Housing market for seniors expands as lifestyles change

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Age catches up with everybody, bringing with it different housing considerations. Here or there? Big or small? Old or new? Those are just a few of the questions anyone in the real estate market must answer in order to satisfy individual housing needs.

But for seniors, the wrong answers to those questions can waste precious time and money, while the right answers can make their golden years glisten.

When they were younger, baby boomers just couldn't get enough house. The bigger the better.

But as empty-nesters, that big house is a big pain.

Mary Ellen Shine, a senior real estate specialist for ReMax in McHenry, Ill., said most people start to look at downsizing into either new or existing homes about five years after the kids are gone for good.

The trend continues with time, said Shine. "They get a little bit older and they realize that they don't want to tend to a big house anymore. Maybe that's when one spouse dies and the other one is left with the house to take care of and it's just too much."

Some seniors don't necessarily want to downsize — they just want to move everything that's upstairs, downstairs. They want to live on one level.

"A lot of people in their 50s and 60s are very active, and they just want something a little bit different than what they've had," Shine said. "Most of the time they don't want stairs, but they do want a lot of amenities. They are still lifestyle buyers."

Shine said many seniors still want to purchase large one-story homes that can accommodate visiting family members or offer areas for storage or an office, as seniors are now the fastest-growing buyers of computers. "They do that because they like to keep in touch with grandchildren and maybe do some surfing on the Internet," she said.

Few homes, whether new or old, are built with elderly people in mind.

"We don't want our homeowners to feel like they are buying a home for old people," said Danny Goodman, sales manager for Del Webb's Sun City Huntley in the Chicago area, an active adult community established in 1998.

However, he did say Del Webb's floor plans offer wide hallways and spacious, flowing room layouts that could accommodate wheelchairs. Also, electric outlets are located a bit higher, and all door hardware is lever-operated with no knobs.

Plus, he said, modifications or accessories homeowners find necessary because of health problems are offered at cost.

Goodman said active-adult communities like Sun City Huntley attract seniors because they can liveamong their peers and form associations to create amenities they couldn't get on their own — like Sun City's 94,000-square-foot Prairie Lodge featuring a variety of hobby, art and exercise facilities and a restaurant.

Shine said many new homes are being built with first-floor bedrooms, and, if they aren't, many people are adding them on to their existing homes for either themselves or elderly parents who have moved in with them.

With regard to senior housing, many considerations beyond stairs must be made depending on the occupant's physical condition. Wheelchair accessibility might be one consideration, and it goes beyond a ramp to the front door, wide hallways and spacious layouts. Walk-in closets and showers are pluses, as are flat thresholds, pedestal sinks, hand-held shower heads, pocket or bifold doors, lower countertops, crank-open windows, short carpet and side-by-side refrigerators.

In some cases, bars and handles will need to be installed in bathrooms and bedrooms to assist the elderly with maneuvering out of bed or the shower, or off of the toilet. Another necessity for some is a handicapped-equipped toilet that sets higher than normal, making it easier for those using it to get up.

"It all really depends upon the physical situation," Shine said.

The best way for people to get what they want is to talk candidly about their individual needs with their real estate agents.

Buying and selling homes can be a very emotional time, Shine added, especially for seniors.

Real estate agents working with seniors should be patient and avoid high-pressure sales tactics, Shine said. An agent should act as a counselor who listens and looks out for the specific house-related needs of seniors.

"They may need assistance with moving," Shine said. "Most of the time they are moving into something smaller, so they may need help with getting rid of some of their furniture. They may need help cleaning up."

"Everybody knows that the baby boomers are turning 50 and that the business is growing," Goodman said of the real estate market for seniors. He said builders and developers will increasingly recognize this trend and begin to take the needs of seniors into consideration.