Senior Housing: Southern Charms

By KELLY GREENE for the Wall St Journal

Suzanne Hardie found herself drawn to Charleston, S.C., and its pedestrian-friendly, antebellum waterfront after wrapping up her chemical-engineering career with Procter & Gamble Co. She had been living in a small German city, where she walked everywhere and enjoyed the historical charm.

In fact, a few years before Ms. Hardie, who is 57 years old, and her husband Frank, 62, moved to Charleston in 2008, they bought a two-bedroom condo facing the Cooper River. Now they enjoy being a few blocks from the downtown hubbub while also being able to watch porpoises and herons from their porch.

“We have one car, but we hardly use it,” Ms. Hardie says. “You see history wherever you go. If you look across the river from us, the USS Yorktown is stationed there. [And] I’m right by Battery Park, which is where the Civil War started” with the shelling of Fort Sumter.

The Hardies are part of a steady stream of retirees finding their way to South Carolina’s Lowcountry, an area that sweeps inland from the barrier islands of the Atlantic and extends some 150 miles along the state’s coast. Charleston sits in the center of this landscape and reflects its multiple personalities: a mix of cultural offerings, entertainment, history and natural beauty.

Full Calendar

The city proper is relatively small, with about 115,000 residents. But new arrivals find no shortage of activities. Shops and gourmet restaurants are plentiful; schools reach out to older students (the College of Charleston offers a member-led Center for Creative Retirement with field trips, weekly meetings, study groups and lunches); and art festivals fill the calendar. Among the most prominent is the Spoleto Festival USA, a two-week extravaganza each spring.

And then there’s Charleston’s unique look. Its historic core, nestled between two rivers, features pastel-painted colonial homes and churches dating to the 1700s. The Battery, at the city’s southern tip, features monuments and military relics, overlooks the rivers and harbor, and is a favorite place for many residents to walk. Nearby are plantations and gardens open for tours, along with pristine Atlantic beaches.

“It’s exceeded our expectations,” says Allan Anderson. Mr. Anderson and his wife, Jane, both 67, initially settled on nearby Kiawah Island in 2004 after living in London for eight years, where Mr. Anderson finished his career with brokerage firm Edward Jones. In 2007, the couple decided to move to Charleston. Now their home is a converted store with a walled brick courtyard.

Today, the Andersons often pack two events into one night, such as a reception for a nonprofit group followed by a College of Charleston basketball game. “I can’t imagine not living here,” Mr. Anderson says.

That sentiment is heard often among transplants to the area, particularly when the conversation turns to museums, galleries and the like. Last year, Anne Fortson, 63, and her husband David, 66, started splitting time between homes in town and on the nearby Isle of Palms. As a present, she gave him a membership to the Charleston Library Society, founded in 1748, which bills itself as “the South’s oldest cultural institution.” Among the benefits: lectures by authors associated with the city, including novelist Pat Conroy.

Fred Himmelein, 65, describes Charleston as a “cultural welcome wagon.” He and his wife Abby, 67, moved to the city in 2006 after retiring from their careers in law and owning health-food stores in Indianapolis. (They still have a store in Muncie, Ind.) The couple’s home in Charleston originally served as a Civil War hospital. Today, he serves on the board of the city symphony, while Ms. Himmelein participates in a women’s giving circle that pools members’ contributions to help women entrepreneurs in developing countries. She also is a volunteer advocate for abused children and works for a domestic-violence shelter.

Homes Are Pricey

Unfortunately, the city’s appeal to tourists and second-home shoppers means newcomers won’t find the housing bargains available elsewhere in the South. The median cost of an existing single-family home in the Charleston-North Charleston area was $197,500 earlier this year, down 0.4% from 2009, according to the National Association of Realtors. The South’s median fell 2% from last year to $155,500.


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