For the more than 36 million Americans who will turn 65 in the coming decade, the best cities and towns to retire in now have a much higher bar to clear: They can't just be great places -- they have to be affordable. Each week, SmartMoney.com tours a different state to find less-expensive alternatives to the most well-known golden year destinations.
Spend a day or two in the Palmetto State, and you may quickly understand the state slogan -- "smiling faces and beautiful places." But residents say there's more to South Carolina than Southern charm and beautiful landscape, including its world renowned Lowcountry region that extends 150 miles along the state's coast. The state also boasts low property taxes and zero state estate tax. And while a growing number of retirees have been flocking to the state for its mild winters and slower pace, the state remains a bit of an "undiscovered gem," says Laura Scharr-Bykowsky, a principal at Ascend Financial Planning in Columbia, S. Caro.
As with any state, retirement pros say there are drawbacks. Summers are often hot and humid, and filled with fire ants and palmetto bugs -- the state's version of an extra-large cockroach. And while many of the state's smaller cities and towns are filled with historical sites and a good mix of cultural offerings, residents say it isn't the place to strictly to come strictly for shopping or nightlife.
On top of that, many of the state's more popular destinations have gotten pricey. Take Hilton Head Island, a Lowcountry resort town about 20 miles north of Savannah, Ga., famously frequented by former President Bill Clinton and his family for vacations. All the extra attention, however, has lifted prices: The cost of living is more than 60% higher than the national average and the median home price is more than $500,000, according to Sperling's Best Places.
Still, for those looking for a warm and friendly retirement retreat Lowcountry-style, there are cheaper alternatives. Here are four.
Bluffton, SC: For the retiree priced out of Hilton Head
If you've been dreaming of Hilton Head but can't afford it, retirement pros say Bluffton is an excellent alternative. Dubbed the "Gateway to Hilton Head," Bluffton offers easy access to Hilton Head's beaches and two dozen world-class golf courses. Plus, residents say Bluffton itself has a plenty to offer, including all types of residential property ranging from retirement community developments to homes along the picturesque Colleton River, says Charlie Clark, a spokesman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. "Bluffton took on the Hilton Head development model so there are lots of self-contained communities that have their own clubs and golf courses at every price level," she adds. There's also the quaint historic district called "Old Town Bluffton," which is lined with antebellum architecture, art galleries, antique shops and restaurants.
However, Bluffton is one of the fastest growing areas in the state and that means it often feels overrun with planned developments. But residents say the large retiree population in the area supports plenty of good health care facilities. An added plus for those who'd like to travel in retirement: the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is only about 20 miles away.
Beaufort, SC: For the nature lover
"People often move here because it's so beautiful," says Christy Brewer, the interim executive director of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. Water is never far away in Beaufort -- Beaufort County is made up of 64 large islands, including Port Royal Island, Parris Island and Fripp Island, and hundreds of smaller ones -- and those waterways, plus the massive oak trees dripping with moss, make quite the postcard image. All that water also means plenty of boating, fishing and hiking. Residents can kayak through the Lowcountry's salt-water ecosystem and you're bound to see dozens of different birds including ospreys and heron, or take a hike through Hunting Island State Park, which has four miles of beach.
The historic downtown on the waterfront is also full of art galleries and antiques shops, and "The Point," a dozen-block area of the city, is lined with historic homes and offers its own thriving arts scene. Even more art and culture, as well as shopping and good restaurants, is close by in neighboring Charleston and Savannah, and the Savannah/Hilton Head airport is only a half hour away.
Charleston, SC: For the foodie
This city has certainly been discovered by retirees. In fact, it frequently pops up on "best places to retire" lists thanks to the warm weather, access to some of the best beaches east of the Mississippi, award-winning restaurants and its offering of arts, culture and entertainment. All this, plus cobblestone streets lined with Spanish moss-draped trees and stunning antebellum mansions. And did we mention the food? Critic Anthony Bourdain recently wrote that the Charleston restaurant scene is exciting and deserving of more attention. Bev Seinsheimer, a broker at Carriage Properties in Charleston, adds that "some retirees don't even cook because the restaurants are so good here."
Another plus: The 17-day Spoleto Festival in May and June offers performances by famous artists from around the country in opera, theater, dance, chamber, symphonic, choral and jazz music. Charleston hosts so many cultural events it landed in the top ten of "America's Favorite Cities" for theater and performing arts, according to a 2010 Travel & Leisure survey. In fact, so much is going on in Charleston it can feel overrun with tourists at times. Roughly 4 million people visit the city each year.
Aiken, SC: For small-town charm
Aiken is perhaps best known as an equine town, home to a number of annual steeplechase horse races and 43 polo fields. (For novices, steeplechase is a form of distance racing in which the horses must traverse through ditches and obstacles.) "Something equine-wise is happening every single season," says David Jamison, president and CEO of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce. But Aiken also offers a good climate at a good value and plenty of golf, says Jamison, There are a number of planned communities in the area, many of which have private and public courses. Then there's the city's famed Palmetto, the third oldest golf course in America.
Aiken has that small-town charm -- friendly residents who know each other's names -- that many retirees crave. "It's like a high-end suburb of a major metro area without the major metro area," Jamison says. The downside: It's hard on travelers. You can fly out of August (30 miles away) or Columbia (50 miles away) if you don't mind an indirect flight but for a direct flight you'll need to make the two-and-a-half hour trek to Atlanta or Charlotte.