Mobile Retirees Have More Than Florida On Their Minds

Top destinations are shifting and expectations are growing for community and cultural opportunities

Seventeen months ago, when Billie and David Stewart sold their house in Washington and moved to Asheville, N.C., they were already acquainted with the city they had chosen as their retirement home. Mrs. Stewart had lived there for a year during her 20s, and the couple had spent several vacations there, familiarizing themselves with housing and activities.

Even so, the transition required adjustments.

"In the beginning, I did miss some of the cultural opportunities we enjoyed in Washington," says Mrs. Stewart. "I went to the civic center and said, 'This isn't the Kennedy Center.' And the local paper is not The Washington Post."

But, she adds, "It's just a matter of scaling down expectations."

To move or not to move? That is the question that looms large for many newly retired people. No longer tethered to a specific location by jobs or children, they must balance the prospect of a fresh start against the security of familiar surroundings and friends.

Every year, 5 percent of retirees - about 400,000 people, according to the 1990 Census - move out of state. Another 5 percent change residences within their own state. Retirement experts expect those numbers to increase, perhaps dramatically.

"The universe of people approaching retirement age is about to explode," says Alan Fox, the Houston-based publisher of Where to Retire magazine. "It could mean that moving out of state will become a more mainstream first step in retirement."

Already, as the first baby boomers turn 50, 18 percent say they expect to move out of state when they retire, according to a 1997 study by the Del Webb Corp. in Phoenix.

Looking for four seasons

Unlike current retirees, for whom Florida and Arizona represented typical choices, many new retirees are, like the Stewarts, seeking a mild, four-season climate in the Southeast.

Some people, Mr. Fox says, "move to get away from something. They're unhappy with the current state of their town - its crime and congestion - or maybe their neighborhood's gone downhill." Others are attracted to a location by climate or leisure activities.

Mark Fagan, a professor at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., calls these people "amenity migrants" and notes that they often cluster around mountains, deserts, oceans, and lakes for amenities such as golf, hiking, and fishing.

"These folks are looking for the opposite of their daily hassles," he says. "If they're shoveling snow, they dream of retirement in a place where they're not shoveling snow."

Another motivation is economic - the need to stretch retirement income by moving to a less expensive place.

Dr. Fagan terms this a "trade-down" and offers a scenario:

"Say a couple living in Ohio has a home they've paid for," he says. "They no longer need three bedrooms. They're on a fixed income, and it's more than they want to maintain. Assume they cleared $175,000 when they sold their house and paid $90,000 for a two-bedroom tract home in a southern state such as Alabama. They had $85,000 left, and they put that in a mutual fund or stock account. They cut their property taxes drastically. Not only did they lower their cost of living, but they've increased their income almost $10,000 a year."

Typically, Fagan says, retirement migrants range in age from 55 to 65. Many have a history of mobility. "They like to be near airports so they can get to where their grandchildren are. And they love to travel."

Still, reality can intrude on dreams.

"When people think of retirement, they think of vacations," Fagan says. "But they find out that retiring in a place is a lot different than vacationing there. That's why a lot of them are starting to be more methodical in their search for a place to retire."

The Stewarts began their search by listing their priorities. "We wanted less crime, seasons, good services, and interesting people," says Mrs. Stewart, a speech pathologist. For four years the couple geared vacations to possible places to live. They also subscribed to the Asheville Citizen-Times to get the flavor of the community and its politics.

Fox has a name for people like the Stewarts: Type As. People in this group "systematically analyze everything before making a decision." By contrast, Type Bs need far less time to make a decision. When they visit a town, Fox says, "they may hit the first stop light, turn to the spouse, and say, 'Let's do it.' " He adds, "Each type thinks the other is crazy."

Fox warns against impulsive decisions. He tells of an aunt and uncle who moved from their longtime home in North Carolina to Florida into a community of snowbirds with a golf course. But there was no real town. They also arrived in late spring, just as the snowbirds were heading north.

"They were very lonely," Fox says. "They played golf all day, and they were miserable." Finally they moved back to North Carolina. His aunt told him, "Honey, you can only play so much golf."

Checking once, checking twice

Douglas and Sally Lowery, who moved to Asheville from Fairbanks, Alaska, to be near their daughters, also qualify as Type As. The couple visited 10 communities in the Carolinas and Virginia. They spent a day or two in each place, rating each location on 5-by-8-inch cards.

"We were both Rotarians, so we tried to schedule visits on Rotary days," says Mr. Lowery, an engineer. "We found out a wealth of information in just an hour over lunch."

Three years before retiring, they bought a condo in Asheville. Even so, Lowery says, moving was "a nervous situation. We were leaving 23 years of friends. But now we're considerably closer to our immediate family."

When Bill Brittain and his wife, Ginny, moved from New York to Asheville 11 years ago, he worried that he was "heading for Dogpatch." That fear proved incorrect, and they enjoy the city. But even now, Mr. Brittain says, "We still find our contacts made up almost exclusively of retirees who come from other areas, like us."

Richard Jackson of Wilmette, Ill., a widower, adds another issue to consider in making a move. "If you don't have a spouse or a partner, you have to work a little harder at meeting people," he says.

As Mrs. Stewart looks back on their move, she says, "It was more stressful than I expected - the loss of friends, loss of church, loss of things you have taken for granted. It was harder for me than for my husband." Mr. Stewart retired as an executive with a higher-education association.

The transition also took "a lot more energy" than they had anticipated. She says, "We had to find new everything - bank, hairdresser, stores."

Yet the relocation is reaping rewards. The Stewarts both take classes every semester, and she is training to be a hospice volunteer.

A balanced life

"We're really having a life again, either entertaining or being entertained," she says. "We have more friends we see on a regular basis than we had in Washington. There, people had careers. I'm getting a balance for the first time. We realize we like this life."

Wherever retirees choose to live, Fox makes a case for this kind of balance. He says, "People happiest with their move are those who find a mix of recreational and leisure activities on the one hand, and learning and giving on the other."

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