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6 tips to evaluating a retirement community

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Balance the lower move-in costs with ongoing costs, such as homeowners association fees. Ask a lot of questions. "Is there any deferred maintenance?" If the answer is yes, this can mean the budget is out of whack or that an increase in homeowners fees may be coming. If this is a possibility, a prudent follow-up would be, "What is the policy on increases in monthly fees?"  Potential buyers also should be careful when signing documents (read it all and if you don't understand the legalese, take it to your lawyer, financial adviser or trusted friend for interpretation). Make sure deposits are fully refundable if you change your mind.

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Bankrate tip: If you're leaning toward a particular community, check on the amenities and how well they're kept up. Do people actually use them? A beautiful pool that's never filled is useless. What about clubhouses and social activities? Are the residents active adults or does the community tilt toward older, less-active retirees? Can you age in place here? Find out before you commit.

4. Test drive the community
John Howells, a contributing writer for Where to Retire magazine and author of several books on retirement, including "Where to Retire," says it makes sense to rent a home or apartment before purchasing. "An amazing number of people simply check out the golf courses and begin looking for a place to buy," Howells says. Other advice: Before buying a place, take an adult education or community college class, attend a city council meeting and never pass up a chance to talk with area residents.

Former Chicago resident Janice Vera followed Howells' advice -- by accident. Vera and her husband sold their home and bought a recreational vehicle with plans to travel. A sudden illness with forced recuperation time found them staying with a relative in Brownsburg, Ind.

"We saw this little house for sale and the prices (in Brownsburg) compared to Chicago were amazing," Vera says. They bought it.

Now they love the community and spend part of the year in Brownsburg, with its low cost of living, and the rest of the time on the road.

Bankrate tip: Visit in different seasons. Rent a vacation cottage, apartment or hotel room by the week or month. Shop the local economy, test the transportation, restaurants and activities, go to the libraries, get your hair cut and see what's offered to older adults before you plunk down your money.

5. Look ahead
Topsail Beach, N.C., seems an ideal place to retire. A barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, Topsail has beautiful beaches and reasonable home prices, especially in comparison with Myrtle Beach, the Jersey shore and Florida.

Next: Think worst-case scenarios in terms of retired expenses.
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