Some help in scanning the country for your ideal retirement spot
Asheville, N.C. — ''It's the ultimate discretionary move,'' says Richard Boyer. Retirees who pull up stakes to resettle elsewhere are by definition not tied to a job, with its geographic constraints. They are freer to opt for ambiance, for ''life style,'' as the real estate brochures put it.
And they should definitely consider places other than Florida, he feels. It's not the gentle sun of the tropics that makes retirement in Asheville attractive, for instance. The attractions of this city in the gently rolling Great Smoky Mountains, where Mr. Boyer has settled, are more diverse than that.
To help people with their search, Mr. Boyer and his partner, David Savageau, have just come out with the ''Rand McNally Places Rated Retirement Guide'' (199 pp., paperback, $9.95).
The book considers 107 areas across the country - cities and counties of at least 20,000 people which have experienced a definite but not overwhelming influx of retirees in recent years. Included are some old standbys: Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., and Miami. But it is clear the authors are particularly interested in new retirement areas - you might almost call them ''anti-retirement retirement communities.''
The places that the Boyer-Savageau book considers are sprinkled around the country, through northern California and the Pacific Northwest, over the Southwest, up in New England, as far north as the Bar Harbor-Frenchman Bay area of Maine. And there is a particular concentration in the Appalachians and the Ozarks.
The Appalachians? The Ozarks?
The Places-Rated team understands that retirees aren't eager to shovel snow; but they suggest that more temperate climates, with distinct seasons but less extreme extremes, are probably more to most people's taste than semitropical heat and humidity or harsh desert.
''People are surprised at how quickly they miss the four seasons; they think Florida has a great climate, but it has a terrible climate, unless you really want to spend all that time on the beach,'' says Mr. Boyer, who laments what he sees as the group-think that drives everyone to the Sunshine State ''because Joe and Sally are there.''
Boyer and Savageau go basically by the numbers. Like their previous, more general ''Places Rated Almanac,'' which surveyed 277 places across the country for living and working, their retirement guide makes liberal use of various government statistics on such subjects as crime, health-care costs, tax rates, and climate. None of the retirement havens reviewed get any points for aesthetics - or lack of them. And although the two authors have visited most of the places they rate, personal inspections do not figure into their calculations , indicating either laudable objectivity or an unwillingness to be prejudiced by the facts, depending on one's point of view.
The book rates all 107 places from six perspectives: climate and terrain; housing costs; general costs of living, including taxes; crime rates, which are an index of community spirit as well as of the general danger level; health and health care; and recreation. Also included are helpful sections giving pointers on security, energy costs, and hunting for part-time jobs.
The book gives overall rankings, but Mr. Boyer says that while these are ''interesting,'' the best way for people to use the book is as a point of departure for their own research. Different people have different priorities. Family ties may influence your choice of a retirement haven; and perhaps finding part-time work is more important than having a snow-free climate.
'' 'What do I want?' and 'What do I want to avoid?' are the questions to ask, '' Mr. Boyer says.
''You should not use the book to decide to move some place sight unseen,'' he adds, scrunched up on the living room sofa in his comfortable brick house on the north side of Asheville, ''though some people have done it, and I haven't had a disgruntled party yet.''
The first question to ask is, ''Do I, or we, really want to move?'' As Boyer and Savageau note, ''There are ample reasons for staying put.'' Not least of which is the value of having roots in a place after one's spouse has passed on.
''Most relocating retirees are couples,'' Mr. Savageau has observed; ''But 10 years after retirement, 2 out of 3 couples have lost a spouse,'' usually the husband, given the gap in life expectancy between men and women - a gap that is increasing. Most retirees do stay put, and most of those who move, move to new quarters in the same town.
On the other hand, packing up and heading for new territory is a grand old American tradition. Mr. Boyer himself, a novelist who also teaches at a nearby college, is far from retirement age. But Asheville came out looking pretty good in the ''Places Rated Almanac,'' and when a speaking engagement brought him here a while back, he was instantly taken with the place.
And even on a day when rain clouds drag across the Great Smoky Mountains like dripping towels, he is undimmed in his enthusiasm for Asheville - No. 2 in his book's overall rankings, behind nearby Brevard, N.C.
Asheville is a good example of the kind of place the ''Places Rated Guide'' recommends, although it doesn't get top ranking in any of the six categories. It comes out particularly well in climate and terrain, and health and health care; in roughly the top quarter on housing and crime; and pretty much in the middle of the 107 places rated for general costs of living and for recreation. (Miami, by contrast, is No. 1 in health and health care and No. 2 in recreation, but is dragged down by poor rankings for crime, No. 107, and housing, No. 95, to an overall rating of 31.)
But Boyer concedes that his statistical approach gives Asheville no credit for the beauty of its surroundings. The Smokies are ancient mountains, worn down under the weight of the ages; western North Carolina is a land of hardwoods standing along the spine of the mountains like bristles on the back of a beast, of springs that seep out of the rock and become streams and finally reckless plunging waterfalls. If your porch is high enough, you can sit in your rocker of an evening and gaze off to never-never land through the blue mist.
Asheville, with its art deco wedding cake city hall and other architectural treasures, nestles at the juncture of the French Broad and the Swannanoa Rivers. George Vanderbilt built an estate near here in 1895 and got his wealthy friends to come join him; they built huge houses, many of them now doing service as bed-and-breakfast inns. Asheville blossomed during the 1920s as a cool refuge from the summer heat for wealthy Deep South planters. But the Great Depression ended all that, and the development of air conditioning made a number of hotter Southern resorts bearable through the summer.
There has been a certain turning of the tide, though; people are deciding that astronomical air conditioning bills are not an improvement on astronomical heating bills.
''I'm 3,000 feet up in the Blue Ridge Mountains,'' says one Asheville retiree , a Midwestern executive. ''I'm sitting here watching the snow flurries out my window, and smoke rising from the log cabin a couple of hundred yards down the side of a mountain. In a few minutes I'm going to go out and chop wood for an hour. Then I'm going to come in, watch the news, and then have dinner.
''It's not a bad life at all.''