A Leisurely Pace, a Thriving Equestrian Culture, Plenty of Golf Courses, Stately Homes and Leafy Neighborhoods Bring Retirees to Charming Aiken, South Carolina
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
Tucked in lush western South Carolina, about 19 miles from Augusta, Georgia, charming Aiken (population 31,000) was founded in 1835. It began to thrive after the Civil War when Charleston's wealthy residents discovered the area's relatively mild winters. Word spread north, and soon families named Astor and Vanderbilt were building Aiken summer "cottages," actually magnificent mansions, and calling the area Winter Colony. These families brought their polo ponies with them and quickly established a thriving equestrian culture. Today, downtown Aiken is peppered with beautiful historic homes and the city is surrounded by horse farms. Life is low key. Manners still matter, and traditional values are cherished.
Aiken has grown by 5% within the last decade, and much of this growth has come from retirees. In fact, 46% of residents are age 45 or better. Forty-three percent of locals hold at least a four year college degree. The city is racially diverse, and the crime rate meets the national average (although the property crime rate is above the national average). The cost of living is 10% below the national average. Politics lean to the right.
The median home price is $145,000. Neighborhoods are quiet and leafy. Homes outside of the historic district are primarily ranch ramblers and raised ranch ramblers. Woodside Plantation and Houndslake Country Club are golf course communities. Nicer areas are generally on the southern side of town. Kalmia Landing is a cozy 55+ community with red brick homes and gardens.
South Carolina is tax friendly when it comes to retirement. Social Security is not taxed, and although qualified retirement income is taxed, up to $15,000 (single) and up to $30,000 (married) may be exempt at age 65 and beyond. Up to $30,000 in military pensions are exempt (in 2020) for people 65 or better. Property tax is calculated at just 4% of a residence's fair market value, and for homeowners 65 and better, $50,000 is exempt from local property taxes. The annual taxes on a $145,000 Aiken residence are approximately $800. The state sales tax rate is 6%. The state sales tax rate is 6%, and the income tax ranges from 3% to 7%.
Spacious parks, huge oak trees, wide boulevards, an inviting, tree-lined downtown and fun festivals, such as Aiken's Makin' - a large craft festival, are what give the town its unique character. It is perhaps, though, the continuing equestrian culture for which Aiken is still best known.
In fact, this area produces thoroughbreds that compete in racing events around the country, and Aiken residents enjoy a bounty of horse-related events throughout the year. The Aiken Polo Club has Sunday afternoon polo matches, and the Aiken Steeplechase Association hosts spring and fall events. The popular Aiken Triple Crown features harness racing, steeplechases and head to head match-ups.
South Carolina is also golf country, and Aiken's 10 or more golf courses offer plenty of opportunities to swing a club. The Palmetto Golf Course is a private 18 hole course. The historic Aiken Golf Club, in the center of town, dates from 1912 and is semi-private. The Cedar Creek Golf Course was designed by Arthur Hills and draws professional golfers when the Masters Golf Tournament takes place just down the road in Augusta each year.
When not watching polo or playing golf, Aiken residents enjoy the Aiken Civic Ballet Company, the Aiken Center for the Arts, the Aiken Performing Arts Group, the Aiken County Historical Museum and the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. The Aiken Public Library does its part by offering book discussions and lectures. It also has public access computers.
Dining options are varied and include everything from Mexican and BBQ to Indian cuisine. Shopping venues are mostly downtown specialty shops, including antique stores, equestrian stores, a dog store, candy stores, bakeries and more. Two Wal-Marts are in town. The Aiken Farmers' Market takes place two to three days a week year round. Aiken Mall recently closed but a developer hopes to turn it into a mixed-use center at some point in the future. Many residents travel 18 miles to Augusta for more shopping options.
Hitchcock Woods is a 2,000 acre urban forest enjoyed by equestrians, bikers and and walkers. Hopeland Gardens is a 14-acre garden under a canopy of ancient oaks, deodar cedars and magnolias. Aiken State Park is 16 miles north of the city and has four lakes and hiking and biking trails. Lake Thurmond, a huge reservoir about 50 miles outside of town, beckons to fishermen, boaters and swimmers. And for retirees needing the occasional beach fix, the ocean resorts of Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head are a three hour drive to the east.
The Aiken Area Council on Aging provides congregate meals and manages the Meals on Wheels program. It also provides transportation on select days of the month. The Smith - Hazel Senior Citizens Club is a seniors' group that provides an opportunity to meet new people through a variety of activities. The Parks and Recreation Department organizes group outings, which may be anything from a St. Patrick's Day Parade trip or a visit to the Augusta Botanic Gardens. The SilverSneakers Fitness Program encourages seniors to become more physically active. The University of South Carolina-Aiken Academy of Lifelong Learning offers programs and classes for people age 55 or better. Membership is just $70 per semester.
Best Friend Express is the local bus service (it also travels to Augusta). The regular adult fare is $2.00, and people age 60 or better ride for $1.00 (no Sunday service). All buses are wheelchair accessible, and a Dial-a-Ride service is available for people with disabilities. Aiken has a municipal airport, and Augusta has a regional airport. The nearest international airport is two and a half hours away in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Aiken Regional Medical Center is a 245-bed facility with 24 hour emergency care, cardiac care, a cancer center, nuclear medicine, neurosurgery, plastic surgery and more. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and has a wellness program designed just for older adults. It accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center is in Augusta, 18 miles to the west.
This area has a humid, subtropical climate. Winter temperatures are in the mid-30s, 40s and low 50s, and summer temperatures are in the 90s, with evening temperatures dipping into the low-70s. On average, the area receives 50 inches of rain per year. On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, Aiken comes in well below the national average. The tornado risk is 65% higher than the national average. Hurricane Florence in 2018 brought some wind and rain but no siginificant damage.
There are a few drawbacks to retirement in Aiken. Some residents complain about it having a "small town mentality," and others bemoan the old money culture that is sometimes resistant to change. Younger locals think the town is a little dull. It is worth noting that Savannah River Site is a nuclear waste reclamation facility about 15 miles from downtown (the Department of Energy has determined that it is environmentally safe).
Despite these downsides, Aiken entices with its Southern character, equestrian heritage and easygoing spirit. Often towns with a history of wealth and privilege are expensive and out of reach for many. Quiet Aiken, on the other hand, manages to retain the flavor of its past and provide a reasonably priced retirement for just about everyone.
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