HOUSTON - Mary Lu Abbott has a dream job - she crisscrosses the country in search of the best places to retire.
"It used to be that most people who wanted to retire somewhere else thought of Florida and Arizona as their only options, but that's all changed," she said. "Today Americans are looking just about everywhere."
Abbott writes for Where to Retire, a Houston-based national magazine that tries to answer a question on more and more people's minds as they approach retirement and consider uprooting themselves.
The 220,000-circulation magazine, produced six times a year by Vacation Publications Inc. of Houston, has carved out a lucrative but still obscure niche in the publishing business.
While other magazines compete for the coveted 18-to-49 audience, Where to Retire has zeroed in on "50-and-beyond" adults with the dollars and desire to buy a retirement home.
Publisher R. Alan Fox said a half-million Americans move to other states each year to retire while another half-million move within their states when they quit working. But, he said, those numbers are only half the story.
"We're about to see an explosion in this market as boomers reach their 50s and 60s," he said. "They've moved about during their careers, so they'll probably be more inclined than their parents to relocate when they retire."
Each issue profiles at least eight communities from different regions of the country that Abbott and the magazine's other writers have found appealing to prospective retirees.
"We try to give readers an overview of life in these towns," said assistant managing editor Elizabeth Armstrong. "We interview people who have retired there, asking what they've liked and what has surprised them."
Recent issues have included stories on current trends in retirement living, such as college towns that attract older adults, newly built towns with old-fashioned-looking neighborhoods and communities where retirees can start a business.
"A common thread is that our readers want to settle in small towns on the outskirts of metropolitan areas," Armstrong said.
A Where to Retire survey found that 92 percent of its subscribers would prefer to live in rural towns or suburbs, with only 8 percent having their eyes set on large cities.
When Abbott scouts communities for possible profiles, she drops into restaurants, walks around neighborhoods, browses through stores and visits real estate offices.
In all her exploring, she's looking for certain attributes.
"The first is `eye appeal' - does the town make me want to spend some time there?" she said.
By that, she usually means natural beauty such as a nearby lake or mountain. But it could also be an attractive, vibrant downtown.
Abbott then checks on other important qualities such as hospitals, affordable housing, entertainment and low taxes.
"The cost of living is a big factor," she said. "People particularly want to know about taxes - and not just sales and income taxes but also property and inheritance taxes."
Every issue of Where to Retire includes a chart showing readers how their cost of living would rise or fall if they moved to any of 66 retirement towns.
Fox said the average reader of Where to Retire is 59, married and a college graduate, has a household income of about $117,000 and owns a home valued at about $304,000.
That upscale readership appeals to advertisers.
The first issue of Where to Retire in 1992 contained about 30 pages of advertising. Recent issues have about 100 pages of ads, many from developers of active-adult communities. A page costs up to $9,230.
Fox expects his magazine to grow "fatter and fatter" as boomers approach retirement.