The glamorous sun-and-surf image of California, in reality, applies to only a tiny strip of expensive coastline in this enormously diverse and beautiful state. Finding affordable options for retirement in the Golden State means opening your mind geographically, although even in the less-expensive areas you will face home prices higher than the national average of $214,900 for listed homes. For perspective, consider that the median price for homes listed in all of California is $409,000.
Before you pack up and call the movers, you should know, too, that California is not the most retiree-friendly state in terms of either its cost of living or tax laws. Although Social Security payouts aren’t taxed, California is one of only a handful of states that taxes pensions and other forms of retirement income. (See The Best States to Retire to For Tax Reasons.)
If you’ve already built these costs into your retirement budget and are determined to live the West Coast dream, though, here are some top locations you’ll want to consider.
Best of the North:
Closer to the Oregon border (100 miles to the north) than it is to San Francisco (270 miles south), Eureka is Humboldt County’s largest city (population: 27,000). Most famous for its redwood forests, Humboldt County is also California’s unofficial epicenter of marijuana cultivation, which, along with a poor employment picture, may help explain Eureka’s somewhat higher than normal crime rate. The beaches, redwoods and a mild climate that allow for year-round hiking and fishing more than offset that factor, however. Add in a low median home price of $225,000 and a housing stock comprising beautiful old Victorians and you have a near-idyllic small-town experience.
With the quirky annual Kinetic Sculpture Race being the best known, Eureka has a calendar of lively festivals and cultural events 12 months a year. (Eureka, by the way, in Latin means, “I have found it,” which may be exactly what you say when you check out this lovely old coastal city.)
Redding—If You Like it Hot
Redding’s inland location means that the climate is not as moderate as that of the coast, so if you’re a warm-weather fan, you’ll enjoy the toasty summers here in Shasta County (average high temp in July is 98 degrees). The rest of the year, the mild temperatures are heaven for active retirees, with a wealth of hiking, horseback riding and road- and mountain-biking options on Redding’s extensive trail network.
This popular retirement city (population: 92,000) has two large healthcare systems—Mercy Medical Center and Shasta Regional Medical Center—and five colleges or universities. Two hours north of the state capital of Sacramento, Redding has a relatively affordable median home price of $250,000. The City of Redding Recreation offers a creative program of 50+ activities, including martial arts, dance and bird watching.
Best of the Central Coast:
San Luis Obispo (SLO)
When is a median home price of $629,000 considered a good deal? When that home is located in “little Santa Barbara,” aka San Luis Obispo (SLO) (population: 46,000). SLO, as it’s also known, is a steal compared to its neighbor 95 miles to the southwest, where Santa Barbara’s median home price is $1.05 million. Yet SLO has many of the same attractions as Santa Barbara: a mild Mediterranean coastal climate, a walkable city center, easy access to the beach, loads of hiking paths as well as chic shopping and fine dining.
Plus, SLO is home to the 20,000-student California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), which gives the city a fun, college-town vibe. Multiple events, including a film festival, Mozart festival, weekly farmers’ market, and a performing arts center keep the city jumping year-round. SLO is linked to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego by Amtrak rail service, which is a picturesque alternative to the freeways. Public transit is good and the city encourages bike riding.
Best of the South:
As the largest city (population: 316,000) in the Inland Empire’s Riverside County, this former hub of Southern California’s citrus industry is the best-connected of the cities on our list. Riverside has access to two major airports—Ontario and Los Angeles International (60 miles to the northwest)—and is connected to the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area through Metrolink commuter rail service, which in turn links to long-distance Amtrak rail. Within Riverside’s own boundaries, public transit is good.
As an inland city, its climate is hotter in the summer than that of coastal cities: the average high is 95 degrees in July. There are more than a dozen museums, including the California Citrus State Historic Park Museum. Riverside’s best-known university is the 21,000-student University of California, Riverside, although Riverside is home to a number of other colleges and universities as well. Despite all its attractions, including a variety of top-notch hospital systems, Riverside’s median home price, at $325,000, comes in below California’s average.
Palm Springs—Celebrity History
Do you dream of sunning by the pool in December and hosting a BBQ on your deck in January? If so, Palm Springs is your town. Located in Riverside County two hours away from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles, Palm Springs in its heyday was a hot spot for celebrities like Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Frank Sinatra, who owned a home there. Today, the desert resort (population: 46,000) has been reborn as a popular destination for snowbirds, retirees, hipsters, nudists, and a thriving gay community.
With more than 115 golf courses, it’s also a golf lovers’ paradise, at least in the cooler winter months: July’s average high is 108 degrees. There is, however always the possibility of a quick escape via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to hike the 54 miles of trails in the cool heights of Mount San Jacinto. With a median home price of $399,000, the housing stock leans toward classic examples of Mid-Century Modern, many of them lovingly restored. The city has a vibrant calendar of cultural events (especially in the cooler months), including its well-known film festivals and the nearby Golf Cart Parade in October. Palm Springs has its own international airport, as well as occasional Amtrak service and decent local bus service.
The Bottom Line
California’s unfavorable tax picture, high cost of living and above-average (and growing) housing prices put it out of the reach of many retirees, but you can’t beat the quality of life; and if you are a savvy shopper, you can find affordable options outside of the major cities. (You may also be interested in Retirement Planning: How Much Will I Need?)