Study rates Maryland one of the worst places to retire

While high taxes make the state less desirable, retirees need to consider other factors when deciding where to settle

September 26, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland is the fifth-worst state to retire, at least according to a recent ranking that accounted for climate, crime, life expectancy, taxes and the cost of living.

The only states worse than here are, in order: Nevada, Michigan, Alaska and South Carolina, according to MoneyRates.com, a financial site.

Best places to spend your golden years? New Hampshire is No. 1, followed by Hawaii, South and North Dakota, Iowa, Virginia, Utah, Connecticut, Vermont and Idaho.

But the retirement equation is often more complex than a ranking based on raw data. A happy retirement isn't just about low taxes or year-round sunshine. Being near family and friends and having close ties to a community or place of worship are also key to a retiree's well-being. And access to good health care, public transportation and amenities such as theaters and museums — often brought to you by taxes — enrich a retirement, too.

"For low taxes, you can go to the Dakotas. Or tropical climate, go to Hawaii," says Richard Barrington, the study's author. But he added: "We look at the survey as a jumping-off point."

In fact, contrary to the stereotype of new retirees donning pastel shirts and white shoes to head to the Sunbelt, people often don't uproot themselves after leaving the work force, according to experts who track retirement patterns.

AARP regularly polls workers about retirement destinations, and the findings are usually the same: 90 percent like where they live and plan to stay put, says Elinor Ginzler, AARP's senior vice president for livable communities. "People do move, but it's less than 10 percent," she says.

The decision-making process can be a complex one.

Take someone who knows about the golden years — John Erickson, who founded Erickson Retirement Communities in Maryland. He moved to Florida years ago, citing the state's status as a "boating Mecca." He once told Maryland legislators that he might be persuaded to move back if they capped the amount of capital gains taxes the wealthy must pay. They didn't.

Now Erickson, whose former company filed for bankruptcy last year and was sold, says he will retire where his children and their offspring put down roots — and that could be Maryland.

"Most people choose their retirement based on their life values," says the 67-year-old. "When it revolves around family, you choose to retire where the kids and grandkids are."

So what about those statistical factors that put Maryland at the bottom of states for retirement?

Maryland has the 14th-highest crime rate in the nation. And life expectancy for a newborn in Maryland is 76.3 years, or the 35th lowest. ("If you're a retiree, that's a pretty important issue," Barrington says.) Maryland's best showing — coming in 19th — was climate.

The cost of living in the Free State is 25 percent higher than the national average. Also, state and local taxes here are the fourth-steepest in the country.

"It's a very nice place, but it's pricey," particularly Howard, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, says J. Michael Martin, president of Financial Advantage in Columbia. A handful of his clients have moved to Delaware and Florida for lower taxes.

But some retirement experts warn against putting too much emphasis on taxes. Strong communities and the services available as you age can be even more important.

"People in the beginning of retirement are concerned about taxes," says Dr. Bill Thomas with UMBC's Erickson School of Aging Studies, established with money from Erickson's foundation.

"I can put you on a desert island with no taxes at all, and you will not be happy," Thomas says. "Would you leave your family to save 10 percent on taxes?"

Indeed, Florida has dirt cheap real estate nowadays and is considered a destination for the tax-averse, with no income or estate tax. But there are trade-offs, says Boca Raton financial planner Mari Adam.

Homeowners' insurance is steep, thanks to hurricanes. And if you plan to work part time in retirement — which many retirees need or want to do — you're likely out of luck. Florida's unemployment rate is 11.7 percent, one of the highest in the country. And high unemployment can lead to mortgage defaults, which doesn't bode well for property values.

So if you expect to pull up stakes at retirement, start exploring your options at least five years before retiring, experts say.

Don't overlook an area's transportation system, says Lisa D'Ambrosio, a research scientist with Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab. Would your new home be close enough to walk to a medical facility, shopping or other amenities, or is there a transit system that can get you where you need to go?

Transportation will be important if you reach an age where you can no longer drive. Without it, you could end up being isolated in old age, which isn't fun or healthy.

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