Dreams of the Ideal Retirement Home

The best retirement spots have pleasant weather and plenty of amenities.

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If, like me, you spent most of the past weekend working in the yard, pulling weeds, cutting grass, and clipping bushes, then maybe you've started to fantasize about the ideal place to live in retirement. Where would it be? What would it look like?

A few intrepid souls may want to move to the country. I know one woman who left Washington, DC, to go live in the outback of New Mexico. But she's an exception. The reality is most of us currently living in the suburbs will probably stay in the suburbs. Certainly, plenty of retirement homes, independent living facilities, and age-restricted developments (sometimes disguised as gated communities) have cropped up in the past decade to cater to aging baby boomers. Most of us are ready to give up the basement, big garage, tool shed, and all the paraphernalia that goes with them.

My own fantasy is to downscale to a little patch of lawn—about as big as an average-size bedroom—where I can grow a few flowers and a tomato plant to two and not cut any grass at all. I'd like to live in a small town that is not too big or bustling, but with sidewalks and a coffee shop down at the corner where I could walk in the morning. I worry about the noise. I've had problems with noisy neighbors in the past. But the older we get, the less we're able to hear, so maybe the ambient noise from cars and kids and dogs won't bother us.

My friend moved to the New Mexico mountains, but many more people are drawn to the sea. Most of us cannot afford waterfront property in Cape Cod, Myrtle Beach, Sarasota, or San Diego. But as long as we're fantasizing, we can dream of retiring near the seashore. My brother-in-law was able to do it. But he had to trade in a four-bedroom house with an acre of yard for a two-bedroom bungalow with less than a quarter acre, but it’s also about 200 yards from the Atlantic Ocean.

A lot of us like to play golf. There are certainly plenty of golf communities to fulfill those dreams. But golf as a sport peaked about ten years ago, when everyone thought they could be the next Tiger Woods. Now people don't want to be the next Tiger Woods, and the allure of the golf community has perhaps dimmed a little. Nevertheless, most retired people want a social life. So if you're going to move away from your old hometown, then you want a place where there are other newly retired people who are open to new friendships—not a town where everyone has been friends since 4th grade and aren't interested in meeting new people.

You might want your new home to have access to parks and other recreational venues. If you don’t play golf, then perhaps you’d be interested in a marina, bike trail, or shuffleboard court. Even when you're retired, you should remain active and involved. Your new town might offer a vibrant local library. Maybe there's a book club you could join. Many people dream of retiring to a university town, from Newark, Del., to Athens, Ga., to Tempe, Ariz.

You might be tempted to buy an older home with lots of charm. But be careful. Older homes require more repairs. You don't need anything too big. Two or three bedrooms might be enough. That’s probably enough room for the kids to visit, but not so spacious that they'd want to stay for too long. You might want to choose a one-story house. You likely will not want to have to climb stairs when you get older and your knees start to go. Maybe you could compromise on a place with the master bedroom on the first floor, and a guest room or two on a smaller second floor. It’s also prudent to have a good medical facility nearby.

You probably want your new place to be accessible so the kids will visit now and then. So consider places that aren’t too far from an interstate or major airport. If you're going to get the kids to visit, there have to be some attractions that would appeal to them, such as the beach, some nightlife, a multiplex theater, and some live music. A mild climate that’s not too hot in summer or cold in winter could help ensure year-round comfort.

Is this retirement vision completely unrealistic? Maybe. But it's an ideal, a prototype to get you started. It's still in the planning stages. First, we've got to get through next weekend, and another afternoon of cutting grass.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.