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SmartMoney.com  
 
7 Places to Retire During an Economic Downturn

By Kelli B. Grant
February 25, 2008

FOLLOWING THE FLOCK of other retirees to warmer climes may seem like the best way to spend one's golden years. But it may not be the smartest especially during economic downturns.

"A retiree always needs to be careful about where he or she chooses to spend retirement, but with economic conditions changing so quickly it's even more important to make a good choice," says Warren R. Bland, author of "Retire in Style: 60 Outstanding Places Across the USA and Canada." Not all places are created equal when it comes to weathering economic woes like the current real estate slump, credit crunch and slowing job market, he says. Choosing the wrong place could carry serious ramifications.

"If you don't have a healthy local economy, it's like a cancer," says Bert Sperling, founder of Sperling's Best Places1, which publishes reports on the best places to live based on data analysis. "There's less money for social services, for police patrols, even for infrastructure like fixing potholes." The widening subprime mortgage crisis makes ending up in the wrong part of town all too easy as well. "You could find yourself living in a deserted neighborhood," he warns, "where everyone else has fled" or been forced out.

After all those decades of stashing money away for retirement, retirees should look for a place that will not only make them happy, but also keep their nest egg intact. Areas with a track record of slow, steady economic growth and home price appreciation are ones that will hold onto their value best, notes Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. These same places are also more likely to rebound quickly when nationwide economic conditions improve.

Here are seven recession-proof places our experts believe soon-to-be retirees should consider:

 


The University of Florida keeps Gainesville's economy thriving and that's enough to turn most retirees into die-hard Gators fans. "Because colleges are relatively immune from recession, they provide a very stable local economy," says Sperling. The local AARP Senior Community Employment Program also ensures paid work is available to retirees, helping them compete against students for part-time jobs in the local retail and health-care industries, as well as at the university itself.

 

Last year, Gainesville ranked as the No. 1 place to live in the "2007 Cities Ranked and Rated," put out by Sperling's Best Places. "In a relatively small package, you get all the amenities you'd get in a much larger city," says Bland. The University of Florida Health Science Center provides excellent medical care, and residents can audit courses or attend any of the university's guest lectures, performances and exhibits.

The cost of living is on par with the national average, and the state's lack of income tax helps bolster retirees' savings. Local real estate has also remained steady. The average sale price for existing homes was $211,100 in 2007, down just 1% from 2006. Buyers get plenty for their money. "For prices that would be unbelievably low anywhere else, you'll find fairly large, contemporary houses on huge, half-acre or bigger properties," says Bland.

Gainesville, Fla.
The University of Florida campus.
 

Courtesy of the Alachua County Visitors & Convention Bureau


Ithaca not only boasts a breathtaking landscape of hills, gorges and waterfalls, but as home to Cornell University and Ithaca College it's also a smart place to retire. While education is the city's primary industry, there's a fair share of manufacturing and high-tech jobs as well. Unemployment stands at just 3.1%, nearly 2% below the national average.

 

Like the best college towns, there's little that progressive Ithaca lacks. The local music and arts scene is bustling, aided by a downtown pedestrian mall stocked with bookstores and an independent cinema, among other mom-and-pop retailers.

Ithaca is also one of the most affordable places to live in the United States. Almost three-quarters of the city's homes are priced at values that residents earning the median income of $64,500 can afford, according to the National Association of Home Builders' Housing Opportunity Index. The median home sale price in 2007 was $149,000.


Cornell University overlooks Ithaca's Cayuga Lake.
 

Courtesy of the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau


For retirees, Florida's biggest perk isn't the warm weather but the lack of income tax. "Taxation, or the potential for taxation, can be a big chunk of your monthly budget when you're living on a fixed income," says Alfred Peguero, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers' Private Company Services, which advises clients on retirement issues.

 

Compared with other major cities in this retiree-friendly state, Orlando has a slightly lower cost of living and much steadier home values. The average sale price for existing homes in Orlando was down 3% last year, to $261,300. Meanwhile, homes in Sarasota dropped 7% to $310,900, and those in Fort Myers dropped 6%, to $252,100.

While Orlando's theme parks and convention centers aren't immune to hard economic times, other industries, such as engineering and electronic gaming, are booming. Orlando has also earned the nickname "Hollywood East" for its growing number of film and television companies.

Seniors won't have to go far to find quality health care. One of the city's biggest nonprofit hospitals, Florida Hospital, repeatedly ranks as one of the best in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report. Its neurology department treats more stroke patients than any other hospital in the state.


Downtown view from Lake Eola
 

Photo credit: istockphoto.com


"Pittsburgh has this reputation for being a smoky, industrial city but that's just not the case anymore," says Bland. Steel and chemical manufacturing have largely given over to the burgeoning high-tech industry, particularly robotics and biomedicine. The city also hosts seven Fortune 500 companies, including PNC Financial Services Group, Mellon Financial Corp., and electric distributor Wesco International.

 

In his "Places Rated Almanac," author David Savageau named Pittsburgh "America's Most Livable City" in 2007, citing its cultural amenities and vibrant downtown. The cost of living here is 5% lower than the national average. And while the median sales price of existing homes nationwide fell 1.4% last year to $218,900, Pittsburgh's increased by 1% to $120,700, according to the National Association of Realtors. Seniors can save on taxes as well. The average state and local tax is 8.9%, vs. 9.7% nationwide.

Other bonuses: a low crime rate (compared with other cities its size) and more than 20 quality hospitals. U.S. News and World Report named the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center among its "Best of the Best," in 2007, and awarded its geriatric division a No. 8 spot.


Aerial view of Pittsburgh.
 

Courtesy of the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau


"Hip. Unaffected, yet cosmopolitan. Portland is on everyone's short list of hot cities these days," says Sperling. Careful land-use planning rescued the city from economic decline in the 1960s, and today Portland is known for its burgeoning arts and music scene and eco-friendly vibe.

 

Compared to other West Coast metropolitan areas, Portland is affordable but by no means cheap. The cost of living here is 14% above the national average. And the credit crunch has put many residential areas out of reach for retirees with less-than-stellar finances, cautions Molony. While the National Association of Realtors reports that the average sales price for an existing home was up 5% to $295,200 in 2007, properties in popular areas like Irvington and Alameda Ridge can sell for well over $600,000.

Those who can afford to buy here, however, will find the city packed with retiree-friendly amenities, including public transportation and 30 senior centers. There are also plenty of jobs both paid and volunteer. Nike and Intel call Portland home, as do plenty of other technology and health-care companies.


A Portland Aerial tram makes its way from the South Waterfront up to the Oregon Health & Science University.

Courtesy of Travel Portland


Stroll along San Antonio's River Walk and it's clear the city's economy is booming. The walkways feed into an expansive downtown district of restaurants, museums and boutiques adored by tourists and locals alike. While the city relies heavily on tourism to the Alamo and other area attractions, industries such as financial services, health care and national defense have kept the unemployment rate fairly steady at 4%, one percentage point lower than the current national average.

 

San Antonio's cost of living, at 7% below the national average, makes it one of the more affordable retirement destinations. Groceries, for example, are an incredible 22% cheaper than other metropolitan areas, notes Bland. "For a city with more than 2.5 million people living in the metropolitan area, that's really unusual."

Continued development has kept housing prices in San Antonio 10% lower than the national average. The average sale price for an existing home was $153,200 in 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors. Yet, despite the nationwide housing slump, home values here have increased 8% since 2006. Retirees will find the lower taxes an added relief, adds Peguero. Like Florida, Texas doesn't tax income. The average state and local tax burden is 7.8%, almost two percentage points lower than the national average.


The San Antonio River Walk serves as the hub for restaurants, shops and downtown attractions.
 

Courtesy of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau


A warm, sunny climate and rich cultural heritage have long kept Tucson at the top of retirees' list of winter vacation destinations. However, with a cost of living that's 3% below the national average, a strong job market and steady home prices, there's plenty to enjoy about this city all year-round.

 

"Tucson is a dynamic, growing retirement spot, so there are plenty of job opportunities although the pay is often low," says Bland. While it's not quite a college town, Tucson relies heavily on the University of Arizona as its second-largest employer. Technology and tourism (mostly from snowbirds) also provide plenty of jobs.

Steady expansion and new developments have kept housing relatively affordable, with costs at about 20% below the national average. The average sale price for existing homes dropped just 0.01% in 2007, to $244,800. Expect real estate prices to remain solid, thanks to increasing interest in the area as a retirement destination. The most popular areas are planned communities (retirement-specific and otherwise) northwest of the city, including Oro Valley and other towns in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains.


Tourists explore the desert outside Tucson on horseback.
 

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau

 

 

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