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Where Should I Retire?: We want to retire to a small mountain town on $18,000 a year — where should we go?

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Dear MarketWatch,

Help us pick a great location!

I’m 54 and my husband is 62. We hate heat, humidity, crowds and beaches. We love small mountain towns, privacy, colder weather. We are very conservative Christians.  

He loves to deer hunt. I love to trail walk. We would like to have a vegetable garden.

Our income will be about $1,500 a month including rent. We don’t spend money but look to nature as our entertainment. We get up early and go to bed early, so we enjoy beautiful sunrises and sunsets. We love cats and dogs, reading and being alone together.  

Where can we go? Thank you!  

Lisa

Lisa,

A small mountain town? That’s quite a challenge. Home prices in so many mountain towns have climbed with COVID-19 and the freedom to work remotely. Small towns with lesser-known mountains (some might call them really big hills) may have to substitute. 

I used the MarketWatch “where should I retire” tool to help me find some options, choosing median rents for a two-bedroom place below $600 (the lower the better) and counties with fewer than 50,000 people.

If you insist on going out west, start with southeastern Idaho, particularly Bear Lake County. It’s part of the same metropolitan area as Logan, Utah, suggested here.

You know your budget best. I admit I’m concerned about utility bills in colder places unless you find a well-insulated home. Your income puts you just above the minimum to be eligible for health-insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, but you may want to ensure the state you pick has expanded Medicaid eligibility so you qualify for health insurance that way too. 

You also may want to be close enough to potential jobs, should you decide to seek some extra income.

Here are three suggestions to get you started. I aimed for counties with median two-bedroom rents around $600. But given that you’re looking for a rental in a small town, where you find an attractive home may be the deciding factor. I’m including listings of homes for sale just for flavor.

And if internet access is important to you, remember to ask about speed and cost.

You’ll find trails, he’ll find deer — hopefully they won’t find your vegetable garden.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

iStockphoto

Think in terms of two towns: Escanaba, on Lake Michigan, and Iron Mountain, an hour inland on the border with Wisconsin.

Escanaba, which bills itself as one of the safest natural harbors in the upper Great Lakes, is the larger town, with about 12,000 people and without the triple-digit snowfall totals elsewhere in the region. Rents across Delta County are much cheaper than around Iron Mountain, where median incomes are higher and median rents are well above $600. 

Another reason Iron Mountain is more expensive: it’s near Pine Mountain Resort, which brings in golfers and skiers. But if you prefer that area, cross into Wisconsin’s Florence County, though, and median rents drop below $500.

Average winter highs will be below freezing; average summer highs are in the mid-70s. Iron Mountain is the snowier of the two.

As a trail walker, you might enjoy the 25.5-mile crushed-stone rail trail from Escanaba to Hermansville.

The cost of living in both areas runs nearly 14% below the national level.

Here’s what’s for sale now across Delta County, using listings on Realtor.com (which, like MarketWatch, is owned by News Corp.) 

St. Marys, Pennsylvania
The view east from Hyner View State Park, reachable along rural roads from St. Marys

iStockphoto

You could scout rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia for options within your budget, but I’ve focused on St. Marys in the northern part of the state. It’s a city of 12,000, about 45 miles north of Interstate 80 and 2 ½ hours south of Buffalo, N.Y., in an area the tourism people call the Pennsylvania Wilds region. They describe it as home to millions of acres of unspoiled forests and mountains.

Median rents in Elk County, where 30,000 people live, are just under $600 a month and are a touch lower than in neighboring Cameron County, which has just 4,500 residents. The cost of living is 10% below the national average.

Winters here would be a touch warmer than Michigan and Maine, with average highs around freezing. Average summer highs are in the upper 70s to 80 degrees. Annual snowfall averages 58 inches.

Your trail walking could start with the West Creek Recreational Trail north of St Marys and head 19.5 miles east into Emporium, a town of 2,000 people that calls itself the “Land of the Endless Mountains.”

Here’s what’s on the market now in Elk County.

Presque Isle, Maine
Maine’s Baxter State Park

iStockphoto

Treat this as your starting point to look at the many small towns in rural Maine. With 9,000 people, Presque Isle is the largest community in Maine’s northernmost county and the area’s commercial center. You could also look at Houlton (5,700 people), also in Aroostook County but further south. You could even walk between the two along the Southern Bangor and Aroostook Trail. Or consider Piscataquis County to the west (nearly 17,000 people).

Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin are in neighboring  Penobscot County.

Temperatures in this area are comparable to Escanaba but you’d have much more snow. Aroostook County also has more people than Delta County, at nearly 68,000, but it covers an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The median rent here is $574.

Here’s what’s for sale now in Aroostook County.

Readers, where do you think Lisa and her husband should retire? Leave your suggestions in the comments section.

More from MarketWatch’s “Where Should I Retire” column

We are conservative Christians looking for our utopia: a friendly, safe and affordable small town. Where should we retire?

We want to buy a home on 10 wide-open acres and live on $50,000 a year — where should we retire?

I want to retire in ‘a liberal-thinking area’ on $3,000 a month, including rent — where should I go?

I’m looking for a cannabis-friendly red-leaning state with no state income taxes — where should I retire on $60,000 a year?

I can afford a $300,000 home in a ski town ‘but not if it comes with $6,000 a year in HOA dues’ — so where can I retire?

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