When you're ready to retire, you could find a manicured, gated subdivision with stair-free designs and an unchallenging golf course in your area to move to. Or maybe you'll make the easiest (and perhaps least costly) decision to stay in place and carry on, sans the commute. If you're among the more adventurous retirees, you could choose to move to a Sunbelt mecca or even to live overseas.

But there is another way: Buy or build a retirement home before you retire that you can enjoy now for recreation and relaxation, years before you get the gold watch. You can use your house as a weekend and holiday retreat, and you can expand or adapt it gradually so it can function as a permanent residence. The home doesn't have to accommodate every luxury you'd ever want. The location and the lay of the land are the draw.

According to the National Association of Realtors, U.S. vacation-home sales were a relatively modest 469,000 in 2010, rose to 502,000 in 2011, grew to 553,000 last year and will rise again in 2013. Prices are still depressed from the peaks of 2005 and 2006, the two years when Americans bought more than a million second homes. Still, prices rose 24 percent last year, to a median of $150,000 for existing properties.

With real estate prices booming again, could desirable recreational and resort-area property sell so fast that if you wait even one year to buy, you'll strike out? Missouri real estate agent Stacy Matherly says she is inundated with e-mail inquiries from distant "sofa surfers" who are eager to go home-and-land shopping. David Knudsen, a real estate agent in Liberty, N.Y., says the second-home market generally trails the primary market by six to 12 months. It is definitely on the rebound, if still in the early stages.

Half of all second-home buyers pay cash. But that stat may be misleading because the transaction counts as a cash sale if the buyers draw on a home-equity line on their main residence to pay for abode number two. If you need a mortgage, note that the standards for vacation homes are tougher than for the purchase of a primary home. You will need excellent credit and a down payment of at least 20 percent. Plan on paying an interest rate on the mortgage that's a little higher than for a first home.

(Jeffrey R. Kosnett is a senior editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit http://www.Kiplinger.com.)