What $1 Million Buys You in America's Best Retirement Destinations

Forbes recently published its list of 25 Best Places to Retire in 2014. To create the list, the magazine evaluated data from more than 400 cities from every state in the U.S., taking into consideration factors such as housing and living costs, taxes, weather and air quality, crime rates, doctor availability, and active-lifestyle rankings for walkability, bicycling and volunteering. Forbes listed its top locales alphabetically, naming no single "best place" to retire.

The cities that made it to the top 25 are spread across 16 states. Four states – Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas – have two or more listings. And about three-quarters are, not surprisingly, in climates considered warm or moderate. Here, we take a look at what $1 million can buy you in four of the cities that made the list.

Bellingham, Wash.

Situated near the San Juan Islands and North Cascades mountains, Bellingham is much admired for its many outdoor opportunities – including kayaking, sailing, hiking, mountain biking, snowboarding and skiing. Although residents enjoy the small-city atmosphere, Bellingham is close to Vancouver, just across the Canadian border, and Seattle. 

According to Realtor.com, as of April 23 the average home price in Bellingham was $469,450, which is significantly higher than the average for both the state of Washington ($199,457) and the United States as a whole ($184,924). A peek at Realtor.com showed seven properties in Bellingham listed for sale for $1 million, plus or minus $50,000.

At this price point, buyers will typically find 4-bedroom, 3-bath colonial and Cape Cod houses with 3,500-5,500 square feet, each with spectacular mountain and/or water views. Homes generally have upgraded kitchens with marble/granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances, hardwood and tile flooring, owner suites with walk-in closets, multi-car garages, and plenty of deck/patio space for outdoor living and entertaining. Most are situated on less than an acre, though it is possible to find properties with more land.

Brevard, N.C.

Brevard is nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina. The mission of the City of Brevard is "to promote a high quality of life, support economic prosperity, and cultivate community while honoring its heritage and culture." Brevard delivers, with its beautiful mountain setting, moderate climate, high walkability rating and numerous outdoor pursuits, including mountain biking (in both Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Forest), road biking and rock climbing. Although its population has grown more than 10% over the past decade, it remains a small town with just over 7,600 residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The hip city of Asheville (dubbed "Ashvegas" and the "Paris of the South") is just over 33 miles away, providing big-city culture, dining and music.

According to Realtor.com, the average home price in Brevard was $258,300, quite a bit higher than the state average of $167,596. At the $1 million price point (give or take $50,000) buyers will typically find a limited selection of 3-4 bedroom, 3-4 bath houses with upwards of 4,000 square feet. Properties at this price will be situated on at least an acre, though it's possible to find houses with more than 40 acres of pasture land with mountain views and streams. Log houses are the norm, with open floor plans featuring cathedral ceilings, large stone fireplaces, gourmet kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, owner suites with walk-in closets, screened in porches and beautiful views.

Charleston, S.C.

Charleston, affectionately called "Chucktown," is known for its rich history, well-preserved architecture (including the "Pink House," built between 1694 and 1712 and recognized as Charleston's oldest building), fine dining and southern charm. It has received numerous accolades, including "America's Most Friendly City" by Travel + Leisure in 2011 and again in 2013 by Condé Nast Traveler, and "the most polite and hospitable city in America" by Southern Living magazine. In addition to its history and charm, Charleston offers residents and visitors a year-round jam-packed schedule of special events and festivals, including the annual Piccolo-Spoleto Festival and the Charleston Maritime Festival. Residents enjoy the area's many outdoor pastimes, including sailing, fishing, kayaking, surfing, kiteboarding and standup paddleboarding.

Realtor.com shows the average home price in Charleston as $494,205, significantly higher than South Carolina's average of $132,030. The most desirable homes in Charleston tend to be the historic properties in the downtown area known as the Peninsula, and many buyers also look at nearby beach towns including Folly Beach, Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms. Listings on Realtor.com showed 14 homes for sale at $1 million, give or take $25,000.

At this price point, buyers will find a selection of single- and multi-family houses on small lots and condominiums, generally in the 3-4 bedroom, 3-4 bath range. Depending on location, homes vary in size from about 2,500 to more than 4,000 square feet, and also differ in style as some of the properties are recent construction while others were built in the mid 1800s. Most homes offer high ceilings, upgraded kitchens, hardwood/tile flooring, owner suites with walk-in closets, and beautiful southern-style porches on which to enjoy a cold glass of sweet tea.

Tucson, Ariz.

Tucson features warm weather, beautiful scenery, a vibrant arts heritage and numerous opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, birding, caving and some of the world's most respected astronomy observatories (Southern Arizona is known as the "Astronomy Capital of the World").

According to Realtor.com, the average home price in Tucson is $66,900, well below the state's average price of $190,969. Buyers will find a fairly large selection of homes; a quick search on the site showed 19 properties listed at $1 million, plus or minus $10,000.

Buyers can expect large, single- and two-level homes with 4-5 bedrooms and 4-5 baths. Most homes at this price have at least 4,000 square feet, though it's possible to find properties with more than 6,000 square feet. Lot sizes range from less than an acre to almost five acres. Many listings are Spanish Hacienda-style houses with arched windows; tile roofing; fireplaces; pitched, beamed wood ceilings; and natural stone and wood flooring. Buyers can find upgraded/gourmet kitchens, large bedrooms with en suite baths, courtyards, pools, guest houses and nicely appointed areas for outdoor entertaining.

The Bottom Line

What $1 million will get you varies by location, of course. Buyers can expect to find spacious and beautiful homes in any of these four cities, with ample outdoor activities and access to arts/culture – either within the city itself or in neighboring areas. Because $1 million will buy quite a lot of house in each of these cities, retirees should have plenty of room for entertaining and visits from friends and family.

Besides the Forbes 25, each of these cities has appeared on lists published by such organizations as AARP and Topretirements.com. Some of the metrics on which these lists are based may be important to you, others may not. Also consider how close you want to be to friends and family and other personal concerns, such as whether you need to be close to aging parents, how well you'll be able to enjoy your hobbies and interests, whether you plan to work during retirement and the services offered by the community.