The Río Chama creates a lushness in the Abiquiú Valley. Photograph by Unsplash / Tom Nora.
PETER DODDS HAD SOME PRETTY SPECIFIC ideas about his ideal retirement destination.
The former Army officer had lived in Mainz, Germany, and South Korea before landing in Olympia, Washington, where he took a post in the Washington State Legislature’s communications department. After more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest’s notoriously dreary climate, Dodds started his retirement priority list with a simple requirement. “Number one was warm, sunny weather,” he says.
His research eventually produced several locations worthy of a closer look: Bend, Oregon, and San Diego were West Coast favorites; Denver and Phoenix appealed as other western options; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida, earned slots for the East Coast. But none of them seemed quite right.
“San Diego is gorgeous, but I didn’t have the money to live the way I wanted to,” he recalls. “Phoenix is too hot. Denver is too crowded.”
Then New Mexico caught his attention, initially because of its proximity to Phoenix. Attracted to the state’s natural beauty and low cost of living, he booked a flight. “Nobody in their right mind is going to retire in a place they’ve never visited,” he says.
Landing in Albuquerque, he was immediately smitten with the Land of Enchantment. Even the name of New Mexico’s largest airport, the Albuquerque International Sunport, warmed him. “I thought, We’re on the right track here!”
Dodds spent a week exploring the state, admiring Santa Fe’s world-class art, appreciating Albuquerque’s Sandía Mountains, and just taking in the vast desert that allows you to “see everything.”
He eventually selected Jubilee Los Lunas, a 55-and-older community about 20 miles south of Albuquerque. It met all of his criteria: small village near a big town, an abundance of arts and culture nearby, outdoor recreation opportunities aplenty, low cost of living, and warm, sunny weather. “New Mexico is America’s hidden gem,” he says.
Painting in Santa Fe’s Diablo Canyon. Photograph by NMTD.
DODDS ISN’T THE ONLY one taking notice.
In 2018, United Van Lines reported New Mexico was “the most popular state for relocating retirees.” In 2019, Albuquerque earned slot 31 on Kiplinger’s list of best places to retire in the U.S. In 2020, Santa Fe ranked 10th on Money Magazine’s lineup of retirement hot spots. Taos and Las Cruces have earned similar accolades in recent years.
“New Mexico has a lot of real benefits for people moving here,” says Charles Lehman, project coordinator for Retire New Mexico, a one-stop resource for those considering moving to the state. “You’ve got a great cost of living. The housing costs are reasonable. Good weather—probably better weather than anyplace else. We’ve got the culture, the food, the scenery, the landscapes, and the outdoor recreation. We’ve really got a lot of advantages here in the state.”
While Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Colorado also have sunshine, New Mexico offers a warmth that residents say goes beyond the temperature. From Carlsbad to Taos, people describe the way strangers go out of their way to help, whether it’s choosing a ripe melon in the grocery store or stopping to check on a car pulled off to the side of the road.
“You see a lot more people engaging with one another,” says Michael Fraembs, managing member of Arista Development, a Las Cruces home builder. “You get a little bit more of the friendliness.”
Many attribute that geniality to the Hispanic culture—and its emphasis on family, community, and tradition—that permeates the state. It seems to resonate with nearly everyone, from New Mexico natives like Fraembs to transplants like Beth Redstone, a self-described “East Coast liberal Jew” who retired outside of Albuquerque. “I would never consider leaving New Mexico. Ever,” she says. “I love the people. I love how they’re down-to-earth.”
Lorena Sanchez, communications specialist at Visit Las Cruces, believes that stems partly from the importance placed on breaking bread with one another. From crispy tacos and spicy enchiladas to the state’s famous red and green chiles, there’s “just a really amazing variety of food that you can’t find anywhere else,” she says.
Dodds, who relocated in July, admits that he’s still learning to fully appreciate the chiles, but he’s taking steps in other ways to engross himself in the culture. In addition to learning Spanish (“I want to be respectful of the primary population group,” he says), he’s enthralled with New Mexico’s heritage. “Holy schmoly, man!” the history buff gushes, pointing out how the Spanish were here in 1540 with Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, long before the English established Jamestown. He’s also fascinated by the cliff dwelling sites found all across the state and the influences of New Mexico’s Native inhabitants.
Many are drawn to the state’s people, landscapes, and activities like hiking the Organ Mountains, shopping the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces, and taking photographs on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. Photographs clockwise from top left: Unsplash/Christian Newman, courtesy of Visit Las Cruces (2), and NMTD.
Indeed, New Mexican culture is steeped in tradition and excitingly modern: the Spanish markets, distinctive architecture, and bounty of museums celebrating the state’s rich heritage, traditions, and mysteries (hello, International UFO Museum and Research Center). In the state’s 19 pueblos, traditional food, farming, and artwork remain active and on display, and are featured at festivals like the Gathering of Nations Powwow. Meanwhile, a youthful exuberance exists in Santa Fe’s many galleries, Taos’s funky Earthship Biotecture, and college towns such as Las Cruces (where you’ll find New Mexico State University).
For Noreen Quan, everything seemed to come together around the world-renowned Santa Fe Opera. She and her new husband had just bought a townhouse in Alameda, California, when they took a weeklong trip to Santa Fe. It was her first visit to the state, his second. Heading home from the opera one night, they saw a sign for an open house, and they later stopped in. Although they didn’t buy that property, they did revise their retirement plans. “We were vacationing in August and were residents of Santa Fe two months later,” she says.
New Mexico attracts what Ginger Clarke, an associate broker with Barker Realty in Santa Fe, calls “younger, more adventurous” retirees. “They’re skiers. They’re hikers. They take cooking classes,” she says. “It’s just a younger feel.”
Jack McGowan, former CEO of Energy Control Inc. and a painter, came to New Mexico in 1975 and never considered retiring anywhere else. He and his wife, Judy, are avid dancers who dedicate two to three nights a week to waltzing, swing dancing, and country two-stepping.
McGowan also takes advantage of the countless opportunities for outdoor recreation at his footsteps, with national parks like Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands to explore, 10 ski resorts throughout the state, and endless hiking trails. And of course, the scenery serves as a worthy muse for his plein air painting. “It all begins with light and color, which is continuously changing,” he says. It “repaints our diverse landscape of mountains, geology, and vegetation over the course of the day.”
“It’s just a beautiful state,” adds Sanchez, of Visit Las Cruces. “Not only for the beautiful landscapes and the fact that it’s affordable, but it also has some really amazing people, culture, and things to do.”
Jack McGowan with one of his many paintings. Courtesy of Jack McGowan.
WHEN DECIDING ON THE BEST SPOT to retire, there are plenty of factors to consider. Dodds suggests starting with your priorities, not potential destinations. “Think about what your perfect retirement destination would look like,” he says. “Then make a criteria list for what’s most and least important.”
Be sure to factor in your budget, too, given that cost of living and tax rates can vary greatly from state to state. New Mexico, for example, boasts low property taxes (with extra reductions for veterans), a cost of living roughly 3 percent less than the national average (according to online financial adviser resource
SmartAsset), and progressive income taxes among the lowest in the U.S. (per the 2018 United Van Lines report).
Retire New Mexico’s Lehman recommends assessing a destination’s proximity to healthcare facilities and airports as well. Retirees might also look into the benefits offered by 55-and-over communities and consider the convenience of options with longer-term care facilities on-site. Finally, keep more minor hassles like shoveling snow, yard work, and traffic in mind.
Dodds reviewed the Census Bureau website to understand each area’s demographics and checked out historical weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He also found the college and university rankings invaluable, given that they’re peer-reviewed assessments of a wide variety of towns and cities.
“Of course, you’ll want to visit different places,” says Quan, who initially bought a larger home in Santa Fe, because she “loved entertaining,” before downsizing to the Montecito Santa Fe, a senior living facility.
She and others advise seeing the location through the eyes of a local by avoiding the tourist hot spots and testing out restaurants and shopping centers off the main drag. Talk with a real estate agent and begin to see how you might fit into the fabric of the community and what moves you about it.
“To me, it was the mountains and the special feeling you have when you come here,” Quan says. “It is the Land of Enchantment.”
Fall in the Sandía Mountains. Unsplash / Raychel Sanner.
Top Tips to Tap Into Your Realtor’s Local Know-How
Your real estate agent can be a wealth of information when choosing the perfect retirement property, but also a great resource for local amenities, social outlets, and ways to integrate into your new community. “Relationships are so important,” says Ginger Clarke, an associate broker with Barker Realty in Santa Fe. Meeting new people isn’t necessarily a path to a new best friend, but it is “a chance to explore the community and to decide how you fit.”
Get the three threes. Ask for a list of three electricians, plumbers, and handypersons. When a mishap happens, it’s nice to know who to call. You might also ask for a good hair stylist, childcare resource, or veterinarian if you have a pet.
Follow your bliss. Whether you’re an avid quilter, an enthusiastic golfer, or a passionate (if not proficient) pastry chef, we all have activities that we love. Get suggestions on clubs, stores, and local experts who can help you find others with similar interests.
Meet the neighbors. Ask your real estate agent to host a small welcome event (when it’s safe) at your new home with the next-door neighbors and folks across the street. “It’s a great way to help newcomers feel a sense that they are not alone,” Clarke notes.
Easy Hacks to Make Moving Day a Breeze
Relocating is stressful, no matter if you’re moving around the corner or across the country. A few simple tricks, however, can help the big day go more smoothly.
Plan your meals. In addition to having a stockpile of granola bars on hand, refuel for lunch and dinner with nearby takeout options. Consider opting for local fare to get to know what your community offers. Even better: Decide the day before the move what you’ll order and where you’ll order from to save yourself some hassle on the big day.
Bring your tools. Even dream homes have an occasional loose screw to tighten or a lightbulb to change, so have your multitool at the ready on move-in day. If you don’t already have one of these helpful knife-file-screwdriver-in-one gadgets, pick one up at the local hardware store for as little as $6.
Send Fido to doggie daycare. With doors propped open and boxes everywhere, it’s easy for animals to get lost in the shuffle. Save yourself (and your pet) some stress and send them to a nearby boarding facility for the day.