Nina and Vince DePietro have it all figured out.
Their dream retirement home is bought, paid for and absolutely adored. But it took lots of trial and error to get there.
The Ringwood, N.J., couple honeymooned on the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire in 1985. As avid scuba divers, they reveled in the island's coastal reefs and natural beauty.
"We loved the island right away, but over the years vacationed all over the Caribbean,'' says Nina DePietro, a 58-year-old retired paralegal. "After a while, though, we returned to Bonaire to the exclusion of anywhere else.''
They knew shoveling snow wasn't part of their retirement plan, so the DePietros took the plunge and bought a vacation home on the island. When Vince retires, they plan to spend winters in Bonaire and summers in Maine.
You might view retirement as one long vacation, but the reality involves many more practicalities. Before you quit your job and move across the country--or to another one--consider following the DePietros' example and use your vacations for field research.
Explore and Take Notes
It's never too soon to make a list of potential retirement locations and start visiting, but don't take the tourist route. You might want to skip hotels, housekeeping and room service. Your trip is supposed to be an audition for the community, so rent a condo or a house instead. Look online for the local newspaper or the area's visitor's bureau for help in your search for rentals. Another option: consider a home swap in the area. Find a place to stay via online listings such as those on HomeExchange.com, ahaGO.com and HomeXchangeVacation.com, and trade a stay in your home.
Next, think about your day-to-day life at home and what you'd like to have available in the community where you'll retire. Make a list of amenities you must have, those you'd like to have, and those that are less important.
When you arrive for your investigation/vacation, pay attention to:
- The news: Read the local paper and learn about any hot political and social issues and get a feel for crime.
- The culture: An isolated vacation spot or quiet country town may be peaceful, but if you yearn for intellectual stimulation, make sure the area offers theater groups, museums, and even a movie theater. "People have dreams and desires, but sometimes once they get to that place out in the hinterlands, they discover they're bored to death and they want to move back to the city,'' says Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.
- The food costs: Compare grocery prices to your hometown stores, and do the same with restaurants. Pricier food could throw your retirement budget out of whack.
- The local coffee shop or watering hole: Talk to the locals. Ask what they like and don't like about their town.
- The conveniences: For all of Bonaire's beauty, Nina DePietro notes that the island at times lacks many of the basics she takes for granted at home. "You might have to visit three or four different groceries to get what you want,'' she says. "It can be difficult to find a fresh head of lettuce." If you can't live without department store shopping or a Starbucks fix every morning, make sure your community offers acceptable replacements.
- The job market: Part-time work is an integral part of many retirees' financial plans. If it's part of your plan, make sure you'll be able to find employment.
- The daily grind: You may tolerate beach traffic when you're on vacation, but congestion surrounding the attractions of a tourist locale may not be so charming once you're a resident. Note the availability of buses, trains and airports, too.
Find Someone in the Know
Make an appointment with a real estate agent, cruise open houses, or stop by city hall. Ask a lot of questions.
Agents or local officials can tell you about:
- Housing: Ask about house/condo purchase prices and get a feel for the local market.
- Property taxes: Your retirement income may not rise with inflation, but property taxes will. Understand tax trends so you can figure that into your budget.
- The rental market: If you plan to spend half the year in the new community and rent out your property when you're not there, get a feel for what kind of income you could expect. The DePietros' island home earns enough to cover their expenses, and they expect it will provide supplemental retirement income down the road.
- Extra costs: Rural areas may have septic tanks and well water instead of town water. Molony suggests asking for a primer on how these systems work and whether there are groundwater problems.
A Trial Run
No amount of research during a quick-hit vacation will teach you about a community in the same way as a long-term visit. Consider an extended stay, which also will show you how often your kids are willing to visit.
Nina DePietro compares going on a short vacation to a date when you're just getting to know somebody. On vacation, the resort you're staying in is like a dolled-up person on the other side of the table who shares his most entertaining stories and showers you with attention and compliments.
"Eventually, reality is going to make an appearance and your date is going to get spinach in her teeth, or he's going to reveal that he's an unrepentant supporter of some politician who makes your head explode,'' she says.
Wise words, for sure.