America's Best Affordable Places to Retire

Soon-to-be retirees are resetting their expectations for their golden years.

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Slide Show: America's Best Places to Retire

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The Cassebaums also spend time behind the scenes helping to organize some of the local activity. Janet, 75, is active in the Ann Arbor City Club and recently ran a fundraising campaign to help renovate a historic building in town. Bill, 78, volunteers as a timer for college track meets, a pleasant reminder of his days as a high-jumper. "It's low-level," he says, "but I can still participate in athletics."

Ann Arbor is just far enough from Detroit—about 40 miles to the west—that it feels insulated from Michigan's battered auto industry. And real estate prices have held up much better than in other parts of Michigan, where a depressed economy has hammered home values. But the access to a major city comes in handy. The Detroit metro airport has nonstop flights to most big cities, and the Cassebaums can fly easily to southwestern Colorado, where one daughter lives.

The Powells lived in Ann Arbor years ago and noticed when they returned that it had grown from a quaint college town into a small city, with a skyline and more diversity. Big-city amenities include ethnic restaurants, ample shopping, and visits by world-class performers like Yo-Yo Ma and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. There are also two premier medical systems: St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and the University of Michigan Medical Center. "Between the two, we feel like we're getting top-notch healthcare," says Ron Powell.

The biggest complaint is the demise of the local paper, the Ann Arbor News, which ceased daily delivery and became a Web operation in July. There's also the little matter of winter. Ann Arbor, known as "Tree Town," is verdant and pleasant in the summer, with a full change of seasons. But winters can be snowy and cold, with moisture from nearby Lake Huron and Lake Erie contributing to a high proportion of cloudy days. But retirees do have advantages over Mother Nature. Edward Couture and his wife, Marilyn, moved to Ann Arbor from Los Angeles after he retired in 1994 and have no regrets about the perennial sunshine they left behind. "When you're retired, if the weather's bad, you're not compelled to go anywhere," Couture says. "You just stay in the house." Then, when the maintenance troops have shoveled them out of their condo, they head out for tai chi, history classes, free concerts, or volunteer gigs. In Ann Arbor, nobody stays in the house for long.

Asheville, North Carolina

Nestled in a pocket of the Blue Ridge Mountains, two hours away from any major city, Asheville, N.C., might be assumed to lack culture and polish. Not so. On any given Friday night, you might stumble upon a street-corner bluegrass band, an art gallery opening, a festival (if you're lucky, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival), and maybe even a mime. "Life is never dull here," says Sheila Murphy, who retired to Asheville in 2003 with her husband, Dennis, after moving 31 times (he worked in the oil business). "You can do things for free, for a nominal fee, or a donation, and see all kinds of plays, shows, and music should you desire."

Retirement is definitely not ho-hum for the Murphys, who hold cooking classes in their home. They teach slicing-and-dicing skills and sessions on making holiday dinners, using leftovers, and grilling. The classes are offered through the local North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, which runs a sort of "college for seniors" in which members pay $115 for two months of unlimited classes. They're held at the center, members' homes, and on campus at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

On Saturdays, you'll find Jan Moran—who recently came out of retirement and works as a marketing consultant—at one of Asheville's farmers' markets stocking up on veggies and grass-fed local beef. "It's the best-quality food, and it's also a social experience," says Moran, who moved to Asheville from Tucson, Ariz., more than two years ago after her husband, Paul Rollins, revealed a "secret desire to return to North Carolina," where he had grown up. (Jan was sold on the area after a visit.) The market's organic produce is often more expensive than at the local grocery, "but the meat I buy comes farm to market, and the people charge less than at the store," she says.