Let's get something straight from the get-go. There is no perfect state for retirement.
"What would be a perfect place for my wife and me could spell total disaster for you," writes John Howells, author of the retirement bible Where to Retire: America's Best & Most Affordable Places.
But Florida deserves to rank high on any list.
The perennial battle among states trying to look good to folks — in this case mostly baby boomers — pondering where to retire spiked anew in recent days. Another ranking hit the media that named — wait for it — Tennessee as the best place to retire.
Florida, in that ranking, did not even make the top 10 and registered a mediocre No. 19, a notch below Georgia and just above Illinois. Really?
Author Howells anticipates this precise state-versus-state quandary in his book. "Yes, you can save a few hundred tax dollars a year living in Tennessee rather than Florida, but where would you be happier?"
Small wonder the latest ranking by the financial advice website BankRate.com is titled "Ten unexpectedly best states for retirement" since it also includes North and South Dakota (maybe the best states to hibernate), Mississippi and West Virginia. It's amusing that Bankrate.com is happily headquartered right here in Florida.
Give an A to Bankrate for the sheer novelty of its cheaper-is-better analysis of best retirement states. We are told Tennessee is tops for retirees because of its low cost of living, the nation's third-lowest state and local tax burden, its superior access to medical care and "warmer than average" temperature of 58 degrees.
There's just one "main drawback," Bankrate acknowledged: "Tennessee's crime rate is among the worst in the U.S."
Hey, I'm a big fan of Tennessee's variety, from the Great Smoky Mountains in the east, Nashville's lock on country music in the middle and Memphis ribs and Graceland on the Mississippi.
But No. 1 for retirees? A landlocked state with an average temperature that requires central heating to be turned on and a crime rate higher than No. 19 Florida?
That's not "unexpected." That's not credible.
Retirement rankings are a major cultural tradition and form of entertainment in America. Publications from Money and Kiplinger to Forbes and U.S. News & World Report routinely publish versions of "best states" or "best cities" for retirees. Websites like topretirements.com dig deeper but come up with conclusions we in Florida already know.
"With warmer winters and generally lower taxes, it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that baby boomers think the Sunbelt has the best places to retire," topretirements.com said earlier this year.
So here's what I did. I reviewed all the major "best retirement" rankings in recent years and came up with my own list of the 10 best retirement states. I looked at cost of living and taxes, crime, weather, health care services, cultural offerings, transportation ease and educational opportunities.
See the box for our top 10 picks.
I also considered a "Wow" factor, an element topretirement.com founder John Brady embraces but something Bankrate and some other ranking folks seem to ignore. A "Wow" factor is a compelling reason to choose one state over another. It elicits a "Wow" from retirees because of (1) natural beauty or (2) access to something cool that's not readily available elsewhere.
Folks who retire and are even considering relocation after a lifetime of working or raising a family are partial to Wow factors.
Florida has many Wow factors. They include the world's best theme parks (important when grandchildren visit), a vast cruise ship industry (fun and affordable and novel to many Americans), fantastic natural beauty (snorkel the Keys, tour the Everglades, "tube" on spring-fed rivers), a fishing paradise (which also means good seafood) and, of course, strolling some of the best beaches in the country (talk about cheap and healthy retirement activity).
"Where to Retire" author Howells devotes his second chapter, pages 23 to 55, to retirement options just in Florida. In chapter six, Tennessee is mentioned in six pages.
Sure, Florida is not quite Shangri-la.
It gets hurricanes (though other states seem to be getting more of those lately). Parts of the state suffer from sinkholes. It has a property insurance problem that makes it tough to get affordable homeowners coverage. Its banana republic political leaders can drive us nuts. Its roads are getting crowded. It took a greater hit in the recession than most states.
And yes, some folks call it FloriDuh.
But it still beats the alternatives.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]