Let’s face it: Today’s woeful economy may keep you from retiring in the style you imagined. Nest eggs are shrinking. Housing prices have plunged by a third in some markets, robbing homeowners of their equity. Baby boomers who once dreamed of cashing out and moving to Maui are scaling back their goals, concerned about how long their savings might last.
Fear not. There are still plenty of great places to retire where you don’t have to be rich to afford a home. SecondAct’s 2011 list of top retirement towns places a special emphasis on affordability. Whether you prefer an idyllic, throw-back town on a distant seashore or a forested hamlet in the mountains, you can find houses for under $300,000. The lower price tag will mean lower property taxes, too -- a classic win-win.
We also considered attributes such as architectural charm, culture, recreation and public transportation. Climate matters. So do parks, bike trails and green sensibilities. Often, the best retirement towns also are college towns. Besides offering educational opportunities, college campuses are typically surrounded by walkable streets boasting coffeehouses, bistros, art galleries and bookstores.
Today’s retirees seem particularly drawn to that ambiance, especially in modest-sized cities, notes Warren Bland, author of Retire in Style: 60 Outstanding Places Across the USA and Canada.
”College towns are becoming more popular than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” Bland says. “They offer a wide range of amenities, typically without the air pollution, traffic congestion and high crime rates often found in larger cities. And the cost of living is much lower in smaller college cities.”
Keep in mind that moving is a major step that’s not easily undone. Experts suggest you try out your retirement haven before making the commitment. Rent for a while, arrange a house swap or use your vacations to get the feel of places where you might want to live later.
Here, then, are SecondAct’s top 10 retirement towns of 2011:
1. Georgetown, Texas
Antique street lamps, brick sidewalks and meticulously restored Victorian homes make this town on the Chisholm Trail a gem of the Old West. Century-old oaks shade a downtown alive with festivals, concerts and a thriving art scene. Georgetown is home to the Sarofim School of Fine Arts and also has its own symphony. The crime rate is one of the lowest in the nation. The Texas Hill Country offers hiking and horseback riding. In the Sun City retirement community, residents cruise in golf carts. Scenic neighborhoods are built around golf courses and the shores of Lake Georgetown, but home prices average $220,000, a fraction of housing costs in Los Angeles. Georgetown is 26 miles from the ultra-hip Austin, another top retirement mecca where houses list for $250,000. The larger, more crowded Austin is known for its cosmopolitan culture and cutting-edge tech industry surrounding the University of Texas.
Bonus feature: Spring wildflowers explode with color. The Red Poppy Festival draws 30,000 visitors every April.
Downside: While the climate is mild compared with much of Texas, summers can get hot and humid.
2. Burlington, Vt.
Nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain, Burlington combines folksy charm with a trendy, urban feel. The home of Ben Jerry’s ice cream ranks as one of America’s healthiest and most sustainable cities. With the Adirondack Mountains as a backdrop, car-free Church Street (right) is lined with shops and jazz clubs; the American Planning Association calls Church Street one of the nation’s “great public spaces.” Burlington is renowned for its many year-round public events, such as the Festival of Fools, a pageant devoted to folklore that attracts 25,000 people. The town also hosts a brewer’s festival, dragon-boat races, and the Giant Pumpkin Regatta and Festival in the fall. Burlington’s unemployment rate -- less than 5 percent -- is one of the lowest in the nation. The lake shore features an aquarium and science center, as well as a 14-mile biking and walking trail. Home prices average $253,000.
Bonus feature: You might see “Champ,” America’s version of the Loch Ness monster. The creature is the mascot of minor-league baseball’s Vermont Lake Monsters.
Downside: Cold winter months bring 81 inches of annual snowfall.
3. Portland, Ore.
Trees, parks and eco-friendly policies make Portland, located at the juncture of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, one of the “greenest” cities in the world. Forest Park is a 5,000-acre wilderness zone, and the Tom McCall Waterfront Park stretches the entire length of downtown on the Willamette. Traveling around the city is easy via an accessible light-rail system and an extensive network of biking and hiking trails. For culture, residents enjoy a symphony, opera, ballet, theaters, museums and an up-tempo music scene. Portland also offers an array of college campuses -- among them the University of Portland and Portland State University. The city’s youthful, hippie-ish vibe inspired the hit comedy TV series, Portlandia, which premiered this year on Independent Film Channel. “Certainly, there’s no shortage of things to write about based on Portland,” the show’s co-creator, Carrie Brownstein, tells a local TV station. Portland is known for its roses and public gardens, diverse cuisine, gourmet coffee and micro-brewed beer. Homes list for under $365,000; sales so far this year average $240,000, based on figures through May compiled by trulia.com.
Bonus feature: Powell’s City of Books, which touts itself as the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi.
Downside: Growth has brought terrible rush-hour traffic, and Portland averages 37 inches of rain a year.
More info: Travel Portland
4. St. Petersburg, Fla.
Known for its beautiful beaches, St. Pete grew at the end of the 19th century on the peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Old, stately buildings remain. In times past, the faded milieu and large elderly population gave the town a weary feel -- “God’s waiting room,” some wags labeled it. A revival has been under way, however. Parts of St. Petersburg have become a palm-lined nightlife destination. The downtown BayWalk district features theaters, trendy restaurants and clubs. The St. Petersburg Pier, scheduled to be rebuilt by 2012, is a popular summer hangout, with a nearby public aquarium and boat tours. “Many people agree that St. Pete has one of the nicest and most vital downtowns in Florida,” according to a review by the Top Retirements website, praising St. Petersburg’s ideal bayside location and its agreeable melding of urban enticements and quiet, affordable neighborhoods. St. Petersburg is a baseball and a university town with museums, art galleries, a major yacht club, and a lure common to all Florida retirement communities: There is no state income tax. Homes list for under $230,000.
Bonus feature: Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays, who play in Tropicana Field, are one of the hottest teams in the American League, and a number of other major league teams -- including the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies -- hold spring training games in the area.
Downside: The banes of Florida living -- mosquitoes and hurricanes.
More info:St. Petersburg website
5. Beaufort, S.C.
Impressive antebellum architecture makes Beaufort a tourist draw and a sought-after place for filming. Forrest Gump, The Big Chill, and The Prince of Tides were shot on Port Royal Island, which boasts more than 70 historic sites, including the downtown commercial district. Known for its golf, fishing and kayaking, Beaufort was chosen “Best Small Southern Town” by Southern Living magazine and one of the top 20 fishing towns by Field and Stream. Nearly 20 art galleries here display the work of more than 100 local artists. The laid-back lifestyle is punctuated by seasonal festivals celebrating film, water sports and -- apropos of Forrest -- shrimp. Homes list for $350,000, but this year sales have averaged less than half of that, according to end-of-May figures from trulia.com.
Bonus feature: Beaufort is just 34 miles from Hilton Head Island, a resort popular for its golf courses and expansive beaches.
Downside: Summer crowds bloat Beaufort to 10 times its normal size.
More info:Beaufort website
6. Fort Collins, Colo.
Once ranked by Money magazine as America’s best place to live, Fort Collins brings together culture, entertainment, academia and a flavor of the Old West in a picturesque mountain setting. Located at the foot of the Rockies 65 miles north of Denver, the historic military outpost has quiet, affordable neighborhoods -- average three-bedroom homes cost $250,000 -- and an eco-friendly spirit. Bikeways cover 280 miles, and a popular “bicycle library” makes it easy to borrow a bike on a whim and go exploring. Crime rates are low. Colorado State University, with its 20,000 students, serves as the cornerstone of the local economy and fosters a pleasant, college-town atmosphere that features an active music and arts scene. Nearby Loveland, with its picturesque terrain, attracts artists, hikers and cross-country skiers.
Bonus feature: The many micro-breweries of Old Town. The Colorado Brewers’ Festival in June draws 30,000 happy beer drinkers.
Downside: Winter temperatures often dip below zero.
More info:Fort Collins website
7. Tucson, Ariz.
For sun worshippers, Tucson has it all: golf, tennis, pools, spas and fitness centers. Thirty-five golf courses spill across the undulating desert landscape, framed by mountains on all sides. Green Valley is one of the world’s largest retirement villages. The University of Arizona gives Tucson a progressive cultural climate. Named a “mini Mecca for the arts” by The Wall Street Journal, Tucson is known for the university’s own renowned art collection as well as a large catalog at the Tucson Museum of Art. The city is keen on conservation. Third Street, which runs past historic downtown homes, is bicycle-only except for local traffic. Popular events include Rodeo Week and its accompanying parade, a festival for Wiccans, and a huge annual gem and mineral show. “Tucson loves to celebrate its rich medley of cultures, architectures and peoples,” says columnist Scott Hubbard of bestretirementcities.net. The housing styles, he says, “range from 100-year-old haciendas to trendy downtown lofts,” and include even old adobes and ranch homes. Generally, they cost less than $250,000.
Bonus feature: The must-see Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum sits in a spectacular forest of towering saguaro cacti -- a landscape unlike any other.
Downside: Summer temperatures top 100 degrees, and intense thunderstorms cause frequent flash-flooding.
More info:Visit Tucson
8. Lafayette, Ind.
Straddling the banks of the Wabash River, the adjoining towns of Lafayette and West Lafayette represent Middle America as Norman Rockwell once painted it. The area was founded in the early 1700s as a fur-trapping outpost and is best known today as the home of Purdue University. Lafayette is popular for its century-old houses, first-rate schools and historic downtown. Miles of trails accommodate bikers, hikers and bird-watchers. A broad plaza where community events and festivals are held connects downtown with a pedestrian bridge crossing the Wabash; the site is a stopping point for Amtrak, Greyhound and the city bus system. Canoeing, camping and swimming are popular pastimes along the river. Homes typically list for $150,000, and sales prices so far this year average barely half of that.
Bonus feature: The city is just a two-hour drive from Chicago.
Downside: January temperatures average 17 degrees.
9. St. George, Utah
Wedged between Bryce and Zion national parks and the Mojave Desert, St. George is a sunny and scenic small town notable for its red-rock buttes. More than a dozen golf courses contribute to its popularity among sports lovers and retirees. Homes cost an average of $205,000. Thousands visit for the St. George Marathon, the Utah Shakespearean Festival, and to fish, backpack, ride horses and go boating. The Virgin River bisects the town before merging with the Santa Clara River to the south. The one-time cotton-growing outpost, founded in 1861, is also a hot spot for rock climbers. Dixie State College gives St. George the youthful vibe that makes other retirement towns so appealing. For those with a penchant for gambling, Las Vegas is a mere 90 minutes away.
Bonus feature: The Johnson Farm Dinosaur Discovery Site, also known as the Dinosaur Walkway, displays tracks from 205 million years ago.
Downside: July temperatures average 102 degrees.
10. Fayetteville, Ark.
This eclectic burg in the Ozarks features a mix of Civil War-era buildings and modern architecture, as well as the University of Arkansas, where Bill and Hillary Clinton taught law. Narrow, shop-lined Dickson Street, a gateway to the university, is a popular dining place. A farmers market convenes throughout the summer in the town square. The $23 million Fayetteville Public Library, voted best in the country by Library Journal after it opened in 2004, hosts a film festival and frequent public-issue forums. The house where the Clintons were married is now a museum highlighting their political careers. Bolstered by the university, Fayetteville has a comparatively strong economy for Arkansas, and crime rates are low. Homes cost less than $200,000. Fayetteville is one of the few small towns with an Office of Sustainability. The “green” attitude is evident in an extensive trail system that is still being expanded. Fishermen flock to mountain lakes nearby.
Bonus feature: The 86-acre Botanical Garden of the Ozarks has a lakeside hiking trail.
Downside: The Ozarks are marred by extensive poverty, leaving Fayetteville somewhat isolated.
More info:Experience Fayetteville
SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and the author of Screwball, a comic baseball novel.