It can be confusing making sense of the many “best places to retire” lists out there. In fact, it’s probably best to eye these lists with extreme skepticism — unless you really do want to spend your golden years in (gulp) frigid North Dakota.
What with all the “best places to retire” lists in circulation, you’d think there would be some consensus about the top spots to kick back in retirement. Yet these lists are literally all over the map, and often contradictory. Bankrate.com’s new roundup ranking the “surprisingly best” states for retirement touts the Dakotas, West Virginia, and Mississippi — and ranks Oregon dead last in its corresponding “worst places” list. A Forbes list, on the other hand, included Medford, Ore., in its roundup of the best places to retire in 2013, and CNN/Money listed Portland, Ore., in a roundup published last fall.
These discrepancies are the rule rather than the exception, partially because the rankings emphasize different criteria. Some lists emphasize college towns, whose populations tend to skew young, while others put a premium on communities with a lot of senior residents. Many publications advise looking at local tax rates, but they clash when it comes to deciding whether income, property or sales tax is most important.
Here’s the good news: you can probably ignore them all.
As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out two years ago in the New Yorker, rankings fail when they bite off more than they can chew. A “best of” list can aim to evaluate a broad set of criteria or a large number of contenders, but not both. “It’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous,” Gladwell wrote.
Gladwell was critiquing the way college rankings are conducted, but the principle is the same when it comes to cars, restaurants and where to spend your retirement years.
The way “best places to retire” lists are graded often misses the point: they don’t tell you much about what your life would be like if you lived there, because there’s just too much about your life they can’t possibly know or take into consideration. Plus, a lot of what’s desirable is completely subjective. One person’s tranquil small town might make another go stir-crazy, while someone from Texas might shiver just at the thought of moving to Maine.
“What we really want people to think about is, How is their home designed? Is their community going to be able to support them?” says Amy Levner, manager of livable communities at AARP.
“The challenge is taking a comprehensive look” at the life you want after retirement, says Ron Manheimer, former executive director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement and former director of older-adult education for the National Council on Aging. A list can’t give you that bigger picture. “There are other aspects that will make life enjoyable and satisfying,” he says, that rankings can’t quantify.
Here are some of the ways these roundups miss the mark, and how you should approach any “best” list when considering the important question of where to retire.
Median home price: This is a common factor in these lists, but its shortcoming is that the median home price doesn’t tell you anything about the homes. Are they far from public transit? How close are essentials like a grocery store and a pharmacy? Do they require extensive — and expensive — maintenance? Will you have to climb stairs to get out of the house, get to the refrigerator or go to the bathroom? These are the questions you should be asking.
Ideally, Manheimer suggests visiting communities where you’re considering retiring, or even taking a six-month rental during the off-season — when the college is closed for the summer or the temperature is frigid (or unbearably humid) — before you commit to buying real estate there. Houses might be cheap, but what good is that if you’re miserable?
Taxes: There are a handful of states that don’t have an income tax, but what you pay in sales and property taxes in those places might be high enough to cancel out any savings. Plus, Levner points out, low taxes could mean less infrastructure and support services. “If they’re paying more taxes and getting more services, it may be worth it.”
Cost of living: This is another misleading one. Economist Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute argues that standard cost-of-living formulas — the kind used by most “best of” lists — don’t accurately reflect senior citizens’ expenses since they spend more on medical goods and services that are increasing in price faster than the overall rate of inflation.
Manheimer also points out that cost-of-living formulas don’t include miscellaneous expenses you may incur as a trade-off to residing somewhere with a lower cost of living. As an example, he points out that a more rural area might have a lower cost of living, but that could be offset if you regularly have to drive long distances.
Health care: Yes, good access to health care is important, but the number of medical providers in a municipality or region is kind of a red herring. Instead, ask yourself: Do you have friends, neighbors or relatives nearby who can check up on you if you have medical trouble? Will you still be able to get around your house and keep up with maintaining it? Can you get to doctors’ appointments if you don’t drive?
Public transportation: This is barely mentioned at all in these lists, but it’s probably more important than you think. Levner says women outlive their driving years by 10 years, while men do by seven. “Communities were really built around the car, and that’s isolated a lot of people,” she says.
Social networks: This can’t be quantified and is highly subjective, but it’s still important. “Older people often have a decades-long attachment to their current residence … they have a harder time breaking ties with the community,” states a study from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. Moving can be beneficial, the study says, but what determines that are “meaningful connections and a sense of belonging.”
To figure out if a community will be a good fit for you, Manheimer says you must talk to locals. Older folks in particular who already live in the place you’re thinking about moving to can be a great resource. Depending on your hobbies and interests, reach out to a local church, synagogue, activity or business-focused group you might like to be a part of and press current members for honest assessments of the area. Check local media websites and see if there are groups or events where newcomers can forge social connections.
As it turns out, nearly 90% of us stay put after retirement, Levner says. And for the ones who do move, the most common reason is to be closer to their grandkids and family. So go ahead and look at those lists if you want to see how where you’re living stacks up, but don’t stress out about finding the “perfect” retirement community. You might already be living there.