Sure, the idea of retiring to a Sunbelt locale like Florida or Arizona may sound like a good idea, but when it comes time to really settle on a place to retire, most older Americans really want to stay put.
More than 70 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 want to “age in place” — staying in their home and community for as long as they are able — and the number reaches almost 90 percent among those age 65 and older. The main reasons are twofold: Aging in place eliminates the stress and hassle of moving, and seniors get to stay near friends and family, which studies show is a key to a happy and successful retirement.
Even so, aging in place isn’t for everyone. Maintaining a home can be expensive and impractical. The issue is particularly poignant for middle class seniors who have fewer financial options. Lower-income retirees have access to government services, and wealthy older Americans can hire people to help with services or pay to retrofit their property, says Stephen Golant, author of Aging in the Right Place.
If you must move, or if you want to move to be closer to adult children and grandchildren, it’s better to do it sooner than later. Before you dig in for the long haul, ask yourself these questions.
Can I afford to keep my place? For many retirees, the house is their biggest asset. Unfortunately, it can also be their biggest expense. The days of retiring without a mortgage have disappeared. More than 70 percent of homeowners ages 50 to 64 were still paying off their mortgage in 2010, according to a report released last year by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Even for retirees who have managed to pay off their mortgage, the expenses associated with a large house can add up. Property taxes, utilities and homeowners insurance can add up to more than $6,000 per year, and they’re the kind of costs that tend to rise over time. “To the extent that you’re on a fixed budget, those expenses loom larger as a burden,” Golant says.
Moving to a smaller home or an apartment in the same community could drastically reduce your fixed costs. Nearly two-thirds of retirees who downsize they did so for greater financial freedom, and 44 percent said it was to avoid the maintenance of a larger home, according to a recent report by Merrill Lynch.
What kind of renovations do I need? The best time to do home renovations that allow you to age in place is before you need them, ideally while you’re still working and can generate some extra money to cover the expenses. “People by nature put this stuff off,” says Julia Caswell Daitch, an architect in Silver Spring, Md.
Just 1 percent of American homes have the following five universal design features: no-step entry, single-floor living, extra-wide doorways and halls, accessible light switches and sockets and lever-style door and faucet features.
Practically speaking, the biggest project for many homeowners may be installing a full bath on the first floor of your house. As long as you have a den or even a living room that you can eventually convert to a bedroom relatively inexpensively, then having the bath will make it much easier if at some point you can no longer handle the steps.
Six in 10 baby boomers who renovated their kitchens last year improved accessibility, and 69 percent who updated their bathrooms had aging in mind with projects like raised toilets or grab bars, according to home improvement Web site Houzz. Other popular boomer renovation projects included changing a home’s layout (16 percent), making storage easier to reach (12 percent) and widening hallways (6 percent).
If you have the space and the money for it, building a separate suite, complete with its own bedroom, bathroom, entrance and possibly a small kitchen on the main level can be a great investment. You may be able to move into that space long term, or it can be an area to house a full-time caretaker (or a boomerang kid). Plus, growing demand for multi-generational, flexible living could make your home more salable if you ever do move out.
How supportive is my community? No matter how many renovations you make inside your house, if it’s located in an isolated area without a lot of public transportation or services available — or far away from your family — you could have trouble as you get older. The safety of the neighborhood and the availability of quality health care are other important considerations.
Get a sense of how your community stacks up by plugging your zip code into AARP’s new Livability Index online tool, which measures communities based on their housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health engagement and opportunity. (San Francisco is the best large city according to the index, and Madison, Wisc., is the best medium-sized city.)
Your local Area Agency on Aging can help you find out what services are available. Many communities also have a Village to Village network, where seniors help seniors coordinate and deliver services.
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