Better hurry if you are planning on TN, which is probably the least expensive of your stated options. Right now, anyway. East TN, where I am looking, in the Tri-Cities area is getting more and more expensive by the month.I’m from the NYC area - no longer live “in” the city, but my office is there. Not northern NJ (although to be fair, I may or may not be a scumbag).
The tentative plans are NC/TN or VT/NH/ME upon semi-retirement after the kids are out of the nest. Still have 7-10 years to go, so no firm plans yet and life throws lots of curve balls, so who knows?
The goal is somewhere we can be less than a 12-hour drive from NYC, on the east-ish coast, but where we can have some more space to roam, a good size garden, and a bit of a slower paced lifestyle.
BUT, and here’s the big but, where folks are at least somewhat like us. That probably means it will be where former NYers flock to. We’ll still gripe about those folks, but we’ll pay far less taxes.
For context, in our area property/school taxes for a 2,400 sf house are in the $20k+ range. That goes a long way elsewhere. Especially over a 30 year period, assuming I survive from 55-85 years old.
It is nice to dream (and have goals) anyway . . .
If you want to add 3-4 hours to your "less than a 12-hour drive from NYC" you may want to look at central FL. Full of ex-New Yorkers, plus a bunch who own property down here and spend a few months a year at the beach. Cost of living is dirt cheap. I was easily making it on navy retirement and social security. The reason that is past tense is I got bored and took on a consulting job, but if you want to enjoy life in your waning, er, twilight years, this is a pretty good deal. Another plus, you can live in a suburban setting like I chose, or rural, or even in a city. I am living in a place called Deltona, which is halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach (about 40 minutes or less in either direction). Folks range from typical NYC to rednecks and everything in between. You can get your 2400 sq/ft house (my size too) for $225K or less. Mine new cost $145K in 2004 to give some context. East TN is a fraction of that, plus it has mountains ... but not so many NYC escapees.