There are lots of ‘best places to retire’ lists. Here’s how to get to the truth

Eufemia Didonato

If you’re nearing retirement and thinking of moving to a new place, you’re in luck. There’s no shortage of “best places to retire” lists.

Start with a quick online search and you’ll probably wind up spending hours scanning databases and rankings of regions and towns. The research is easy, but making sense of it can be hard.

Typically, these lists include a range of factors and assign scores to each one. The big question is whether your priorities align with a list’s choice of emphasis.

“It helps to understand the relative weighting of different criteria and then matching it up with your own particular preferences,” said Chris Glynn, senior managing economist at Zillow.

Read: Not sure where to retire? Our tool can help you narrow down the options

Determine the methodology used to create a list. Some rankings isolate just a few factors such as housing, crime data and healthcare. Others incorporate many more variables, from availability of public transportation to air quality to miles of shoreline.

“Some lists are really robust,” said Ryan McGonagill, director of industry research at SeniorLiving.org. “Others just look at one thing such as monthly housing costs. It’s important to look at the big picture” rather than lean too heavily on a narrow data set.

Read: I want to move to a walkable, historic, four-season town and have a budget of $30,000 a year — where should I retire?

When shopping for places to move, some variables take prominence. Unless you’re sure your wealth will outlast you, cost of living merits attention. Affordability measures—from home and auto insurance rates to property tax—can influence your search.

Read: We answer reader questions on where to retire

Beware of letting emotions overrule your reason. If you dream about sunny Florida beaches, for example, it’s easy to overlook months of enervating tropical humidity.

“Some people rely on data that confirms what they already think they want,” said Jeff Smith, content manager at Retirement Living. It’s better to approach the process with an open mind and a willingness to scrutinize pros and cons like a scientist dispassionately gathering information.

Relatively young and healthy retirees might place more emphasis on a town’s cultural and lifestyle offerings. While important, it’s also smart to consider a region’s medical resources if you need them.

When assessing healthcare metrics, look past the prestigious cancer centers and highly rated hospitals. Instead, focus on a more mundane but critical need: who will provide your ongoing care.

Read: Not sure if you can afford to retire? We can help

“There can be a high number of hospital beds in a region,” Smith said. “But we also look at the number of physicians and dentists per 100,000 residents.”

He notes that areas with higher scores for healthcare availability and quality usually have higher cost of living as well. Ideally, try to find a hinterland town that you love that’s within driving distance of a city with exceptional medical facilities.

“Look for that happy medium,” he said. “Maybe you can drive to a top-tier, more specialized healthcare area while living in a lower-cost area.”

Even if you expect to enjoy an active life and reject the notion of ending up in a nursing home, analyze stay-at-home healthcare costs. What if you eventually need home health aides or other support?

“The cost of senior care can be relatively high even if housing costs are not,” Smith said. Evaluate the demographic mix to confirm there’s a sufficient labor pool to offer in-home care along with well-established home care agencies and other senior support services in place.

If you intend to make new friends, check an area’s population density and average age of its inhabitants. Some retirees dread living among their peers; others welcome the chance to meet others in their age group.

“Of the total population, find out what percentage is 50+ or 60+,” McGonagill said. “That’s rarely a criteria [in best-places-to-retire lists], but it can be important.”

Finally, don’t assume that every university town offers the same allure. Attending free lectures by Nobel laureates and auditing classes sounds great, until you realize the local college lacks such public programs.

“Go to the university’s website to see what opportunities it offers to engage with the community,” Glynn said. Check its performing arts schedule—and if there’s a senior discount—along with public access to university-hosted arts, culture and athletic events.

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