More affordable cities for retirement
6. San Luis Obispo, California
A college town (Cal Poly is just across the highway) that's just half an hour from the Pacific Ocean in one direction and spectacular wine country in the other, San Luis Obispo is beloved by retirees. And thanks to California's real estate crisis, it's suddenly become much more affordable.
Why it's great: San Luis Obispo's mission-centered downtown justly earned Sunset magazine's designation of "the best downtown in the Western United States." Weekly events such as farmers' markets, a free concert series, and the hundreds of lectures and concerts offered by Cal Poly mean there's something to do every day and new friends are easy to meet. The wine country of Paso Robles is a short drive away, as are the beaches and recreational opportunities of Pismo Beach and the rest of the coast.
Why it's affordable: Once considered the third-least affordable metro area in the country, San Luis Obispo and the surrounding region are suddenly a bargain thanks to California's real estate crisis. Prices dropped 10 percent overall in the past year, and much bigger bargains are to be had in short sales and foreclosures, which made up 30 percent of the past year's real estate transactions. Bargain hunters should also scan the ring of towns surrounding San Luis Obispo, including Atascadero, Nipomo, Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, and Templeton. The mild climate keeps heating costs low, and the overall cost of living is below that of both the San Francisco Bay Area to the north and Los Angeles to the south.
7. San Antonio, Texas
Bottom-of-the-barrel real estate prices have attracted many to relocate here (population 1,300,000) over the past decade, drawn also by a strong tourism-fueled economy. But there are many good reasons for San Antonio's popularity: a walkable riverfront downtown, a lively culture, and eclectic and interesting neighborhoods, many of them with a small-town feel. San Antonio can also lay claim to a decent climate, with less rain and humidity than much of southern Texas. There's lots and lots to do. And if the city itself feels too large, it's surrounded by retiree-friendly smaller towns and developments known for Texas-style friendliness and warmth.
Why it's great: Military retirees feel especially comfortable in San Antonio because of the presence of Fort Sam Houston and Lackland and Randolph Air Force Bases. Veterans have excellent services here, and medical care in general ranks among the top in the country thanks to the University of Texas Health Science Center, one of only six sites in the nation approved for experimental cancer trials.
Why it's affordable: With no income tax and overall prices more than 20 percent lower than the national average, the overall cost of living in San Antonio is among the lowest in the country. The median home price in 2011 is a reasonable $152,000, and prices are even lower in surrounding communities. The strong economy also creates many part-time jobs in tourism, tech, healthcare, and consulting.
8. Nashville, Tennessee
There's a reason lots of celebs (besides country stars) build homes near Nashville; the rolling green hills are absurdly picturesque, land is cheap, and the town itself is a lot of fun.
Why it's great: Whether or not you're a country music fan, Nashville will keep you busy, with a revitalized downtown, a lively arts scene featuring hundreds of galleries, and restaurants of all stripes and flavors. And yes, there are 180 live music venues, including the Grand Ole Opry.
Why it's affordable: Nashville ranks high on many affordable retirement lists because of its low taxes, including no state income tax and an option to freeze property taxes for those on a fixed income. While overall housing prices in Nashville aren't notably low (reflecting the high number of large estates), retirees have excellent options. Condos in the revitalized downtown, averaging $200,000 to $250,000, have become extremely popular with the over-55 set. Just half an hour from Nashville, the retiree-friendly towns of Franklin and Murfreesboro are exceedingly easy on the budget, with subsidized senior day services, free transportation, and many other services that lower the cost of living.
9. Charlotte, North Carolina
Although it's the largest city in North Carolina, Charlotte isn't as big as you might expect, with a population of 700,000 in the urban center. Charlotte ranks high on many "best places to retire" list, thanks to endless cultural and recreational offerings. The presence of three universities boosts the culture meter sky-high, and Charlotte is a big draw for golf and racing fans, since it's home to both NASCAR and the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, as well as the just-opened NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Why it's great: Charlotte and North Carolina in general are unusually welcoming to outsiders, says Howells, with a friendly atmosphere where Northerners and Midwesterners feel comfortable. The Mint Museum of Art is highly rated, and the region features more than 40 public golf courses and the U.S. National Whitewater Center, an unusual 307-acre Olympic quality facility for adventure sports.
Why it's affordable: The real estate site Trulia.com rates Charlotte third among its bargain destinations, thanks to a 37-percent price drop, which has brought prices of 2,000 to 3,000 square-foot homes in desirable neighborhoods like Seven Eagles below $200,000. North Carolina also boasts low taxes, a low overall cost of living -- and a booming economy that makes part-time employment easy to come by for retirees who want extra income. And the Charlotte area is unusually high in affordable retirement communities and assisted-living options as well.
10. Fayetteville, Arkansas
Tucked into the gorgeous Ozark Mountains on the shores of Beaver Lake, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, Fayetteville has nature and nurture both. The University of Arkansas, located here, boosts the cultural quotient considerably, with year-round theater, music, lectures, and sports facilities. Dickson Street, the heart of the college district, has a vibrant and eclectic collection of shops, bars, and restaurants more akin to what you'd expect in Boulder or Boston than Arkansas.
Why it's great: Beaver Lake offers plenty of recreation opportunities, and the presence of the state's major university means more bookstores, more culture, and a rich offering of restaurants. Walton Art Center, named for the Wal-Mart founding family, brings brand-name theater and touring Broadway shows. "Because Fayetteville strives to attract 'outsiders,' both to teach at the college and to retire, there's a more welcoming atmosphere than is often found in small Southern cities," says Howells.
Why it's affordable: With a mean home price of $162,000, there are plenty of affordable options, and in nearby Bentonville and Springdale housing prices are lower still. Bella Vista, a retirement community built in the 1960s north of Fayetteville, is now its own community of 30,000 people. And many of the University-based cultural and educational offerings are low-cost or free.