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Retire Here, Not There

Aug. 20, 2014, 5:00 a.m. EDT

Retire Here, Not There: Michigan

Good deals on real estate in the “Riviera of the Midwest”

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By Anya Martin, MarketWatch

Dawn over Lake Huron at the Wawatam Lighthouse in St. Ignace, Michigan.

Michigan is probably not the first state that comes to mind when people think about retiring on the beach. And yet its sandy, dune-lined shorelines, with coasts along four of the five Great Lakes, have attracted many boomers to the “Riviera of the Midwest.”

Indeed residents anywhere in Michigan are never more than 6 miles from a body of water; the state has more than 36,000 miles of streams and more than 11,000 inland lakes, along with the most freshwater coastline in any state in the nation. This life aquatic gives retirees plenty to do. The state has more than 900,000 registered boats and ranked seventh in the nation in number of registered fishermen—over 1 million—in 2013. Many quaint towns have grown up along the shores, luring retirees with restaurants, locally owned shops and artist communities.

The sporty lifestyle in the Great Lakes State doesn’t end at the water line. Golfers have over 800 public courses to choose from, including three that made the 2013-14 Golf Digest list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses: Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfurt (No. 12); the south course at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills (No. 20); and Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club in Arcadia (No. 57). The state ranks third in licensed hunters with more than 760,000. Plus, Michigan has the largest state forest system in the nation.

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Michigan, and in particular Detroit, are known for cars, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn is a shrine not just to the automobile but to American inventors, with sections on aviation and manufacturing, as well as special exhibitions. The state also has a strong reputation for arts and culture. The 658,000-square-foot Detroit Institute of the Arts ranks among the top six art museums in the nation for its multicultural collection spanning from prehistory to the 21st century; it also hosts top traveling exhibitions. The Grand Rapids Art Museum is home to the internationally renowned annual Art Prize competition and has a growing reputation in 19th and 20th century American and European art, works on paper, and crafts and design.

Many of Michigan's smaller towns pack a cultural punch as well. The Ann Arbor Art Fair, which presents crafts ranging from ceramics to paintings to jewelry, attracts more than 500,000 attendees annually; and the area around Saugatuck, nicknamed “the artist's colony of the Midwest,” has dozens of galleries and a small, but engaged, population of retiree artists.

Possibly the best thing about Michigan, particularly for those who want to stretch their nest eggs, is how inexpensive it is. The cost of living is 11.2% below the national average, the median home costs just over $117,000, and both nursing home and assisted-living costs are below average. Income is taxed at a flat rate of 4.32%--the 11th lowest in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. Boomers who want to keep working may have been reluctant to consider relocating to Michigan, which took one of the hardest job-loss hits in the nation during the auto industry’s decline. But the state unemployment rate is now 7.3%, only a point above the national average, and recent job growth is positive, according to Sperling’s Best Places.

Retirees had better not mind cold winters: In Michigan, they average 58.1 inches of snow. On the other hand, all those flakes make for prime cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, as well as some stunning ice formations on Lake Michigan when the waves freeze in place, says Bill Underdown, an agent with Shoreline Realtors based in Douglas, Mich. “It’s magical,” he adds. Retirees on Lake Michigan’s shores who like the four seasons will find that the water soaks up the summer heat making for “very long usually dreamy falls,” says Mike Norton, media relations manager for Traverse City Tourism.

State crime rates overall are only slightly higher than the national average, although violent crime in Detroit is much more frequent than in the U.S. as a whole.

Here are four budget-conscious retirement destinations which blend the state’s strengths from the outdoors to the cultural:

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