I’m proud to announce that you can now listen to a podcast interview I did for the good folks at Retire There with Gil and Gene. Although I have written over 200 articles and a couple of books about living and retiring overseas, Gil and Gene and I discussed something a little different – Knoxville, Tennessee as a retirement destination. I was happy to comply, since it is an excellent choice – even though that wasn’t our intention when we moved here.

A little background is in order. Back in February of 2018 Rita and I made our first visit to Knoxville, Tennessee, traveling all the way from our home on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador. Our purpose: to see if we would like to establish a home base in this part of Eastern Tennessee.

We didn’t arrive at this location by accident. Our selection of Knoxville was based on at least six months of research into various possible sites in the USA.

At the time, we also were not thinking about conventional retirement either. After our successful hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in August of 2017 and our subsequent explorations of Cusco, Lima, Uruguay, and Buenos Aires, we had decided to sell our beachfront condo in Salinas, Ecuador and take steps to begin a “roving retirement” lifestyle.

We pictured ourselves spending two to three months exploring a new country, then moving on to another, occasionally returning to the US to visit friends and our families. We thought we would be spending as much as nine months of the year abroad.

When we began searching the US for possible home-base sites, we had four basic criteria:

  • It had to be in a state that did not tax retirement income. Ideally no state tax, but no retirement tax as a minimum.
  • It had to be in a temperate climate. We still did not want cold winters or blistering summers, and if we were going to be gone during the winter months, we didn’t want to risk burst pipes.
  • It had to be a reasonable driving distance from our nine grandchildren. Not an easy task, since at the time they were scattered in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana.
  • It had to have a convenient airport. We were tired of the 2-hour drive to and from Guayaquil’s airport. For ease of all the travel we envisioned, we wanted something more accessible.

The first item eliminated 38 states. Turns out (at the time) only nine states did not tax any income: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. The remaining three — Illinois, Mississippi and Pennsylvania — don't tax distributions from 401(k) plans, IRAs or pensions. Alabama and Hawaii don't tax pensions, but do tax distributions from 401(k) plans and IRAs.

If you look over that list with an eye to weather, you’ll see that leaves some pretty slim pickings. Alaska, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Wyoming? Way too cold, too far from hub airports, and too far from our kids. Florida, Nevada, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas? Too hot in the summer, and again too far.

While Pennsylvania was reasonably close to kids, it still gets pretty cold in the winters, and we would have to be near Philly or Pittsburgh for airports – neither of which appealed to us. I’ve visited Hawaii several times and loved the weather, but of course it is WAAAYYY to far.

So the state of Tennessee seemed to be hitting the right notes. Weather looked good in several locations, we could be at our kid’s homes in a day’s drive, and the tax situation was to our advantage. We started with the Nashville area, but it seemed a bit too congested and a little pricey. It also put us at the far end of that drive to the kids, so we looked at Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee.

It had some very attractive areas, but a few ticks in the negative column. The airport was not that large, so we would mostly be looking at Atlanta or Nashville, both long drives. Also, it has a kind of resort area feel to it, as outdoor activities are very big there. After living in Ecuador’s most popular beach resort for six years, that did not appeal.

Then I thought about Oak Ridge, knowing only that it was the center for secret research on the atomic bomb during World War II. On closer inspection, most of the housing was from the same era, and it looked like a region whose time had passed.

But that led us to take a closer look at Knoxville. We found videos of a charming downtown area, and learned the nearby Tyson-McGhee airport had flights to major hubs daily. We liked that the University of Tennessee was downtown, as being a “college town” almost always guarantees some entertainment and a lot of different restaurants.

In February when we came to see for ourselves, we fell in love with the place. At the time, we were not sure if we wanted a small place we could rent out, a retreat to come to for summers, or a larger house we could live in. But we found a home we loved in a nice neighborhood in a great location, and decided to buy a place we could comfortably live while in the States, and maintain cheaply while traveling.

Tennessee River, Knoxville

We closed in April of 2018, began moving everything from Ecuador later that year, and by 2019 we had sold our condo and were settling in, making preparations to begin our roving retirement plans.

We shopped around for an investment home to provide a source of income for our travels, and finally found one towards the end of that year. By the time we had the new rental setup and ready, and found tenants to move in, it was March of 2020 – just in time for COVID-19 to throw a major wrench into our travel plans.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. Ours was that the longer we lived in Knoxville, the more we realized what a great choice we had made. As a retirement destination, it has a lot to say for itself, well beyond the absence of state tax.

The downtown is clean, safe, and walkable, with many restaurants, bars, and activities. There are free shuttles to take around town, and parking is plentiful and cheap (free after 6pm and weekends).

Market Square, downtown Knoxville

There are also great entertainment choices. Not just movie theaters, but live venues that attract major acts. Just since we have been here, the town has seen Elton John, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, and more. We’ve seen wonderful musicals at the Tennessee Theater, comedians and bands at The Bijou, and in October we have tickets to see Steve Martin and Martin Short at the Civic Auditorium. In fact a week later, Jerry Seinfeld will be on the same stage.

Inside the Tennessee Theater

From where I sit now, there are at least four major hospital centers within a fifteen-minute drive, two of them less than ten, a big consideration once you hit 65 and the warranties on your body start expiring.

Add to that great weather, lots of shopping, home delivery of just about everything, and proximity to the Smokey Mountains National Park, and I really would be hard pressed to think of a better place we could have selected if we HAD been looking for a permanent retirement locale.

World's Fair Park and the Sunsphere

All this information and more is discussed in the podcast at https://www.retirethere.com/1200683/11013839 , Retire There with Gil and Gene. Give it a listen, and get a glimpse of why we feel like we made a great choice in Knoxville, Tennessee.