When retirees think of sunshine, warm weather, and beaches, they often think of Florida and California. And certainly those are popular retiree destinations. But as real estate and living costs have gone up in those areas, it may be time to explore other destinations, such as Alabama.
Yes, Alabama offers the amenities retirees may be seeking in pricier areas of the country, for a lot less. The “Heart of Dixie” boasts a cost of living 12 percent below the national average. Even properties along the shoreline are only 11% above the national average, compared with 36% higher in Boca Raton, Florida and 121% higher in Santa Barbara, California.
And you’re not giving up much: according to Fergus Tuohy , a Birmingham-based financial advisor, “Our beaches are as beautiful as you’ll find barring maybe the Caribbean. And it’s not like in south Florida where it’s sweltering most of the time.” The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a collection of 11 different championship courses, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, “may be the biggest bargain in the country.”
Alabama is a senior-friendly state with many facilities catering to seniors of all backgrounds. The University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham and the Southeast Alabama Medical Center in Dothan are among the top-notch healthcare facilities in the state.
The lower costs in Alabama extend to Alabama’s assisted living and nursing homes. A private room in a nursing home runs $186 per day, less than the average of $239 for the nation as a whole; and assisted living costs $2,694 per month, compared to $3,477 for the rest of the country, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute.
The state also provides a senior-friendly environment. There is a state income tax, but the rate tops out at 5% and Social Security and pension income are exempt. Homeowners over 65 are exempt from property taxes. Seniors who find themselves in need of food or living assistance have an array of state services available.
There are a few drawbacks to living in Alabama. The state has one of the higher poverty rates in the country, with 17.1% of the population in poverty compared to 13.8% in the U.S. Also, the medical care tends to be concentrated in the large urban areas; residents of rural areas have fewer options since the state has fewer physicians per capita than the country as a whole.
Here are profiles of some popular retirement destinations.
Home to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, where some of the technology for the Apollo moon landings was developed, Huntsville still has an active tech sector and aerospace industry. It attracts a wide range of residents. Huntsville is also a key military research and development center, and many military retirees lived there during their careers and chose to settle down there.
One of them is New York native Vincent Boles, 57, who says he traveled the world during his 33 years of military service. But when he decided to retire in 2009, he picked Huntsville, because of its energetic vibe and “can-do spirit.”
Huntsville combines a small-town feel with a high-tech, cosmopolitan atmosphere, says Charles Winters, the executive vice president of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. While residents come from all over the world, and the city has one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the nation, people chat at the grocery store or waiting in line at the bank.
The town’s pleasant weather is conducive to outdoor recreation. Hiking and biking in the Appalachian Mountains and boating on the Tennessee River are just minutes away, while golfers can select from seven courses. Huntsville also has the state’s oldest symphony orchestra.
Auburn is a quintessential college town, with 25,000-student Auburn University having an undeniable influence on the town. Although the Auburn Tigers football team is a huge attraction, retirees also benefit from the educational and cultural amenities such as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art which hosts a permanent collection of American and European Art. There are also an annual spring arts festival and a biannual food festival.
If you like to golf, Auburn is a place to consider. Golf Digest named it the number one golf city in America, and it is home to several world-class golf courses including the 54-hole Grand National courses. Auburn is the largest city in eastern Alabama and an hour drive from Montgomery, and two hours from Atlanta. Although the sales tax is higher than the national average, the real estate prices and overall living costs are much lower.
Orange Beach/Gulf Shores
Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are beach towns with 32 miles of white sand and clear, emerald water. Michigan native and retired teacher Mary Wolf said, “the beaches here are a whole new level of beautiful — it’s not just the perfect sand and clear water, it’s also the sense of calm you feel when you’re near them.”
The cost of living is higher than the national average, but much lower than for similar towns in Florida like Boca Raton and Palm Beach. Fishing is a big recreational activity here: red snapper, Spanish mackerel, grouper and marlin abound. Orange Beach has one of the largest recreational charter boat fleets on the northern Gulf Coast, one of the longest fishing piers, and one of the largest artificial reef programs in the country. The area also has many bays and channels that are amenable to boating and kayaking. Golfers will enjoy nine golf courses, including Kiva Dunes, which Golf Digest named the best course in Alabama.
Active retirees who are into volunteerism and environmental issues will find many outlets here. For example, volunteers can work with researchers to put markers on local birds so they can help track the population, or protect local sea turtles by moving nests away from the water.
Note that the area is quite popular among snowbirds in the winter months, and also gets overrun by spring breakers from area colleges in March and April.
Fairhope is an artist colony with dozens of galleries, studios and antique shops on the streets. On the first Friday of every month, the town has an art walk, where residents browse the galleries and shops to take in art, hors d’oeuvres and live music. There’s also an annual three-day arts festival that attracts more than 150,000 visitors. The town has a long musical history and has been home to the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Winston Groom.
With 15,000 people, Fairhope maintains its small-town charm and was named the second second best small town in the south by Southern Living magazine in 2007. With Spanish-moss-lined trees and views of the Mobile Bay, Fairhope has abundant natural scenery and works to keep its quaint atmosphere. This means, however, that the town lacks the facilities of larger cities. You won’t find any Walmarts or other retail outlets here. There is a regional medical center in town, but most big-city amenities are 30 minutes away in Mobile. Fairhope also has a cost of living about 8 percent higher than average.
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