How North Carolina Climbed over Florida as Favorite Retirement State

Category: Best Retirement Towns and States

Florida and Arizona have long been the favorite 2 states for retirement migration. A new study from Del Webb, however, finds that the Carolinas, North and South, have usurped FL and AZ’s traditional positions as the favorite retirement destination states. This new preference is so significant that Florida is no longer experiencing a net gain in retirees. This article will concentrate on how and why North Carolina overcame Florida to become the number 1 retirement destination. In addition to trying to explain how this important shift has come about, we will also review some of the top places to retire in this diverse state. A future article will explore South Carolina.
Hendersonville
North Carolina’s Secret Sauce
A warm winter climate has traditionally been the most important reason for choosing a retirement state. That preference is a key reason why AZ and FL have always been at the top of the retirement state pyramid. Since winters aren’t all that warm in the Carolinas, North Carolina’s overtaking Florida in retirement popularity represents a profound change. The trend is so pervasive that it has spawned a new term, “half-back”, which describe retirees who retired to Florida from the northeast only to later move “half way back” home to the Carolinas. So what has changed among retirees to bring this phenomenon about, and just what is in North Carolina’s secret retirement sauce?


In a recent Del Webb survey among baby boomers on retirement preferences the top reasons for choosing where to live in retirement were cost of living, health care, climate, and opportunities for culture and recreation. Family and friends were further down the list. Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found the same general reasons for retirement moves, but in a different order: family, financial, better location, leisure/climate, and health. Looking at these and related reasons, is there a logical explanation why boomers now prefer North Carolina over Florida for retirement?

Taxes
Both NC and FL are fairly low tax states. Florida has one important edge – it has no state income tax (although North Carolina does not tax social security income, and military retirement pay is exempt with some conditions). Neither state has inheritance or estate taxes. In both states, full-time residents can take advantage of homestead laws which protect them from unreasonable property tax increases (there are certain restrictions in North Carolina). Both states have sales taxes (6% in FL vs. 6.75% in NC). Both states have fairly low property taxes, at least compared to the northeast. The Tax Foundation ranks North Carolina as the 20th highest state for tax burden, while Florida is 47th (higher ranking is more tax friendly).

Climate
Florida certainly has the edge for people who prefer warmer winters. Even in northern Florida the winters are mild – vegetable gardens grow in January and it rarely snows or goes below freezing. In southern Florida shorts and short sleeves are usually comfortable on January and February days, although there can be occasional cool spells. North Carolina has a much more diverse climate than Florida’s. The coast is a bit cooler in summer and a bit warmer in winter than elsewhere in the state. It rarely goes below 40 along the coast, but can go into the teens in the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains in the western part of the state, where there are ski resorts. People who want 4 seasons will find them in North Carolina, and folks who want to go swimming or play golf in January will usually be able to do so in Florida. Both states have climates that permit a wide range of activities year round. Florida has had a number of hurricanes in the last 10 years, and those storms have led to very high insurance rates.

Economy and Cost of Living
Both states have been on “watch” lists for fiscal problems due to the recession. Both have high unemployment and have borrowed money to pay unemployment claims. Florida, at least, has begun to implement severe austerity measures which are unpopular, but which have helped to reassure the state’s credit raters. North Carolina probably has a more diverse economy than Florida’s top-heavy concentration on tourism and construction. Cost of living in both states is below average. In North Carolina the Zillow Home Value Index statewide was $137,300 in early 2010, almost identical to Florida’s at $136,500 (data from Zillow.com – the U.S. Value Index was $182,400).

Geography
Like Florida, North Carolina has an ample, but not quite as long coastline, where people can enjoy the beach and access to bays and the ocean. NC has pastoral places to live like the sandhills around Pinehurst in the central part of the state, as does Florida in the panhandle and center of the state. North Carolina, however, has towns in its western mountains where people who crave mountains can find their ideal retirement. At a towering 345′ above sea level Britton Hill is the tallest peak in Florida, whereas Mt. Mitchell in NC stands at 6,684′. Overall: NC wins for geographic diversity.

Where to Live
Both states have interesting towns to live in. Both have college towns – like Chapel Hill in NC and Gainesville in FL. Each state has large cities to live in like Charlotte, Tallahassee and Miami. Each also has interesting towns like Mount Airy or Key West. There are plenty of cultural activities to be had in either state, if one chooses a town carefully. Because of cheap land and plenty of willing retirees, both states have hundreds of new and existing active adult communities to choose from. North Carolina has an edge with Asheville, the most popular retirement destination in the country. Florida, however, has dozens of towns that are dominated by and desirable for retirees. Our conclusion: North Carolina offers more diversity in terms of the available living environments and scenery but Florida has many more communities that are dominated by retirees.

Health care
Both states have a wonderful collection of medical facilities and professionals, particularly in the larger cities. Doctors and hospitals tend to go where the patients are, and since both states have a growing population and (at least until recently) booming economies, they are both well-supplied medically.

So Why is North Carolina coming out on top for retirement preference?
After analyzing all of these factors we had hoped that we would find a compelling reason why North Carolina is beating the pants off Florida in attracting retirees. Unfortunately, that is not the case. On most factors the states are about even – each one comes out ahead on a few points and behind on some others. Conclusion: there must be some intangibles at work here.

The Cool Factor
These are strictly our opinions, but here are some reasons why North Carolina’s Secret Sauce is giving Florida a licking in the retirement department:
- Florida just isn’t cool anymore. In our opinion most of us baby boomers are obsessed with fads – being cool by being in on the latest trend. Too many movies have parodied retirement life in Florida – from “Cocoon” to “In Her Shoes”. A lot of people don’t want to be associated with the blue haired, shuffleboard playing set that is displayed in popular culture about Florida.
- Florida is tacky and crowded. By no means is the whole state that way, but there are many, many towns where everything is new and every store is a big box or a chain. Some people are rejecting that barrenness, along with the intense traffic and development that comes with unchecked growth.
- On the positive side, North Carolina has a cool factor. Towns like Asheville, New Bern, and Chapel Hill have good reputations as interesting places to live. North Carolina represents something new and undiscovered, with the advantage of being not too far away or too different from the northeast many retirees are moving away from.

Most popular retirement towns in North Carolina
Here are the most popular retirement towns in North Carolina as determined by page visits to their reviews at Topretirements.com:
Asheville – In the western mountains – the #1 retirement spot in the country
Beaufort – An old seaport (and Blackbeard the Pirate’s retirement town) with considerable charm
Chapel Hill – A lively college town and home to the University of North Carolina
Hendersonville – Small town in the Blue Ridge National Heritage area
Mount Airy – The fictional home of Mayberry in the mountains
New Bern – Smaller and more charming, near the coast
Pinehurst – Charm and understated elegance in a legendary golf community
Southport – An active fishing village in southern North Carolina – where “Dawson’s Creek” was filmed
Winston-Salem – A larger city that is attracting retirees
More North Carolina retirement towns

For further reference:
North Carolina Retirement Guide
Florida Retirement Guide
7 States to Avoid
Sun Setting on the Sunshine State
Where are Baby Boomers Retiring
Tax Friendly States for Retirement
Dueling States: NC vs. SC
Dueling States: AZ vs. FL
Dueling Mid-Atlantic States: DE vs. NJ vs. MD vs. VA

What do you think?
Be sure to tell us what you think. Which state do you prefer – and is there one you would never, ever, consider? Use the comments section below.

Posted by John Brady on May 4th, 2010

23 Comments »

  1. Great reporting. Yes, the cool factor is meaningful. Studying the Carolina In-migration Industry using the 26-question Carolina Lifestyle Survey™ which has been administered to 95,000 families since 1987, we know a ton about the profile of retirees and families of all ages relocating here. #1 attraction is our “scenic beauty” followed by “climate” then, recreation and cultural activities. Our data, for example, using NCOA Audits shows there are a lot more people retiring to larger towns like Charlotte due to sheer size of market than will ever relocate to New Bern and Mt. Airy. Be a pleasure to share our findings with your TopRetirements research team. FYI, another term for the FL exit is called by demographers: “The FL J-Curve”. As you do SC, I think we can assist. Patrick Mason

    by Patrick Mason — May 4, 2010

  2. I have to agree that Asheville is a cool place! We just purchased a condo there – mainly because it was a do-able drive from Chattanooga. We like it as a getaway because there is a noticable LACK of national chain franchises and a wonderful eclectic collection of small and interesting businesses and restaurants. There is a lot of energy there. It is easy to get around town and people of all ages are out and about any given evening – even when it was 28 degrees and icy. Music and art are fresh and new. That said, by the time we actually retire I’d love to have a place in Wilmington too – beautiful city and a favorite choice for the coast! Now I hope that NC doesn’t fill up with just old people – its the young energy that keeps us going!!

    by H. Flaherty — May 4, 2010

  3. We retired 6 years ago to Florida. It is less attractive now than NC because for newcomers Property Taxes are high (top third of USA), and property insurance has become expensive. However it is still possible to find quiet traffic free areas on East Coast north of KSC but within reach of major towns.I must admit we take 2 trips a year to NC for the Mountains! But I would hate the snow-even Asheville had heavy snow this winter-we had none.

    by Graham Webster-Gardiner — May 4, 2010

  4. I am thinking of retiring. From what I read, N.C. seems more attractive and perhaps more rounded as a state. Florida is old and everywhere you go it looks, sounds and smells old, except for South Beach and some areas of Miami.

    I have a question to retirees who moved to SC, if one is single, is it easy to make friends and socialize?

    thanks

    by mona — May 5, 2010

  5. I am thinking of retiring. From what I read, N.C. seems more attractive and perhaps more rounded as a state. Florida is old and everywhere you go it looks, sounds and smells old, except for South Beach and some areas of Miami plus the hurricanes.

    I have a question to retirees who moved to SC, if one is single, is it easy to make friends and socialize?

    thanks

    by mona — May 5, 2010

  6. I will be looking for a winter vacation home soon and NC sounds perfect. I can only spend six months of the year out of Canada. Any comments on this? Does anyong know other Canadians who have done this.
    thanks

    by cathie — May 5, 2010

  7. Five years ago we purchased a cottage in a community in Flat Rock NC. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth! We have lived in NJ and FL and still spend half of our time in FL but I’ll take NC any day. I love it. The weather is beautiful in the mountains and the area is full of wonderful towns to visit and enjoy.

    by Pat Stilwell — May 8, 2010

  8. Several comments:
    1. The yearly threat of tornadoes and hurricanes in Florida, which leads to
    2. The hellish summers: temperature and humidity in the 90′s, which leads to
    3. The further south in Florida, the more retirees heading north in summer.
    4. I wonder: how many half-backs head to Florida in the winter; ditto for snowbirds heading to NC or SC in the summer?
    5. I wonder: the relative safety of purchasing gated-community or condo property in the three states. The greater the foreclosures and walk-aways, the higher the association fees – and builder bankruptcies.

    by oldnassau — May 8, 2010

  9. [...] 4 Reasons Why Not to Retire in These 7 States generated the most spirited comments – 27 in all. North Carolina’s Secret Sauce generated 8 thought-provoking [...]

    by » The Best of the Best Places to Retire Topretirements — May 18, 2010

  10. That said, by the time we actually retire I’d love to have a place in Wilmington too – beautiful city and a favorite choice for the coast! Now I hope that NC doesn’t fill up with just old people – its the young energy that keeps us going!!

    by polo ralph lauren — May 26, 2010

  11. We found the best kept secret in Tarboro NC. It’s the most beautiful town I’ve ever been to or seen. Climate is good year round and the people are nice and friendly and you really get to know your neighbors. There are 45 blocks of historic homes and you really get a lot of house for your dollar.

    by patricia moss — May 30, 2010

  12. I grew up in FL and my parents retired from there to North Carolina. My dad didn’t like the extreme heat and how crowded Florida was. I eventually followed them to NC where I now live, too. I’m in my 40′s now, but I would never retire back to FL. I concur that it’s very tacky and crowded down there. I most likely won’t live out my retirement years here in NC because as a Florida girl, I can’t handle these colder winters up here. I would like to retire to a warmer place, but Florida will not be on the list. I think NC is a beautiful place to retire if you don’t mind the colder winters. I love it here for now :)

    by JJ — June 9, 2010

  13. I am renovating a home in NC to use for retirement. My home is placed in what is called a trust with myself as the beneficiary. I did this to protect my property from being seized by the state for outstanding debts or hospital bills if I pass away. This may be a very important tip for those planning to retire in NC.

    by snowbird chick — July 15, 2010

  14. I was born and raised in Florida and spent my later teen years in NC, but moved back to Florida and now want to move back. But now that NC has gone to the yankees I dunno. They raise the property value and force the locals out. I just wish the yankees would stay in their own states and let us be. They just can’t get enough of forcing their ways upon us.

    by Gregg — July 20, 2010

  15. [...] your reference: The Best of the Best Places to Retire How North Carolina Climbed over Florida as #1 Retirement State Best States for [...]

    by » Dueling Retirement States: Arizona vs. Florida Topretirements — August 25, 2010

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    by » Dueling Retirement States: DE vs. VA vs. MD vs. NJ Topretirements — October 5, 2010

  17. [...] Best of the Best Places to Retire How North Carolina Climbed over Florida as #1 Retirement State Best States for Retirement State Retirement [...]

    by » Dueling Carolinas: North Carolina vs. South Carolina As the Best Retirement State Topretirements — November 15, 2010

  18. [...] How North Carolina Surpassed Florida As The Number One Retirement State Posted by John Brady for Topretirements.com  [...]

    by North Carolina Surpasses Florida for #1 Retirement Spot | My Asheville Property - Mukunda Pacifici — December 1, 2010

  19. Having lived in NY and on Long just about my entire life, I thought my wife and I would wind up retiring somewhere along the southeast coast of Florida. This has been my family tradition as well as the tradition of many New Yorkers. It’s almost a cliche. Instead, to my own surprise I wound up moving to Cary, NC. Cary is located in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill “Triangle.” Cary has probably earned it’s moniker (aka) “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.” However, since I’m a New Yorker, this seemed like a good thing. As the name would imply, there has largely been an influx of North Easterners into this area. That said, North Easterners and especially New Yorkers have certain requirements and expectations to which they have become accustomed. This includes many cultural and leisure activities as well as services including, great shopping, theater, sports, concerts, excellent dining, educational and work opportunities, great health care as well as the availability of many outdoor activities including golf, hiking, biking. There just seemed to be a lot of compelling reasons to select this area because it seems to have all of this. This area also is a very pretty part of the country with lots of big trees, lakes, greenways and parks. The area continues to grow and with this growth there seems to be more good things as far as restaurants and shopping on the way as well as bad things like increased traffic. Right now, though, its a major break from the ridiculous high costs (espeically real estate taxes) and congestion of Long Island and the NY Metro area. As far as climate is concerned, some people including my wife are not thrilled with the heat and humidity associated with South Florida, espeically in the summer.North Carolina weather is more moderate. You do get four distinct season with the nicer seasons like the spring and fall being longer. Be advised, however, that anywhere down south gets hot in the summer. NC is no exception. However, NY in the summer is no bargain either. There does seem to be more interesting and nicer terrain in N. Carolina than compared to Florida, which is largely flat and uninteresting. In NC, you still have your coastal beach areas which are very nice as well as the Blue Ridge mountains to the west. Consequently, I think it provides a bit more variety and diversity in that regard compared to Florida. Also, many parts of Florida, particularly areas along the S.E. coast are very congested with tons of traffic. Add to this things like hurricanes and the impact of the real estate meltdown and you start to have second thoughts about Florida as being the best choice of retirement locations. Personally, while I still enjoy visting Florida, I started thinking, maybe Florida is a better place to visit than to live. And, so the decision was made. So far, having only lived in NC since the end of August 2010, I’m thinking I probably made a good decision.

    by Artie — December 15, 2010

  20. I moved from Florida to Asheville NC – I think the main difference is the people and how friendly they are in Asheville. It can be a shock at first!

    by Rowena — January 31, 2011

  21. Sold our home on Cape Cod for a move to Calabash, NC this past summer (July).
    No regrets whatsoever. No traffic, lower taxes, better weather conditions, great neighbors and the local town reminds us of the small village we came from.

    Unlike Massachusetts, the people here respect you, your property and your thoughts. Should have done this years ago!

    by Joe — February 1, 2012

  22. Just returned from a fact finding mission to NC. Absolutely loved it! Have lived in NJ, Sacramento, Albuquerque, and now WI. By far, this was THE most friendliest place yet. And the coastal cities were beautiful: Wilmington, Oriental and New Bern were wonderful. I look forward to our next visit…for a month at least to see if the charm is still there. But, we had the absolute most wonderful time yet. So much to do and see. A truly amazing state!

    by Jo Anna — June 22, 2012

  23. Jo Anna,
    I am also interested in NC. I lived there in the past (and in NJ). I think a lot of NJ folks settle in NC. When in the Chapel Hill area, I loved it, but did not find the Wilmington area friendly. I was still working. Perhaps one of newer master communities would be great since there are often people from all over. It is a lovely area and great for people looking for the coastal living. I know this will not bother most people, but when you want to travel by auto, it seems to take forever. I used to need to travel regularly to other areas in the state and found the drive tedious. For those staying put and enjoying retirement in the Cape Fear area that would probably not be a consideration. I do think that people across the Cape Fear river (Leland) might find this a great area. I did have a couple of neighbors (not a retirement community) who had retired to the area. One moved to the area without knowing anyone (single woman) and did left after about 2 years. The other was a couple who already had some friends in the area and seemed very happy.

    chapel Hill area is wonderful, probably not where I will retire, but a definite maybe. It may be a bit costly for me. Being near the university is a big plus especially for those who enjoy college sports. Friendly people, good medical care, etc.

    I agree that it is a wonderful state. Lots of variety, beautiful mountains, lovely coast and generally friendly people. The triangle has a wonderful diversity and will be an another area I consider.

    I look forward to your report from your next visit.

    by Lane — June 23, 2012

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