By CATEY HILL
For the more than 36 million Americans who will turn 65 in the coming decade, the best cities and towns to retire in now have a much higher bar to clear: They can't just be great places -- they have to be affordable. Each week, SmartMoney.com tours a different state to find less-expensive alternatives to the most well-known golden year destinations.
Warm weather, great beaches, and no state income tax -- just three reasons advisers say Florida deserves its reputation as a retirement Mecca. Furthermore, the state's large number of retirees is a big plus, since it allows for lots of opportunities to interact with others going through the same life phase, says Kathleen Campbell, founder of Fort Myers-based Campbell Financial Partners.
But Florida isn't all sunshine and sand. For those looking to work at least part-time in retirement, the Sunshine State -- with an unemployment rate of 10.3%, compared to 8.6% for the nation as a whole -- may not offer many job opportunities. And it can get hot, really hot in fact, with temperatures in many towns staying in the 90s throughout the summer. Plus, residents must contend with hurricane exposure and expensive property insurance, says Tom Roberts, a financial planner at Sarasota, Fla.-based A New Approach to Financial Planning.
And even without an income tax, Florida living isn't necessarily cheap. Take Naples. Though it offers white-sand Gulf Coast beaches, a number of championship golf courses and a fair amount of quality shopping for a town of just 22,000, the median home there goes for more than $700,000, the cost of living is 84% higher than the national average, and the jobless rate is just a touch below the state average.
Below SmartMoney.com has identified a handful of the best (and relatively inexpensive) Sunshine State alternatives to hotpots like Naples.
Cape Coral: For the boater
By the Numbers
- Population: 169,335
- Median home cost: $164,100
- Cost of living: 2% lower than average
- Unemployment: 11.3%
Just under an hour's drive from Naples, Cape Coral is a world away from its fancier neighbor in terms of price, with a cost of living that's 2% less and median home prices that are below the national average.
For those who have dreams of spending hours on or near the water in retirement, boating opportunities are abundant in Cape Coral, says Campbell. Dubbed the "Waterfront Wonderland," this city has roughly 400 miles of canals -- more than anywhere outside of Venice, Italy, officials there boast -- many of which connect directly to the Gulf of Mexico or the Caloosahatchee River. "There are a lot of retirees in Cape Coral because the homes there are very affordable and many of the homes are on canals," Campbell says. The city is just a 30-minute drive from the Southwest Florida International Airport. Retirees also enjoy watching the Boston Red Sox work out in the area during spring training, she says.
But this town isn't for everyone. Cape Coral isn't right on the ocean (it's on a peninsula), so residents have to drive or boat to the beach. There are also better towns for golfing, says Campbell.
Sarasota: For the cultural enthusiast
By the Numbers
- Population: 52,885
- Median home cost: $156,200
- Cost of living: 3% lower than average
- Unemployment: 8.6%
One knock on Florida is it's all about the beach and not much else, but Sarasota is an exception. Yes, it's home to one of the nation's top beaches (Siesta Key Beach), but Sarasota also offers great cultural attractions for a town of its size, says Roberts. In fact, it's sometimes referred to as the "cultural capital" of western Florida. Sarasota has an opera, symphony, performing arts hall and a number of museums, including the Museum of Asian Art, a classic car museum, and the Ringling Estate, set up by the Ringling Brothers (of circus fame), which includes a circus museum and a museum containing their personal art collection. "There's a lot of culture here, and there isn't as much in many other parts of Florida," he says.
But for singles, Sarasota may be tough -- many residents are couples and there are limited options for singles to meet, says Roberts (retirees may be better off driving an hour to Tampa). And though there are a number of huge employers, it's often hard to find jobs at the smaller companies which tend to be more attractive to retirees, he says.
Gainesville: For the sports lover
By the Numbers
- Population: 100,461
- Median home cost: $148,400
- Cost of living: 4% lower than average
- Unemployment: 7.4%
Anyone interested in retiring in Florida for its beaches should skip Gainesville, which is located smack in the middle of the state -- more than an hour's drive from ocean. But for those who think a college town retirement is more important than soaking up the rays, Gainesville -- home to the University of Florida -- is worth a look.
"It's a blend of an urban feel in a smaller town," says Roland Loog, the director of tourist development for Alachua County, who plans to retire in the area. In fact, the city's slogan is "every path starts with a passion," he says -- and Gainesville tries to live up to that with their college sports (one can see a university baseball game with their spouse and two grandkids for just $16 total), live music nearly every night and great speakers (Bill Clinton recently gave a talk here), he says. Plus, this sports-loving town's got plenty of southern charm (saying hello to your neighbors is de rigueur) and has a lot of learning opportunities for seniors. "Both the University and Santa Fe College have classes for adults," says Loog. "That's a big draw."
To be sure, all the college town vibes aren't for everyone. Retirees have to deal with a nightlife that's driven by students. Others point out that the humidity can be a problem for some seniors.
Clearwater: For the beach bum
By the Numbers
- Population: 106,071
- Median home cost: $164,500
- Cost of living: 2.7% higher than average
- Unemployment: 10%
If retirement conjures up this image: beach chair planted firmly in the sand, azure water lapping at your feet, the occasional golf game (or sailing trip) thrown in -- advisers recommend Clearwater. "The beach is our number one attraction," says Mayor Frank Hibbard. "The sand is white, the Gulf is tranquil, and it's sunny 363 days of the year." The days when it isn't, however, can be damaging: Clearwater ranks fourth on Sperling's list of the "worst places for hurricanes" (the company analyzed the tracks of tropical storms for the past 100 years to come up with this list). On top of that, property insurance can cost many thousands of dollars.
Still, residents say retirees will enjoy the many options for entertaining the grandkids: In addition to activities like snorkeling and sailing at the beach, there's a big aquarium in town (the dolphin from the movie Dolphin Tale with Harry Connick, Jr. lives there) and theme park Busch Gardens is only 45 minutes away in nearby Tampa. Plus, the town is bike friendly and has low crime, experts note.