Beach Duty: How to Pick a Vacation Home Destination

Beach Duty: How to Pick a Vacation Home Destination
Photo by Levente Bodo / Getty Images

(Editor's note: This article by Vera Wilson first appeared in the October issue of Military Officer magazine. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)


Freed from the daily grind of work, the world becomes your oyster; all sorts of possibilities open up for you. While some retirees might move down the street from their grandchildren, and others might move back to the small town where they grew up, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that moving to the beach often tops the list of destinations where retirees see themselves living out their golden years.

Any move calls for doing some homework, but moving to a beach community requires factoring in some unique-to-the-beach points you should think about before taking the plunge.

As you are doing your research to determine which beach is for you, here are four specific concerns you should take into consideration.



1. Accessibility to family, health care, and more

Travel can take its toll on young and old alike, but having an airport nearby — or even just easy access to an interstate highway — can reduce travel stress considerably. Keep this in mind if you’re looking at a beach community far from your family.

Similarly, proximity to medical care also can be crucial — especially if someone in your household has a chronic illness and will require a specialist or frequent medical attention. Military retirees particularly will want to research the closest military or VA health care facilities.  

For Col. John Gilbert, USAF (Ret), and his wife, Leslie, leaving Washington, D.C. — where they had no family ties — and retiring to Hilton Head Island, S.C., a place they treasure for its emphasis on the environment, checked a lot of boxes.

Leslie, who commuted to D.C. for a few years before retiring, needed to be close to a major airport, as did John, who traveled as a consultant a few weeks every year.

Access to amenities, shopping, and community services also should play a role in your decision. Smaller beach communities might prove more affordable, but they might not have public or private marinas, golf courses, or tennis courts.

The Gilberts ultimately chose a large gated community that offered access to an incredible range of activities. John plays with the local softball group, and both Gilberts are involved in the World Affairs Council’s local chapter.


2. Cost

You probably already know to expect higher expenses at the shore, but beach living also carries some specific financial concerns you might have overlooked — primarily insurance costs.

Wind and hail coverage typically is mandated by any financial institution holding mortgages and can add thousands to the cost of your homeowner’s policy. Flood maps will dictate whether flood insurance is required by your bank. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary insurer for floods, but its coverage limits mean many beach dwellers, like the Gilberts, buy supplemental flood insurance.

The FEMA website offers information and resources. Researching ahead of time can help you absorb insurance costs if you are on a fixed income.

Property taxes can be high in beach communities, but the right research can help you protect yourself and your investment.

You also should find out how your preferred location (state as well as municipality)  taxes military retirement pay and other retirement income.

If being near the ocean is your only criterion, consider one of the coastal states with no state income taxation, such as Texas, New Hampshire, Alaska, or Florida, to help offset higher insurance expenses.

Check out MOAA’s state tax guide, www.moaa.org/statereport, for more.


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3. Weather

If your last duty station was in a cold, snow-prone area, you’re probably envisioning a beach locale as a safe haven from bad weather. However, a lack of snow doesn’t always mean there are no adverse weather conditions. Make sure you know what to expect and how to prepare.

A hurricane is kryptonite to some beach communities. The good news is scientists at NOAA can help you prepare. NOAA provides maps of hurricane return periods, which it describes as “the frequency at which a hurricane can be expected to pass within 50 nautical miles of a specific location.”

As you study weather conditions, evaluate your physical fitness, too. Preparing your home to undergo a Category 3 storm requires moving outdoor furniture inside the house and boarding up windows. These activities can be stressful on the body.

Shocking to the Gilberts is the erosion that can affect beach access, taxes, and property values.

“We have likely lost tens of acres of beach and marsh over the past 15 or so years,” says John, as he halfheartedly jokes that their lagoon-side home might become beachfront property one day.

Again, a little research and planning can pay off.

In a 2001 study, the U.S. Geological Survey stated, “The risks associated with living along a coast are comparable to those experienced by people living on a river flood plain, near an earthquake fault, or close to a volcano — all carry the possibility of eventual catastrophe.”

The agency hosts a Coastal Change Hazard Portal, https://marine.usgs
.gov/coastalchangehazardsportal, to help you evaluate short- and long-term coastal change rates as well as historical shorelines in the U.S.


4. Crowds

Beach communities that are hopping with visitors and activities during the summer travel season might turn into ghost towns in the off-season.

Before committing to a beach location, set your seasonal expectations. Then research what experts are saying to find a community that fits your activity level. For example, Southern Living, Coastal Living, and Fodor’s Travel all highlight perks of winter beach towns.

The Gilberts have no regrets about retiring to the beach.

“I guess if I had one message, it would be to figure out what’s important, what’s not, and then do your research,” advises John. 

Vera Wilson is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. Her last feature for Military Officer was “Will Your Retirement Community Outlast You?” September 2018.

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