July 1, 2013 — Note: Earlier this spring we asked our members for their ideas for future article subjects. We received some terrific suggestions (see “Downsizing, Renting, Affordability Dominate Your Suggestions“). This article is the second we’ve written on those suggestions; the first was “12 Steps to Downsizing Success“.
Many people’s retirement dream features an escape from winter, made possible by timely moves south and north to escape brutal climate extremes. For those who can swing it, snowbirding makes for a great lifestyle, although it does complicate the task of finding the best place to retire. That’s because snowbirds not only have to decide where to go to escape the winter chill, but they have to pair that with the best choice to spend the summer. There is a further complication as well: which location lets them experience the charms of autumn or spring to best advantage. This article will explore some of the key considerations for deciding your ideal winter and summer locations, as well as recommend some of our top snow bird pairings. We also encourage our members to use the Comments section to share their ideas on what makes for the best snow bird choices for living in 2 places.
People who live in the midwest, northeastern U.S., or eastern Canada generally have the strongest desire for the snowbirding retirement lifestyle, since that option provides an escape from their region’s brutal winters. In our experience the lower the winter temperatures, the more the desire to get away. Of course many folks living in the far west or northwest often like to get away from the non-ending dark, dreary, and wet days that can come with their winters.
Some considerations to think about
How warm do you like your winters? This is a key consideration that often depends on what you want to do when you are in that warm place. If you plan on going to the beach or deep sea fishing in the continental U.S. in January, anything but southern Florida or San Diego will be too chilly. However if you just want to be outside and are willing to put on a sweater or light jacket on the occasional cold days, South Carolina, Georgia, northern/central Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California will be just fine. In northern Florida and Phoenix it can dip into the 30’s occasionally, but most days are quite pleasant.
What about the summer season?
Retirement is such an opportunity that it might be time to think out of the box – here is a chance to move to a different summer location from where you live now in the summer. You might want more, or perhaps less of a contrast from the winter lifestyle than you have now. If you are moving to a new state to get a better tax situation, for example, that might free up your thinking about where to live. With diminished ties to the New York suburbs, for example, why not move to Cape Cod or a lake house in New England or the upper midwest for the summer season? Complicating your decision is that some locations are great for the summer, but you wouldn’t want to be there for the spring or fall.
What is it you want to do?
Choosing a summer and a winter location is a lot about what you want to do in each place during that season. You also might want to introduce some contrast in your 2 lifestyles. Snowbirding might be a good opportunity to spend some time in a city, foreign country, or traveling from place to place in an RV. You might want more of a rural lifestyle for part of the year, or pair the beach with the mountains. It is possible to structure your snowbird pairing to take advantage of contrasting opportunities.
Tax considerations – and renting vs. owning
You tax situation can be a big factor in your choice of snowbird pairings. Many people choose a low tax state like Delaware, Tennessee, South Carolina, or Florida to escape heavy property and income taxes in the Northeast. But you do have to be careful to meet the letter of the law, or risk being assessed fines or back taxes.
If you rent in Florida and own in New York State, you might have trouble persuading the Empire State you don’t owe income taxes there, no matter how many months you reside in FL. Some states might have a better Homestead provisions to keep your property taxes under control. We never recommend moving for tax reasons alone – it is a factor but hardly the only one.
Some communities might have a more attractive rental market than others, which could influence your choices.
Active adult community or general community?
Snowbird living gives you the option to experience different lifestyles. We can see the appeal of living in an active community for one season, and a town or city in the other season. If you really want to live in an active adult community, you will be best off trying an area that has a lot of them, like the Carolinas, Florida, Arizona, and Palm Springs, CA.
Does it matter to you if there is a big or a little distance between your 2 homes? For example we have several sets of friends who have 2 homes that are less than 10 miles apart (the summer home is at the beach or lake, the winter home in town). Whereas there are other people who make seasonal changes between Seattle and Miami, or New York and Hawaii. The trip between South Carolina and Ohio is not so bad, but Toronto to Key West, or Seattle to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, those are epic journeys. Fortunately if you can fly or hire someone to drive your car (and/or pets) between locations, the distances are not so important. As you age, the advisability of long car journeys diminishes.
How long will you be a snowbird in each place?
This has several implications, including climate and tax residency. For example if you only want to get away for the month of January or February, you probably don’t want a winter location that runs the risk of several cold snaps. Likewise a lake in Michigan isn’t for everyone once fall begins. Which state will you live in long enough to establish and maintain residency? When you age to the point that only one residence is possible, where will you want to be?
Some places like Southern California are just too expensive for most people to consider for seasonal retirement. Of course some people do reverse the seasons to try to get better pricing in a desirable area off season, or by renting out their place in the high season. Others go the creative route by living in an RV or working in exchange for free rent. Still others look for bargain areas, like Central Florida, Alabama, or South America.
Family and friends are important. If you already have friends and/or family who live in a place suitable for snowbird living, that can make up for other limitations, like perhaps a slightly cooler winter than you wanted.
Some of our ideal snowbird pairings
We chose these pairings because they offer a lot of contrast. But every person’s taste is different, we would love to hear your favorite, even if it just a dream.
Pittsburgh (PA) and Asheville (NC)
Pittsburgh makes all the best places to retire lists for its affordability, cultural attractions, and friendly people; its paired here with the most popular retirement city at Topretirements.
Madison (CT) and Vero Beach (FL)
This pairing offers one of CT’s prettiest seacoast towns (with railroad access to New Haven and NYC) along with a low key beach town on Florida’s Atlantic Coast that is loaded with some very interesting active adult communities.
Claremont (CA) and Lahinch (Ireland)
Claremont, the city of trees and PhD.’s, has seven colleges that spice up life there, whereas in the coastal town of Lahinch you can tune your golf game at one of the world’s top courses, followed by a meal and a Guinness in a real Irish pub.
The good news is that your retirement is a blank canvas. Sure, you probably have limitations like budget, allergies, family locations, and ties to an existing area. But it is always worth remembering – you don’t have a job any more, almost anything is possible. All you need is persistence and creativity and you can probably find the snowbirding lifestyle that works for you.
Comments? Please share your ideas and experiences about the best snowbird pairings in the Comments section below.