As cases of COVID-19 continue to decline, retirees may no longer feel the need to retreat to the hinterlands. But some seniors may still feel uncomfortable in crowded urban areas, as evidenced by the recent boom in home sales in suburban and rural areas. On the other hand, cities have a lot to offer, especially now that restaurants, museums and concert halls are starting to reopen.
With that in mind, we’ve selected seven small cities (only one has a population of more than 100,000) that offer vibrant downtowns, lots of recreational activities and easily accessible health care. Most also offer strong broadband internet connectivity, which is increasingly essential for everything from telehealth to virtual visits with your grandchildren.
This year, for the first time, we also looked specifically for diverse communities that include people of color and other minorities. Unlike some other factors we measure, diversity is imprecise, but we have strived to highlight places that are welcoming to all retirees.
Although your own choice of the best place to retire will be based on a variety of personal preferences, including proximity to family, your favorite leisure activities, and whether you’re a hot- or cold-weather person, some factors should be on every retiree’s checklist.
Good health care. Retirees routinely list access to health care as one of their top priorities when choosing a place to live, and COVID-19 has provided a vivid reminder of why even otherwise healthy people need to have a reputable hospital nearby. All of our cities have at least two hospitals within 25 miles. You can use Medicare’s “Hospital Compare” tool, available at Medicare.gov, to research hospitals in any city you’re considering as a retirement destination. The tool also provides general information, such as the names and addresses of all hospitals in a particular area and the types of services they provide.
Moderate home prices. At a time when home prices are soaring in many parts of the country, we searched for cities with a median home price near or below the national average of $347,500. When it comes to home prices, location matters, and retirees have more flexibility than most buyers. Say you wanted to be near family in Seattle. The median home price in Richland, Wash., of $357,900 is above the national average, but it’s considerably less than the cost of homes in the Seattle area, about 200 miles away, where the median is $650,000 (and good luck finding anything at that price). And even in this booming market, some of our cities are downright bargains. The median home price in Roanoke, Va., is just $200,000.
Low cost of living. Inflation is rising at the fastest rate in years, which is particularly worrisome for retirees who are living on fixed incomes. Choosing a city with a low cost of living will help you keep rising prices in check. Most of our cities have lower-than-average expenses, based on the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index for the fourth quarter of 2020.
Tax-friendly states. State taxes can take a bite out of your savings, which is why Florida, which has no income tax, is popular with retirees. But high property and sales taxes can eat into your savings, too, and a state with an above-average tax rate could still be tax-friendly if it exempts a large amount of retirement income from state taxes. Most of our cities are located in states that are rated tax-friendly or neutral by the Kiplinger State-by-State Guide to Taxes on Retirees, our annual ranking of all 50 states based on the tax situations they offer retired residents. – Emma Patch
- Population: 99,100
- Cost of living for retirees: 88.4/100
- Median home price: $200,000
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 5
- What locals love: Hiking up Mill Mountain to see the Roanoke Star
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke offers southern charm and plenty of outdoor adventures—via car or by foot. Retirees can hike the Appalachian Trail near the Blue Ridge Parkway and take a break at McAfee Knob to enjoy panoramic views of the mountains. Another popular hiking destination is Mill Mountain, home of the Roanoke Star, the largest free-standing man-made star in the world.
The climate is generally mild and not humid, although the city does get a lot of rain in March and September. Residents can spend rainy days exploring the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which is known for its collection of diesel locomotives, and the Taubman Museum of Art, which features more than 2,000 contemporary, folk and regional artworks, along with children’s painting programs. Or you can take a trip two hours north and go underground at Luray Caverns to hear the Great Stalacpipe Organ—the world’s largest musical instrument. Retirees can also expand their minds as an Elderscholar at Roanoke College in neighboring Salem, Va.
Roughly 40% of residents identify as non-white, with the largest minority group being Black Americans. Plus, Roanoke has an established lesbian, gay, transgender, queer community that dates back to the early 1960s.
“It’s a beautiful place to live,” says Joan McGee, a former Arlington, Va., resident who grew up in Roanoke. McGee retired in 2019 in the Washington, D.C., area, but when the pandemic hit, she moved back to her hometown because she felt it was safer there.
McGee purchased a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home for $265,000, which is higher than the median for the area but comparable to what buyers in upscale neighborhoods can expect to pay. At a time when home prices in many parts of the country are soaring, Roanoke remains affordable. On Zillow.com, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house located close to downtown was recently listed for $270,000, a reduction of $10,000 from its original list price.
Despite the rural setting, you won’t have to travel far for health care. Carilion Medical Center, which is part of the Carilion Clinic network headquartered in Roanoke, offers 703 beds and various specialties, from cardiology to joint replacement. In 2019, the clinic kicked off a fund-raising campaign for a new cancer center. And for those who have pets, the city is also home to the new Virginia Tech Animal Cancer Care and Research Center.
Virginia is tax-friendly for retirees. The commonwealth doesn’t tax Social Security benefits, and eligible residents 65 and older can deduct up to $12,000 of other income per person. The combined state and local sales tax rate of 5.73% is the 11th-lowest in the nation. – Rivan Stinson
- Population: 58,225
- Cost of living for retirees: 100.5/100
- Median home price: $357,900
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 4
- What locals love: Biking the 23-mile Sacagawea Heritage Trail
Richland and its bucolic surroundings offer miles of trails for hiking and biking, and marinas and aquatic parks for boating and fishing. Retirees will appreciate access to first-rate health care, an affordable cost of living, a low crime rate and a variety of outdoor entertainment venues.
Richland—together with adjoining cities Kennewick and Pasco, known as the Tri-Cities—is located in the southeastern region of Washington State, where the Columbia and Yakima rivers converge. Just less than a four-hour drive from Seattle, Richland is a world away from Seattle’s big-city hustle and bustle and infamous rainy weather. Richland gets a mere 7.6 inches of rain a year, on average (and average snowfall of 6 inches annually). Average temperatures range from as low as 27 degrees in December to as high as 88 degrees in July. A regional airport has direct flights to major cities, including Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Denver.
This small city is by no means a quiet town. Although Richland’s Hanford nuclear reservation site stopped producing nuclear materials in 1987, plans are in the works to make Hanford the home to the nation’s first commercial advanced nuclear power reactor, which could drive business and industry to Richland and attract a more diverse population (currently, nearly one-fourth of the population is non-white). Two universities—Washington State University Tri-Cities Campus in downtown Richland and Columbia Basin College in Pasco—add youth and diversity to the region (43% of students at Columbia Basin College are Hispanic, and 44% at WSU’s Tri-Cities campus are listed as minority students).
Outdoor recreation is another major economic driver in Richland. Two marinas, Columbia Park Marina and Columbia Marine Center, can be found in the heart of downtown, with two other marinas several miles farther down the Columbia in neighboring Oregon. Several trails surround Richland, including the seven-mile Riverfront Trail, which is part of the 23-mile Sacagawea Heritage Trail.
The Richland Parkway shopping area offers bistros, bakeries, chic boutiques and a farmers-and-artisans market in the summer. Nearby is John Dam Plaza, where the 3,000-person-capacity HAPO Community Stage, an outdoor performance venue, hosts local performing arts groups, movies and a summer concert series with live music, food vendors, and a beer and wine garden.
Retirees from Seattle who have sold a home there can often pay cash to get a home in Richland. A 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch home in downtown recently listed for $370,000.
The Tri-Cities region has four hospital systems: Kadlec Regional Medical Center in downtown, Lourdes Health in Pasco, Prosser Memorial west of the city and Trios Health in nearby Kennewick. Kadlec has an open-heart surgery and interventional cardiology program, an intensive-care unit, a neuroscience center, and health care providers in numerous specialties, while Lourdes offers more than 25 specialties, from bariatrics and pediatrics to orthopedics and in-patient rehab.
Washington has no state income tax, so retirees don’t need to worry about state taxes on retirement income, pensions or Social Security benefits. However, the Evergreen State has an estate tax on estates valued at more than $2.19 million. – Marc A. Wojno
- Population: 87,800
- Cost of living for retirees: 93.6/100
- Median home price: $362,000
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 6
- What locals love: Skiing at Snowbasin
Ogden was once considered a city of ill repute. This former railroad town has a history of gambling, bootleggers and speakeasies, and even gangster Al Capone reportedly found the city too tough for his tastes.
In recent years, though, the city has cleaned up the infamous 25th Street, also known as Two-Bit Street. Today, it’s the site of the city’s farmers market, the First Friday Art Stroll, local businesses and restaurants, with some using the city’s sinful past as a point of pride. For example, Alleged, a local bar and nightclub, advertises that it was once the city’s most notorious brothel and is now its finest club.
Outside of its railroad-town history, Ogden is also known for its world-class scenery and skiing, which attracts outdoor enthusiasts. “People who want to live an active lifestyle move here,” says Michael Gallagher, a local real estate agent. If you’re a big-time skier and are 65 or older, you can purchase a value pass at Snowbasin for $399 a year. The city has more than 210 miles of trails for hiking and biking, and the Ogden and Weber rivers provide opportunities aplenty for avid fishers in the summer thanks to the warm but dry climate. Temperatures range from the low 20s in the winter to 90s in mid summer, but summer temperatures usually fall in the upper 70s.
Most older home buyers look for homes in North Ogden, South Ogden and West Haven, which surround the downtown area. A three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhome in West Haven recently sold for about $370,000. But like many parts of the country, the housing market is hot: That home sold in a day, Gallagher says.
Salt Lake City is 41 miles away, but residents don’t have to travel that far to get health care. There are six hospitals within 25 miles of Ogden, including McKay Dee Hospital (a part of the Intermountain Healthcare system), which offers cancer treatment, a stroke team and cardiology.
Although retirees get a break on property taxes, Utah is one of only a handful of states that tax Social Security benefits. Most other retirement income is taxed at a flat rate of 4.95%. Utah provides a small retirement-income tax credit that may help offset the tax on Social Security, but it’s only available for income-eligible seniors.
Taxes haven’t prevented an influx of newcomers, including middle-class families with diverse backgrounds. About 35% of residents identify as people of color, according to the latest Census data. – R.S.
Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
- Population: 55,865
- Cost of living for retirees: 90.3/100
- Median home price: $379,900
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 2
- What locals love: Bass fishing in Lake Havasu
Although widely regarded as a resort and tourist destination, Lake Havasu City, located on the eastern side of 45-mile-long Lake Havasu, offers a wide variety of outdoor activities—especially for active retirees who crave the Southwest’s year-round dry-heat climate. Whether you’re hitting the links at the Bridgewater Links Golf Course, fishing for bass or floating in a hot air balloon, much of the city’s outdoor recreational activities are clustered around the lake.
One-third of the residents are 65 or older, but the city itself is fairly young. It was established in 1963 after chainsaw-and-oil magnate Robert McCulloch spotted an area of land that he felt would make an ideal city as he was flying over the lake. McCulloch worked with developer C.V. Wood, who designed Disneyland, to start building, and Lake Havasu City was born. Today, the city—located just east of the Chemehuevi Reservation—boasts a below-average cost of living, a low crime rate and more than 300 days of sunshine a year.
Although the coronavirus pandemic temporarily curtailed several events, in recent years the city has hosted such events as the Desert Storm Poker Run boat racing competition, the International Jet Ski World Finals and the annual Havasu Balloon Festival, which will take place in January 2022.
Arizona State University has a Lake Havasu campus offering degrees in nine fields of study. The city is also home to Mohave Community College, which offers more than 80 degrees and certificates.
Perhaps the most unusual landmark to be found in all of Arizona—or, for that matter, throughout the Southwest—is London Bridge, which dominates the city’s landscape and identity. In 1967, after decades of disrepair, the City of London, England, sought buyers for the bridge. McCulloch saw the bridge’s potential as a tourist attraction, and after three years of disassembling the bridge in London and reassembling all 10,276 of its bricks in Lake Havasu, it opened for business in 1971. It’s now the second-most-popular tourist attraction in Arizona after the Grand Canyon.
Lake Havasu City residents have access to two hospitals within 25 miles: the 171-bed Havasu Regional Medical Center, located in the heart of downtown, and La Paz Regional Hospital, located 24 miles south in Parker. Havasu Regional provides facilities for a variety of services, such as cancer treatment, cardiopulmonary services, home health and surgery. La Paz offers more than 20 services, including a cardiac catheterization lab, diagnostic radiology and laparoscopic surgery.
The median home price in Lake Havasu City is nearly $380,000, but home prices vary wildly, from tiny one-bedroom, one-bathroom condos at $165,000 to flashy ranch homes selling for close to $1 million.
Arizona exempts Social Security benefits, as well as up to $2,500 of income from federal and Arizona government retirement plans, from state income taxes. While many Arizonans enjoy low income tax rates, wealthier taxpayers earning more than $250,000 (or joint filers earning more than $500,000) will see a 3.5% surtax on taxable income starting in 2021. – M.A.W.
- Population: 76,200
- Cost of living for retirees: 78.4/100
- Median home price: $185,000
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 7
- What locals love: Gilmore Car Museum
Kalamazoo is the birthplace of the Gibson Factory company (now headquartered in Nashville), which made the iconic Gibson guitars played by the likes of B.B. King and Prince. The music lives on at Heritage Guitar Inc., a factory founded by former Gibson employees. Although it’s not open for tours at the moment, there are rumors that Hard Rock plans to open a hotel on a portion of the site. Fans of classical music can enjoy the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, the third-largest professional orchestra in the state.
Retirees who are more into classic cars than classical music (or who appreciate both) will love the Gilmore Car Museum. The museum was founded by local businessman Donald Gilmore in 1963, and it opened to the public three years later with 35 cars on display. Currently, it features more than 400 vehicles.
When residents aren’t moving and grooving, they’re exploring local hiking trails, casinos, restaurants and breweries. The city is home to Bell’s Brewery, the creator of the Two Hearted and Oberon ales. And if you’re looking for even more things to do, Chicago and Detroit are both about two hours away by car.
You can expect to pay about $300,000 to $400,000 for a home with three to four bedrooms and three bathrooms. For example, a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home located in the Westwood neighborhood, minutes from downtown, recently listed for $300,000 on Zillow.
About 80% of Kalamazoo residents are white, but Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College provide energy and diversity, along with lots of amenities and college sports. While their young neighbors may feel like they’re immortal, retirees know better, and will appreciate that there are eight hospitals in the Kalamazoo area. A recent survey conducted by IBM Watson Health named Bronson Methodist Hospital, which serves Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan, as one of the nation’s top 50 cardiovascular hospitals. Other specialties in the 734-bed hospital include cancer care, neurosurgery, orthopedics and sports medicine.
The Great Lakes State provides some tax breaks for retirement income (the amount you can exempt or deduct depends on when you were born, with less-generous tax breaks for younger retirees). The overall state and local tax bill for retirees is higher than in many other states, in large part due to above-average property taxes. But Kalamazoo’s cost of living for retirees is low, which could help offset Michigan’s higher state taxes. – R.S.
- Population: 66,259
- Cost of living for retirees: 94.3/100
- Median home price: $300,000
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 2
- What locals love: The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail; Auburn Tigers football
Warm weather and low taxes make Auburn a desirable destination for retirees. But locals say there’s a lot more to love than that. Whether you’re hiking by a waterfall at nearby Chewacla State Park or teeing off by waterside views at the beloved Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, you’ll find an abundance of beautiful outdoor spaces here. Auburn University hosts big-time collegiate sports, and its nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students bring warmth and energy to the community, along with diversity.
Exploring the walkable historic downtown, not far from the university, you’ll find a number of highly rated dining options and small businesses. The Gogue Performing Arts Center at Auburn University is known for programs ranging from comedy to classical music. Across the street, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art features a permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American and European art, as well as many traveling exhibitions. Residents 50 or older can also take courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn University. Volunteer instructors lead affordably priced courses in a variety of subjects.
High-quality health care at the East Alabama Medical Center and the Lake Martin Community Hospital also makes Auburn an attractive place for retirees. This summer, the town of Auburn opened its own free-standing emergency room, built by the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, an Auburn University–affiliated nonprofit. The university’s medical clinic is also available to the community.
The median home price in Auburn is below the national average. A recently constructed three-bedroom, two-bath home near the university was recently listed for $348,000.
The state’s income tax rate is low, ranging from 2% to 5%, and Social Security benefits and income from traditional pensions are exempt from state taxes. Alabama also has the second-lowest median property tax rate in the U.S. – Emma Patch
Cape Coral, Fla.
- Population: 194,495
- Cost of living for retirees: 99.5/100
- Median home price: $335,800
- Number of hospitals within 25 miles: 6
- What locals love: The Cape Coral Waterways
In a state that continues to attract retirees seeking beautiful beaches, warm weather and no state income tax, the Gulf Coast haven of Cape Coral stands out. Located between Sarasota to the north and Naples to the south, Cape Coral has more than 400 miles of waterways that function both as a mode of transportation and a source of recreation. They’re also where you’ll find such beloved traditions as the annual “Holiday Boat Along,” when residents deck out their boats in festive decorations and parade them through the canals during the holiday season.
But beyond boating, swimming and year-round sunshine, Cape Coral is also a growing and increasingly diverse community, with non-white residents composing more than one-fourth of the population. And although the city is large (120 square miles) and young (incorporated in the 1970s), it has the ambience and sense of community of a small town. “People like to say it’s the largest small town they’ve ever been to,” says Donna Germain, president and CEO of the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce and a lifelong Cape Coral resident.
Nonetheless, Cape Coral offers many of the amenities of a larger urban area. Lee County’s LeeTran trolley and bus services provide access to nearby Fort Meyers Beach and Sanibel Island, where fans of the performing arts can check out Big Arts, which features galleries, music and dance performances. Southwest Florida International Airport is about 12 miles away.
Cape Coral retirees can take advantage of top-notch health care facilities as well. Lee Health’s HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Meyers has been named among the 50 Top Cardiovascular Hospitals for four consecutive years by IBM Watson Health.
Cape Coral has seen one of the biggest declines in homes for sale from 2020 to 2021, according to a recent study by Redfin. But real estate is the dominant industry in Cape Coral, and new construction is under way. On Zillow, a three-bedroom, three-bath, newly constructed house was recently available for $358,000, just a bit more than the median home price.
Florida is tax-friendly for retirees. It levies no state income tax, leaving Social Security benefits and other retirement income intact, and it has no estate or inheritance tax. – E.P.
SOURCES: Population data, incomes, poverty rates, broadband internet-subscription rates and median home values are provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Figures for living costs for retirees are based on the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index for Q4 2020.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.