A big part of the recipe for a good life is to love the place you live. Although you can compensate for almost any living conditions with a strong Stoic attitude and some training, it sure is nice to be surrounded by an environment that truly agrees with your constitution. After all, all five of your senses are fueled by nothing more than the physical environment right around you, and every atom in your body is replaced every few years by atoms that happen to be nearby.
After fifteen years of living next to the Rocky Mountains, I am definitely still in love with my own patch of the world. Colorado in general, and old-town Longmont in specific, agree very well with me. The fine balance between warmth and cold, freedom and social order, affordability and fanciness, and even perfection and ugly flaws, seems just about right to keep life vigorous and interesting. After all, the happiest life is not attained by soaking yourself in the deepest possible tub of comfort. Instead, you win the game by extracting the most personal growth from yourself. This means doing hard stuff. Experiencing voluntary discomfort. Getting off your ass once in a while. Colorado seems to have been geologically formed with exactly this ethos in mind.
Finding a Great Place to Live (and Retire)
The goal of this article not to share just one example of a location that provides a good life, but learn about more great ones from you. I’ll describe the typical factors that make it possible for me by describing my own town. But this is only one place. There are thousands of other great towns and cities around the world that offer amazing advantages. The idea is to draw some of them out here. You may be inspired to check out one of these destinations, or to find new life in your own home city. Sometimes a move across town can be just as life-changing as a move to a new continent.
Why I live in Colorado
Back in 1999, I toured some of the country by attending job interviews in Massachusetts, Georgia, North Carolina, California and here in Colorado, and found the lifestyle of my potential coworkers to be the most enviable here. People keep active duty mountain bikes with dried red mud on their treads leaned casually inside their engineering cubicles, and CEOs wear sandals. This is a place where Life comes first, and Work is allowed to coexist as long as it does not show up wielding its characteristic Clipboard of Bullshit. Obviously there will be exceptions, but it is amazing how strong the regional cultural differences are even within the borders of a single country.
I stumbled across this place while living 13 miles down the road in its much more glamorous neighbor, Boulder. My coworkers and I used to take group motorcycle rides out here to visit the legendary Mexican restaurants, but I also noticed the big trees lining the creeks, beautiful public parks, and the historic downtown. With house prices at least 50% lower than Boulder, I noticed I could afford to have my pick of neighborhoods and live within walking distance of downtown. But unfortunately, this would mean voluntarily signing myself up for a car clown commute to the job in Boulder, so I dismissed the idea.
Until retirement in 2005, when suddenly we could live anywhere with no commute at all. So Longmont it was.
The City at a Glance
Longmont is a compact, historic city that fits within a roughly 5×5 mile footprint. Its population of 92,000 means it is big enough to have all your retail and restaurant needs covered, great Internet access and mobile phone service, and an urban feel in places. But small enough that you can fit the whole thing in your head – knowing all the streets and neighborhoods, and mayor and the owner of your favorite brew pub (who are coincidentally the same guy). Most importantly, it is small enough that you can bike from anywhere to anywhere in the city within minutes. My own rule is that Intra-Longmont car trips are only permissible if you are carrying more than 100 pounds of stuff – otherwise, use the bike and a bike trailer. But you’re still only 20 minutes from Boulder, 50 from downtown Denver and the same distance from Denver Airport, one of the largest and most well-connected in the world. The continent’s largest mountain chain begins about 10 miles to the West, which means you can be in a canyon within the confines of a lunchtime bike ride.
Here we benefit from our location next to the venture-capital-happy money fountain of Boulder. Small and large tech companies have offices nearby including Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Amgen, Seagate, and trendier ones I don’t keep track of due to the fact that I haven’t worked in tech in almost nine years. The area is also a minor hub for solar and wind power companies, and creative industries as well. But more interesting than the physical office situation is the number of people who live here but work remotely for companies in New York, Boston, LA, and Silicon Valley. It’s not a bedroom community since you don’t have to commute out of it to work. More of a Patio community.
In a word: Invigorating. Right now it is spring, which means a stream of warm sunny days (60-80F) with very occasional rain and clouds. Summer is a series of very dry hot sunny days (80-95F), with even less rain. Fall is back to the warm sunny days with occasional rain and surprising dumps of snow towards the end of it. Winter is mild sunny days (44F) with cold nights (15F) and occasional vigorous snowstorms and colder days. Annual precipitation is only about 15″, about the same as Los Angeles and a rather extreme difference from NYC’s 45″. On average, there are only a few days each year where weather makes it impractical to ride your bike, which is the most important measurement for me. But it’s not a great climate if you are a palm tree or a year-round outdoor vegetable garden.
Single family houses in this city start in the upper $100s. In the low $300s, you can find a quaint 2-3 bedroom house in the downtown region or a solid 3/3 modern house in a close-in suburb. The low $400s gets you one of the very nice houses* in the better neighborhoods and you can pretty much have your pick of the town if you show up with $500k or more. Full houses rent for $1500-$2500 per month, and apartments are less.
Property taxes are fairly cheap at about 0.8% of a property’s appraised value per year, so you’ll be paying $1600-$3000 rather than $5,000-$15,000 as they do on the East Coast. The region has an 8% sales tax, 4.6% state income tax, and no local income taxes. Colorado is very friendly to small business, with easy online LLC registration that costs me about $10 per year to maintain. And, not that you care, but gasoline is consistently some of the nation’s cheapest, and electricity is even cheaper at under 10 cents per kWh. Gigabit Internet is $50 per month.
Saving the best for last, this town has a real culture of caring for other people. It is expected that if you pass a stranger on any street, you will both exchange at least a greeting. You generally become friends with the people who work at your favorite stores, and your own neighborhood can be the source of your social circle. My own area has a rotating “porch club” which is an open invitation to gather at a designated front porch bearing food and drink, spouses and kids, and just shoot the breeze as the sun goes down on a summer night. We also have a good bike culture beginning: parents bike their kids to school, and the weekly Bike Night event draws over 200 people in the peak of summer. (I’ll be there on May 14th, by the way).
Keep in mind when reading all of this that I am an incurable optimist. There are plenty of things in Longmont that still suck. People drive their cars way too much, and far too few of them ride bikes. Some neighborhoods are run down, and plenty of the commercial buildings in the fringe areas are vacant too. It’s not a cultural hub and there are decidedly fewer beautiful people in restaurants than you will see in Boulder. Because of the family demographic, it would be a boring place to be a 20-something single looking for night life. And in the dead of winter when this place is brown or snowy, I have been known to long for San Diego or Hawaii.
Do you live in a city that provides a nice base for the Good Life? Affordable living, good jobs and culture, and an outdoorsy and health-oriented vibe? Share it in the comments below and we can all learn from each other. Try to address the general areas above and link to a demographics page like these two for Longmont.
Looking to move HERE?
I’ll admit it right now: I’d actually like to help create a Badass Utopia right here in my own town. Several people I know have already moved here after reading about it on the blog, and I’d be happy to facilitate the trend, because Mustachians are good people. We will share fermented ciders on our respective porches and lend each other power tools and project advice. Get in touch via the contact form if you are one of these people and I can help you learn about the area, find a good place to live, etc.
* Speaking of nicer houses…
Revised: Here I had mentioned two houses that happened to be coming to market at the time of writing. One was my own house and another was the place next door, newly renovated by a builder acquaintance. They are of course both sold now.
Like many cities, house prices in this area have risen (some would say “recovered”) quickly in these last two years, but it is still one of the better deals on a price-to-awesomeness ratio, when compared to other areas with strong tech employment.