The glamorous sun-and-surf image of California, in reality, applies only to a tiny strip of expensive coastline in this enormously diverse and beautiful state. Finding affordable options for retirement in the Golden State means opening your mind geographically. However, even in the less expensive areas you will face home prices higher than the median home sale price of $327,100. For perspective, consider that the median price for homes listed in all of California is $592,450. 

Before you pack up and call the movers, you should know, too, that California is not the most retiree-friendly state in terms of either its cost of living or tax laws. If you’ve already built these costs into your retirement budget and are determined to live the West Coast dream, though, here are some top cities you’ll want to consider.

Key Takeaways

  • The state of California is not the most retiree-friendly in terms of cost of living, taxes, and home prices.
  • If you’re open to living outside of its major cities, it’s possible to find more affordable home options.
  • Top cities for retirees to consider include Eureka, Redding, San Luis Obispo, Riverside, and Palm Springs. 

Best of the North: Eureka

Closer to the Oregon border (100 miles to the north) than it is to San Francisco (270 miles south), Eureka is Humboldt County’s largest city (population: 27,000). Most famous for its redwood forests, Humboldt County is also California’s unofficial epicenter of marijuana cultivation, which, along with a poor employment picture, may help explain Eureka’s somewhat higher-than-normal crime rate.

The beaches, redwoods, and a mild climate that allows for year-round hiking and fishing more than offset that factor, however. Add in a median home price of listed homes in 2020 at $317,000 and a housing stock made up of beautiful old Victorians and you have a near-idyllic small-town experience.

With the quirky annual Kinetic Sculpture Race being the best known, lively festivals and cultural events fill Eureka's calendar every month of the year. Eureka, by the way, means “I have found it” in Latin, which may be exactly what you say when you check out this lovely old coastal city. 

If You Like It Hot: Redding

Redding’s inland location means the climate is not as moderate as that of the coast, so if you’re a warm-weather fan, you’ll enjoy the toasty summers up north in Shasta County (the average high temperature in July is 97 degrees). The rest of the year, the mild temperatures are heaven for active retirees, with a wealth of hiking, horseback riding, and road- and mountain-biking options on Redding’s extensive trail network.

Although Social Security payouts aren’t taxed, California is one of only a handful of states that tax pensions and other forms of retirement income.

This popular retirement city (population: 92,500) has two large healthcare systems—Mercy Medical Center and Shasta Regional Medical Center—and five colleges or universities. Two hours north of the state capital of Sacramento, Redding has a relatively affordable median home price with median listed prices at $328,000. The City of Redding Recreation offers a creative program of 50+ activities, including martial arts, dance, and bird watching. 

Best of the Central Coast: San Luis Obispo

When is a median home purchase price of $718,000 considered a good deal? When that home is located in “little Santa Barbara,” aka San Luis Obispo (population: 47,000). SLO, as it’s also known, is a steal compared to Santa Barbara, its neighbor 95 miles to the southwest, where the median home purchase price is $1.18 million. Yet SLO has many of the same attractions as Santa Barbara: a mild Mediterranean coastal climate, a walkable city center, easy access to the beach, loads of hiking paths, plus chic shopping and fine dining.

What's more, SLO is home to the 20,000-student California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), which gives the city a fun, college-town vibe. Multiple events, including a film festival, Mozart festival, and weekly farmers’ market, as well as a performing arts center, keep the city jumping year-round. SLO is linked to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego by Amtrak rail service, which is a picturesque alternative to the freeways. Public transit is good, and the city encourages bike riding. 

Best of the South: Riverside

As the largest city (population: 336,000) in the Inland Empire’s Riverside County, this former hub of Southern California’s citrus industry is the best-connected of the cities on our list. Riverside has access to two major airports—Ontario and Los Angeles International (60 miles to the northwest)—and is connected to the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area through Metrolink commuter rail service, which in turn links to long-distance Amtrak rail. In addition, public transit within Riverside’s own boundaries is good.

As an inland city, its climate is hotter in the summer than that of coastal cities: the average high is 95 degrees in July. There are more than a dozen museums, including the California Citrus State Historic Park Museum. Riverside's best-known university is the 25,000-student University of California, Riverside, although the city is home to a number of other colleges and universities as well. Despite all of its attractions, including a variety of top-notch hospital systems, Riverside’s median home sale price, at $423,000, comes in below California’s median. 

Celebrity History: Palm Springs

Do you dream of sunning by the pool in December and hosting a BBQ on your deck in January? If so, Palm Springs is your town. Located in Riverside County, two hours from San Diego and 90 minutes from Los Angeles, Palm Springs, in its heyday, was a hot spot for celebrities like Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and Frank Sinatra, who owned homes there. Today, the desert resort (population: 49,000) has been reborn as a popular destination for snowbirds, retirees, hipsters, nudists, and a thriving gay community. 

With more than 124 golf courses, it’s also a golf lover’s paradise, at least in the cooler winter months: July’s average high is 108 degrees. There is, however, always the possibility of a quick escape via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to hike the 54 miles of trails in the cool heights of Mount San Jacinto.

With a median home sale price of $424,000, the housing stock leans toward classic examples of mid-century modern, many of them lovingly restored. The city has a vibrant calendar of cultural events (especially in the cooler months), including its well-known film festivals and the nearby Golf Cart Parade in October. Palm Springs has its own international airport, as well as occasional Amtrak service, and decent local bus service. 

The Bottom Line

California’s unfavorable tax picture, high cost of living, and above average (and rising) housing prices put it out of reach for many retirees, but you can't beat the quality of life. If you are a savvy shopper, you can find affordable options outside of the major cities—witness these five locations.