Where Should I Retire?: We love to ski but are struggling even with a $1 million house budget — what’s an affordable ski town where we can retire?

United States

Dear MarketWatch,

My wife and I are both federal employees and will retire in a few years with total (combined) pensions of around $ 10,000 a month. Our nest egg for retirement (TSP plus savings) will be another $ 2 million or so. Social Security will kick in on top of that. 

We both love skiing and ski towns, but also lakes with forest running and mountain biking trails. It seems hard to find affordable ski towns that aren’t too touristy with good lakes and water sports nearby. We’d prefer not to be too far from a “real” city to get our urban fix, when needed.  

We have $ 200,000 available for a down payment. That would put a house budget at around $ 1 million. We’ve looked at Park City it’s pricey these days. Aspen Valley is way out of reach, as is Breckenridge. East Coast skiing is icy and unpredictable. Places like Whitefish (in Montana) or Crested Butte (in Colorado) are nice but remote and hard to get to. Same with Durango. New Mexico lacks the lake options (ie, Santa Fe, Taos). Lake Tahoe is congested and full of casinos and second homes.  

I feel like we must be missing something. Any ideas?



Dear Dillon,

An underdiscovered ski town? That’s a tough one.

I hear you on pricey, but that’s down to supply and demand. And right now, demand is hotter than normal as people figure they can work from somewhere else. Sadly for you, Breckenridge is particularly hot. 

And ski towns are often in no rush to build more housing. See these objections about a proposed development in Breckenridge as an example.

But a $ 1 million housing budget is nothing to sneeze at. Many are priced out of their dream ski town with far less.

I admit I’m nervous about an $ 800,000 mortgage. You know your expenses and lifestyle better than I do, but please, double-check your budget and don’t forget to take income taxes on tax-deferred savings into account. Yes, you have an impressive nest egg and pensions. Equally, a 30-year mortgage at 3% is $ 3,373 in monthly payments — and then there are property taxes and possibly HOA fees. 

Here’s how financial planners come down on the mortgage-in-retirement debate. If you have a financial adviser, this is worth a chat.

As you know, having a great time in a ski town for one week is not the same as daily living for 52 weeks. As you look around, ask if it’s mostly filled with second-home owners and vacationers, or are there plenty of year-round residents? 

Perhaps consider renting for a year in one town. If it doesn’t feel right, try another one or reassess what you’re looking for. (Cities like Ogden, Utah, and Bozeman, Mont., with ski slopes a short drive away?) And if you love a pricey town, consider a smaller place or something a bit further from the slopes. That could make Summit County — Silverthorne or Dillon instead of Breckenridge? — work for you.

Here are three suggestions to get you started. You should be able to find something well below $ 1 million.

Sunset at Lake Granby, near Rocky Mountain National Park

Laurens/Courtesy Colorado Tourism Office

Winter Park, Colorado

Pick this lower-profile resort as your ski area, and you avoid much of the traffic jams around Georgetown and further up the mountain to Summit County and beyond. While you can live at the resort, you may want to consider Fraser, 15 minutes north of Winter Park, or Granby, another 20 minutes away. 

Nearly 16,000 people live in Grand County, or about half as many as in Summit County, and homes are more affordable. The towns are admittedly small — Fraser has about 1,300 year-round residents, and Granby has around 2,100 people. (By comparison, Breckenridge has about 5,000.)

Not only would you be in the mountains, but you’d have plenty of water options. Granby in particular is close to Lake Granby as well as Shadow Mountain Lake (actually a reservoir) and Grand Lake.

Get your mountain-biking fix at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park; Ski magazine calls it “Colorado’s best downhill mountain biking park” — or explore some of the smaller options in the county.

Finally, Winter Park is less than 90 minutes from Denver.

Temperatures stay cool here, with average summer highs only reaching the mid-70s. You’ll still have snow in May.

Here’s what’s for sale now in Winter Park (some are fractional ownership), Fraser and Granby using listings from Realtor.com (which, like MarketWatch, is owned by News Corp.).

Fat-tire biking near McCall, Idaho.

Chad Case Photography/courtesy McCall Area Chamber of Commerce

McCall, Idaho

Ski magazine recently sung the praises of Brundage Mountain and its “killer glades,” backcountry skiing and powder possibilities.

McCall, with 3,500 residents and the 5,330-acre Payette Lake, is just 10 miles away. Nearby you’ll find plenty of mountain biking — but also hot springs.

When that’s not enough outdoor activity, try whitewater rafting on the Payette River, and start your search for hiking trails in the Payette National Forest and in Poderosa State Park.

Average summer highs are in the low 80s. Snow starts in October, when there is an average of 2 inches and continues through April.

Here’s something that might surprise you: there are almost no chain stores and restaurants in town because of a long-standing local ordinance that restricts their numbers in favor of mom-and-pop stores. You’ll have to go to a local coffee shop instead of Starbucks (no worries, there’s a local roaster too). Be sure to peruse the bulletin boards in the coffee shops to find activities.

Valley County has 11,000 residents, and more than a quarter of them are 65 and older. The town will soon have a new hospital; St. Luke’s McCall Medical Center, part of a major health system in the state, is being rebuilt as well as expanding. Today’s version is rated highly for patient experience.

When you want a big city, drive to Boise in just over 2 hours (suggested here as a place to retire).

Here’s what the local housing market looks like now.

Trail running on Schweitzer Mountain

Courtesy Schweitzer Mountain Resort

Sandpoint, Idaho

Would you prefer somewhere a little bigger? Sandpoint, in northern Idaho, has around 8,900 residents (Bonner County has 46,000, and a quarter of people there are 65 and older). It’s perched on Lake Pend Oreille and surrounded by mountains and forest. Schweitzer Mountain Resort is just 11 miles away with 2,900 skiable acres, and, Powder magazine says, rarely is crowded. 

You can mountain-bike at the resort during the summer or try local options like the Gold Hill Trail. Given all the mountains and forests, you won’t be short of playgrounds.

Average summer highs here are a touch higher than in McCall. Snow starts falling in November.

Your city fix is Spokane, less than two hours away.

Don’t kid yourself — the COVID boom in ski towns has reached this corner of Idaho 75 miles from the Canadian border. Stephanie Rief of the Selkirk Association of Realtors says home sales in Sandpoint from April 20 through Sept. 30 have jumped 40% from the same period in 2019. The median home price is up 17%. 

“We’re being overrun,” she says. Many buyers are from California, Washington and Oregon, “but you name it — I’d say all 50 states, minus 10. At the most.” 

The median home price in the two-county area is now $ 371,500, she says, and the average home price is higher. On the outskirts of Sandpoint, that price translates into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house. And nothing stays on the market for long these days.

Here’s a look at homes on the market now.

Readers, where do you think Dillon and his wife should retire? Leave your suggestions in the comments section.

Now read: I’m a ‘young 68’ with $ 3,200 a month in Social Security and don’t want it taxed — where should I retire north or west of Colorado?

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