What Does Your Retirement Mecca Look Like?

Include state and local taxes, economic growth, and other money factors in your relocation decision.

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Economic conditions have been so bad since the recession that people pretty much stopped moving anywhere for retirement. Millions of older Americans have been among the real estate victims—financially trapped in their homes and unable to even think about a retirement move. But as real estate markets slowly improve, the pace of relocation has begun to pick up as well.

Senior couple watching the sunset
Senior couple watching the sunset

My ground rules for where I want to live in my later years probably differ from yours. (Unfortunately, they also differ from my wife's!) My list includes only places in the United States. Warm climates once played a strong role in my preferences, but not so much anymore. Today, I'm much more interested in the financial condition of state and local governments. I want to live somewhere that has well-funded public services and transit. And I don't want to face upward-spiraling state and local taxes from governments dealing with enormous unfunded pensions and infrastructure needs.

I'm not into small towns much more than 25 miles from a metropolitan area. I want the culture, entertainment, learning, healthcare, and senior-service resources that larger metropolitan areas offer. I also want access to a decent airport and mass-transit resources that will reduce my need for a car. I'm hoping my days behind the wheel will end a long time before I do.

Many important yardsticks in evaluating metropolitan areas involve money: the economic health of an area's private and public sectors, plus the state and local taxes I would pay as a resident. Key private measures include growth in jobs, population, and local economic activity. State and local fiscal health can be measured by budget stresses and unfunded pension and benefit liabilities for public employees. Overall tax burdens are a key measure plus the composition of an area's taxes—the percentages of revenues provided by property taxes, income taxes, and other fees.

While overall rankings are certainly important, it makes sense to look behind summary scores. You really should look at the fine print, and use it to develop personalized rankings that reflect your needs and priorities. The most detailed review of relevant state information I've seen is the AARP State Handbook of Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Indicators, 2008. Unfortunately, that's the most current version of the handbook and AARP says it's not planning an update.

Still, I'd advise you to begin your comparative search here. Significant measures of state and local performance do not change quickly. And the 2008 handbook, while dated, is measuring prerecession conditions and thus is not distorted by its short-lived if severe distortions. What you liked about Florida in 2005 will still be what you like about Florida in 2015.

Here are leading sources of detailed intelligence about state and local performance dealing with their overall economies, fiscal health, and taxes.

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The Economy

The Milken Institute has studied America's most successful cities. Spend some time with its recent report, "Best Cities for Successful Aging".

Its top 10 large metros are Provo-Orem, Utah; Madison, Wisc.; Omaha-Council Bluffs, Neb.-Iowa; Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, Mass.-N.H.; New York, Northern New Jersey-Long Island, N.Y.-N.J.-Pa. (this was before Sandy, which may be a long-term game-changer for this area); Des Moines, Iowa; Salt Lake City, Utah; Toledo, Ohio; Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W.V., and, Pittsburgh.

Milken's top 10 smaller metros for successful aging are Sioux Falls, S.D.; Iowa City, Iowa; Bismarck, N.D.; Columbia, Mo.; Rochester, Minn.; Gainesville, Fla.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Missoula, Mont.; Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., and, Rapid City, S.D.

The Brookings Institution issues a quarterly Metro Monitor that takes the economic pulse of the country's 100 largest areas. Brookings recently created an interactive online version that ranks the areas in terms of overall performance and also by its four key subgroups: employment, unemployment, metro economic output, and house prices. You can also download the data and build your own spreadsheets to track variables of special meaning to you.

Fiscal Health

The Kaiser Family Foundation maintains a terrific database of state economic information, including measures of what it calls "distress"—home foreclosures, unemployment rates, and food stamp recipients. It then provides a blended ranking of the states across all measures. Kaiser's least-distressed states these days are Colorado, New Jersey (again, a finding that may change due to Hurricane Sandy), Georgia, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, California (a bit of a surprise), Alabama, New Hampshire, and Washington.

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Taxes

The Tax Foundation calculates state tax burdens, reflecting corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes. Its most recent report was issued this fall and reflects 2010 information. The 10 states with the lowest tax burdens, it says, are Alaska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Louisiana, Wyoming, Texas, New Hampshire, Alabama, Nevada, and South Carolina. The 10 states with the heaviest tax burdens are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine, and Pennsylvania.