Nov. 7, 2018
NEW YORK – Nov. 6, 2018 – A home purchase later in life comes with considerations unique to seniors.
Where is the cash coming from?
If you tap retirement savings, make sure you're old enough to avoid an early withdrawal penalty. You may be exempt if you're a first-time home-buyer. If you take from brokerage accounts, don't forget the tax bill the following year.
Do you plan to age in place?
Will the home meet your needs later when your health changes? Do you want live-in care? The house should accommodate these outcomes. Consider buying a condo, a more affordable and easier-to-maintain option.
Can you afford the expenses long term?
Make sure your savings and withdrawal rate support a mortgage payment and other home costs such as property taxes, insurance, home association fees and maintenance. Can you swallow these costs along with others such as medical expenses? Be conservative.
Take Rupert and Pat Haller. Since 1974, these high school sweethearts planned to buy a quiet, spacious home, a far cry from the fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Jersey City where they spent most of their lives. They finally closed on their first home in September, a ranch-style house in Toms River, New Jersey.
"It's really what we strived to do," said Rupert, 65. "After 45 years of marriage, we're both retired, we have a house, and we spend every moment together. I'm very blessed."
The Hallers represent a tiny but growing sliver of first-time home-buyers in this year's housing market. The share of home-buyers 55 and older has more than doubled in the last 15 years to 38 percent. And senior first-timers accounted for 9 percent of that share – the highest level since data was first collected in 2003, according to the 2018 Homebuyer Profile report from the National Association of Realtors® given to USA TODAY exclusively.
"People are living longer, working longer and have steady income in retirement if they even retire at all, so they feel comfortable taking on a mortgage in their senior years," says Jessica Lautz, NAR's managing director of survey research and communications.
Affordable rent and earlier financial woes kept many of these older home-buyers on the sidelines as they worked long hours, raised children and eventually welcomed grandchildren. As their golden years approached, their circumstances changed, and new possibilities opened.
A lifelong dream
Almost a year after Rupert and Pat married in 1973, the newlyweds moved to a railroad-style, two-bedroom apartment in a building managed by Rupert's father and owned by his aunt. It was on the top floor.
"I can't emphasize fourth floor walk-up enough," Rupert says. But the low rent and short commute to work made it hard to leave. "We were supposed to stay there a little while and buy something of our own," he says, "but a little while turned into 44 years."
By 1995, the property had passed to Rupert and his sister, who also lived in the building. No longer paying rent, Rupert and Pat squirreled away the extra cash for a home in retirement. A year ago, they began looking and, in Toms River, they found a house with sliding glass doors leading to an in-ground pool, hardwood floors, private lot and woods in the back. "We knew as soon as we walked in that this was the house," Pat says. "We didn't have a poker face."
They made an offer that was accepted, then rejected by a higher offer the next day. The Hallers, armed with four decades of savings, came back with an all-cash offer to seal the deal.
"We can't believe it," Rupert says. "We wake up in the morning and have breakfast together. I have a birdfeeder out here and a few days ago we saw two deer across the street. It's like a dream."
Putting family first
When her sister started to have memory problems, it was bad case of deja vu for Vanessa Blunt. Years before, her mother suffered from Alzheimer's. Vanessa helped pay for her mom's care but it took a toll on her financially. Now many years later, Vanessa, 58, and her husband Kevin, 60, are in a better position money-wise to help her sister.
But that meant moving out of their two-bedroom rental in Queens, New York, where they lived for eight years and buying a house that could accommodate her sister's changing needs. "I needed space in case her situation went from bad to worse," Vanessa says.
The Blunts, using their savings for a down-payment, looked at a dozen houses and put losing offers on three before they landed a Long Island home with three bedrooms on the main floor plus a basement apartment with its own kitchenette. They scooped it up for $400,000, up only $1,000 from its listing price.
"When I told Kevin the final price, he bugged out a bit," Vanessa says. "What sold him is if things went south, then we can rent out the basement, which is now his man cave."
Now her sister has a huge bedroom of her own with a separate entrance. The Blunts' adult son and a family friend also live with them. "It's a full house, but we have the room," Vanessa said.
At the landlord's mercy
In 1980, Cindy and Jim Schwartz – coming off separate divorces – moved in together with five children between them in a rental house in New Hampshire. For the next 38 years, that's where they lived, raising the kids and ultimately never paying more than $900 a month for the house.
"That's a big reason why we didn't move," Cindy, 69, says.
Last year, their landlord decided to sell the house. He gave them the first right of refusal, but the price was too high. But they didn't want to rent again. They wanted a house of their own.
To get a down-payment, Cindy cashed in stocks that were earmarked for their retirement. "What the heck, you only come this way once," says Cindy, a compensation manager analyst. Jim, 71, is an excavation supervisor for a homebuilder.
They would borrow $150,000 and no more. With their tight budget, they focused on fixer-uppers and expanded their search to a 50-mile radius in the state. They looked at 38 homes and lost three bidding wars. "We couldn't compete," Cindy says.
When they laid eyes on their eventual home, they knew "it had to be gutted, but the bones were good," she says. The listing price was too high at $234,900, so they put in a low-ball offer and finally got it for $207,500.
Since closing in July, the couple have knocked down walls to create a large kitchen and dining area, added French doors to the deck, replaced the flooring, installed new windows, updated the master bedroom and renovated the second bathroom, all by themselves.
"We'll be good for Thanksgiving," Cindy says.
A year before Jill Charles and Glen Person bought their townhouse in September, the couple focused on putting their financial house in order. "We sat down together and talked about our goals, what we needed to survive and retire comfortably," Jill, 64, says.
The married couple from Denver saved $8,000, bought life insurance, opened an IRA and improved their credit score. When they finished paying one bill – mostly medical expenses, some that had gone into collections – they would put the extra money toward the next one. "We went from about a 575 (credit score) to 680," says Glenn, 61, a general manager for a retail outlet.
Staying in their apartment also didn't fit into their plan. The rent had doubled in the last nine years with no end in sight. They originally looked at mobile homes, but most of those sat on rented land, a turn-off for the couple.
So, they turned to town-homes. The search was difficult because they needed to stay between $175,000 and $225,000 in the hot Denver market and find a property that could be financed by an FHA-backed mortgage.
In September, they closed on a one-bedroom townhouse with a fireplace, updated kitchen and views from every window. They were one step closer to their retirement dream.
Jill, who works three days at a facility for disabled adults, plans to work for as long as she can. As for Glenn?
"I'm going to have to work until I'm 70," he says. "But on my 70th birthday, I'm going fishing."
Copyright 2018, USATODAY.com, USA TODAY, Janna Herron