11 critical things to consider when choosing where to retire

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Whether you are retired or are only beginning to plan for retirement, you probably know that there's no shortage of books and websites with lists and quizzes to help you choose a new location for life in retirement. We've got plenty of our own: Where to retire abroad, best and worst states for retirement, go West to retire, and more.

Lists are fun reading. But when it comes to making your own decisions, things get personal. Then, it's time to evaluate what matters most to you, not to the list-makers.

To find a locale that works best for you, focus on these 11 factors when looking at retirement locations:

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11 Critical Things to Consider When Choosing Where to Retire
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11 Critical Things to Consider When Choosing Where to Retire

1. Affordable housing

Housing is the biggest factor in most Americans' budgets, by far. In retirement, especially, if you can eliminate a mortgage payment or rent, you can keep your housing costs from changing while your income is fixed.

Inflation, the time-honored enemy of retirees, may not be much right now but that could change. U.S. home prices nationwide (including foreclosures and bank repossessions) rose 6.7 percent between March 2015 and 2016, according to this Housing Wire report.

Renting a home in retirement is tempting, and for good reason: In many markets, renting still is cheaper than buying a home. (Money Talks News' Karla Bowsher writes that renting is cheaper than owning for retirees — but only if they don't care about leaving a home to their heirs.)

Renting buys retirees the flexibility to move on a whim. It's a more carefree life, with no expense or labor for home and yard upkeep. Leaky faucet? Just call the landlady. Let her deal with it.

But the flip side of that flexibility is a big downside: instability. Landlords may hike your rent at will or give notice that you must leave because they want to move into the home, for instance, or decide to sell it.

Median rents rose more than 6 percent from 2007 to 2015, Rentonomics finds, from U.S. Census Bureau data. Increases may slow and prices may even stagnate, as after the Great Recession. But to be safe, renters should be ready for increases in costs.

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2. Entertainment

"Best-of" lists of places to retire typically focus on college towns with an abundance of cultural opportunities, including cheap and free concerts, plays, lectures and visual arts. All great. But what if you care more about browsing flea markets? Or rooting for a major league sports team? First-run movies? Jazz clubs? Whatever is your thing, this is your time, so make sure your new hometown will deliver when it comes to your unique interests.

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3. Employers

Employers? Sound crazy? Once, perhaps. But today most of us probably get it: Retirement often isn't permanent. CareerBuilder's 2015 survey found that 54 percent of workers age 60 and older planned to work part- or full-time after retirement.

Many Americans, in fact, cycle in and out of retirement. Some retirees grow bored and want stimulation from work. Others learn that their retirement income doesn't stretch as far as they'd hoped. Or they lost savings or home equity in the recession. You, too, may want to work again after being retired for a while — and you won't want to move to find it.

In addition to all that, a town with plenty of living wage jobs is a healthy, livable town with a strong economy — the best kind of place to live.

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4. Excellent medical care

It's self-evident, but it's worth saying: Older people consume more medical care. And they often require care from specialists and facilities specializing in, for example, orthopedic care and geriatric care (and doctors who'll take your insurance). Find out if your destination has what you need by talking with people and calling providers.

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Here's help assessing the medical care in a town:

  • Consumer Reports lists nine things to consider when choosing a new doctor.
  • Use CR's map of the United States to check on a doctor's qualifications and another map to see ratings for hospitals, based on information about rates of infections, readmissions, complications and other adverse events.
  • HealthGrades shows patients' ratings of their doctors.
  • Nolo explains how to find complaints against a doctor or hospital.

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5. Proximity to your family

Being near family when you retire isn't crucial, and it isn't for everybody. But even if you don't mind not seeing family members for extended periods of time, think about the fact that your children or loved ones may one day need to take an active role in your care, perhaps even becoming your caregivers. Great distances make caregiving stressful and often agonizingly difficult for adult children who are also raising families and working.

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6. Public transportation

Younger retirees don't usually give a thought to the availability of transportation. They're accustomed to hopping into cars and going where they wish, when they wish. But that independence and freedom rarely lasts forever. If you intend to stay in a new community as you age, you may eventually want to use buses, trains, light rail, cabs and ride-sharing companies. Assure yourself, long before you need it, that your new town has plenty of ways to get around.

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7. Assisted living, retirement homes and elder co-housing

It's not a bad idea to pay attention to the availability of long-term care nearby. Nearly 70 percent of people who are 65 and older will eventually develop disabilities and 35 percent will spend time in a nursing home, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. A little basic research on the front end can help you make sure it's a good one. AARP has articles that tell you what to look for. For instance: "Assisted Living: What to Ask" and "Assisted Living: Weighing the Options."

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8. Social life

Talk with people you meet to gather a sense of how friendly the community is. If you are looking for a faith community, investigate the congregations that might appeal to you and attend services at several to test the waters. Ask yourself where and how you will make friends. Shop the grocery stores at a couple of different times of day and week to see if people are interacting or simply hurrying in and out. Try to pick up a sense of how warm and open to newcomers the town is. Even those who are not social types may be unhappy in an atmosphere that is cold, exclusive or frenetic. 

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9. Cafes, restaurants and gathering places

Where do people gather in the community you are considering? Try to look at the place with the eyes of someone who has just moved there: Visit the coffee shops, senior center, parks and movie theaters. If you speak a second language, is there a cultural center where you'll feel at home?

Photo credit: Getty

10. Learning

One of the joys of retirement is having the time to learn simply for the fun of it. Make sure you won't be stuck in a learning desert — and don't make assumptions, good or bad, without checking into what's available. If you have dreamed of attending classes and lectures and picking up new skills or honing old ones, find out what's available. A quilter, for example, would look for a vibrant quilting or fabric store that's a hub for workshops, classes and group activities. A busy arts center or arts supply store opens the door to classes in painting, drawing, fiber arts and photography. Look for a brick-and-mortar bookstore, a good sign of a community for people who like to read, think and discuss. Drop into the store and ask what's going on in town, where book talks and lectures are held and how often. Visit a lumber or hardware store, poke around and ask people about woodworking or boat-building classes in town. A visit to the website of the local community college and other schools will give a sense of the classes, clubs and weekend events offered to community members who are not pursuing a degree.

Photo credit: Getty

11. In-home care

If you plan on staying in the community, it's smart to look at resources you may need down the road. Ask realtors and others you meet about the availability of home health care aides. How many agencies are in town? Are their services highly recommended? What is the prevailing wage? Could you afford to pay it if you need help? Maybe it's prudent to consider a less-affluent community where you could more easily afford home care. AARP's Caregiving Resource Center is a one-stop site for the topic. For example, read how to choose an agency for in-home care.

Photo credit: Getty

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