Can a Yankee find Retirement Happiness in the South?

Category: Best Retirement Towns and States

You might be the kind of person who wants to retire somewhere warm. You’ve identified some states where the climate is a lot better than where you are now, and where outdoor recreation is possible12 months of the year. You’ve also done your research and have chosen a state that that is tax-friendly. Chances are, the states that meet those criteria are in the South. And that probably gives rise to other questions.

Even if you have never spent any significant time in the South, you probably have an image of what life might be like be like there. Without the benefit of experience, however, that image is probably off the mark. In this article we will attempt to answer some questions to help you become better informed: Will the people in your new community be friendly? Will you, a Yankee, fit into the social and cultural ecosystem of your new southern home? Will you be able to contribute your time and talents to your new community in the way you expect to? Will you be comfortable with the political situation and attitudes? And how about the food?

Our apologies in advance if this article offends anyone. The opinions given here are personal, undoubtedly biased by a native northeasterner who has only spent a little more than 2 years of his life in the South. Our attempt to answer the question obviously reflects a northern point of view. The corollary to this question is clear too: a southerner moving to the north should also be concerned about experiencing social and cultural issues in their new adopted region.

Regional Differences Magnified –Fairly or not
Sue Cerulean, a transplanted New Jersey native who has spent her adult life in north Florida, makes a great point about the kind of differences a Yankee will find in the South. She observes that… “the differences a northern transplant is likely to notice in the South are more of a rural vs. urban issue than they are northern vs. southern”. We agree, and would add that socioeconomic status differences also tend to stand out – whether you are in the north or the south.

Sure, there are some physical differences. When you stray from the Interstate the landscape features piney woods and red clay soil. When it comes to differences between people, the most obvious clue comes when we open our mouths. Different accents provide an obvious reminder of regional identity, which can create a barrier to mutual understanding and trust. The fact that newcomers stand apart from locals only compounds the social and cultural differences. Human groups usually prefer socializing with their own kind – in Savannah or Saint Louis – which explains why people who move to a new town might feel unwelcome.

What do you bring to the party?
Part of a successful transition to any new town has to start with you. What are you expecting in your new community, and what are you bringing to the party? If you want to be part of the community and are willing to get involved in working or volunteer activities, chances are you will soon feel a part of things. But if you want to do your own thing, you might feel like an outsider. Likewise, if you appreciate new cultural experiences, your transition will be easier no matter where you retire. On the other hand if you prefer to socialize with the kind of people you already know, then you should probably investigate an active adult community and stay away from living in a town or city.

Politics and Religion. Chances are your new southern home might be in a state that is more conservative than where you are now. In the 2010 mid-term election we just saw that the new South is trending more Republican among white voters, and Democratic among African-Americans. In small towns you will probably find that attitudes toward homosexuality might be less welcoming in the South. The southern brand of religion is a generally bit more conservative than its northern counterpart, although that is certainly not universally true.

Food. The good news is that Southern cooking is usually at a pretty high level. The typical small town restaurant puts a hearty meal on the table. With plenty of butter and bacon as ingredients, it might not always be the healthiest, but it will be tasty. Barbecue, fried chicken and gravy, and hush puppies are foods your editor can’t wait to experience South of the Mason-Dixon Line. And that is not to say that there aren’t great restaurants offering every kind of cuisine.

Deep South vs. Mid-South. In our opinion certain states are more “Southern” than others. Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia have a stronger Southern culture and feel, with exceptions guaranteed within those states. The houses don’t look the same, as bungalows and ranch homes replace salt boxes and northern frame styles. Like small towns in other areas of the country, zoning laws are not as restrictive as in affluent northeastern towns. Trash along the highways does seem to be a Southern scourge. Statues of Confederate war heroes on the town “square” (the “green” to many Yankees) will remind you of where you are. In the Deep South the differences are more extreme because the culture is stronger.

The Carolinas. Particularly near the coasts and in the larger cities, retirement in the Carolinas may offer more of a neutral living experience. A steady stream of transplants from across the country contributes to that. For a sophisticated, intellectually active environment, you might consider the dynamic Research Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham. Even the most jaded New Yorker could find adequate stimulation there. In popular retirement towns like Mt. Airy, Asheville, Greenville (either SC or NC), or Pinehurst, the person you bump into at the Piggly Wiggly is just as likely to be from Harrisburg as a town in North Carolina. In parts of the Carolinas without a heritage of outside immigration, however, you might be in for a cultural jolt. The locals are undoubtedly friendly, but it might take them awhile to get used to your Yankee ways – and vice versa!

Mid-Southern. Mid-Southern states like Tennessee and Kentucky can offer a mixed experience for retiring northerners. Nashville, Chattanooga, or Knoxville offer a pleasant small city experience, with tons of culture and a college town environment. Retiring to an area like Paris, TN, which attracts retirees from a wide area, will tend to minimize other differences. In a small town with few retirees coming in from other states, you might not feel at home for a long time – unless you make the effort to join in on community activities.

Florida. The Sunshine State is, for the most part, a cultural melting pot. Fort Myers, for example, is the quintessential American suburb, with sprawl, busy highways, and big box stores by the gross. Living there requires almost no cultural adjustment, no matter what part of the country you are coming from. Old Florida, to be found more in the western and central parts of the state, still retains some of its old Southern charm and differences. Personally, we find this charm very appealing – harkening back to another, kinder and slower era. But could we as a Yankee enjoy living in a regular neighborhood in a small town like Chiefland – probably not. But in a southern-looking neighborhood in cosmopolitan Tallahassee, definitely.

Cities in the South: The South has its fair share of bustling cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Tampa, Nashville, and Charlotte. There are mid-sized cities like the college towns of Athens, GA and Tallahassee, FL. Living in one of those cities offers an experience not much different than living in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago – or Ann Arbor, MI. Either way you will be living in a city where many of the residents are from somewhere else and the cultural opportunities ample.

Where You Live – Active Adult Community vs. In-Town
The great leveler in regional differences is the active adult community or other big development. Home builders like Pulte, Del Webb, Centex, Toll Brothers, Jensen, Daniel Homes, and others have been on a building boom from New Bern to Bluffton to Huntsville and parts beyond. Thanks to the south’s attractive climate, favorable tax structure, and plentiful and cheap land, retirees from all parts of the country and Canada are moving south to these new communities. Some are near metropolitan areas, such as the National Village at Grand National is to Birmingham or Fairhope is to Mobile. Others are further afield, built near recreational areas like Lake Keowee or Amelia Island. Even more are in the hinterlands, far from anything, or near a very small town.

Living in one of these developments tends to diminish and soften the regional differences you might expect to see by moving to the South. That’s because you will be living in a self-contained environment which you rarely leave. Sure you will go to town for most shopping and medical needs, but your social infrastructure will mostly be centered within the active community. So, even if the small towns around your enclave seem alien – you only have to drive by this world, not have it as an everyday experience.

There is the South in your mind… but there are really many Souths
There are indeed many different kinds of environments in the South. With so much diversity anyone from the north should be able find a compatible location for a happy retirement in the South. And for those who choose to live in an active adult community or development, as opposed to residing within a town or city, adjusting to living in the South is usually almost not an issue.

Recommendations to consider
If you are concerned about your ability to be a happy Yankee in a southern world, consider these recommendations and questions:
- Choose a city rather than a small town
- Go for a college town or community that is known for attracting retirees from all over the South
- Don’t move anywhere without staying in that community for an extended period of time (visit first, then rent)
- Select an active adult community if you want to live with people like yourself
- If you want to live in a town or city, make an extra effort to join in the community
- If a development that is far from a major town or resort, take that remoteness into consideration
- No matter where you move, plan to make social connections as soon as you arrive – visit churches and join one, join a club (perhaps one you are already affiliated with like the Rotary), take up a sport, take a class, be open to new people, friendships, and experiences.
- Be open-minded about your new community – imagine what a stranger might experience by moving to the town where you live now

What do you think?
What have your experiences been if you have either retired in the South, or explored different communities there? Please give everyone on this site the benefit of your experience.

For further reference:
Use the Retirement Ranger at Topretirements to help you find compatible towns and communities. Advanced Search is another convenient tool to to help expand your horizons.

Posted by John Brady on November 9th, 2010
Comments (22)
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KL Soper says

I wish I had had this website about four years ago. Moved to a small town in SC (23 miles from Myrtle Beach) from No Virginia and it has been the worst decision of my life – people are NOT friendly; am not religious so church was not an option; tried to volunteer but nobody responded to the “forms” I was requested to fill out; people have turned their back to me when they are speaking to me; was unable to find a p/t job when it was discovered I was from the North and I could just go on FOREVER!! I’ve given it four years – way too much time and now must put my house on the mkt (at a tremendous loss) and figure out where to go – so please keep supply these wonderful insights!!! I need all the help I can get – SORRY I MOVED!!!! This particular article is right on the money!!!

November 9th, 2010 | #

KL Soper says

A couple of additional comments: first – the article is correct – garbage is all over the roadsides – so much for the $1000 fine sign for this offense and second, be prepared for the TOTAL LACK OF RESPECT AND CARE that is paid toward animals – people literally throw them away – they, too, are just considered garbage down here – so be prepared to lower you standards or just don’t come – which is what I should have done if I’d known all of this, but this was to be my retirement haven and I fell in love with my home – now I must give that up and my dream.

November 9th, 2010 | #

Margaret Fallon says

An excellent article. Your checklist of recommendations is spot on. I lived in New York up until 2008 when we moved to Sun City Hilton Head in Bluffton SC. Talk about culture shock. It did take a while to get used to, but what a wonderful and exciting experience. Your experience and retirement will be what you make of it. Good Luck!

November 9th, 2010 | #

Barbara T. says

I recently spent 24 days traveling all about the southeastern coastal states in an effort to identify where I might like to relocate/retire. At this point I was trying to get a feel for regions more so than specific towns. I concur with the article and its findings. However, having lived in a rural town of the north during my youth, I didn’t find the cultural shock so unexpected. I think rural to rural and urban to urban will be fairly level playing fields. More pronounced to me was their laid back manner, less hyper, lesser concern with time constraints. Tomorrow will be quick enough … I look forward to shedding my self imposed stressors and incorporating that mode of lifestyle (and it costs nothing!). Thank you for this article. I look forward to more.

November 10th, 2010 | #

Bill S. says

Sorry to read Mr. Soper’s comments. I’ve lived in the South all my life, and I suspect what he found in a very small town in Sc is largely true. I also think he made a poor decision to move to such a location. This article would have been helpful for him 23 years ago. I do believe other can report better experiences. The South is hardly a monolithic area, as this article makes clear. I would enjoy an article aimed at those of us who will be retiring in New England in another year after having lived South all my 70 years. What can I expect to find in Connecticut, Mass or Vermont?

November 10th, 2010 | #

Glenn says

@ Bill S:
Bill, I’m not a NE native but have spent some time there (and in the South) and some of these comments may be useful to you. As you mentioned with respect to the South, NE is also not a monolith. (Where is, huh?) But, overall, I think NE is a bit more “civilized” than other regions (including the mid-Atlantic, where I hail from). Of course, Southern manners are lacking but, then, so are much of the prejudices and narrow-mindedness(and I’m not just talking racial prejudices). Taxes are higher of course but so are services. My wife and I had considered Vermont as a possible retirement destination after skiing there for many years and loving the Vermont vibe. But spending an entire winter in NE is another experience and one you have to experience to believe. Come Spring, you might decide to point your nose to the 180 degree mark and skeedaddle (sp?). But Vermont is very much of a piece (Burlington, Montepelier, etc., notwithstanding) whereas there is great variation in CT and MA. The I95 corridor is part of the great eastern megalopolis, of course, and can be as unplatable as any small town in SC, albeit for different reasons. But, even there, there are some terrific communities. Western MA and NW CT have more of the Vermont flavor (although Vermonters would deny this, I think). Let me know if you any specific questions and I’ll try to tackle them unless we get a real New Englander to chime in. P.S. Lest I’ve come across as too critical of the South, both Ashville and Charlottesville are on our short list.

November 10th, 2010 | #

Artie says

After living in New York and specifically on Long Island our entire lives (over 55 years), we are recent transplants to the Raleigh Durham area (Cary,NC). Rather than rent initially as we had initially considered, we decided we didn’t want the hassle and expense of two moves. Consequently,we moved into a re-sale within the Del Webb/Pulte “active adult” community called the “Carolina Preserve.” We especially are enjoying the weather and the availability of as much or as little activity as we want to get involved in. This is an added benefit of being in this kind of community, althuogh they are not for everyone. Irrespective of the community, the “Triangle” area consisting of the aforementioned towns (cities) along with the addition of Chapel Hill offers a lot of varied activities. In addition to all the colleges and universitis down here, there are also opportunities to find work in the area with Research Trinagle Park being the economic driver in the region. Although much less congested than Long Island, this is hardly the southern “boonies.” Cary (aka “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees”) didn’t earn this acronym for nothing, as I’m finding most of the people in our community to be from the Northeast. So far, after moving in August, things are just fine and we are enjoying our new environment and exploring the area. We don’t feel that we are missing that much up north except perhaps more traffic and congestion, higher costs, especially the excessive real estate taxes and lousy weather for much of the year. We seem to have plenty of the good stuff down here including all kinds of entertainment ( theaters, live theater, professional and college sports, concerts) along with abundant shopping and very good to great dining. It’s a very pretty area with all the big trees and forested areas and lakes. We have the both the mountains and the coast within reasonable traveling distance and you can still make it back to visit friends and family in NY (for example) in one day’s drive. The area has also been referred to as “trees, tees, and PhD’s. Although an over-simplification, this discription is not off the mark.

November 10th, 2010 | #

mrgoodwx says

I enjoyed the assessment and believe the author made some good suggestions. I grew up in central Mississippi, but moved to the Rocky Mountain states nearly 25 years ago. I’m retired in New Mexico. My wife and I occasionally visit old friends in Mississippi (mainly high school reunions), and we always have a great time. Yet, we also feel as if we are in a time warp when we go back to Mississippi. The old friends are strongly tied to the narrow visions we held as children. They seem very happy with who they are, and that’ great. But, it’s always a reminder that we wouldn’t fit in. We’re always amazed at the depth of their beliefs in one religion, one political party. Unlike where we have been for nearly 25 years, too many people in many communities of the South (smaller towns) want to know what religion you are, who your family is.

Yet, there are communities in the South with transplants from all over, and I believe those communities are far more accepting of people with different views, different religions, different ideas. I also think people from the North have a much greater chance of fitting into those communities and being happy.

Another consideration has to do with the climate. I think my wife and I would struggle with the heat and humidity that we knew as the norm when we were kids. Generally, the farther one goes into the deep south, the longer period of the year one will experience with no breaks from the oppressive heat and humidity.

November 10th, 2010 | #

Peter F. Lydens says

I found while living in various places in North Carolina, that if one offers their time and talents to the community, while at the same time not constantly telling people about how it was done in the community one moved from,that one will find a niche in the community.

I now live in Mt. Airy, NC (11,000 Est. Pop),a community that welcomes retirees and persons seeking a better quality of life style for the experience and talents they bring to the community. Mt. Airy has all the facilities and services that make life enjoyable, as well as a variety of quality education opportunities, and a surprisingly large cultural and entertainment offering. A caring and friendly attitude towards newcomers, as well as long time residents, makes the community especially attractive for retirement.

November 10th, 2010 | #

H E Flaherty says

We moved from Rhode Island to the Chattanooga, TN area about 4 years ago as a work transfer. There were a lot of things to consider and we have tried to like it but we will certainly not retire here. Cannot wait to go back north! KL Soper is right, attitudes toward education, civic pride, football, animals, recycling and the fact that “its all good” just are not the same as what we’ve been used to. That said, we have made some friends (mostly others from northern states – some of whom have moved back) and we have tried to make it home.

There are some bright spots. I would like to recommend Asheville, NC, Wilmington, NC and Athens, GA as some places to consider. With the university in Athens, there are always lots of people from other parts of the country as well as other parts of the world not to mention all the programs open to the public on the campus. Wilmington is very clean and genteel and I have always felt comfortable there. Asheville has a LOT of creative energy and they are very aware of the outside world. Do yourselves a favor and spend at least one extended vacation in the south BEFORE you buy!

November 10th, 2010 | #

Mejask says

Wow. This is an interesting article and very thoughtful comments. I am a 25 year resident of Connecticut but I have lived in the Midwest, West and South for periods of a few years during my life. I grew up in Illinois, moved to South Carolina in my early twenties and lived in Washington State in my thirties. I’m sure there are things that change with time but some things remain fairly constant. I have also had the opportunity to travel and visit relatives in the Midwest, West, Southwest and Florida over the years. As I think about retirement the issue of fitting in has actually been at the top of my list. I will tell you that my impressions upon moving to Connecticut, where I have no family, were that the majority of people are ‘from here’ or New England with family near by. This can be challenging for a newcomer. I also found that as a ‘society’ people seemed less friendly and brusquer than I experienced in the Midwest. But when I would meet people one-on-one this did not seem the case.

I do believe that many of the differences noted in this article are real and as a naïve 20 something who hadn’t even lived in New England yet, I noticed these cultural differences quite clearly. I do think, as has been noted that you will find differences, as anywhere, between rural settings and large cities. This is the same way in Illinois. I don’t think the ‘big city’ New Englanders would feel that much out of place in Chicago for example. I also think that Florida is really a different environment because of the diversity that has come from outside of Florida, both with retirees and immigrants. It is of course dangerous to generalize about any State but when looking at the South I think this is particularly true about Florida.

There are many, many things to say but regardless of where you are thinking of going it is a great idea to go and stay for a while. And from a climate perspective be sure that part of that time is during the ‘worst’ time of the year. This brings up a point I think people should ponder. If you are thinking of moving to a warmer climate keep in mind that in some of these places the summers can be brutal. You may dream of escaping the winter in New England now but you may be dreaming of escaping the summer in another area later.

Happy dreaming.

November 10th, 2010 | #

Betsy says

We moved from MD to Wake Forest NC in ’96, then to ATL in ’98 due to a job
transfer, then back again, north of Wake Forest in ’06. It has NEVER felt like home. When one moves south for the warmer weather…you must understand that you lose summer. To say the summers are brutal is an understatement. Oct. and Nov. are wonderful, the winters are cold…spring is the first week of April, then summer begins !! I’ve heard others say that the job market is tuff because the area is over educated. We hope to move soon…not sure where but no further south than VA…and may move toward the midwest. Southerners are very family oriented which is nice,unless you don’t have family here. On the other hand, I’ve heard that if you’re a southerner, moving to N.E. , you will NEVER be “one of them.” We’re going back to 4 distinct seasons, rather than the endless summer !!!

November 10th, 2010 | #

Mary Veronica says

This is an interesting discussion. I am from New York City, moved to Minneapolis and lived there for 20 years and we retired in Tucson AZ. Love this area a lot but will now be relocating to Wilmington, NC to be near son who married a NC gal. Here we live in an active over 55 situation and it is with most replanted northerners. A different culture here but welcoming. Well, when I sell the lovely casita, that is. Anyway my family wants me closer. I also have a home in Brainerd, MN for the summers so will only winter in Wilmington, NC. Great thoughts expressed that I had not considered.

November 10th, 2010 | #

Leslie says

I grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles at age 19. That was culture shock. I have also lived in CO twice. I lived in Charlotte for 3 years. It was absolutely beautiful. I found myself seeking out transplants because the locals always asked what church I belonged to and if didn’t identify one I laid myself open for a conversion conversation. As an atheist it was tuff. I did love the laid back lifestyle and despite growing up in the sweltering heat of Brooklyn, the summers were oppressive. I’ve been gone 11 years ago but kept my acct. She’s a PA transplant!

November 10th, 2010 | #

Peggy G says

I, too, wish this I had access to such an article 2 years ago before retiring to the south. My husband and I had lived in Michigan and Wisc all our lives. We decided to move to East Tenn, about 30 miles outside of Knoxville. We like living in a rural area and thought it would be a nice transition. We are very friendly and expected the same from our community but have not found that we are welcomed at all. I have been so upset and although we love the beauty of the surroundings we have decided that this has been a horrible mistake. The couple of people we do speak with are very cordial because they are neighbors but that is as close as it gets. Our son moved to Charlotte NC about the same time we moved and his transition has been much more positive. We have decided that NC is much more accepting of us Yankees. And if it were for the snow we would be back in the Midwest in a heartbeat where they accept people for who they are not because they speak differently. The points that were made in this article are the same things that we have found to be true.
Great article.

November 10th, 2010 | #

NY2VA says

I was raised in rural NYS and then moved to VA after college – we love it here. However, summer is way too hot. Since my wife is a teacher and I do consulting, we enjoy VA all year and then spend 6 weeks in an RV in Amish country of western NY. Consider that approach to get the best of both worlds.

November 11th, 2010 | #

cdimauro says

My question is why do people in the south throw trash on the highways? Is this a socio-economic thing? Do lawyers or doctors throw trash out of their car windows?

November 11th, 2010 | #

atleducator says

I am from the south, born and raised in the Atlanta area. All comments are true; religion is not a private issue. I teach at a college and they allow the bibles to be handed out! I am looking to retire in another part of the US as I am growing tired of the narrow mindedness of its educational system, politics and continued racism. The south has not progressed as it should. I personally think it has a long way to go. I have lived in other areas for a short while, even Europe and find the South a good ole boy system.This article is on the mark.

November 12th, 2010 | #

Coastal Lady says

I can speak only from our experience. Our daughter lives in Charlotte, they are young and building a family there and love it. We are from PA, retired to the beautiful state of Delaware on the southern coastal beach area. LOVE IT!!Delaware has sooo many things to see and do. Low Low taxes, no sales tax and retirement income not taxed for the first $12,000! It’s mild climate in the winters, except for an occasional snow fall, warm springs, summers and long Fall’s make Southern Delaware I think the perfect place to retire to. Many Many people are coming here to retire from the NE and even up from the South. It’s very deverse and religions of all kinds. Beautiful developments being built from Milford to Bethany Beach that are affordable. Outlet shopping in Rehoboth Beach, boardwalks, and fantastic dining,(ITS CALLED THE CULINARY COAST),beautiful town of Lewes has a harbor and ocean beach, numerous festivals all year long, make this area perfect for retires. Come visit and you will fall in love with Coastal Southern Delaware. :cool:

November 13th, 2010 | #

Marge says

The Villages retirement community in Florida might seem like a perfect place to retire for a “Yankee”. But only if you are white, middle/upper class, straight, and very politically and socially conservative. I am not sure about the religion factor, but pretty sure that once again, a conservative type is de rigeur!
Too bad, as there are so many wonderful features there to enjoy.

November 18th, 2010 | #

Mary W says

Does anyone have experience with Hot Springs Village in AR? We have looked at homes there and are considering it as a retirement option, with the Gulf Coast of FL as another option. Coming from metropolitan Minnesota, will we be ostracized as Yankees? We are not religious and don’t want to be uncomfortable because of it. Thanks.

November 21st, 2010 | #

sandy says

hello im an armywife … i am orginally from pittsburgh pa butwe lived everywhere my husband have been stationed in witchita falls texas and that took along time to fit in …it was slow paced by northern standards the people didnt really start talking to me until i was there at least an year but after that it was wonderful experience .then we moved to watertown upstate ny …i found it to be rude and just unbareable but after a yr of that i found it to be refreahing and got the ny sence of humor and tude. then we moved to killeen tx and there were alot of mexicans and they were friendly and fun and the hospitality was awesome …now we are stationed in ft leonard wood missouri and it is back woods really rual but the people here are kind and trusting instint friends … we are going to retire in florida ft myers where it s very coultural

December 6th, 2010 | #

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