Retire to a College Town?

Here are excerpts from a Wall Stret Journal article by Katy McLaughlin on the benefits of retiring in a college-town community.
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In the past the great magnet for retirees was Florida, but today more of them are looking beyond the Sunshine State. Now, college towns, with their vibrant cultural scenes and intellectual pursuits, are proving to be popular retirement destinations. While the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t consistently track relocation by age, real-estate agents, chambers of commerce and visitor bureaus in three areas known for higher education—Austin, Portland, Ore., and North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area—are reporting a significant uptick in interest from retirees.

Local universities are serving this growing cohort with special offerings. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, seniors can study things like the history of whaling or the ancient Olmec civilization in classes led by volunteer instructors who are often retired executives or professors. Meanwhile, some luxury builders are tapping into the seniors market with low-maintenance condominiums downtown and other high-end developments loaded with amenities.

PORTLAND

Patricia Cliff, 70, was a quintessential New Yorker for most of her life. A Manhattan real-estate agent, attorney and author, Ms. Cliff and her husband, Karl von Frieling, 75, lived in a downtown loft and had rarely visited other U.S. cities outside of Boston, Washington, D.C., Miami and Los Angeles. Then, four years ago, a business trip took them to Portland, where they fell in love.

Part of the allure, Ms. Cliff says, was the fact that “the place is surrounded by colleges.” Portland is home to Lewis & Clark and Reed colleges and Portland State University, among others. The fringe benefits of a university town were bigger draws, Ms. Cliff says, citing progressive politics, “an extraordinary food and restaurant culture,” a lively lecture circuit, the prevalence of green building materials and a flourishing jazz scene.

The couple soon purchased a 2,600-square-foot, 15th-floor apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of Mount Hood in the Pearl District, just north of downtown, for $1.6 million. They rented it out for a year, then began spending summers there. “In five years’ time, we’ll probably spend a lot more time out here,” Ms. Cliff says. “It’s a kinder, gentler way to age.”

Richard Krinsky, 72, and his wife, Maureen Woods Krinsky, 63, were living out their retirement in Northern California, in a dream home they built in Trinidad overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Then they were both hit with a series of health problems and realized they needed to move.

“We were looking for a place that had good medical care,” says Mr. Krinsky, a retired building contractor. High on the wish list: a teaching hospital. “The teaching hospital environment gives a great number of doctors with better qualifications.”

They first hunted north of San Francisco, about a 5½-hour drive away, so they could be near the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. But after realizing that their $800,000 budget wouldn’t get them much, they ultimately bought a 3,600-square-foot, four-bedroom home in Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland. Since moving in October, they have already sought care at the Oregon Health & Science University, Mr. Krinsky says.

Their story is one agents in all three regions say they see repeated among relocating retirees: They arrive believing they want to simply replace the lifestyle they are leaving, but after getting to know their new city, they often opt for a dramatic change.

“It’s real easy to see the baby boomers maturing,” says Steve Kaer, principal broker at Coldwell Banker Seal. He says his clientele now consists of about 25% more 55- to 70-year-olds than a decade ago, when most of his sales were to young families. The market, however, isn’t yet current with the trend, Mr. Kaer adds. Beyond downtown condos, it can be hard to find smaller upscale homes with low-maintenance yards. “We are coaching our builders on smaller, nicer, more versatile homes,” he says.

AUSTIN

Janey and Russ Trowbridge lived everywhere from Greece to Gabon since Mr. Trowbridge, 66, began his career as a diplomat in the 1970s. After many years with Virginia as home base, Ms. Trowbridge began advocating for a return to Austin, the hometown she left when she was 18.

Part of the draw was an opportunity for Ms. Trowbridge, 64, to teach at Texas State University in San Marcos, about a half-hour drive from Austin. She also hopes to eventually attend classes at the University of Texas. The city’s cultural scene was also important. The couple take in music at UT’s Bass Concert Hall, where their daughter performed while she was studying at the university, and on Sixth Street, where she now plays with a soul-jazz band.

Last year, the Trowbridges bought a home for $1.8 million on a golf course in Barton Creek, a west-Austin neighborhood. There is no yard, and a property manager collects the mail and oversees things when they travel. “I think the home is so ideal for people in our situation,” says Ms. Trowbridge.

Prices per square foot in several top downtown condos have increased 30%-40% in the last three years, says Laura Gottesman, owner of Gottesman Residential Real Estate. And in Barton Creek, where the Trowbridges bought, Ms. Martin says houses costs about $300 a square foot today, up from $200 a square foot five years ago. Jeannette Spinelli, the broker at Spinelli Residential Group at Keller Williams who sold John and Nancy James their lot in Barton Creek, says that her retiree business has grown about 30% in the past five years, with many clients moving from California and Arizona. A few weeks ago, she flew to New York to discuss a $14.5 million Austin property with brokers, “because I think my buyer might be from out of state,” she says.

RALEIGH-DURHAM-CHAPEL HILL

Jim Bowers, 55, started thinking about relocating from a suburb of Burlington, Vt., to North Carolina two years ago because he and his partner, Debbie Carson, 56, have family and friends in the area. But it wasn’t until considering where they would have the best quality of life as they got older that the couple finally decided to move to Apex, a Raleigh suburb. Having come from a college town, Mr. Bowers says he felt that being near Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was an important part of that quality of life.

“Duke is probably the big draw in the area in terms of teaching hospitals,” he says. “But more importantly, it’s the medical infrastructure that stays in the area.” Then there are the sports—he plans on attending Duke and UNC games—and the intangibles. “Frankly, the college atmosphere gives the downtown a specific vibe and culture that is very nice,” says Mr. Bowers, a project manager who has spent 35 years at IBM.

The area also lures people with its relatively affordable real estate. On Coldwell Banker’s latest “Incredible Value in College Town Living” list from 2011, Raleigh and Durham’s average three-bedroom listings of $197,411 and $182,392, respectively, put them roughly in the middle of 116 college towns from Memphis to Los Angeles. Chapel Hill came in higher at $327,888. “In our market, $1 million is the total upper end of the market,” says Joanne Crumpler, a broker-agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. “We have a great market right now and things are selling—most are $400,000 and under.”

Agents in all three markets say that sales representatives and builders alike are aware of the growing demand for high-end homes that appeal to older buyers, but that the tight lending atmosphere of recent years has made it hard to fulfill the demand.

Mr. Bowers thought he was a customer for that elusive “downsizer” home when he started his search in the area six months ago. Instead, he went in the other direction and bought a five-bedroom, 4,800-square-foot house on 4 acres—larger than what he’d left behind—for $560,000. “This would be a million-dollar house where we came from,” he says.