What are the best states for retirees? The popular answer seems to be anywhere along the Sun Belt, where retiring Americans have flocked for generations in search of sunshine, swimming pools and year-round golf.
Yet, if you consider other factors that are important for seniors, you'd find that some of the best spots are actually located farther north. Bankrate pored through a slew of key factors, including access to medical care, cost of living, local crime rates, state and local taxes -- as well as climate.
Here, in ascending order, is Bankrate's list of the 10 unexpectedly best states for retirement.
No. 10: North Dakota
Yes, it's frigid there. The 30-year average annual temperature in North Dakota is around 41 degrees, making it the coldest state in the continental U.S.
If you can handle the cold, North Dakota could be an excellent place to settle down. Consider its access to hospital care. There are five beds available for every 1,000 people in the state, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's tied for second-best in the country.
North Dakota also has the second-lowest crime rate in the nation, and the state and local tax burden, which takes into account income, sales, property and other taxes, is at a relatively mild 8.9 percent of income.
No. 9: Nebraska
The Cornhusker State ranks at No. 9 on Bankrate's list for several reasons.
Nebraska residents have excellent access to hospital beds, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and FBI statistics show that its crime rate is slightly lower than average. Its cost of living also is one of the lowest in the country, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research, which tracks the cost of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation and health care in most major U.S. cities.
The state and local tax burden is near the national average at 9.7 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. And its 30-year average temperature is about 49.2 degrees, which is colder than the national average.
No. 8: Alabama
Home of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama boasts a trio of benefits that retirees may find alluring. It has some of the lowest local and state taxes in the nation. Its cost of living also is relatively low, especially for a Gulf Coast state. And its temperatures are among the warmest in the U.S.: Its average annual temperature of 63 degrees compares favorably to the national average, which is more than 10 degrees lower.
However, Alabama has relatively high crime rates, with 4,026 property and violent crimes per 100,000 people (compared to the national average of 3,253). And access to medical care isn't as good as the national average.
No. 7: West Virginia
Retire in the heart of Appalachian coal country? Absolutely. West Virginia ranks No. 7 on Bankrate's list of great retirement states for three main reasons: It has a lower-than-average cost of living, boasts a lower-than-average crime rate, and residents also have better access to hospital beds than the national average.
And then there are the intangibles: The mountain ridges that ripple across the state are home to countless trout streams and hiking trails. Its vistas look like something sketched by Thomas Kinkade. And temperatures are right in the middle range for U.S. states. Last year, temperatures in Charleston, W.V., ranged between a low of 12 and a high of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, and the 30-year state average is about 52 degrees.
No. 6: Virginia
Virginia isn't just for lovers. It's for seniors looking for an all-around good place to settle down.
The Old Dominion is better than average in most categories that Bankrate considered, including cost of living, warmer temperatures and access to physicians.With only 2,446 property and violent crimes per 100,000 people, Virginia has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.
Throw all of that in with Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, the Blue Ridge Parkway and other gems, and you have one of the best states in the U.S. for retirees.
No. 5: Mississippi
Mississippi is the fourth Appalachian state (including Alabama, Virginia and West Virginia) to make the list so far, and we're only halfway through the ranking. Sensing a trend here?
The Magnolia State is not just one of the warmest in the U.S., it also has relatively low state and local taxes and a lower-than-average cost of living.
Those factors make Mississippi an accommodating place for retirees, even though its crime rate is a little higher than average. It also has only 178 doctors per 100,000 people -- one of the lowest physician-to-resident ratios in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
No. 4: Kentucky
One of the strongest benefits that Kentucky offers retirees is an extremely low cost of living. The Council for Community and Economic Research, or CCER, which collects data on the relative costs of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation and health care in communities across the U.S., found that retirees in Kentucky are paying less than many of their counterparts across the country.
Bankrate, which analyzed CCER's data, found that Kentucky boasts the fifth-lowest cost of living in the nation.
The Bluegrass State also has warmer-than-average temperatures and a crime rate that's slightly lower than average.
No. 3: South Dakota
And the third-best state for retirement is ... South Dakota? That's right. The Mount Rushmore State may not be on many retirement wish lists, but it should be. What it lacks in warmth, it makes up for in a variety of ways.
South Dakota has the lowest crime rate in the nation. The Tax Foundation also says South Dakota residents have an estimated state and local tax burden of 7.6 percent, which is lower than every other state except Alaska. Its temperatures are on the chilly side, with a 30-year average of 46 degrees -- about the same as New York and Colorado.
No. 2: Louisiana
Besides jazz and beignets, Louisiana offers retirees an excellent combination of low taxes (the Tax Foundation ranks it as the fourth lowest in the nation) and balmy weather. Louisiana has a 30-year average temperature -- that includes both winter lows and summer highs -- of 66.7 degrees. That's higher than every other state except Hawaii and Florida.
It also has better-than-average access to medical care and a relatively low cost of living.One major knock on Louisiana, however, is a crime rate that's among the highest in the nation. The FBI says there are 4,244 property and violent crimes per 100,000 people in Louisiana.
No. 1: Tennessee
That's right, Tennessee hits our No.1 spot. Its cost of living is the second lowest in the country, just behind Oklahoma, according to data collected from the Council for Community and Economic Research. And the Tax Foundation puts Tennessee's state and local tax burden as the third lowest in the nation.
Tennessee also ranked among the best in the country for access to medical care, and its weather is warmer than average.
All of those factors make Tennessee an excellent place for retirees, especially those on a tight budget and fixed income. There is still one main drawback, however. Tennessee's crime rate is among the worst in the U.S.
Sources: Kaiser Family Foundation; U.S. Census; 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report; the Tax Foundation; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Western Regional Climate Center; Council for Community and Economic Research.
Source methodology: Medical statistics include number of hospital beds per 1,000 people from the Kaiser Family Foundation and number of doctors per 100,000 residents from the U.S. Census. Crime statistics of violent crimes and property crimes per 100,000 people are courtesy of the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report. Tax rates are based on an estimate of the state and local tax burden (income, sales, property and other taxes) by the Tax Foundation. Average temperatures over 30 years (from 1981-2010) come courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Western Regional Climate Center. Cost-of-living stats are from the Council for Community and Economic Research.