Cost of Living: Below the National Average
In Georgia's lakes region, about an hour east of Atlanta, Madison (population 4,000) is a living reminder of a world gone by, a place steeped in history and Southern tradition, with elegant white columned mansions and gardens overflowing with roses and Wisteria. This quaint town, established in 1809, has suffered through three devastating fires but has always rebounded.
In 1845, it was described as "the most cultured and aristocratic town on the stagecoach route from Charlestown to New Orleans" and was home to wealthy plantation owners. When Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched from Atlanta to the sea in 1864, destroying nearly everything in his path, he spared Madison because, according to legend, it was too pretty to burn.
Today it is a showcase of historic architecture and is a leisurely, picturesque place to retire. In fact, 40% of residents are age 45 or better. Thirty-two percent of them are college educated. The town has maintained its population during the last decade and is racially diverse. Politics lean to the right, and the cost of living is 2% below the national average.
The median home price is $239,000. Neighborhoods are shaded, well-tended and generally without sidewalks. Madison homes for sale include brick ranch ramblers, raised ranch ramblers, Craftsmans, manufactured homes, bungalows and more. Antebellum, Victorian and plantation style properties on oak-lined avenues in the historic district are priced from the mid-$300,000s and go up (way up) from there. Apartments are not plentiful.
Georgia is a tax-friendly state for retirement. Social Security is tax-exempt, as is up to $35,000 in other retirement income for people age 62 to 64. For residents age 65 or better, up to $65,000 in retirement income is exempt.
Real estate is assessed at 40% of fair market value, and all homeowners receive a $2,000 homestead exemption. Homeowners age 62 or better who earn $10,000 or less per year may have $10,000 of their property's assessed value exempt from school taxes. Homeowners age 62 or older whose family income does not exceed $30,000 annually may qualify for a partial exemption from state and county property taxes. For those age 65 and better who earn $10,000 or less, $4,000 of their property's value is exempt from state and county taxes as well. In Madison, the annual taxes on a $240,000 home are approximately $2,400. The state sales tax is 4%, and the income tax rate ranges from 1% to 6%.
Madison is often called "The Prettiest Small Town in America," and has been voted one of America's best small towns. Practically all of Madison is a designated historic district, one of the largest in Georgia and one recognized by the U.S. Department of Interior as one of the finest in the South. Residents have a reputation for friendliness and welcome newcomers with traditional Southern hospitality.
In addition to the historic structures, reminders of the pre-Civil War era (in these parts known as the "pre-War of Northern Aggression" era) are everywhere, and the urge to sip a mint julep on the shady verandah of an antebellum mansion is hard to resist. The Antebellum Trial, a 100-mile trek encompassing seven towns that escaped Sherman's wrath, runs right through Madison, and The Antiques Trail, a 16-mile loop of quaint villages where antiques and collectibles are plentiful, also makes its way through town.
The downtown, which centers on a square anchored by the courthouse, is walkable, safe and full of delightful shops and cafes, bookstores and galleries. Madison Markets, located in an early 20th-century cotton warehouse, has an eclectic mix of merchandise, everything from vintage clothing and handcrafted furniture to Oriental rugs. The Morgan County Library is a part of the Uncle Remus Regional Library System and has public computers with internet access and an active inter-library loan program. Shopping and dining are limited, but there is a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, and Atlanta is only 55 miles away.
"Madison in May" is but one of three annual home tours, and the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, housed in a fine old Romanesque Revival red brick building that has received numerous awards for its innovative restoration, is the town's cultural center. It hosts receptions, lectures, symposiums, exhibits and theater presentations.
Lake Oconee, just beyond town limits, is a magnet for water devotees and an added plus to retirement here. This 19,000-acre recreation area is the spot for fishing (bass, crappie, catfish and bluegills), water skiing, sailing, picnicking and golf. In fact, the Golf Club at Cuscowilla has been ranked in the top three "Best Residential Courses" by Golfweek Magazine.
The Morgan County Senior Center, located on Main Street, is open to people age 60 and better. Participants enjoy a wide array of programs and activities, including fitness classes, movies, crafts, games, parties and day trips, as well as nutrition classes, Medicare counseling, legal assistance, transportation, tax preparation, Meals on Wheels, a daily noon meal (nominal fee) and outreach programs. Computers with internet access are available, too. This is also a great place to find volunteer opportunities.
Morgan Memorial Hospital is a 25-bed acute care hospital with a 24-hour emergency unit. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and is certified as a Level IV adult trauma center, the only critical access hospital in the state of Georgia to have that designation. Medicaid and Medicare patients are accepted. Morgan Memorial is also home to the Senior Life Enrichment Center (SLEC), a program that assists older adults with issues such as relocation, financial problems, caregiver challenges and more. For military retirees, Athens, 30 miles away, has a VA outpatient clinic, and Atlanta, 55 miles away, has a VA hospital.
There is no public bus system, but the Morgan County Transit System provides a van service for residents within county boundaries. It operates Monday through Friday and offers transportation to doctor's offices, the grocery store and other local stops. Twenty-four hour notice is needed when scheduling a ride, and the cost is $1.00 to $2.00 per trip depending on distance. There is a regional airport, and Atlanta is home to the Hartsfield and Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
During the summer, the air here is thick and heavy. Madison weather includes temperatures in the mid-90s with lows in the 60s and 70s. Winters are mild with temperatures mostly in the 40s and 50s, occasionally dipping into the 30s. On average, the area receives 47 inches of rain per year. On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, Madison ranks well below the national average. The sun shines 220 days of the year.
Madison does have a couple of drawbacks. The overall crime rate meets the national average, but property crime is slightly above the national average. The risk of a tornado is 75% above the national average (and a twister struck in April, 2011).
Even with these downsides, Madison beckons. It is a historic jewel with a lot to offer and is a perfect spot for many a retiree.
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