Spending Your Golden Years In The Big Apple

Many seniors are shunning the Sun Belt for New York's variety

Irwin and Audrey Greenblatt lived the typical suburban life for more than 27 years, raising two kids in a split-level house on a half-acre outside of Philadelphia. As they neared retirement from a private high school they owned for at-risk teenagers, the Greenblatts planned to spend their golden years at their beach house on the Jersey Shore. But when their older son moved to New York, they became enchanted with the vitality and excitement of the big city. "The more time we spent at the shore, the more we realized it was a cultural wasteland," says Audrey, 59. "New York made us feel young." The Greenblatts sold their shore house, and to see if they could live in the city as retirees, they decided to take a test run five years ago and rent a Manhattan apartment. They liked it so much they also sold their Philadelphia home and bought an 850-square-foot, one-bedroom co-op near Lincoln Center 12 months later.

Now the Greenblatts spend their time going to the theater, visiting street fairs, taking long walks in Central Park, and substitute teaching at a nearby private school. Although they didn't know anyone in the city aside from their son, they've quickly bonded with neighbors -- one was Winston Churchill's secretary -- and with other teachers. "Retirement in Florida would be boring for us," Audrey says. "At 8 p.m. you are planning breakfast the next day."

Plenty of retirees like the Greenblatts are shunning warm-weather destinations once favored by the geriatric jet-set for the bustling pace of the Big Apple. New York is home to some of the best theater, museums, dance troupes, and musical groups in the world. With dozens of teaching hospitals, it boasts top-notch health care, as well as an extensive public transportation network (with reduced fares for seniors) and more than 2,000 restaurants. Virtually anything you need can be found -- and delivered -- around the clock. "New York has the infrastructure and cultural as well as social milieu that provides a lot to the searching senior," says Michael I. Markowitz, director of the Institute for Retired Professionals at New School University. Served by three major airports, New York also is a great launching pad for travel.


Indeed, New York is a haven for retirees. While the city doesn't have statistics on non-native transplants, about 1.2 million people aged 60 and over are living in its five boroughs, according to New York City's Aging Dept. That's roughly one-eighth of the population.

Life in the nation's largest city does have its drawbacks. New York is noisy and crowded. You'll probably experience sticker shock the first time you visit a supermarket or drugstore, in part because the sales tax is 8 5/8%. And the city can be a lonely place. In shows such as Seinfeld and Friends, people are always dropping by, but that's not realistic. "Here everything is by appointment," says Karen Altfest, a financial adviser at LJ Altfest & Co. in New York.

Your main housing option in the Apple is an apartment, and vertical living takes getting used to, especially for people accustomed to lots of storage space as well as a garage and garden at their doorstep. Buildings, meanwhile, aren't always pet-friendly, and most newcomers eventually give up their car after paying $400 or more per month for parking.

Unlike states such as Florida with no income tax, New York's taxes are steep. The state's top tax marginal rate is 7.7%, and you'll pay an additional 4.5% if you live in New York City. If you own your own residence, the mortgage-interest deduction will mitigate some of that bite. Then again, housing is expensive. The typical one-bedroom co-op apartment costs $469,000, while the average one-bedroom condominium sells for $646,000, according to recent sales data from Corcoran Group, a real estate firm. You may find better deals renting. But the typical one-bedroom apartment rental is still about $2,310 a month, and many of the giveaways that freshly constructed high-rise buildings were offering last year (a couple of months of free rent, and even free high-definition TVs) have dried up as the economy has rebounded.


Still, you can find good housing deals if you are willing to live in neighborhoods at the city's perimeters, including the Wall Street area and Riverdale in the Bronx. Although Brooklyn Heights is pricey, retirees are finding decent options in other parts of Brooklyn, including nearby Carroll Gardens, which is about 30 minutes from midtown by subway. Queens and Staten Island are even cheaper. "I think of New York as the five boroughs and not just Manhattan," says Janet Hays, author of Retire in New York City -- Even if You Are Not Rich (Bonus Books, $14.95).

Whether you decide to rent or buy, test the waters first as the Greenblatts did. Hays suggests looking for a two- or three-month sublet in The New York Times classifieds -- it helps to make friends with someone who subscribes because regular readers get a leg up on Saturdays, when the Sunday real estate section is delivered. Craigslist (newyork.craigslist.org/sub) is another extensive resource for sublet listings.

Once you begin your temporary stay, Hays says you should avoid tackling the large issues such as selling your home and finding a doctor immediately. Instead, she suggests focusing on daily life -- going to the supermarket, getting a prescription filled, riding the subway -- and see if it appeals to you.

If you decide you are ready to take the plunge, talk to a financial adviser, preferably one who is based in the city with a clientele of local retirees. The right adviser can evaluate your finances and figure out how much you can afford to spend on an apartment, as well as whether you should rent or buy. You'll also want to discuss a budget to get a good sense of what you've got to spend each month for food, activities, and travel.

After sailing around the world for 10 years, Bob Ashton, a former Procter & Gamble ((PG) ) manager, passed up the waving palm trees of the Fiji Islands to retire to New York two years ago. "I can't stand golf, and I can only weed so many gardens," says Ashton, now 75. "I can only ski so many days, climb so many mountains." The best way to make friends, he says, is to get active in something that interests you. "People can get lost here," he says. "The skill of meeting people is vital." Ashton, naturally, is a member of the Explorers Club and belongs to museums and singing groups.


Another way to make friends is to volunteer. If you like the ballet, contact one of the major ballet companies. Keep in mind that everyone wants to be a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but plenty of smaller museums can use help. A good starting place is the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (rsvp.cssny.org), which has more than 9,000 volunteers serving 600 organizations. It can help match you with a group that best suits your interests and skill set.

If volunteering isn't your cup of tea, try taking a class. Nearly all the city's universities have programs targeted at retirees. New School enrollees, for example, study everything from genetics to James Joyce's Ulysses (nsu.newschool.edu/irp/). It's a great way to take a bite out of the Big Apple -- and learn something in the process.

By Lauren Young

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.