Once, on a newspaper assignment, I knocked on the door of an almost-new home in Mesa, Ariz., to ask the folks who lived there why they had bought a house behind a factory that makes the highly unstable chemical that inflates automobile air bags. In the previous three years, there had been an explosion and two fires there.
"They told us it wouldn't be a problem," answered the homeowner, who said he and his wife had retired there from Illinois.
"They"? The real estate broker? The builder? Perhaps he should have checked out the area more carefully.
How does one investigate prospective places to retire without visiting every location? The Internet makes it easy. As an exercise, I chose to check out upstate Kingston because an Internet ranking I had stumbled on one day deemed it a good place to retire.
I set out to see how much I could learn about it on my computer before I drove there to scope it out. My criteria could be adapted to almost any place that's on your radar if you're thinking of leaving Long Island. (See box for some of the specific Web sites.)
Mapquest.com shows Kingston in Ulster County, not far from Woodstock and just off the New York State Thruway. The nearest airport with commercial service is Stewart International, about 40 miles to the south. A Google search of "train station kingston ny" finds an Amtrak station across the Hudson in Rhinecliff.
The National Association of Realtors says the median price in Kingston for single family homes, condos and co-ops in April, May and June last year was $207,000, just over half Long Island's median of $387,000 but still higher than the national median of $174,000. Prices outside the city tend to be higher. Real estate agent Kathy Shumway told me when I visited Kingston that the city is a buyers' market, more so than the surrounding area, but that sales are picking up.
Realtor.com turned up 329 listings, in Kingston and vicinity, each with aerial photos, especially helpful if there's a garbage dump or auto shredder hidden behind those backyard trees. Searching the Web site of Toxics Targeting (toxicstargeting.com), an Ithaca environmental data company, can indicate hazardous sites in the area, such as a gasoline spills.
POPULATION, INCOME LEVELS
On the U.S. Census Bureau Web site, simply type the community's name, where it says "population finder." It shows Kingston with about 22,000 people and a median family income of about $60,000.
Upstate is a bust for those who hate winter, but just how rough is it in Kingston? For Sale By Owner's fizber.com Web site has data from the National Weather Service for communities around the country. Kingston, for instance, averages 30.5, 22.5 and 35.4 degrees, respectively, in January, February and March. Average seasonal snowfall is 23.5 inches.
Robert J. Castelli, a security consultant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan suggests checking the local paper for crime articles and to check the Internet for registered sex offenders in the area. FBI Uniform Crime Reports show numbers of crimes by region, state and agency and also crime rates.
Retirees who plan to work part-time can check out state and local unemployment rates at the U.S. and states' labor department Web sites.
SERVICES FOR SENIORS
A Google search "Ulster County senior" found Ulster County's Office for the Aging Web site and a nationwide list of state senior citizens' agencies on the Web site retirementliving.com.
LOCAL RETIREES FROM LONG ISLAND
Through the county senior citizens office, I found Leslie Malin, 66, a clinical social worker formerly of Great Neck and Sea Cliff, who has lived in Kingston for about eight years. She says the Hudson Valley has a slower pace and that people are warmer and less status-conscious than on Long Island. "The community is closer there," she said. She put me in touch with another former Great Neck resident, Barbara Sarah, 72, an oncology social worker who settled in the Hudson Valley in 1988. "I wanted more space and a slower tempo," Sarah said.
The Web site city-data.com has average property tax bills for thousands of communities around the country, while averages for this state can be found at New York's Office of Real Property Services.
A listing of rates by state and by utility are on the U.S. Energy Information Administration's Web site. For Kingston, it shows that Central Hudson Gas and Electric's electricity rates average 17 percent less per kilowatt hour than LIPA's.
The foreclosed property marketer Realtytrac publishes rates of "foreclosure related filings" as a percent of housing units for the nation, states, major metro areas and even counties. This is an indicator of an area's economic health.
Medicare's Web site has a "hospital compare" feature. And Hospital-Data.com rates hospitals, clinics and nursing homes based on data "compiled from multiple government and commercial sources." New York's Department of Health also provides assessments.
The State University at Albany's Center for Health and Workforce studies produces an annual report on the supply and geographical distribution of physicians. It's a good way to find the patient-to-doctor ratio in many communities.