A couple in their late 50s spent weeks grappling with a big question about the right house to buy for their upcoming retirement. They were torn between choosing a traditional two-story house versus a one-level ranch that would spare the need to scale the stairs as they grew older.
They looked at both horizontal and vertical properties and debated the issue at length. At first, they leaned toward a one-story place. But in the end, they surprised their real estate agent, Ashley Richardson, by opting for a majestic colonial with two levels of living space plus a walk-up attic for storage. They're about to move in and are convinced they made the right choice.
"Both the husband and wife are physically fit and reason that living in a house with stairs will help them to stay that way. Besides, they really love the colonial, which has a huge sunroom and a big backyard for gardening. By way of comparison, they thought the ranches they visited were much less elegant," Richardson says.
It's a common debate, according to Richardson, who's affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (www.crs.com). She says many baby boomers have a tough time deciding between the convenience of one-level living and the architecture of a two-story home.
Older homebuyers who want a detached house often seek to purchase a brand-new property in order to avoid upkeep and repairs. But as Richardson notes, in some very high- cost areas, it can be very hard to find new single-level housing that's affordable.
"Land prices are rising quickly, and land is scarce in many favorite neighborhoods," she says.
Mark Nash, a real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying a Home," says some of the advantages of single-story living might trump the cost issue.
"For one thing, it's a whole lot easier to keep a single-level house clean," Nash says.
Here are a few pointers for retirement-age homebuyers:
-- Try to anticipate lifestyle changes in your coming years.
Regardless of your age, it's often difficult to project your future housing wants and needs, says Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide for Buying a Home."
He encourages older buyers to plan ahead at least three to five years, anticipating likely changes in their health status and future housing preferences.
Through his more than three decades selling real estate, he's noticed that buyers who are overweight or have chronic health issues, like diabetes, often have a strong preference for one-level living.
"These are people who know that their mobility is likely to be compromised in coming years. So for them, a one-story house is an obvious choice," Davis says.
-- Factor in the resale potential of one-level housing.
Richardson, who sells homes in a popular suburban area, recently listed a ranch-style house in her community. And to promote its sale, she sent out a large-scale mailing targeted to older people in the neighborhood who might be interested in downsizing. Everyone on the mailing list was invited to an open house.
"The response to the invitation was tremendous. Obviously, a lot of people with big houses in my area are mulling over whether to trade down to a one-level house without having to move far away. Also, many people think that buying a single-story house could be a good investment for the future," she says.
-- Consider the pros and cons of a second-floor home office.
In your retirement years, do you anticipate running a small business out of your home? If so, Nash suggests you factor in the pros of having an out-of-the-way second-story office rather than one on the first floor.
"Working from an upstairs bedroom can be especially helpful if you need to do a lot of solitary computer work or writing to keep your business going. That's the case for a lot of people who do consulting work from home," Nash says.
Another less obvious plus of a second-floor home office is that you'll be farther from the temptations posed by your refrigerator or primary TV.
However, a business that involves more interaction with customers than a typical consulting company could be better positioned on the entry level of a home, he says.
"It can be extremely inconvenient to keep running up and down stairs to answer the door every time people or packages arrive. In that case, a house with space for a first-floor office could be your best bet," Nash says.
-- Rule out a home that would meet your needs only with an addition.
Occasionally, Davis says, older homebuyers who become enamored with a two-story property plan to purchase it with the intention of adding on a first-floor master suite after they move in. That way they figure on hedging their bets in the event that stairs later prove a problem for them. But he attempts to dissuade them from this idea.
"If most of the other homes in the neighborhood lack first-floor suites, you could be at risk of spending money that you'll never recoup. When you sell, you can assume you'll never recover more than 40 to 50 percent of the money you've poured into that type of a remodeling job," Davis says.
Also, he says there can be many annoying complications involved with building an addition.
"Think it through carefully. Do you really want to spend your free time in retirement dealing with a bunch of contractors and unexpected cost overruns? Also remember that doing an addition can be tremendously messy and disruptive," Davis says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)