Retire Here, Not There: Ohio

Published: Aug 3, 2015 11:27 a.m. ET

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Ohio's state capitol in Columbus.
 

Ohio is better known for its cold winters and depressed industrial areas than its retirement hot spots. But the state’s low cost of living, friendly Midwestern vibe, respected universities and many lakeside recreation areas deserve a look.

To the north, the Buckeye State is bordered by Lake Erie, one of the Midwest’s top tourist attractions and a popular spot with boating and fishing enthusiasts. The Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve and adjacent wetlands along the Sandusky Bay attract many visitors, and nearly 300 species of birds. Canoers and kayakers enjoy the Ohio River which runs along the south side of the state, and the Miami River, near Cincinnati. The state has many other smaller lakes which attract both retirees and weekend vacationers with second homes such as Apple Valley Lake and Indian Lake. For those who prefer dry land, miles of bike trails and paved streets also meander through the Ohio’s plains and rolling hills.

The state is also known for its arts and culture. The cities of Cleveland and Columbus are cultural hubs, thanks to such world class facilities as Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Center, the second largest performing arts center in the country, and the Columbus Museum of Art, which is undergoing a $37,6 million renovation and will open a new wing in October 2015. More arts activities, as well as continuing education opportunities, flourish in Ohio’s many college towns, such as Oberlin, Oxford and Athens.

Perhaps most appealing to retirees is the relative low expense of living in Ohio. The cost of living is 11.8% below the national average and the median home price is just $112,400. State tax rates have nine brackets, up to 5.33%, ranking Ohio as the 23rd lowest in the nation. And if retirees want to leave something for heirs, estate taxes are high— 6% for net values up to $500,000 and go up to 7% for higher amounts.

Since the recession clobbered once booming manufacturing areas such as Canton and Youngstown, Ohio retirees, especially snowbirds, often flock to more exclusive -- and expensive -- enclaves like the islands of Lake Erie. But here are four spots that offer plenty of natural beauty, culture and community spirit at a much lower cost.

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Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.
Oberlin

Founded in 1833, Oberlin College was the nation’s first co-educational college, and two years later became the first to admit African Americans. Today Oberlin is still known for its progressive policies, especially concerning the environment, and that activist attitude has extended to the town. About half of the school’s electricity comes from environmentally favorable sources, and all new buildings are required to be LEED certified, a certification given to environmentally friendly buildings. As a member of Bill Clinton’s Climate Positive Development Program, the city of Oberlin has set a goal of having net-negative greenhouse gas emissions. Some steps in that direction include sustainable garbage trucks and so many bike paths and bike-friendly rules that it was named a Bronze Level Bicycle Community by the League of American Bicyclists. “We’re not just a town that talks about sustainability, we live it,” says Janet K. Haar, executive director of the Oberlin Business Partnership.

Culture is another big draw, driven by such college institutions as The Allen Memorial Art Museum, which houses roughly 14,000 works of art, including pieces by Rothko and Monet, and is consistently ranked as one of the top five university museums in America. The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the oldest conservatory in the U.S., was the 2009 recipient of the National Medal of the Arts. It’s also home to the largest privately held jazz collection in the country. In addition to continuing education opportunities at the college, retirees also often take classes at FAVA, a community-supported arts education center. The five-week Oberlin Summer Festival, outdoor concerts at Tappan Square and other family-friendly activities guarantee the city doesn’t roll up its streets when students go home in the summer either. In addition, Oberlin is just 45 minutes from Cleveland and all the arts activities it has to offer.

Like many college towns, Oberlin’s downtown offers a variety of eclectic shopping, restaurants and bars. A WalMart and other big box retailers are within a 20-minute drive, and the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is about a half-hour away. Mercy Allen Hospital has 25 beds and cancer and rehabilitation centers. Of course, this town’s liberal vibe may not appeal to everyone.

By the numbers

  • Population: 8,288
  • Median home cost: $109,500
  • Cost of living: 8.2% higher than average
  • Unemployment: 6.7%

Source: Sperling’s Best Places

Wikipedia
Oxford, Ohio.
Oxford

Named No. 1 Best College Town in America in 2015 by Forbes, Oxford is home to Miami University — dubbed a “Public Ivy” due to its rigorous academic curriculum. “It’s a great place to retire because of the access to both the arts and educational opportunities,” says Carol Dockum, president of the Oxford Chamber of Commerce. The Institute for Learning in Retirement provides classes in everything from the arts to history to business to anyone age 50 or above. The Miami University Performing Arts Series offers year-round theater. The Miami University Art Museum houses works from painters, sculptors and printmakers from around the globe. The free Oxford Summer Music Festival Concert Series features jazz, blues, modern, rock ‘n roll and bluegrass performers.

Founded in the early 1800s, Oxford also prides itself on its history. Mile Square, in the heart of town, houses the university, with its Georgian-style, red-brick buildings including two National Historic Landmarks. A nearby residential area is full of quirky historic homes like the Dewitt Cabin, built by pioneers, and the Lorenzo Langstroth Cottage, the home of the “Father of American Beekeeping.” With more than 16,000 students, the university also has nurtured a vibrant shopping and dining scene.

While winters can be long and cold, Oxford has plenty to offer outdoors-loving retirees, too, including 11 parks and a heavily forested area just outside the city limits. More than 1,000 acres of hiking trails dominate the area and there are two championship golf courses. During winter months, retirees can stay active at Miami University facilities including an indoor ice skating rink, indoor pools and a horseback riding stable, all of which are open to the public. Retirees have plenty of volunteer opportunities to choose from with area nonprofits and there’s also a “very active” senior center, Dockum says. In addition to traditional services, the center has a music group called the “Songbirds” and organizes regular trips to far-flung places like Atlantic City, she adds. McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital has a main campus in Oxford, as well as outpatient and urgent care facilities throughout the area. Both within an hour’s drive, Dayton and Cincinnati offer easy access to city amenities and international airports.

By the numbers

  • Population: 21,338
  • Median home cost: $155,400
  • Cost of living: 4.8% lower than average
  • Unemployment: 4.7%

Source: Sperling’s Best Places

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Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus

Known for its educated and culturally savvy population, Ohio’s capital city of Columbus serves up a dynamic arts scene with a symphony, ballet, opera, the Columbus Museum of Art, and plenty of independent arts activities. The Wexner Center for the Performing Arts at Ohio State University offers more performances, including jazz concerts and plays, and retirees can take free continuing education classes at the school. Columbus’s downtown has been enjoying a vibrant resurgence including a dynamic restaurant scene, which has been attracting retiree empty nesters. A number of quirky historic artsy neighborhoods also are in various stages of gentrification. The free Cbus circulator makes it easy to get around many downtown neighborhoods.

Dawn Wandling, a retired nurse, and her husband Jim, a retired Boy Scouts of America executive, moved from Rochester, NY, to a condo in the Pickrington, just south of the city, in 2013 to be near two daughters and four grandchildren. The couple, both age 60, enjoy the low cost of living and friendliness of the people, Dawn Wandling says. “My daughter says, ‘Mom, you’ve got more friends than we do, and you’ve only lived here a year,’” she adds. Because Jim has been diagnosed with brain cancer, having the world-class Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center nearby is also an essential community asset, Wandling says. Home prices are on the rise, but supply is also increasing especially for retirees wanting to downsize to a condo or smaller home, says Joan E. Perez, an agent with Coldwell Banker King Thompson in Columbus.

For luxury-minded retirees, Columbus does have several large malls and ample high-end shopping, Perez says. Winters can be cold, especially the last few, though not as frigid as upstate New York, Wandling says. Columbus’s central Midwest location makes it convenient to get to Chicago, as well as Philadelphia and points east, or drive south to warmer winter climates, as many Ohio retirees do. Downsides include typical problems of American cities such as heavy traffic during rush hours, Perez says. And like many cities, crime rates also are above national averages, according to Sperling’s Best Places.

By the numbers

  • Population: 790,168
  • Median home cost: $95,900
  • Cost of living: 17.9% lower than average
  • Unemployment: 4.3%

Source: Sperling’s Best Places

Wikipedia
Mt. Vernon, OH., near Apple Valley.
Apple Valley

Planned community Apple Valley is technically part of Howard, Ohio, but with a population that’s almost doubled (up 45.68%) since 2000, the idyllic recreationally oriented community around Apple Valley Lake now has its own U.S. Census designation. The reasons why so many are moving there are as clear as the clean water, which attracts boaters, fishers and water and jet skiiers, many of whom are retirees, says Sam Miller, owner/broker of Apple Valley Real Estate. “It’s a place to kick back and enjoy life, and once someone buys here, most people don’t leave,” he adds.

Both age 76, Bob Meldrum, a retired software services director for NCR Corp., and his wife Anne, a retired nurse, moved to Apple Valley from Centerville, Ohio, in 1994. The couple first considered retiring by the ocean, but “every time we’d pick a spot, a hurricane would come through,” Bob Meldrum says. Lake activities and natural beauty are only the start of the perks of living here, he adds. For just a $208 annual property owners association fee, residents can enjoy all of the community’s amenities, including three beaches on the lake, a large indoor pool, an outdoor pool and another under construction, tennis courts and pickleball courts. Apple Valley also has plenty of social activities from clubs—examples include bridge, fishing and garden—and the association facilitates weekly fishing tournaments and holiday group activities from a Valentine’s dinner/dance to Easter egg rolls.

The immediate vicinity offers more outdoor fun, from an 18-hole PGA-rated golf course to hiking and horseback riding at Mohican State Park. Grocery, clothing boutiques, big box retailers and Knox Community Hospital are just six miles away in Mount Vernon. Three miles away in Gambier, small liberal arts Kenyon College offers concerts and other arts activities, Meldrum says. “Big-time shopping” and other city amenities are within an hour’s drive to Columbus, as well as an international airport.

Crime rates are well below the national average. Down sides include a lifestyle too easygoing for some and the lake does freeze over in the coldest winter months. About 40% of residents are snowbirds, Miller says.

By the numbers

  • Population: 5,210
  • Median home cost: $156,900
  • Cost of living: 3.2% lower than average
  • Unemployment: 4.8%

Source: Sperling’s Best Places

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