I like small towns and railways. My house budget is $200,000. So where can I retire?


I’m an avid rail-to-trail cyclist who loves riding along rivers the most. I would love to retire in a small town with easy access to hiking and biking trails, kayaking, and other joys of the natural world.

Can you suggest a few small walkable towns (3,000-10,000 people) that are county seats and/or college towns, politically liberal, and have easy access to rivers and bike paths?

I will have an income of $30,000 to $40,000. I will be downsizing and should have enough proceeds from the sale of my current home to be able to buy direct and avoid most ongoing housing costs. I wish I had less than $200,000.

Thank you,



I’m not too worried about your ability to find railroads, those old railroads that have been converted into trails for walking, biking, and sometimes even horseback riding and snowmobiling; the Rails to Trails Conservancy has 2,289 covering 24,905 miles in the United States. For the best of them, check out his hall of fame.

But while there’s no shortage of cheap, smaller towns, I’m afraid so many of them are stagnating – not a good thing when you have to sell the house. Add to that liberal and fairly lively (because it’s the county seat or has some college), and it’s really tough.

I asked the MarketWatch tool for help “where should I retire”. The short answer: Look for a small town in a county with a larger population.

When I selected the smallest population (less than 50,000 people in a county), solidly Democratic (which we define as more than 55% voted for Joe Biden in 2020) option, the median price of a home under $250,000 in 2019 and a hospital, I got a county like a 100% match. Yes, only one county in the entire United States.

I got five more counties when I did the same thing, except I changed the population to a county of 50,000 to 100,000. Two if the policy is more balanced (tighter than 55%-45% in 2020) and I use the larger population option.

I’m not saying you can’t find a place in a more rural county with a higher median price, especially if you’re considering condo units or even a 55+ community (don’t forget HOA fees ). It’s just going to be a harder search. And smaller towns, by definition, have a smaller selection of accommodations, so it’s going to be a lot more random.

You notice that I left out the university towns. This is because we define college towns as those that have an R1-level research university. These are usually large state flagship universities and Ivy League type institutions – and rarely in small towns. An exception is Hanover, NH, where Dartmouth College is located. But house prices! I looked around the Grafton County area, especially on the road to Lebanon, but while it was cheaper, prices have jumped since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and it seemed over the top. beyond your desired budget.

In other words, you might want to think more about why you want what you want and if there is another way to get it. Would you consider a city of around 25,000 people? Or even 50,000? You can still have easy access to nature and trails in one this size and in a county of 250,000 people.

Finally, I have heard many people prefer a liberal or conservative community. I understand, but that’s no guarantee you’ll like your neighbors. Think about how you will make new friends and build your social network wherever you live.

Read: Before you move to a new town in retirement, check out the local Walmart — and 5 more hard-learned lessons

More: It’s not enough to choose a place to retire that low taxes – avoid these 5 costly mistakes

So please test your options, even if it is only a short term rental. Just be sure to pretend you’re a new resident, not just there to ride a bike along a trail.

Now let’s talk about where to go.

I focused on sparsely populated counties, and Sauk County, Wisconsin came up in my query; I’ve suggested Baraboo before (the county seat and home of a small two-year institution that’s part of the University of Wisconsin system), and it’s just a bit larger than what you described .

If you want to go even further, look at Athens, Ohio or nearby. It is suggested here.

Another idea is Oberlin, Ohio, suggested here. The caveat here is that if the college town is liberal, the county is red.

Since I hate repeating myself, here are three more suggestions:

Grinnel, Iowa

The Bucksbaum Center for the Arts on the campus of Grinell College.

Getty Images

Like Oberlin, Grinnell is home to a small, well-regarded liberal arts college. With 9,500 residents, it is slightly larger than Oberlin. And like Oberlin, it’s in a county that turned red in 2020 (55.9% of Poweshiek County voted for Donald Trump).

He checks out the railroad box with the 5.8-mile Rock Creek Recreational Bike Trail that stretches from Rock Creek State Park (and a lake) to the west end of town, where it connects with the 1.8 thousand Grinnell Trail.

Drive 55 miles west to Des Moines and you’ll have plenty of railroads, including the Raccoon River Valley Trail, a 2021 inductee into the Rails to Trails Hall of Fame. Go 67 miles east to Iowa City (which is becoming a rave spot and has been suggested here) for lots more trails. If you want to be closer to big city amenities, check out the smaller towns outside of the two as you explore Grinnell.

And if you live in Iowa, there’s no excuse not to join in on the week-long party that is Ragbrai and pedal across the state.

House prices are definitely in your price range; the median home price in Grinnell was $210,000 in November 2021, according to Realtor.com, which calls it a seller’s market. Here’s what’s currently on the market.

Frostburg, Maryland

Switchbacks connect Frostburg, Maryland to the Great Allegheny Passage.

Grand Allegheny Passage Conservatory

Living off the Great Allegheny Passage — the 150-mile trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., which was the first inductee into the Rails to Trails Hall of Fame — may be too tempting for a trail enthusiast to ignore. If so, start by looking at Frostburg, a four-season town that’s home to around 7,000 people. Cumberland, the county seat, is just 16 miles by bike, and you can continue on the C&O Canal towpath to Washington, DC

Your kayaking options begin at Youghiogheny River Lake, a half-hour drive away.

In addition to GAP, there is Frostburg State University, a campus of less than 5,000 students that is part of the University of Maryland system. People aged 60 and over can take classes for free.

As with Grinnell, the compromise is political; Allegany County opted for Trump in 2020.

It is certainly affordable; the median list price for a home was $149,900 in November 2021, and Realtor.com described it as a buyer’s market. Here’s what’s currently on the market.

If Frostburg isn’t quite right, consider Connellsville, Pennsylvania, a town of 7,000 that benefited immensely from the passage of the Greater Allegheny. The Penn State Fayette campus is about seven miles away, more than halfway from Uniontown, the county seat of Fayette and home to just under 10,000 people.

Grants, New Mexico

La Ventana Arch at El Malpais National Monument is less than a half hour bike ride from Grants.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

The MarketWatch tool “where should I retire” suggested McKinley County, NM, whose county seat is Gallup. I opted for the neighboring county seat of Cibola, which also voted blue in 2020.

This city of 9,000 people of many cultures is less than 80 miles from Albuquerque and just outside of El Malpais National Monument – nearly 115,000 acres of what the National Park Service calls “country of fire and ice.

Although there are many hiking opportunities in the mountains near Grants, the closest railroads are in Albuquerque. However, long-distance cyclists pass through Grants on Adventure Cycling Route 66 (2,500 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, CA). Drive half an hour to Bluewater Lake State Park for kayaking.

Here you will find an outpost of New Mexico State University.

The climate is mild and dry in the high desert. Average highs in July are 89 degrees, when there is 1.7 inches of rain. Humidity is low, lower than Albuquerque (read more about the big city here and here) and its suburbs (suggested here). There is a lot less snow here than my other suggestions, just an average of 2.9 inches in December.

The median list price was $150,000 in November 2021, according to Realtor.com, and that was a buyer’s market. Here’s what’s currently on the market.

Readers, what’s a good little town for Jesse’s retirement? Offer your suggestions in the comments below.

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