Lists of best places to retire are a popular mainstay of personal finance journalism. Here at Forbes we've published our share, producing rosters focusing on favored locations for retirees seeking an active lifestyle, a foreign residence and even, in the U.S., an urban neighborhood.
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As part of the new Forbes 2011 Retirement Guide, our latest offering -- The Best Retirement Places -- considers a wide range of factors but focuses especially on two bottom-line issues: tax burden and cost of living. That's why you won't see any locations in the highest-tax, highest-cost states like California, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
Still, in canvassing cities with populations starting at around 100,000, we look at a lot of issues besides costs. They include weather, availability of doctors, driving environment, crime rates and opportunities for an active retirement, which we defined by the extent of volunteering and outdoor paths for bicycling and walking. The roster of cities skews toward more temperate climates but not completely: It contains Fargo, N.D., Pittsburgh and some other chilly-in-the-winter places like Indianapolis, Colorado Springs, Kansas City and Salt Lake City.
Evaluating jurisdictions for taxes can be deceptive. Texas, for instance, lacks a state income tax, an omission it touts far and wide in its economic development efforts. But the Lone Star State more than makes up for that with a hefty sales tax and the nation's third-highest property tax (measured as a percent of fair market value). These taxes are not touted far and wide. Result: Texas ranks only in the middle on tax burden. Nevertheless, San Antonio makes our list, largely on the basis of low living costs and availability of doctors.
Washington State is another place without an income tax, making it a bit of a bug light for people seeking jobs at companies like Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT - News) and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN - News), as well as at Boeing (NYSE: BA - News) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG - News), which have large facilities in the Evergreen State. But sales tax burden per capita is the nation's second highest (after Wyoming, another income tax-less state), and the property tax hit is also above average. Accordingly, despite a temperate climate and a big cultural scene, Forbes is sleepless in Seattle, as well as, at the state's other end, in Spokane, which we once called the "scam capital of America."
Eleven states give special tax breaks to retirees, and we weigh that in our evaluations. This helps to earn spots for Lexington, Pittsburgh and Charleston, S.C. As we see it, the states with the best tax climates for retirees are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia.
The version of the list in the April 11 print issue is spread over a four-page fold-out in which we color-code each state (and the District of Columbia) with our assessment of the overall tax load for the senior crowd.
Every city on the list has a low cost of living as measured by government statistics. Five -- Charlotte, Colorado Springs, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Tucson -- also made our recent Best Places for Bargain Retirement list.
This list is displayed alphabetically. So New Mexicans should not be unduly excited that Albuquerque comes first, nor residents of Tucson upset their city sits at the end. In our judgment, all are meritorious from a retirement perspective.
The Best Retirement Places
Fast Fact: Home of world's largest hot-air balloon event
Pros: Terrific weather, low taxes, lot of doctors, modest cost of living
Cons: Crime, difficult environment for driving
Fast Fact: U.S. Civil War began in harbor
Pros: Lowest tax bite of all, low cost of living, agreeable climate, plenty of physicians
Con: Hurricane threats
Fast Fact: Nation's largest banking center after New York
Pros: Cheap housing and living, temperate climate, god place for drivers, abundant physicians
Cons: Crime, tax climate only so-so
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Fast Fact: Unofficial nonprofit capital of America
Pros: Affordable housing, low cost of living, safe streets, lots of volunteer opportunities
Cons: Cold winters, a bit light on doctors
Fast Fact: Named for a Wells Fargo co-founder
Pros: Lowest crime rate on list, inexpensive living, numerous doctors, opportunities for staying active
Cons: Cold, snowy winters, floods
Fast Fact: Hometown of writer Kurt Vonnegut
Pros: Very affordable housing, encouragement for active seniors, robust medical establishment
Cons: cold winters, crime
Fast Fact: Florida's largest city
Pros: Fine climate, low living costs, no state income or estate tax, plenty of doctors
Con: Other taxes high