How to choose the best place to retire

Should you trust ‘top 10 list’ recommendations?

Published: March 2014

If you’ve wondered whether life in retirement might be better somewhere else, there’s a top 10 list somewhere to help.

Best places to retire? Check the website of U.S. News & World Report—a nexus of top 10 lists—and you’ll find the 10 sunniest places to retire, the 10 fastest-growing retirement spots, the 10 best places for military retirees, 10 historic places to retire, and 10 great places for wine lovers to retire. Searching elsewhere, you’ll find the best cities for successful aging, the best retirement havens abroad, and the 10 most relaxing cities to enjoy your golden years, among others.

Perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, why certain communities make the cut. How are these lists created? And can they really help you find a place to put down new roots?

Crunching the numbers

Bert Sperling, president of Sperling’s Best Places, an independent research company in Portland, Ore., has created lists for Money, U.S. News & World Report, Kiplingers, and Self magazines, among others. He says he collects data from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to real-estate news, auto-registration data, and other sources. Then he and his staff gauge cities based on specific criteria, giving more weight to factors a client wants to highlight.

A list for retired singles might focus on places with greater population density; one based on culture might favor towns with lots of museums. A list of the “manliest” cities in the U.S.—one that Sperling created for a snack-food maker—featured areas with lots of drag-racing, steak houses, bowling alleys, and pickup trucks. (Oklahoma City was the most recent victor in this tongue-in-cheek ranking.)

And as new data become available, list makers adapt. More of them are including data on the quality of nursing homes, doctors, and hospitals. (Consumer Reports publishes Ratings for the last two.)

But rankings that look the same every year don’t generate buzz, so creators change criteria or invent lists based on similar, but not identical, themes. That might explain why AARP’s list for the top retirement communities at $100 a day (Spokane, Wash.; Roanoke, Va.; San Antonio; Omaha) is different from the group’s picks for “the good life for less” (Daytona Beach, Fla; Pocatello, Idaho; Bangor, Maine; South Bend, Ind.).

Want to read more on retirement? Visit the Consumer Reports Retirement Guide.

What to consider

Sperling says there are some common factors worth including in your own research:

  • Stable economy. A good employment picture affects the tax base and the social services available to seniors. “As a retiree, you don’t necessarily need a job, but it matters a lot whether the people around you have one,” he explains.
  • Affordable housing. Suburbs, smaller cities, and inland areas often prevail. Sperling gives low marks to areas where housing prices are changing rapidly. And a retirement tax nirvana may be a mirage, he says. States with low or no income or sales tax can still have areas with relatively high property taxes.
  • Good infrastructure. Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Minn., and Portland, Ore., are perennials because they’re affordable and have good transportation, recreation, and health care facilities. The presence of teaching hospitals might indicate that quality medical care is available. But U.S. crime rates are generally so low that factoring them in creates marginal differences, Sperling says.

Let the list light a spark

Climate doesn’t play much of a role because it’s a matter of taste. What’s more, a location that’s good for an active 66-year-old might not be ideal at 86, when access to health care and family might be more important.

So think of these lists as a starting point. “They’re not to be taken as gospel,” Sperling said. “But they can inform you about new possibilities. They may highlight something that wasn’t on your radar before.”

—Tobie Stanger

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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