How to pick the perfect retirement location

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When Don and Dot Thomas were in their late 50s, they took a class on preparing for retirement. They lived in Elm Grove, Wis., at the time, and decided that they were going to move south after Don retired from his job as a manager for Miller Brewing.

"We knew we didn't want to stay in Wisconsin because the winters are too severe," says Dot, 80. So for three years, they took vacations to Florida, the Carolinas, Arizona and Arkansas to look at retirement communities.

They settled on Hot Springs Village, Ark., because they could have a house on a lake and access to excellent golf courses while living in driving distance from several of their adult children. They have lived there 21 years and are happy with their decision. "We really enjoy it," says Don, 80. "We like sitting at our picture window and looking out on the lake."

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When Ron Grossman decided to retire at age 68 from his career as an attorney in Utica, N.Y., he and his wife, Doris, also thoroughly researched the best place to relocate. They decided on Sarasota, Fla., because they would have access to excellent golf courses, beaches and a range of cultural opportunities — theater, symphonies, opera, ballet and jazz, he says.

The city also had many fine restaurants with a wide variety of ethnic food. "Sarasota seemed to have it all," he says. "I have to say I have enjoyed retirement."

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to finding the right retirement location, experts say.

Every year, 700,000 Americans move to new towns to retire, says Annette Fuller, editor of Where to Retire magazine and "Nationally, two dozen states and hundreds of towns seek to attract retirees as a source of economic development."

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The top five factors that people consider when assessing a retirement location are low crime rate; an active, clean, safe downtown; good hospitals nearby; low overall tax rate and a mild climate, according to recent research of the readers of the magazine.

To determine which states offer the best quality of life for retirees, recently ranked all 50 based on several major factors, including local weather, cost of living, crime rate, health care quality, tax burden and general well-being. The five states with the highest ranking: South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming. The five that ranked the lowest for retirement: New York, West Virginia, Alaska, Arkansas and Hawaii.

But there are many factors that come into play. "Retirees enjoy being around others who can experience the joy and enrichment of a shared hobby, heritage or sport," Fuller says.

She says they often look for places where they can enjoy:

• Specific passions and interests. Retirees often gravitate to areas that have something specific they want: a focus on the arts (Taos, N.M.); a walkable downtown (Ashland, Ore.); fishing (Natchitoches, La.); golfing (Augusta, Ga.); quilting (Paducah, Ky.); and even a great farmers market (Fayetteville, Ark.), she says.

• Their heritage. "Tarpon Springs, Fla., is known for its Greek population, and in New Britain, Conn., Polish is everywhere, from the sign on the post office to homemade kielbasa to real estate agents who are fluent in that language," Fuller says.

"Three hundred years of heritage in Providence, R.I., has nurtured its Italian ancestry, and Holland, Mich., still has an annual Tulip Time Festival in honor of its Dutch roots," she says.

• Sports teams. "Some people want to relocate to great college basketball locations such as Chapel Hill, N.C., home of the Tar Heels and the Michael Jordan legacy, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence, whose first coach was James Naismith, the inventor of the game with a ball and a peach basket," she says. "Retirees are often season-ticket holders and among the most enthusiastic fans."

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People move to a new community if the advantages of moving outweigh the advantages of staying where they are, says Rodney Harrell, director of Livable Communities in AARP's Public Policy Institute.

Many people want to age in place. AARP research shows that about seven out of 10 of those ages 50 to 64 retire in place; almost nine out of 10 of those 65 and older stay put, he says. "They love their homes and communities, and they've built up their social connections."

Still, some people want to move within the same area from cul-de-sac communities that require them to drive everywhere to more walkable neighborhoods where they have easy access to stores and restaurants, Harrell says. They want safe communities with affordable houses, he says. Many retirees are looking for homes without a lot of steps and wide hallways to accommodate mobility devices, he says.

When looking for a new place to live in retirement, Harrell recommends considering all the facets that are important to you from your passions to proximity to good primary care facilities and any medical specialists you might need.

"It's expensive enough to move once; you don't want to have to move twice," he says.

Looking for a new location for retirement?

Recent market research of the readers of Where to Retire magazine shows that most retirees carefully assess their relocation. Here are the top 18 factors that retirees consider, ranked in order of importance:

1. Low crime rate

2. Active, clean, safe downtown

3. Good hospitals nearby

4. Low overall tax rate

5. Mild climate

6. Scenic beauty nearby

7. Friendly, like-minded neighbors

8. Low cost of living

9. Good recreational facilities

10. Active social/cultural environment

11. Walkability

12. Low housing cost

13. Airport with commercial service nearby

14. No state income tax

15. Major city nearby

16. Friends, relatives in the area

17. College or university town

18. Full- or part-time employment opportunities

--By USA Today