This is the 15th in a series of articles intended to demystify the experience of living in a retirement community.

In other parts of the country, people sometimes have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy into a retirement community. The good news in Prescott is that none of the four retirement communities I looked into requires a big upfront fee. The financial arrangements are simpler - closer to renting an apartment than to buying a house.

I compared annual costs for one person in an independent living apartment of about 850 square feet and included meals. Listing the apartment name and square footage, these are:

Good Samaritan (Windsong Villas in Prescott Valley, 849 sf): $27,000; Las Fuentes (Bedford, 915 sf): $40,000; Granite Gate (Cottonwood, 846 sf): $43,000; Alta Vista (Premier Suite, 841 sf): $48,000.

A few notes: Good Samaritan includes 20 lunches a month in its rates and encourages residents to take home extra soup and salad for dinner; I added $250/month for groceries to cover other meals. At Granite Gate, all meals are included. At Alta Vista, I've added the cost of a full meal plan, at $400/month. At Las Fuentes, I've added $490/month to cover all full meals. Other options at Alta Vista and Las Fuentes include buying individual meals, and at Las Fuentes, smaller breakfasts and lunches.

If you look at the numbers and gulp, two points may help. First, remember that I have included food costs. Second, understand that the totals may not be as different from your expenses today as they first appear. Worksheets offered by Alta Vista and Las Fuentes show why.

They provide space for you to write in your costs today for items such as rent/mortgage, homeowners' insurance, property taxes, homeowners' association fees, housecleaning, cable TV, electricity, water/sewer, gas/heating, lawn care, snow removal, pest control, garbage removal, home maintenance and transportation.

Then in the column for your expenses in the retirement community, after each of these items (except rent), it says, "included."

You may see it differently for some of the items. For example, you may want to keep your car. Perhaps you want more cable stations than their package includes. While you may not need homeowners' insurance, you may want renters' insurance.

On the other hand, your costs could be lower than the example suggests, because you may decide that you need less space and can therefore choose a smaller, less expensive apartment. For example, knowing that you can entertain guests in the restaurant on site - or even in a private dining room - you may conclude that having a large dining area in your apartment is unnecessary.

The lowest cost apartments are as much as $15,000 less expensive than the above example; including meals (and in Good Samaritan's case, an adjustment of $450 for groceries since no meals are included at this site) these costs are: Good Samaritan (one bedroom in Prescott, 480 sf): $22,000; Granite Gate (Willow, 480 sf): $28,000; Las Fuentes (Chester, 605 sf): $32,000; Alta Vista (Ambassador Suite, 605 sf): $35,000.

Assisted living apartments are typically smaller (except at Granite Gate, where every apartment/bed in the community is licensed for assisted living). Base rates for assisted living in all communities include three meals a day plus a snack.

The base rates for assisted living in an apartment of roughly 570 square feet are about as follows: Granite Gate (Chaparral, 564 sf): $30,000; Alta Vista (Gold Suite, 571 sf): $39,000; Good Samaritan (two bedroom, 608+ sf): $40,000; Las Fuentes (one bedroom, 576 sf): $45,000. Smaller apartments are offered in each community at a lower cost.

Each community is careful to point out that additional assisted living charges are likely to apply, depending on the individual's specific needs. These charges may be modest (say, $150/month) or extensive (say, $1,800/month). You can ask the communities you are interested in to estimate the costs for any specific case you have in mind.

The least expensive sites for independent living are not necessarily the same as those for assisted living.

The next column talks about costs for skilled nursing/long-term care and memory care. The column after that discusses how you might cover the costs.

-- Next -- 096. Costs of Long-Term Care and Memory Care