Money Culture

Retiring in Florida: The Villages vs Reality

Photo of golf carts in a row

May all your dreams come true.

This hope, displayed on a sign in The Villages retirement community in north central Florida, is why thousands of people flock there every year to retire.

During my annual holiday trek to visit my 84-year-old mother in Orlando, my husband and I drove her to The Villages to visit her good friend who had moved there. What struck me was the contrast between its over-the-top comforts and my mother’s modest retirement community just outside Orlando, where many of the residents, who heavily depend on their Social Security, are just barely getting by.

The differences in lifestyles reflect the retirement disparities that exist in this country and are a continuation of the disparities in our working population. But I was also struck by the similarities in what retirees – regardless of their socioeconomic status – are seeking: to live out their remaining days healthy and without worry.

The Villages is 32-square-miles of unbridled growth. The 55+ community features three Disney-like town squares – Spanish Springs, Brownwood, and Sumter Lake – with a fourth, Southern Oaks, under development. Retirees zip along in colorful golf carts through the perfectly landscaped grounds on paths that were designed for the vehicles. The residents use the golf carts to move between their tidy houses, the town squares, activity centers, and one of The Villages’ 53 golf courses and 100 pickle ball courts. There’s even a gas station for golf carts – that’s how integral they are to retirees’ lives.

It seems that the box stores and supermarkets have been placed on the edges of this sprawling development so as not to spoil the vibe – retirees drive cars to these destinations. Also on the periphery are establishments catering to the unappealing aspects of growing old: laser eye surgery centers, dialysis centers, assisted living facilities, and funeral homes. Old age is tough – even in The Villages. For example, my mother’s friend lost her husband and then – a few years later – her fiancé died.

Photo of a man golfingThe Villages’ creature comforts are expensive. Prices are high by the standards of Florida’s interior, ranging between $250,000 and $800,000. Residents often pay for them by selling a house up north to cash in on the appreciation. They also pay an assessment to cover the development’s infrastructure costs and a monthly fee of just over $1,000 for utilities, trash pickup and endless amenities, which, in addition to golf, include numerous activity centers, lakes for fishing, and easy access to the town centers’ restaurants, Starbucks, shopping, and movie theaters.

But this enclave of privilege and play doesn’t reflect the reality for most retirees. My straight-talking Midwestern mom’s assessment of The Villages is, simply, “I can’t afford it.”

Gayle Blanton

My mother, Gayle Blanton, lives in a community of manufactured homes, which are common in Florida’s retirement retreats. The houses are comfortable and, just as important, affordable for the residents, who were primarily members of the working class. After my late father’s business in northern Indiana’s steel belt filed for bankruptcy in the late 1980s, my parents were able to buy a 3-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house for about $45,000. The newer houses cost around $100,000 – still well below the least-expensive houses in The Villages.

Every Christmas, during my visits, I get little reminders that many of my mother’s neighbors are living on the edge. This year, an elderly woman, whom neighbors have learned was apparently squatting in her deceased friend’s house, died in a fire that made Orlando’s television news. One kind-hearted resident collects donations to buy groceries for her elderly neighbors who run short of cash in the days before the next Social Security check comes in.

Some residents have pensions or 401(k)s, but many have little more than a Social Security check, which barely covers the necessities.

My mother owns the house but doesn’t own the land under it and pays rent to the operator to live there. With her small Social Security and military pension checks and modest nest egg, she can cover her rental fee of about $600, insurance, and other living expenses. Unlike most retirees, she pays virtually nothing for her Tricare military healthcare.

My mother can’t afford The Villages. But she feels safe and comfortable.  She’s luckier than some of her neighbors.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

18 Responses to Retiring in Florida: The Villages vs Reality

  1. Tony says:

    Good story to share. Not sure how the future looks for the rest of us down the road. Makes me wonder if it’s better to stay at one’s own home and manage health care without additional expenses associated with community fees.

    • Elena says:

      While you may have your home paid off, the taxes and insurance in some communities rise above what your retirement income will allow you to comfortably pay. It’s become apparent that planning is the key to comfortable retirement. For us, hopefully we will be able to live in the same community and just downsize.

  2. PJ says:

    While I have friends who reside in the Villages, I will stick to Iowa where, at least for now, I can afford the amenities I appreciate. I can grow part of my food and enjoy being in the rural, undeveloped countryside. My friends really enjoy The Villages. I really enjoy rural Iowa. Glad to see a version of the author’s take on this facility/life style. Very happy her mother is a person who is able to be independent. I have to take each day as it comes with gratitude.

  3. I usually will not comment on a blog but could not resist. As a homeowner in The Villages for the last five years I could not be happier. We purchased our home and still own a home in NJ. My husband still works and I am a retired state employee. “Proper” retirement planning had allowed us to research many retirement communities and decide on The Villages. The infrastructure was a definite selling point along with safety. While not for everyone we feel we made the right choice.

  4. Richard says:

    There is a lesson here. You can’t live your life with no long range financial plan or counting on living on SS. For all but the poorest, there is no excuse for not having retirement funds.

  5. Steve Hill says:

    Kim, thank you for such a poignant and personal story about the great divide in retirement. Being there, seeing and experiencing it, then writing about it so vividly captures this era as many family and friends struggle, while others reap rewards of good fortune. So many forces in motion, demographics, economics, culture…thank you for all you do to deliver useful insights into interesting and complex topics. All the best!

    • Ron Cann says:

      Life is random. Some of us have worked hard and saved for the future AND have had the good fortune to begin to enjoy what WE were able to create for ourselves. Please don’t simply dismis our hard work as “good fortune.”

  6. Biff S. says:

    What’s the endgame here? A cure for inequality by instituting a tax. Taking from my family, my planning, my sweat, so others can live better, “fairer” (my quotes) ? Not a government retiree here, just a hard-working private investor and saver from the private sector.

  7. Michael says:

    Seems like a great place to rent for January, February, and March if its cold where you live. Too hot for me in the summer and much of the other months. I do like the idea of 100 Pickleball courts! If you can afford it why not?

  8. Danny says:

    Very conservative place, pro-Trump (MAGA) from what I understand. Not for me. I support inclusion/diversity, which is the fabric of this country. Not sure most folks feel the same over there.

  9. Nancy Webman says:

    Great post!

  10. Rolonda Qualls says:

    Great article! I work in the Villages as a pharmacist and the volume of prescriptions we do is insane! They keep cutting down trees & building houses. At this time I don’t believe we have the health care in place to handle the volume of seniors that are turning 65 every day. Please keep your health care in mind if you are considering relocating.

  11. eileen hession says:

    the $1000 HOV is pretty steep when most places I looked at are $3-400. But does it cover taxes? Utilities? Gotta ask. Also, there are houses in the Villages for $75000. Look on “55 places.”

  12. Laurel says:

    After a corporate layoff, I retired to Mexico last year. I love it. I just paid these annual bills: $2,000 for health insurance for excellent healthcare, $60/yr for property tax, $15/yr for trash collection 3x a week. I pay my weekly housekeeper $20/day, and the gardener and pool guy each make about $5 per visit. I walk almost everywhere, and can Uber longer distances across town for $3. We have world-class art galleries, music, and restaurants here; I pay $10 for symphony tickets, and about $15 for dinner at a good restaurant. If/when my health fails, live-in help is affordable. The advantages of living here go way beyond the financial ones, but it’s good not to worry about money, for perhaps the first time in my life.

  13. Carol Abel says:

    As a Villages resident, I would argue almost every fact in this report! Many homes are available at a much lower price than she quoted, many other numbers quoted are wrong, and there are at least nine grocery stores accessible by golf cart along with a hospital and many, many locations with doctor offices – so you don’t even need to own a car (a savings of $$). I hope no one crosses The Villages off their list after reading this article!

  14. Brian says:

    Compared to living in Boston, where the author is from, The Villages is a financial solution. Even moving from Michigan we saved over four percent in State income tax and have far better roads.

  15. MW says:

    The Villages or Reality – really? There will always be some who have more and some who have less. However, there are countries outside of the United States that equalize what their citizens have. I realized very early in life that no one promised me a rose garden so I chose to get an education, work (sometimes two jobs), save, invest, did not take lavish vacations or over indulge in kids. I did not take Social Security until 70 and am still working full time at 72 – by choice. Should I choose to live at the Villages, I would not feel elite or that I had good fortune, just that I had made good choices.

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