June 8, 2015 — Your Topretirements Editor is on a retirement scouting tour that will take him through 5 states. The trip has been an wonderful source of fun (we visited a number of friends who live in great places) and a learning experience. The focus of this article is what we learned about how to go about taking a retirement scouting tour.
For the record, we started last week in Batavia (IL). From there we went up the west coast of Lake Michigan through Wisconsin, drove across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, crossed the Macinack Bridge, toured a number of great retirement towns along the east side of Lake Michigan, made a couple of stops in Indiana, and will end up in Columbus, Ohio. The concentration was on the extremely popular retirement towns in the Michigan part of the trip. We’ll report on the towns we visited in next week’s issue, and a future installment will cover what retirement looks like for several of the retired folks we visited on the trip.
How to go about planning and executing a retirement tour
Above all think of this as fun!
1. Select a region you want to explore. You can get ideas from friends, sites like Topretirements, or the bucket list you have in your head. Once you select a region that you can cover in the amount of time you have, pin down some must-see towns and communities, and then allow some time for ones you come across along the way.
2. Be opportunistic about where and when you go. So you are going to a wedding, family reunion, or business trip – great! Here is your chance to knock off a couple of potential retirement towns. If traveling by air, rent a car. Take a detour on the way to or coming back.
3. Buy some road maps. This was a mistake we made; relying on GPS. While these newfangled tools are great for getting to your destination (most of the time!), they are very difficult for getting the big picture of where you are going. AAA is a great place to get them (free with membership). Some gas stations still sell road maps, but you might have to buy online. Rand McNally has great print atlases and maps, or try these sources: Roadmaps.com, Mapsally.com (printable), or Amazon.
4. Get off the main road. If you drive through a town on the main road you might think you are seeing it. But you are most likely not, because most roads go along the outskirts and are dominated by motels, strip malls, and chains – not the real town. Follow the signs for the “Downtown Center” or look at your map to find the town center, parks, port, or other major attractions. On our recent trip we were amazed at how often our perception of a town changed once we got off the main road and did some exploring.
5. Be mentally prepared to visit unexpected towns. Along your trip you will undoubtedly run across a place you never heard of. Be flexible and veer off for a quick exploration – you might just be surprised at your discovery. At the minimum, you will learn something.
6. What does the town center look like? . Everyone has a different perspective on what makes a great retirement town. But for us, we wouldn’t think of retiring to a town that didn’t have a compact, vibrant center where you can go and contract most of your daily business. While visiting a new town look at the storefronts – are they all occupied or just made to look like there is a tenant? If you see vibrant shops and restaurants – good! Bail bondsmen and dingy bars – not so good.
7. Do the people you see on the street look like those you would like to hang with? You can tell a lot about a town from who is walking around. Are there families, or does the population all look older? Some folks want diversity of all kinds around them, others look to be around people like themselves.
8. Is there a neighborhood where you can live and walk (or bike) to a lot of stuff? The trouble with a lot of nice looking suburbs or active developments is that you have to get into get in your car to do everything. One trip for groceries, another to the doctor’s, then go back out to your activity. On our exploration we went through Fishers, Indiana. It is a beautiful and affluent place with many upscale neighborhoods and a new shopping complex downtown. But to get anywhere there you have to go by car (and there was a lot of traffic!)- OK for families, but not so nice for baby boomers looking for a relaxed lifestyle.
9. Population of snow birds vs. year round residents. Particularly in the north and in warmer climes too, a town can be completely different from winter to summer. Some folks like the change with attendant less traffic and ability to get into a good restaurant, while others fret that the place feels like a ghost town. We heard one story about a Grand Haven (MI) postal worker who deliveries drop to only 1 out of 3 homes in winter.
10. What kind of amenities does the town provide? Midwestern and Western towns often do a great job of providing low cost services. For example they fund great libraries, community centers, etc. Grand Haven has an inexpensive boat launch with 11 lanes and a city-owned ski slope ($11 lift ticket). Shrewsbury (MA) has a city-owned Internet service. Wherever you decide to live, consider the value added amenities that a town might provide for your tax dollar.
Comments? Please share your ideas about planning a retirement road trip in the Comments section below. What worked for you, and what didn’t? Did you have any great (or not so great) surprises along the way?
For further reading:
Best Way to Visit an Active Adult Community