in approaching (it felt contrived – wasn’t it simply friendships of convenience, “loving the one you’re with instead of being with the one you love” to borrow from Stills?) I was pleasantly surprised to find how you entwine roots with those people who accompany you through the parenting journey.
Look forward to hearing how your choice pays dividends over time.
Thanks for the great read,
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Doc. I agree that it is nice both for her and us as parents to have that structure and support system. Everyone is different, and every situation unique. That said, I agree that the nomad lifestyle tends to get over-romanticized in FIRE circles, particularly among those with children.
Comments are closed.