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Where Should I Retire?: Where’s the best place for you to retire? Pick what matters most to you — and you may be surprised

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MarketWatch has launched a new version of its “Where Should I Retire?” tool that will now pick the counties that best meet your personal criteria for where to live.

Previously the tool helped people pick the best metro areas for them; this will allow you to drill down even more.

The upgrade also means it covers more ground — all 3,000-plus counties in the U.S., rather than only the government-defined 392 metropolitan statistical areas (which can be as large as the 20 million people living in the New York City metro area) and 543 micropolitan statistical areas (and a population of as little as about 20,000 people). Cities — generally are either the county seat or the largest in the county — are included only to help you mentally locate the area.

We designed this tool because we believe that often the places recommended as the “best” for people to retire aren’t necessarily the best place for you. Our tool lets you pick what’s important to you, from population size and housing costs to beach or mountain community — and much more. 

But we’ve also made some changes in response to reader feedback. Instead of picking a predefined region, for example, you can now select up to three states at a time. The “I can live anywhere” option has been replaced with a surprise “pick three random states for me.”

You’ll now be able to screen for annual snowfall, a nice accompaniment to the summer humidity option. (Read about the humidity criteria here.) These are averages; if there are significant elevation changes within a county, you’ll need to do extra digging on your own.

We’ve also created a separate category for beaches covering all those on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and, yes, the Great Lakes. For people who prefer their water recreation on other lakes, there’s the marinas option.

Many have asked that we include an area’s political leanings. We’ve done that using the 2020 presidential vote; 55% or more for one party puts the county solidly in that camp; anything between 45% and 55% for one party is politically mixed.

To add more up-to-date home prices, we have switched to 2020 median listing price data collected by Realtor.com (which, like MarketWatch, is owned by News Corp.), rather than five-year averages from the Census Bureau. The data covers single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums. The flip side is that there is no data available in a handful of rural counties.

Ah yes, data. This tool relies on data that covers all of the United States. That generally means government data. One of the exceptions is religious data; the Census Bureau doesn’t ask about that, so we asked the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies for permission to use its private census. 

Once again the options don’t include crime data. Crime can vary considerably within a large city or across a county, so the data wouldn’t offer much insight. And that assumes there is national data. Unfortunately, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report is voluntary and inconsistent (no New York metro area in the 2019 report, for example). 

MarketWatch will continue to revisit the topic, particularly after the FBI launches its new crime reporting system.

In building this new version of the tool, we recognize that some amenities are used regularly by a wider group than just those living in a county — think pro sports teams and airports. To keep it simple, we credit all counties in the wider MSA with having that amenity.

And what attribute do people consider most important? Average July highs in the 80s.

Not surprisingly, taxes are important, but an overall low tax burden, rather than no taxes on Social Security income or no state income tax at all, have been more popular with users. (That measure comes courtesy of the nonprofit Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C. and its calculation of state and local tax burdens, a change from our earlier version.) An airport, an above-average share of college graduates and the presence of national parks aren’t far behind.

MarketWatch’s new retirement calculator: How much do you need to fund your dream retirement?

After all this, we know that data can only bring you so far in your search for the best place to retire. A place that looks good on paper may not feel right once you see it in person. Other factors can’t be quantified.

So while we hope this tool helps you get you closer to finding your perfect place to retire, you still need to do your own research. When you visit, act as if you are living there, rather than on vacation. See a place at its worst (weather). You want to avoid unpleasant surprises after you move; that’s too expensive a mistake to make with your hard-earned retirement.

Now read: The latest MarketWatch’s “where should I retire” column

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