Finding the Right 55+ Community
Taking it a step at a time makes the process easier
Most people searching for a retirement community are already homeowners—been there, done that, got the t-shirt. They understand the process of sifting through real estate listings to find a good home in a good neighborhood. What they don’t necessarily understand, because few of them have ever experienced it, is how to pull stakes and head off to another part of the country...for good.
Buying into a retirement community is a big decision, one of the last really big decisions a person can make. For that reason, it can be intimidating, just starting the process can be overwhelming. But as with all big decisions, breaking the process down into smaller steps makes it much easier not only to start, but also to finish.
There are a lot of factors to consider; but nearly everything can be assigned to one of three categories: Location, Lifestyle, and Cost.
It is, of course, a truism within the real estate industry that location is by far the most important predictor of value for a property. True to form, it’s also where most people begin when they start thinking seriously about buying into a retirement community.
For younger homeowners, tied to a job or hobbled by family or financial obligations, the choices are more limited. But a retiree who can afford to pull up stakes and move to Florida can probably afford to move anywhere else as well. It is the sheer breadth of choices that presents the biggest problem: if you can live anywhere, how do you choose?
It all depends on what is most important to you. For a lot of people, a warm climate really is the most important consideration—that’s what makes Florida and Arizona, as different as they may be, such popular retirement destinations. And they are different: Tucson’s highest summertime humidity is about the same as Orlando’s lowest. If your dream involves escaping once and for all the chill of a northern winter, consider carefully what type of warm climate best suits you...hot and humid, or hot and dry.
Other factors enter into the climate equation, of course. Coastal areas typically enjoy steady onshore breezes that mitigate the worst of summer heat. Rural areas can be several degrees cooler than nearby urban areas, whose extensive asphalt and concrete surfaces absorb and trap more heat. And some retirees actually hate the heat and love winter. For those, there is an entirely different set of climate questions to consider.
One of the best resources to start with is Climate Maps of the United States from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A number of downloadable maps are available, showing such climatic factors as temperature, rainfall, snow, wind, dewpoint, and many others. From these, you should be able to gain a much clearer idea of which parts of the country feature the climate that you like best.
But climate isn’t the only factor to consider in assessing location—far from it, it fact. Every location in the United States has unique demographic and economic characteristics that should be taken into account—for instance, crime rate. Not only that, but if it’s important to you to maintain close links to family and friends, you should consider a new home that is either close to them, or close to good transportation facilities. (For instance, your dream home may be in a small community tucked away in the mountain West...but if it’s far from a major transportation hub, you probably shouldn’t count on having many visitors.) Finally, if you have any special needs—for instance, if you must live near a world-class medical facility—consider whether or not they can be met in a particular location.
Location also plays a part in determining the second important consideration for any community, which is Lifestyle. Is the community located in a city, a suburb, or a small town? Is it near world-class shopping and cultural venues, or top-notch recreational opportunities? They’re not mutually exclusive, of course...but no community will offer everything. New York may be great for culture, Dallas for shopping, and New Orleans for food...but if what you really crave is great skiing, you’ll have to travel.
Retirement communities themselves will also vary in the amenities they offer their residents. Many have their own golf courses, for instance, or offer their residents the opportunity to play on nearby links. Tennis courts, fitness clubs, and swimming pools are also commonly offered, and many communities have full-time activities directors, while other communities offer little in the way of amenities...but cost considerably less.
Communities will also vary considerably in character, based on the collective beliefs and desires of residents. On paper, a community can have everything going for it...but will you fit in? The only way to tell is to actually visit and see for yourself.
Every aspect of a community, and its surrounding region, will affect the final cost of relocating there. Popularity plays a huge role in determining the value of homes—far more people want to move, and do move, to Florida than to North Dakota, and home prices reflect this. But the price of a new home isn’t the only economic consideration. It might not even be the most important one.
What is the state income tax rate? The state sales tax? The cost of groceries, of utilities, of gasoline? How much is health care? Movie tickets? Internet service?
And once you have an adequate picture of the general area, don’t neglect to look carefully into the retirement community itself. In nearly all age-restricted communities, there will be other costs besides a mortgage or a monthly rent: fees assessed by the homeowners association or community management for maintenance and groundskeeping, for instance.
Keep An Eye On Trends
In all your research, try to find out how things were ten or twenty years ago. Even climates change; and comparing conditions in the past to the way things are now can help you predict what they might be ten years from now. Slow, steady development, for instance, is better than explosive growth that might turn your suburban oasis into a traffic nightmare in short order.
Once you have all the facts on several areas, it’s time to do what only you can do: rank them in order of importance. Everyone differs, and nobody can tell you with absolute assurance that you should place more emphasis on winter temperature than on housing costs, for instance. It’s important to realize that there is no perfect place, and any move will require compromise. Is it worth paying a higher sales tax rate in order to live near the coast? Or to put up with hotter summers in order to have the best health care? Only you can make those decisions.
The final step is probably the most important: visit each of the communities on your final list. This is the only way you can really get to know both the area and the people who will become your neighbors and friends. Many retirement communities have either a visitors program or offer short-term rentals; either is an excellent way to get acquainted first-hand.
You should visit more than once, and for longer than a day each time. If possible, try to time your visits for different seasons, and visit both mid-week and on weekends. If possible, attend a large community function, and meet as many of the residents as you can. Most people love to talk about their experiences, so don’t be shy about asking questions...the more, the better.
In all likelihood, by the time you’re finished all your visits you’ll find the decision has been made for you. One community will stand out as the right place for you.