Mary Lu Abbott has a dream job -- she crisscrosses the country in search of the best places to retire.

"It used to be that most people who wanted to retire somewhere else thought of Florida and Arizona as their only options, but that's all changed," she said. "Today Americans are looking just about everywhere."

Abbott writes for Where to Retire, a Texas-based national magazine that tries to answer a question on more people's minds as they approach retirement and consider uprooting themselves.

The 220,000-circulation magazine, produced six times a year by Vacation Publications Inc. of Houston, has carved out a lucrative but still obscure niche in the publishing business.

While other magazines compete for the coveted 18-to-49 audience, Where to Retire has zeroed in on "50-and-beyond" adults with the dollars and desire to buy a retirement home.

Editor and publisher R. Alan Fox said a half-million Americans move to other states each year to retire while another half-million move within their states when they quit working. But, he said, those numbers are only half the story.

"We're about to see an explosion in this market as boomers reach their fifties and sixties," he said. "They've moved about during their careers, so they'll probably be more inclined than their parents to relocate when they retire."

Fox's magazine will be there to help.

Each issue profiles at least eight communities from different regions of the country that Abbott and the magazine's other writers have found appealing to prospective retirees.

"We try to give readers an overview of life in these towns," assistant managing editor Elizabeth Armstrong said. "We interview people who have retired there, asking what they've liked and what has surprised them."

Recent issues have included stories on current trends in retirement living, such as college towns that attract older adults, newly built towns with old-fashioned-looking neighborhoods and communities where retirees can start a business.

There is the proverbial piece on golfing developments. But there are also articles about towns for art and music lovers, hikers and bikers, and horse enthusiasts.

"A common thread is that our readers want to settle in small towns on the outskirts of metropolitan areas," Armstrong said. "They're looking for small-town neighborliness but also access to big-city amenities."

A Where to Retire survey found that 92 percent of its subscribers would prefer to live in rural towns or suburbs, with only 8 percent having their eyes set on large cities.

When Abbott scouts communities for possible profiles, she drops into restaurants, walks around neighborhoods, browses through stores and visits real estate offices.

In all her exploring, she looks for certain attributes.

"The first is 'eye appeal' -- does the town make me want to spend some time there?" she said.

By that, she usually means natural beauty such as a nearby lake or mountain. But it also could be an attractive, vibrant downtown.

Abbott then checks on other important qualities such as hospitals, affordable housing, entertainment and low taxes.

"The cost of living is a big factor," she said. "People particularly want to know about taxes -- and not just sales and income taxes but also property and inheritance taxes."

Every issue of Where to Retire includes a chart showing readers how their cost of living would rise or fall if they moved to any of 66 retirement towns.

Dallas residents, for example, could expect their living expenses to increase 14 percent if they retired to Hilton Head, S.C., or drop 9 percent if they moved to Hot Springs, Ark.

Abbott said the magazine has also noticed a growing desire for "retirement destinations with four seasons."

"Many retirees want to live someplace where they can feel the changing of the seasons, though they don't want extreme weather," she said.

No reader's personal query about retirement places is too frivolous for the editors' attention.

In each issue, the "Retirement Adviser" column responds to questions about which retirement towns are "dog friendly," which cater to residents who own ultralight airplanes and which "active-adult communities" don't have golf courses.

"Our readers are very inquisitive and savvy," Armstrong said. "They expect and deserve answers."

Fox said the average reader of Where to Retire is 59, married and a college graduate, has a household income of about $117,000 and owns a home valued at about $304,000.

That upscale readership appeals to advertisers.

The first issue of Where to Retire in 1992 contained about 30 pages of advertising. Recent issues have about 100 pages of ads, many from developers of active-adult communities. A page costs up to $9,230.

Fox expects his magazine to grow "fatter and fatter" as boomers approach retirement.

Betsy Andersen, 60, of Beaverton, Ore., credits Where to Retire with cluing her into the Green Valley, Ariz., active-adult community where she and her husband bought a house this spring.

"I first spotted the magazine in a doctor's office seven years ago and decided to subscribe," she said. "Without it, we never would have found our place."

As the magazine advises, she and her husband visited Green Valley, near Tucson, several times before deciding to spend their winters there.

"Ideally, people should stay in their prospective retirement town for a while -- say, three months -- to see if they like it," Abbott said. "Then they can buy something."

Boomers and older adults who start looking for their retirement homes will find large welcome mats waiting for them, Fox said.

"Communities are realizing that older adults are the best possible residents," he said. "When they move, they bring a lifetime of assets with them. They create jobs; they don't take them."

The competition for retirees has become so intense that some states are launching economic development programs to recruit them, much as they have long done for luring tourists and companies, Abbott said.

"They're a clean-growth industry," she said.

And where has Abbott decided to settle down herself, after visiting hundreds of towns in pursuit of retirement havens?

She's thought about the Texas Hill Country or West Texas, but she's not sure yet.

"I guess you could say I'm still looking."