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.
Those eager to retire in the south often make a beeline for Florida's warm weather, sugar-sand beaches and income-tax-free living. But retirement pros say they may be overlooking a better deal in Florida's neighbor to the north: Georgia.
What makes Georgia such compelling place to retire? For starters, while Georgia does have income tax, the state's rules will soon be far more favorable to retirees, says Paul Jacobs, a financial planner at Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta. In 2012, $65,000 of retirement income, which includes investment income from IRAs and 401(k)s, will be exempt from state income taxes for those 65 and up; by 2016 all retirement income with be tax-exempt. On top of that, Georgia has nice weather all year round, plenty of Southern charm, world-class golf courses and -- for those looking to travel in their golden years -- one of the largest airports in the nation, says P.J. Protos, a financial adviser at SunTrust Investment Services in Atlanta.
Of course, some retirement destinations in Georgia are pricier than others. Take St. Simon's, a small beach town that's become popular with retirees for its sparse traffic, golf courses and Spanish moss-draped trees. But all that quaintness comes with a cost: The town has a cost of living that's 32% higher than the national average, and the typical home running upwards of $400,000.
But don't let one pricey town thwart your move to Georgia. Here are four relatively affordable retirement havens in the Peach State.
Savannah: For the artist
By the Numbers
- Population: 130,811
- Median home cost: $136,800
- Cost of living: 9% lower than average
- Unemployment: 9.9%
Legend has it that General Sherman found Savannah so charming he spared it from his burning spree that took down Atlanta during the Civil War. More than one-hundred and fifty years later, the beauty of this quaint, cobblestone-street-lined city still gives people pause. Draped in Spanish moss and dotted with elegant historic mansions, Savannah has the ability to sweep one back centuries. Plus, the historic downtown is only about 25 minutes from the beach, and advisers point out that the residents ooze Old South charm.
Savannah also has a thriving arts community, says Protos. The scene is both high-end -- as exemplified by museums like the Telfair, the oldest art museum in the South -- and more grassroots, centered around the renowned Savannah College of Art and Design. Plus, retirees can find everything from watercolors to pottery at City Market, an open-air market in Savannah's historic downtown that hosts works from 50 local artists.
But beware: At times, Savannah can seem overrun with tourists -- in 2009, the city had 11 million visitors, according to the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce -- a lot for a city of just over 130,000 people; and the Savannah/Hilton Head Airport has limited departures (going abroad, or to many cities within the U.S., requires connections through another major airport like Atlanta or Chicago).
Gainesville: For the outdoorsy
By the Numbers
- Population: 35,489
- Median home cost: $168,900
- Cost of living: 1% lower than average
- Unemployment: 9.6%
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gainesville is located on Lake Lanier -- and as such is a boater's paradise. The lake itself has more than 692 miles of shoreline, 10 marinas and is a favorite among bass fisherman (it's home to the Lake Lanier striped bass). But it's not just the water that Gainesville residents enjoy -- there's also plenty of hiking and mountain biking in the Elachee Nature Science Center's 1500-acre nature preserve's 13 miles of trails, as well as the 15 golf courses in the area.
Retirees looking for a local sports team or lots of cultural activities may be disappointed by Gainesville's small size, says retirement planners. That said, the town of Gainseville has a cute downtown area with a smattering of trendy restaurants, notes Teresa Smith, an agent with Keller Williams Realty Atlanta Partners, and locals recommend taking the grandkids to nearby Lake Lanier, which also has a water amusement park, featuring everything from waterslides to wakeboarding demonstrations. Also, the town has one of the top health-care centers in the area the Northeast Georgia Health System, which includes the Ronnie Green Heart Center a "big plus for retirees," Smith says.
Peachtree City: For the resort lifestyle
By the Numbers
- Population: 34,916
- Median home cost: $162,800
- Cost of living: 12% higher than average
- Unemployment: 7.1%
Want to retire to a place free from bumper-to-bumper traffic? Consider Peachtree City, where residents say you can get almost anywhere you need to via a golf cart. And they aren't kidding: The town has more than 90 miles of golf cart paths -- lined with lush greenery -- and nearly 10,000 registered golf carts, meaning retirees can do anything from picking up a few bags of groceries to heading to a friend's house on their carts, says Nancy Price, the executive director at Visit Peachtree City. "It makes for a very green community," she says.
To be sure, it's not the cheapest retirement spot in Georgia. The cost of living is 12% higher than the national average, and planners point out that there are a number of other pleasant suburbs of Atlanta that are more budget friendly. But locals say the town's uniqueness makes it worth the extra money. Peachtree City restricts commercial development, so there aren't many big retail or restaurant chains restaurants spoiling the views. There are three golf courses, two lakes, and a senior center, which offers everything from organized bridge games to Spanish classes, Price says, "it's resort-style living." What's more, the town is only 25 minutes from the Atlanta airport, and just a half hour from the city of Atlanta, so there's plenty to see and do for those willing to hop in a car (sorry, no golf carts allowed on I-85).
Athens: For the college town experience
By the Numbers
- Population: 116,272
- Median home cost: $148,700
- Cost of living: 4% lower than average
- Unemployment: 7.5%
Athens may be best known as a music mecca -- for years, it was home base for bands including R.E.M. and the B-52s, and Rolling Stone once named it the #1 college music scene in the country. But the city's greatest hits aren't limited to its playlist. "There are tons of cultural events and dance, opera and a symphony here," says 72-year-old Bobbie McKeller, a sales associate at Coldwell Banker of Church Realty. "There's also lots of continuing education for adults at the university."
Indeed, Athens offers that quintessential college town experience that many retirees crave, be it learning opportunities, cultural and entertainment events or funky restaurants, McKeller adds. That's all mixed with a near cult-like love by residents of the University of Georgia football team and its Antebellum architecture. But there's a downside: As with other college towns, Athens isn't rocking year round, says Protos. In effect, while there's a lot going on during the school year, there's often a drop off in activities during breaks because the students aren't in town. For one, residents have to drive roughly an hour and a half to get to the Atlanta airport (Athens has an airport, but it's tiny with only a few direct flights).