By CATEY HILL
To John Denver, West Virginia was "almost heaven" -- and a quick tour through this mountain-lined, tree-filled state will help you see why. Nearly four-fifths of West Virginia is covered in forest, and the lush, rolling Appalachian Mountains -- with their striking blue-tinged vistas -- run through the state (West Virginia is nicknamed "The Mountain State," and its motto is "Mountaineers are always free"). Plus, the state is dotted with streams and lakes, and the mighty Ohio River runs along its western edge. For retirees, this means plenty of outdoor recreation, like hiking, bird-watching, canoeing, kayaking, skiing and fishing.
Retire Here, Not There: State-by-State
Forget your parents' retirement destinations. These less-known gems offer lower prices and peppy economies.
After a long day of outdoor activities, retirees in this state come home to a relaxed pace of life. There are no big cities in West Virginia (the capital, Charleston, has around 50,000 residents); instead, there is a collection of quaint mountain towns with a unique culture. Residents tend to be proud of their Appalachian roots, embracing folk music (don't be shocked when you see fiddlers take the stage) and traditional mountain crafts like wood-working and quilt-making.
For retirees, living in West Virginia comes with a big bonus: It's fairly inexpensive. Though income and sales taxes are slightly above average here, the median home costs less than $100,000, property taxes tend to be low, and the cost of living is 14% below the national average. (The cost of living here is even less expensive than in neighboring Kentucky (12.4% below average) and Virginia (9.4% higher than average)). Nursing home and assisted-living costs are below average as well, according to data from the MetLife Mature Market Institute.
However, West Virginia, a part of Appalachia, has high rates of poverty and below-average health care in some areas. More than 17% of the population of this state lives below the poverty line, compared with 13.8% for the nation as a whole; plus, the per capita income of $21,917 is nearly 20% below the U.S. average. And there are myriad small towns that are extremely poor -- not exactly the kinds of places a lot of retirees will want to spend their golden years.
Still, West Virginia's reasonable home prices, abundant natural beauty and folksy charm are enough to bring many retirees to the state. Here are three places to consider.
Seventy-five-year-old Cookie Coombs had always planned to sell her Morgantown B&B and retire in San Juan, Puerto Rico (she was building a house down there), but when her husband became ill roughly 18 years ago, she realized she didn't want to move anymore. "The people here are just so warm, hospitable and generous -- it's unusual to get the kind of love and compassion that you get here," she explains. She also likes that the city is centrally located (an easy drive from D.C., Pittsburgh and Columbus) and offers lots to do outdoors. "I see seniors here biking around town all the time," she says. "We even have bike parking downtown."
By the numbers
- Population: 29,660
- Median home cost: $138,700
- Cost of living: 3.8% lower than average
- Unemployment: 4.6%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
Nestled along the banks of the Monongahela River, Morgantown is known as a haven for active retirees (it was rated as one of the "best sporting cities" in America by The Sporting News). The city boasts seven 18-hole golf courses, including Lakeview Golf Resort and Spa, which offers views of the 13-mile Cheat Lake, as well as Meadow Ponds Golf Course and Mountaineer Golf Course, both of which have stunning mountain views. There are more than a dozen community parks; a 320-acre recreation area with an equestrian center, horseshoe-pitching courts and a fitness center; a 91-acre arboretum; and hundreds of miles of nearby hiking and walking trails (local favorites include the 133-acre Cathedral State Park, where you can gaze up at trees that grow as tall as 90 feet or at more than 50 species of wildflowers, and Coopers Rock State Forest, which offers nearly 50 miles of trails in a range of difficulties). Even if you're more into watching than playing, you won't be disappointed here: Morgantown is home to West Virginia University, a member of the Big 12 (when home football games occur, Morgantown rises from fourth largest city in the state to largest).
The appeal of Morgantown for retirees extends beyond its outdoor recreation. The city's unemployment rate is just 4.6%, its economy is humming (it's bolstered by the presence of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, a large generic-drug company, and the fact that it's a health-care hub for the region), and there's quality health care (there are significantly more physicians per capita in Morgantown than in the U.S. as a whole, and it boasts two major hospitals). Those who want to explore a little West Virginia heritage can attend Mountaineer Festival, an indoor craft fair featuring the works of 60 West Virginia artisans; the Preston County Buckwheat Festival, a culinary festival celebrating buckwheat, once an essential crop for local farmers; or Arts Alive, a festival along the river featuring local artists and musicians. Plus, you can hit up the historic town of nearby Arthurdale, created during the Great Depression by President Roosevelt as part of the New Deal (the community, which features 160 original homesteads, became known as "Eleanor's Little Village" because of the First Lady's interest in it), or peruse one of the dozen-plus art galleries right in the city. Retirees also enjoy that they can take classes at the town's Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute, engage with other retirees at the area's senior center (there are events like wine-tastings, Zumba classes and yoga) or take in a musical throughout the summer at the West Virginia Public Theatre. Even though the cost of living in Morgantown is significantly higher than in West Virginia as a whole, it's still below the national average.
Retired librarian and artist Joanne Maynard, 71, spent 26 years in New York City and loved it, but she knew she could never afford to retire there. Still, she wanted many of the perks she got in the Big Apple -- cultural and arts offerings, public transit, walkability, good health care, a large library and a university. She found them, to her surprise, in West Virginia. "I've been in Huntington for four years now, and it just has everything I was looking for," she says. "You don't usually find it on 'best places to retire' lists, but it should be No. 1."
By the numbers
- Population: 49,138
- Median home cost: $95,800
- Cost of living: 14.1% lower than average
- Unemployment: 6.7%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
With just under 50,000 residents, Huntington isn't large, but because its serves as the cultural center for the surrounding area (of about 365,000) people, it offers lots of cultural attractions, including a symphony orchestra and a large glass company that offers glass-blowing courses. Huntington is also home to the well-respected Huntington Museum of Art, which sits on 52 acres of land and houses a wide variety of work, including folk art, glassworks and pieces from American and European artists. The city hosts art festivals throughout the year, including Art in the Park, an annual festival in June where local artists display and sell works including woodcarvings, pottery and watercolors; Barboursville Fall Fest, which features more than 60 arts and crafts booths, a car show and the largest parade in the state; and the Blenko Festival of Glass, a two-day festival in August where locals can take glass-blowing classes and learn to make mobiles and wind chimes. And throughout the year, the Marshall Artist Series brings Broadway plays, comedians, ballets and orchestras to the campus of Marshall University.
Beyond the cultural attractions, there's plenty to do in Huntington. The city boasts the largest mall in the state, a walkable historic downtown that's been revitalized in the past 10 years, and lots of antiques shops. There's also an amusement park for the grandkids, a culinary institute and a casino nearby. And the large walking trail under construction will soon encircle the entire city. For retirees, it's easy to get involved here, says Tyson Compton, the president of the Cabell Huntington Convention and Visitor's Bureau. One popular way to help the community is by joining Create Huntington, a group that helps people network so that they can improve the city (one retiree here came to the group because she wanted to start a recycling program in the city; the group set her up with others with similar interests, and Huntington now has a recycling program).
For retirees, this all comes at a low cost -- the median home goes for around $96,000, and the cost of living is more than 14% below average. And it comes with easy access to health care: Huntington boasts two large hospitals. However, the airport in Huntington is small (just two airlines operate here, and there are direct flights to just a handful of destinations, all within the U.S.).
Charleston may be the capital of West Virginia, but a Denver or Atlanta it's not. Charleston is a small city -- the population hovers around 50,000 -- in which traffic and urban sprawl aren't huge concerns. Still, it's not a sleepy city. "In the past few years, Charleston has gone through a mini-renaissance," says Alisa Bailey, the CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitor's Bureau. It has a "vibrant" culinary scene and a cool music scene as well (in the summer, the city puts on free concerts on the levee). Plus, the town has diverse shopping options, ranging from Renaissance Village, a walkable area of downtown filled with antique and book stores, art galleries and boutiques, to Charleston Town Center Mall, which offers 130 stores, including major retailers like Macy's, J.C. Penney and Ann Taylor. It has quality cultural offerings like the $100 million Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, a 240,000-square-foot facility with art and science exhibits, a planetarium, and live musical, theater and dance performances; the Charleston Civic Center, where you can experience diverse shows like the West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show, the West Virginia Auto Show and the West Virginia Sports Show; and both the Civic Center Little Theater and the Municipal Auditorium, where you can see live performances.
By the numbers
- Population: 51,400
- Median home cost: $139,200
- Cost of living: 5.5% lower than average
- Unemployment: 6.4%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
The retired history enthusiast will feel at home here. There's the newly renovated West Virginia State Museum; the East End Historic District, known as the "Gateway Into Charleston," which is dotted with interesting architecture, including some Greek Revival and Victorian buildings, as well as neoclassical and Georgian structures; and the 30-room Georgian Revival-style mansion in which the governor lives. You'll also enjoy Capitol Market, housed in a turn-of-the-century freight station from the 1800s, which now offers locally grown produce, meats and cheeses.
Charleston's biggest downside is its high crime rate (some experts attribute this to poverty rates that are higher than the national average), but there are safe areas of the city. But both the city's health-care options (like the Charleston Area Medical Center and Thomas Memorial Hospital) and its low cost and reasonably large airport (Charleston is served by six airlines with direct flights to nine cities) help mitigate that. Plus, retirees appreciate that Charleston has eight golf courses, water views and easy access to both the Kanawha State Forest, which is a popular picnicking and hiking spot, and Coonskin Park, which boasts more than a thousand acres of forest lined with hiking and biking trails.