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13 Factors to Consider When Choosing a Place to Retire

Teresa Mears
Will I get Social Security and Medicare if I retire abroad?

A generation ago, retirement was more defined. You had a last day of work, collected your gold watch and headed for a planned community in Florida or Arizona.

But the baby boomer generation is heading into a much different kind of retirement. Modern technology has made it easier to move to another country and still keep up with friends and relatives in the U.S. But today's retirement is as likely to include continued work as it is golf, and that's affecting the choices people make about where to live.

"I can't imagine being retired and just going off for lunch somewhere," says Diane Piper, 69, who started her own business, BORSAbag, after retiring from her job representing Michigan State University in Washington. "I love being busy, and it's such a new experience." Her husband, who is 74, is a consultant who travels overseas frequently for his work.

The fact that a large percentage of boomers plan to continue working in retirement is changing the nature of even traditional retirement communities. Del Webb, which operates 50 "active adult" communities in 20 states, estimates that half of the buyers in its communities are still working, up from about 20 percent a generation ago.

That means fitness classes and activities are offered early in the morning and at night in addition to midday. "Happy hour might have happened at 4:00 in the afternoon, and now it's at 8:00," says Valerie Dolenga, a spokeswoman for Del Webb.

[See: 10 Places to Buy a Retirement Home for Under $100,000.]

People 55 and older accounted for 23 percent of those who started a first business in 2013, up from 14 percent in 1996, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 49 percent of Americans expected to still be working past age 66, either by choice or economic necessity.

While some work can be done from anywhere, other kinds require proximity to airports and professional networking opportunities. Those who want to get a local job, whether working at Starbucks or substitute teaching, can't choose a retirement community just anywhere.

Piper and her husband considered moving to Charleston, South Carolina, where her husband lived as a child, but in the end decided to stay in Fairfax County, Virginia. "We loved the area. It's absolutely beautiful. The climate is nice," Piper says of Charleston. But, "It doesn't offer everything we have here. ... We just felt that if we left this area, we would be losing so much."

For those who are considering a major relocation, Ken Moraif, a senior advisor with Money Matters wealth management firm in Dallas, advises rehearsing first. That means renting a home and living in the new location for six months before committing. Places that are fun for a week's vacation may get boring by the second month. Neighbors will also provide valuable insight.

"You have a romantic notion of this place that you think is a great place to live," Moiraif says. "What you should do is go practice it. ... There's a lot of places that are fun to visit. Living there may be completely different."

[Read: What to Do If You're Running Out of Retirement Money.]

Choosing a place you can afford to live is important. But so is finding a place where you'll fit in.

Linda Carlson, 62, of Seattle, has been searching for a retirement home for herself and her husband for several years. Leaving the city's dreary winters is one motivation for moving, she says. But more important than weather is finding a community of like-minded people where they can make friends.

"I'm not going to play bingo and go to quilting classes," says Carlson, a marketing consultant and author of "Advertising With Small Budgets for Big Results." She wants to be near a good research library so she can continue her writing and also find a place that welcomes newcomers and has a sense of community.

Here are 13 things to consider when choosing a place to retire.

Make sure you can afford it. When you consider the cost of living, look at all factors. Florida, for example, has no state income tax. But the cost of homeowners insurance can be six times what you'd pay in the Midwest.

Investigate the demographics. The U.S. Census Bureau has a wealth of data on everything from income to education to religion to percentage of single men and women by age group. Carlson has used U.S. Census data to identify cities with a higher percentage of women with advanced degrees.

Talk to people like you in the areas you're considering. Find friends of friends or college alumni in the area, or talk to people you meet when you visit. "I'm really concerned about finding a place where I'll have friends," says Carlson, who describes herself as "very opinionated and very liberal."

Check on the availability of good medical care and the cost of insurance. Know that if you go overseas, Medicare will not cover you. If you choose a rural area, where will you go for treatment if you're diagnosed with cancer?

Think about how you'll spend your time and whether you can do it in the new location. That could be theater, music, sports, recreation, political activities, hiking or crafts. Golf courses are still popular, but frequently retirees are also demanding yoga, tai chi, more active fitness classes and outdoor amenities, such as walking trails, softball fields and places to kayak, Dolenga says.

[Read: 6 Ways Retiring Can Be More Affordable.]

Distance from family. Weigh how far you're willing to be from children and grandchildren and how difficult and expensive it will be to travel from your home to theirs. If you travel a lot, you will probably want to be near a major airport.

Consider whether you'll be happier in a single-family house, condo or mobile home. Look at how you live before you downsize. If you have a lot of houseguests or entertain often, for example, you may need a bigger home. And if you own a business, you may need a home office.

Evaluate planned senior communities vs. all-ages communities. The advantages of a planned retirement community are social activities are organized for you and you're likely to meet other newcomers. "They have that sense of community almost instantly," Dolenga says. In a small town where most people have known each other most of their lives, breaking into the social scene may be more difficult.

Make sure your home will accommodate your needs as you age. You may be able to climb stairs now, but will you be able to do so easily in 20 years? A single-story house or a master suite on the first floor, grab bars in the bathroom, a stall shower and doors wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair are features you might need when you get older.

Look at transportation options. If you can no longer drive, consider whether you can easily get from your home to supermarkets, houses of worship and doctors.

If you go overseas, know the rules and the laws. Some countries don't allow foreigners to buy properties. Others require certain income levels for legal residency. It is not as easy to legally immigrate to another country as it looks.

Consider that you may have to move again. Situations may change, or your desires may change, and that could mean another move later. Moraif had clients who sold their home in Plano, Texas, bought a yacht and spent five years traveling around the world. And then they got tired of it. They ended up returning to Plano, and the husband went back to work full time. Some retirees end up moving closer to children when grandchildren arrive or when they get frailer.

Take all those lists of top retirement spots with a grain of salt. They are only valid if they use the same criteria you would use. But they might give you some ideas of places that could be suitable for you or things you should think of when choosing a spot to retire.

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