Updated February 7, 2021 (originally published August 2010) — Note: We added a similar article in early 2017: See “Which State Is Better for Retirement: Arizona vs. Florida“.
When it comes to comparing retirement destinations, how do various states stack up against each other? There are some natural rivalries such as: the biggies (AZ vs. FL), north vs south (as in North Carolina vs. South Carolina), the Pacific Northwest (Oregon vs. Washington), the Mid-Atlantic (VA vs. DE vs. NJ), and so on. To help you decide which might be better places for you to retire, we present the first in our series of articles comparing retirement states. We welcome ideas for future comparisons (see all in the series at bottom).
Our approach in this article will be to evaluate various factors for each state, letting our readers draw their own conclusions from the facts. As always, reader input is extremely important. We encourage you to use the Comments section below to tell your stories and express your preferences.
Arizona vs. Florida for Retirement
Population (Data from Wikipedia and the Census Bureau).
Arizona is the smaller of the two states, but the population in both is growing fast, and older. Its 2020 population was 7,728,717 as compared to Florida’s 21,477,377. In 2020 18% of AZ’s population was 65 or older, while Florida had many more, with 20.9% of the population 65+. In our experience, most retirees who immigrate to Arizona tend to be from west of the Mississippi and east of California. Florida immigrants tend to be from the northeast and midwest. Of course there are many exceptions to that.
Economics and Home Prices.
In 2019 the Census Bureau estimated the median value of owner-owned Arizona home to be $255,900, slightly higher than the $245,100 figure in Florida. The 2020 median household income in Arizona was $62,055, a bit higher than Florida’s $59,277. Both markets had serious collapses in the 2007-8 recession, and both have rebounded strongly since then.
In the area of climate there are striking differences between the 2 states. Most of Arizona has slightly cooler winters than Florida, and in the northern parts of AZ there is not only snowfall but a ski resort. A desert state, AZ’s humidity and rainfall are far lower than Florida’s. Comparing 2 central cities in each state, the average January low in Phoenix is 48 vs. 50 in Orlando. The average July high in Phoenix is a blistering 104 vs. Orlando’s 92. March is the wettest month in Arizona’s Phoenix area (1″), while June is Florida’s wettest (7.3″).
Florida is one of the most tax-friendly states in the U.S. (the Tax Foundation ranked its State and Local Tax Burden the 27th highest in 2010). It has no income tax and a 6% sales tax. Counties and states can and do charge additional sales taxes) and no inheritance or estate taxes. Its Save Our Homes initiative prevents property tax assessments from going up higher than the rate of inflation, a major help in keeping property taxes down for seniors. Arizona is also considered a tax-friendly state (ranked 40th highest), although it does have both an income tax (highest marginal rate is 4.54% on joint income of $318,000). Its sales tax is 5.6% but it can go as high as 10.725% locally. Retirees are generally not very affected by the AZ income tax, as Social security income is not taxable in Arizona. In-state and military pensions have a $2500 exemption. Property tax protections are a big reason for Arizona’s tax-friendly ranking. See our Florida and Arizona Retirement Guides for more on taxes.
Physical Environment and Diversity
Both Florida and Arizona are good sized states with a fair amount of diversity within each state. Arizona would probably win the geographic and physical diversity prize between the 2 however. The Grand Canyon State has much higher elevations (Flagstaff is just under 7,000′) and a greater range of climates, ranging from temperate Flagstaff to very hot Tucson in the south. Arizona has plenty of mountains, forests, national parks, and deserts. Florida has several geographic features that Arizona does not have, and that is a gigantic coastline (over 2,200 miles of tidal coastline), over 11,000 miles of rivers and streams, plus many large lakes.
Places to Live
Florida has many more cities and towns (we have reviews of 135 FL towns on this site vs. 42 for Arizona ), so it has to win any “choice” contest. It has towns and cities along the gulf (Pensacola), along the north coast (St. Augustine), in the interior (Ocala), and in the southeast (Miami), and southwest (Fort Myers). Florida has any number of college towns, large and small. It also has many charming smaller towns such as Winter Park, Lake Mary, and Key West. Arizona, by contrast, is mostly concentrated around the Phoenix area, with smaller offshoots to the north (Sedona, Prescott, Flagstaff), and south (Tucson). Most of the towns around the Phoenix area are suburban and often predominated by new growth. Arizona has some nice places to live, but they are fewer in number.
Choice of Active Communities
At Topretirements we count 320 communities in our Arizona Directory of Active Communities, vs. 960 in our Florida Directory. Arizona has the original active adult community (Sun City), but Florida gets the edge for the diversity of communities available in that state, as well as having the largest (The Villages).
The relative popularity of states as retirement destinations is hotly contested, but unfortunately, not well supported by data. Del Webb conducted a recent survey that found that the Carolinas (both North and South) had gone ahead of Florida and Arizona as preferred retirement destinations. That survey, however, should probably be viewed as future indications rather than past performance, since more retirees currently live in AZ and FL. Meanwhile at Topretirements, we receive more visits to our Florida retirement guide than any other, followed by North Carolina, Tennessee, California, South Carolina, Arizona, and Texas. (all of our guides can be found at //www.topretirements.com/state/).
Up until recently Arizona was generally considered a Republican and a conservative state, but it is now purple. In the 2020 election the State narrowly voted for Joe Biden, only the second time it went Democratic since 1952 (it went for Bill Clinton in 1996). The governor is a Republican but both Senators are Democrats. Florida is narrowly Republican. Its cities tend to vote for Democrats, while rural portions are much more conservative. FL has Republicans as Governor and both Senators. In the 2012 Presidential election Obama won its electoral college votes, but since then it has voted for Republicans.
Aesthetics and Intangibles
Both states have their admirers and each has its detractors. Both have many new communities that lack charm and good transportation. Rather than take sides on the issue, we recommend that you visit cities and towns in both states and see if you can’t find the place of your dreams. Certainly both states have some of the most desirable communities in the world, waiting for you to discover them.
For your reference:
State Retirement Guides
Gulf Coast Retirement: Sun, Tax-friendly, and a Lower Coast of Living
Retirement 101 Mid-Atlantic States: MD, DE, VA, NJ
Florida Retirement 101
Dueling Carolinas: NC vs. SC
Dueling States: Arizona vs. Florida
Dueling States Mid-South: TN, GA, KY, AL
California Retirement 101
Retirement in the Southwest: AZ, NM, and Utah
The Mountain States: CO, ID, MT, NV, UT, WY
The Pacific Northwest: Oregon vs. Washington
What state do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section below.