31 October 2009

Texas Luring Seniors With Sun And Low Living Costs

from the Baltimore Sun

After trying out Atlanta, Miami and Pasadena, Calif., Lilian Junco decided this was the place to retire. Being near her son was the first attraction, but soon she was drawn in by the same combination of features that has lured tens of thousands of others from out of state: Gulf Coast living, plus super-low costs.

With some of the country's cheapest prices for housing, gas and food, no state income tax and one of the most resilient economies in the nation, Galveston and other parts of the Lone Star state are emerging as the new Florida.

Next week, when Florida demographers announce new population figures, they are expected to reveal a decline of 57,000 over the 12 months ended in April -- the first annual drop since the 1940s. Much of the loss has come in parts of southern Florida that long attracted retirees.

Meantime, other Sun Belt states such as Nevada and Arizona have been hit hard by the recession, and expensive California has long seen more residents leave than move in from other states.

But Texas, which has weathered the current recession better than most parts of the country, is almost booming--in part because an earlier oil industry crash had left the state's banks too shaken to go on the home mortgage binge that crippled so many other states when the market collapsed. Texas's population, the nation's second largest at about 25 million, is expected to be boosted this year by net inflows of at least 150,000 people from other states, says Karl Eschbach, the state demographer. Seniors are a growing part of that trend, pushed by aggressive campaigns from state officials and developers.

"It's an easy sell," claims Texas Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples, who's trying to recruit out-of-state seniors by establishing dozens of high-quality "certified" retirement communities. "All we need to do is get retirees to have a good look at Texas."

They'll see big drawbacks along with the advantages. Poverty, highway gridlock, crime and humidity can be stifling in some parts. And places along the Gulf Coast are notoriously susceptible to ferocious weather, such as Hurricane Ike that slammed the Galveston area last year. Ike flooded downtown and sent waves crashing over a 17-foot-tall seawall built after the devastating Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which is still considered the worst natural disaster in American history.

None of that fazed Junco. Having grown up in Cuba, she didn't fear tropical storms. Florida isn't any better, she says, nor is California with its earthquakes. She remembers the panic when her Pasadena condo rattled a few years ago. "The whole bed was shaking," she says.

Moving to Galveston two years ago, Junco paid $130,000 for a one-bedroom condo with a view of the Gulf. A cap on property taxes for seniors keeps her payments low, leaving a little more money for the 70-year-old widow to travel and frequent the restaurants and shops in this touristy island.

For most of her adult life, Junco lived in Long Island and worked as a computer technician in Manhattan. She says retiring to Hawaii was too expensive. Her second choice was here. "Life is more quiet, it's more simple," she says, sipping a chocolate martini with friends at a café on a balmy Thursday evening.

For health care, she goes to the University of Texas Medical Branch here, or drives an hour west to Houston, which has world-class medical facilities. The downside is that it's not easy for seniors to get from place to place if they don't drive: big Texas cities have poor public transportation, says demographer Eschbach. "It's really hard to get around," he says, "and we have relatively little social services."

Undeterred, retirees head for places like the Rio Grande Valley, in the southernmost tip of the state abutting Mexico. Seniors from the Midwest and other northern states have long flocked here for the winter. Locals call them winter Texans.

Doug and Cheryl Lundy used to keep two homes -- their primary one in Avis, Pa., and the other in a mobile home park outside Brownsville, Texas. They were typical snowbirds, arriving in January. Come April, they'd head up to the Jersey Shore in April. But starting this year the couple decided to stay put.

Cheryl Lundy loves the hot weather, and the living costs. She says butter costs her $1.77 a pound now, not $2.29 in her old market in Pennsylvania. "It's not just the butter," she says. "It's everything in the store."

Government reports confirm food prices are cheaper in America's breadbasket states. And for seniors on social security and other retirement income, their checks don't change from place to place.

Annual cost of living adjustments are the same nationwide, so their income may actually go farther where prices are lower. Find out why people are choosing low cost housing in:
San Antonio Apartments

Then there's the Mexico price. Every couple of months, retirees Thomas and Shirley Jones, transplants from Indiana, cross the bridge nearby McClellan into Nuevo Progresso, where he buys medicine for his emphysema at half price. Last year Shirley Jones got a full plate of upper dentures for $325, a fraction of what it costs in the states.

The Joneses used to be Floridians, but "Florida got so high on everything," she says. "We couldn't afford it."

Stanley Smith, the University of Florida demographer who produces official population reports for the state, says the latest recession will make Florida's cost of living more competitive. Home prices have fallen by as much as 60% in parts of the state. What's not yet clear is how Texas will fare with Baby Boomers, whose retirement path remains undefined, experts say.

The oldest of that generation is 63 this year. The recession and loss of wealth may hold back their migration, and many Boomers may look to settle in places where they can find part-time work.

That could be a big plus for Texas. It's expected to outstrip the nation in job growth in the next few years. Already four of the nation's top 10 fastest aging metro areas over the last decade have been in Texas, says the Brookings Institution.

"I think Texas has been attracting many seniors in large numbers and has many amenities along with low living costs which lure them," says William Frey, a Brookings demographer.

California is a primary target for Lone Star boosters. Last year more than 82,000 people from California moved to Texas, while some 32,000 from Texas went to the Golden State, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service.

George and Joan Baker will be adding to that trend this year. Even before selling their Rancho Santa Fe townhome, now on the market for $829,000, the California couple closed on a ranch-style house in the Sun City retirement community north of Austin.

Joan Baker, who is in her 60s, wouldn't say how much they paid for the new place, which is slightly larger than their property in San Diego County. But a Sun City spokesperson says the average home in the community of rolling hills is currently running about $218,000.

"I'm not saying it's easy to leave," says Joan Baker, a retired schoolteacher. "The whole San Diego area is lovely. To go north and south, east or west, and be able to see the water, it's pretty unique.

"But other things are beginning to outweigh it," she says, complaining about overcrowding and the state's budget mess. She says her husband is semi-retired and will continue his consulting work in Texas.

"It's just real convenient living," she says. "The terrain's a little higher so you get a breeze. There are lots of oak trees. You've got three golf courses that are drop-dead gorgeous…And in Texas, you don't have income tax."

No comments:

Post a Comment