With a Beautiful Bayfront Setting, Excellent Medical Facilities, Outstanding Outdoor Recreation and Lively Cultural Scene, Charming Traverse City, Michigan Beckons
Cost of Living: Meets the National Average
Majestic Grand Traverse Bay, part of Lake Michigan, is in northern Michigan. At its southern end, along West Bay and partly along East Bay, the idyllic waterfront city of Traverse City (population 15,500 with 145,000 in the surrounding area) makes its home. The Ottawa and Chippewa once hunted here, and French explorers traveled through the area in the 1700s. Yet Traverse City, originally a saw mill town, was not established until 1852 and for many years was only accessible by water. While still remote, today this picturesque Great Lakes hamlet draws retirees in search of clean air, spectacular scenery, nice beaches and an abundance of outdoor recreation.
In fact, 40% of locals are age 45 or better, and 25% have at least a four year college degree. Politics lean to the right. The town has grown by about 1% within the last decade or two, but racial diversity has not yet arrived. The cost of living meets the national average, and the crime rate is well below the national average.
The median home price is $192,000. Neighborhoods are leafy, and housing stock includes Victorians, Cape Cods, ranch ramblers, Craftsmans, bunglaows and others. There are also manufactured homes, condominiums and town houses. The city has several lakes, and single family homes next to them start in the $200,000s, while bayfront homes start in the $300,000s. Historic homes, many in the Queen Anne style, are in good supply along Boardman Avenue and Washington Street. Late 19th-century mansions line Sixth Street, also known as "Silk Stocking Row,"and include the 32-room house built in 1893 by Traverse City founder Perry Hannah. Single family home rental properties generally cater to vacationers, but there are a few apartment complexes. The median rent is $800 per month.
Michigan is considered somewhat friendly when it comes to taxes and retirees Social Security is not taxed (but that could change in 2020). For people born before 1946, military pensions, federal, state and local government pensions are exempt from state taxation. Private pension income is exempt up to $49,811 (single) or $99,623 (married). Interest, dividends and capital gains are also exempt up to $11,104 (single) or $22,207 (married).
For taxpayers born between 1946 and 1952, military benefits are exempt from state taxation, but interest, dividends and capital gains are not. Other public and private pension income is exempt up to $20,000 (single) or $40,000 (married). Once these taxpayers turn age 67, the deduction for pension/retirement benefits is replaced by a standard deduction against all income of $20,000 (single) or $40,000 (married). The standard deduction is reduced by any deductions taken for military retirement benefits income.
For taxpayers born after 1952, military and Railroad Retirement benefits are exempt from state income tax. These taxpayers, however, may not deduct interest, dividends and capital gains. They also may not exempt other public and private pension income. Once these taxpayers turn 67 years old, they may either deduct Social Security, military and Railroad Retirement income or deduct $20,000 (single filers) or $40,000 (joint filers) from all income sources.
When it comes to property taxes, homes are assessed at 50% of fair market value, and there is a homestead exemption for homeowners with less than $50,000 yearly income. The annual taxes on a $195,000 home are approximately $3,265. The state also has a 6% sales tax (food and prescriptions are exempt).
Much of life in Traverse City involves the outdoors. The area has more than 180 miles of shoreline and boasts 149 deep, crystal clear lakes. There are dozens of beaches nearby, including one just west of downtown. Even during the height of the summer, it is possible to find a quiet beach. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers opportunities for scuba diving, deep water fishing, stream fishing, sailing, canoeing and kayaking or just beach combing. Fly Rod & Reel Magazine has named Traverse City one of its "Top 12 Fishing Towns" and dozens of fishing charters are in operation. Traverse City also has more tall ships than any other U.S. port. Marinas, and a couple of yacht clubs, are found primarily along the West Bay shore. For recreation off the water, 13 private and public golf courses provide challenging play. Winters bring snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and ice fishing.
While the outdoors beckon year round, residents still enjoy a robust arts and foodie culture with galleries, museums and restaurants aplenty. The city is home to sculptors, painters and woodworkers, many of whom have their work displayed in one of 15 local art galleries. The three museums include the Dennos Museum, a contemporary art center. Numerous performing arts companies, such as the Encore Society of Music and the Dennos Museum Center Concert Series, add to the cultural tableau. The Old Town Playhouse, offering community theater, has been in business for decades, and the Traverse Symphony Orchestra presents numerous concerts each season. The 1891 City Opera House is a popular venue for everything from classical jazz ensembles to the National Writers Series, an event in which nationally recognized writers discuss their work.
An added perk is that the world renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts, one of the country's premier training enters for young musicians, is 13 miles down the road and presents 750 concerts and theater and dance productions annually.
Thanks to its extensive network of bays and rivers, the Traverse City area had its own water-based highway system long before the advent of motorized transportation, and vigilant lighthouses still stand as a reminder of a maritime past. One of the most iconic is the Old Mission Point Lighthouse, built in 1870 to warn ships away from the dangerous shoals extending into Grand Traverse Bay. Today this lighthouse is the centerpiece of a pretty park. Traverse City also has its share of sunken shipwrecks.
Lush forests, rolling hills, beaches and vineyards are all around, as are acres and acres of cherry orchards. In fact, Traverse City is the Cherry Capital of the World and hosts the eight-day long National Cherry Festival every July. More than half a million people attend and enjoy parades, contests, music, food, games, a street sale and an annual air show. Throughout July and early August roadside cherry stands and markets sprout up across the countryside.
Two Native American casinos are nearby, and on those cold winter days, wonderful Horizon Books, northern Michigan's largest independent bookstore, has two roaring fireplaces, three floors, 100,000 titles and musical guests. Residents also enjoy the week-long Traverse City Film Festival, as well as the Empire Anchor Day in July and the Microbrew and Music Festival in August. Nearly two dozen wineries dot the area and most offer wine-tastings, a great way to spend a weekend afternoon. Two farmers' markets sell a variety of healthy products. And recently, Traverse City has been gaining recognition as a foodie destination with local restaurants serving up some very tasty fare, particularly fish dishes and fruit pies.
Shopping is more than adequate. In fact, Traverse City serves as the area's retail hub. Downtown's Front Street shopping district has been refurbished, and shops, restaurants and galleries make creative use of the Victorian buildings that they occupy. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons sits where the Northern Michigan Mental Health Asylum once operated and today is has acres of parks, pedestrian friendly walkways, a historic arboretum and century-old Victorian-Italianate architecture. With concerts, shopping, festivals, restaurants and markets, this interesting village is a fun place to be.
The Bay Area Transit Authority (BATA) offers local bus service (the full fare is $1.50 to $3, but seniors ride for $.75 to $1.50). On-demand, curb-to-curb services are available, and buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts. Delta, American and United fly out of Cherry Capital Airport.
Health care is provided by Munson Medical Center (395 beds), a teaching hospital that has been named a Top 50 Hospital for cardiovascular care. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and is a Level II trauma center. Medicare patients are accepted. For military retirees, Traverse City has a VA outpatient clinic, but the nearest VA hospital is 123 miles away in Saginaw.
The city has a Meals on Wheels program, an RSVP (Retired Seniors Volunteer Program) chapter, a Senior Companion Program and a Senior Nutrition Program. The Traverse City Senior Center (for ages 50+) is very active and has 100 programs (social, wellness, exercise, educational, etc.), as well as a busy travel club.
Northwestern Michigan College (5,000 students) is located in Traverse City as well. Its LIFE Academy offers classes designed for people age 50 or better.
The Traverse Area Library has internet access, a gift shop, movie nights, exercise classes, book discussions, knitting groups and amazing views from its many windows. Some people say it is the best library that they have ever visited.
Traverse City has a typical northern Michigan's climate, with winter temperatures dipping into the teens and summer temperatures reachng the mid-70s. Lake-effect snow is common, and it can fall as late as May or as early as September. On average, the area receives 80 inches of the white stuff and 30 inches of rain each year. Fall lingers and is simply spectacular, with many tourists coming just to revel in the exquisite colors.
Traverse City, of course, has its drawbacks, too. Tourists flock to town, particularly in summer, and traffic can be a particular headache during this time of the year. Restaurant and retail prices increase during summer, too. The city can feel isolated during the winter.
Despite these downsides, Traverse City has a lot to offer at a reasonable price. The natural beauty is striking. Amenities are many. Senior programs are strong. The medical facility is top-notch. For people in search of a cooler waterfront retirement destination, Traverse City should be at the top of the list.
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