Many baby boomers contemplating retirement are looking for something besides a gated community in the Florida sunshine. After all, this is the generation that defied convention, and those attitudes extend to choosing a place to live once they complete their careers.
While Florida and Arizona continue to rank at the top of the list of retirement destinations, some non-traditional retirement locales, such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, are becoming favorite spots as well, according to Pulte Homes' annual baby boomer survey.
A MetLife Mature Market study found that 25 percent of retiring boomers say they plan to stay in a different region of their current state.
A number of rural areas are drawing retirees' attention, offering a break from the hustle and bustle of the urban areas where their jobs are located. In Virginia, a rural peninsula called the Northern Neck, surrounded by Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, has drawn an influx of retirees and boomers who have purchased second homes, with an eye toward retirement.
Retired nursing professors Ruth Harris (left), Ada Jacox and Carol Spengler, who founded Athena Vineyards in rural Virginia.
"This area is very rural with a slower pace and a high quality of life, yet is two hours from four major cities," said, Jason Patton, owner/broker at United Country Bay River Realty, in the tiny village of Callao, Virginia.
In the last five years, baby boomers from Washington, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk and other East Coast cities have been buying up property some for weekend homes but an increasing number for full-time residences.
While there is no way to know how many of the homes built in the last five years are full time residences and how many are vacation properties, anecdotal evidence suggests the number of fulltime residents is rising.
"I know that I see a lot more cars on the highway now than I did a couple of years ago," said Kenny Eades, Administrator of Northumberland County, one of four counties that make up the Northern Neck. "I used to drive to work without passing another car. Now, there are a lot more."
Still, "a lot" is a far cry from the chronic traffic congestion for which Virginia's Washington, D.C. suburbs are notorious. Locals say the closest thing to a traffic jam in the Northern Neck is a slow-moving tractor on the highway.
Lancaster County businessman Shawn Donahue has also seen a large increase in the retiree population. In the last two years Donahue has opened several upscale stores and restaurants, and he says retirees make up a huge percentage of his customers.
"Retirees probably make up 75 percent of our market," Donahue told ConsumerAffairs.com. "We wouldn't be in business without them."
Patty Long, Executive Director of the Northern Neck Tourism and Economic Development Council, fields an increasing number of inquiries from people interested in moving to the area. Most, she says, are looking for the same thing.
"I hear repeatedly that they want a small-town ambiance, safety from crime, and a simpler, hassle-free life," Long said. "The fact that property here is less expensive than in many other areas on the East Coast is an added benefit."
And those who move to rural areas are not exactly looking to sit on the front porch all day. Most are seeking some form of community involvement, whether it's a second career or volunteer work.
In the Victorian fishing village of Reedville, Virginia, the Reedville Fishermen's Museum attracts dozens of highly skilled and experienced professionals, who lend their talents to the museum's wide-ranging projects.
In 2006, when museum volunteers began constructing a replica of the Capt. John Smith Barge, the museum's executive director, Chuck Backus, had a wealth of talent at his disposal that might have cost thousands of dollars in consulting fees if he had to pay for it.
"During the construction I could look out my office window and watch a retired fishing boat captain working alongside a fourth-generation waterman, alongside a retired Navy test pilot, alongside a curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, alongside a retired steel mill executive," Backus said.
"It's amazing that we have such a diverse pool of retirees. These are folks who found success at the national and international level. Now they bring these unparalleled skill sets with them in service to our community."
Of course, many of the "retirees" are not retired at all, but have embarked on new careers most far removed from their previous working lives. In 2002 three nursing professors colleagues for years retired to the Northern Neck and opened a vineyard. With no previous experience, the three women enlisted the help of an experienced winemaker and began growing grapes.
"We wanted to do something where we could use some of the skills we had honed all our lives, and do something that would make life interesting," said Carol Spengler, one of the three partners in Athena Vineyards.
The influx of retirees has brought a new demand for services and amenities. Two modern hospitals serve the area and private physician practices continue to grow. Several Richmond-based doctors keep weekly appointments at offices in Kilmarnock, the Northern Neck's largest town. A new cancer center recently opened in Westmoreland County.
There are very few franchise restaurants, and many residents say that's one of the area's charms it doesn't look like "fast food America." And while there are no Starbucks, the region boasts three independently owned coffee shops that have become focal points in their respective communities.
To help boomers get better acquainted with the area, the tourism council said it is sponsoring a "pre-retirement tour" May 16-17, inviting prospective retirees to the area to sample the Chesapeake Bay culture and small town atmosphere. Attendees will be given packets of information about the area and directed to a number of festivals, farmers markets and other weekend activities that provide a flavor of the region.
While there are retirement homes and assisted living communities in the Northern Neck, the region doesn't have any more than you'd find in a typical rural area. Most retirees choose to live in their own homes, many on the water. It's one of the area's strong attractions and Long thinks it will continue to lure the next generation of retirees.
"Baby boomers have always done things differently, and that's probably going to extended to retirement," she said. "They seem to want the small town life they remember, and we certainly have plenty of that."