NAPLES, Florida. The cost of a luxury retirement is a bit like the old J.P. Morgan story. Asked how much it cost to operate his yacht, the famed financier answered, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

But I decided to ask anyway.

I have spent the better part of a week exploring Naples, Bonita Springs, and Fort Myers here on the Florida Gulf Coast, with particular emphasis on WCI Communities, Inc. the premier developer. If you've read an in-flight magazine, the Friday edition of the Wall Street Journal, or any of the upscale "shelter" magazines, you've probably seen a WCI advertisement for the well-ordered, luxurious lifestyle they offer.

And that isn't just advertising smooth talk. Talk with people locally and you'll quickly learn that one of their earlier developments, Pelican Bay in Naples, is the standard by which all high-quality developments are measured. When you buy a house from WCI you're also buying a well-maintained development. It will be complete with a golf course, tennis courts, a fitness facility, possibly a marina, a country club, long winding roads, fountains, paths for walking or running, and lovely plantings. Many of the houses will have three car garages, the third spot for housing the golf cart that can become your primary transportation.

So how much does it cost?

It all depends. While it is possible to find a WCI offering for less than $200,000, the number of choices at that price level is small. Your choices starts to expand at $300,000 and you'll find a good many offerings in the $400,000 to $800,000 range.

Of course, you can always spend more. At La Scala, a new high rise inside the Colony Golf and Country Club at Pelican Landing in Bonita Springs, for instance, you can buy a decorator ready unit (one of four per floor, each with its own elevator entrance) for $1.6 million to over $5 million for a Penthouse. The price calculates to about $500 per interior square foot, excluding the impressively large balconies and terraces that are part of each unit. Decorator ready means concrete floors and white plaster walls. It means ready for several hundred thousand dollars of magic from your decorator. At that price level, sales director Victor Spina told me, most of their customers want a highly customized residence. Monthly maintenance costs for these units run $1,100 to $1,300 a month. Utilities, insurance, and taxes will take the cost up further.

O.K., let's scale-back a bit.

One house I particularly liked was in Addison Place, a sub-development inside the Colony Club. For just over $800,000 you could buy a three bedroom, three-bath home with a cabana/guest house and bath, and an enclosed swimming pool. Just to make the whole thing easy, the house was completely (and very nicely) furnished. Start the same house for yourself and it could be yours, unfurnished, for about $700,000. That figures to about $200 per interior square foot.

Measure either against the national median home price--- $171,600 at the end of 2003 according to the National Association of Realtors--- and you can be pretty sure that not everyone will be able to live there. Particularly when you consider that these are often second and third homes.

It also takes some money to support the amenities offered by the community--- the roads, gates, tennis courts, and country club mentioned earlier cost about $5,000 a year. You'll spend more if you have a golf habit.

Real estate taxes, Mr. Spina said, were about 1.6 percent of sale price--- as with most upscale resort areas in America, taxes tend to be low when you have a lot of appraised value coupled with limited demand for municipal services. Even so, an $11,200 annual tax bill merits some attention.

What would such a lifestyle cost?

Assuming you sold a median priced home and used the proceeds as a down payment on the completely furnished $800,000 home, I figure your total shelter and community membership would cost about $64,000 a year, of which about $40,000 would be the annual cost of your mortgage. Pay cash and the bill drops to about $24,000 a year.

That's home base for a luxury retirement.

Who can afford it?

Not many. If you drew 4 percent a year from your investments to pay the $64,000 bill you'd need $1.6 million; if you paid cash and drew 4 percent from your investments to pay $24,000 a year, you'd need $1.4 million. My Wealth Scoreboard for 2001 indicates that people at least 60 years old are in the top 10 percent of their age group if their net worth (all assets, including houses) is at least $1.4 million. When you consider that other money is required to eat, wear clothes, drive a car, and pay income taxes, we're probably closer to one retiree in a hundred.

That's why its luxury.

As always, luxury is great if you can afford it. But what do the other 99 in 100 retirees do? In fact, they have lots of choices, including a waterfront Florida residence for $19,500.

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