Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Since 1971, Fred Meyer has lived happily in an olive- green Victorian near the Harvard University campus. Though he's 73, he relishes scaling the stairs of the three-story property. Why? Because he insists that doing so keeps him fit.

"Climbing the stairs is part of my daily routine, so it doesn’t feel like exercise. It’s a good habit and a way of staying fit without thinking about it -- and one my doctor endorses," says Meyer, a veteran real estate broker.

Meyer says few of his older home-buying clients deliberately shop for a place with stairs to follow his example. But he says those open to purchasing a vertical property have more housing options available to them in retirement.

Of course, many retirement communities designed for those older than 55 offer buyers the choice of living in an apartment on one level, notes James W. Hughes, a Rutgers University professor who tracks housing trends throughout the nation.

In addition, Hughes says some senior communities offer purchasers the option of choosing a small, detached house on one level -- such as a miniature "villa." But he says seniors who don’t wish to live in an age-restricted community often have relatively few horizontal options open to them -- especially if they wish to live in a new or nearly new place.

Meyer says many retirees have mixed feelings when deciding between horizontal and vertical living. Although they don’t prefer stairs, he notes that many traditionalists enjoy the privacy of a floor plan with bedrooms on the second floor -- especially when company is over. Location is also a factor, he says. In remote or exotic locales where housing is scarce, or in vibrant urban areas where land is expensive, vertical housing may be the only game in town.

Here are a few pointers for those who are choosing between vertical and horizontal housing for their senior years:

-- Look at the big picture of your physical health.

David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon in South Carolina, says many of his patients older than age 55 have a significant level of osteoarthritis in their knees. He says those experiencing a great deal of knee pain, limited range of motion and balance issues are not ideal candidates to live in a multi-story house. Even after they’ve recovered from total knee replacement surgery, he says some patients are ill-suited to vertical living.

However, older homebuyers who are in generally good condition can benefit from the exertion required to use stairs on a regular basis, says Lisa Morrone, a physical therapist and author in New York.

"For people in shape, using stairs is a good weight- bearing exercise," Morrone says.

-- Lose weight before deciding whether to move to a vertical home.

"At least two-thirds of people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. And excess weight -- like a sedentary lifestyle -- puts a heavy burden on the knees," Morrone says.

Because extra weight is such a major physical problem, she urges heavy people to shed pounds before committing to the purchase of a home that requires stair-climbing.

Samuel Robinson, an orthopedic surgeon in Virginia, says patients with significant knee pain due to osteoarthritis often find considerable relief after dropping weight.

"Even losing five or 10 pounds can make a tremendous difference," he says.

-- Use regular exercise to increase your housing options.

Robert Wayner, a physical therapist in Oregon, says it’s important for older people seeking to live in a vertical house to strengthen their leg muscles -- especially their quadriceps, or "quads."

Besides strengthening their quads, he says seniors seeking to live in a home with stairs should be sure to incorporate into their routine balance exercises, which can help them guard against falling.

Robinson -- the orthopedic surgeon from Virginia --encourages those who include running in their aerobic exercise workouts to also mix in other activities that involve less stress to the knees.

"Instead of running every day, cross-train on alternate days by substituting a swim or a bike ride," he says.

-- Wear high-quality shoes to protect your knees and hips.

"Good footwear is critical for everyone, whether or not you have osteoarthritis," Robinson says. "It’s especially important for those who do weight-bearing exercises, like running, to wear good-fitting sneakers."

Also, he says those with flat feet are well advised to consider using custom orthotic insoles that provide extra arch support and help prevent injury and pain.

-- Hedge your bets on retirement housing if you’re uncertain.

Though a one-level condo is the preferred choice for many retirees because of its low upkeep demands, others hope they can live indefinitely in a traditional house with stairs and a yard where they can garden. And they’d like the option of staying put if, one day, they can no longer handle the stairs.

In such cases, Geier, the South Carolina surgeon, recommends that retirees choose a house with a full bedroom and bath on the first floor that they could use if they become disabled.

"Selecting a house with a first-floor master suite is a reasonable option to consider," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at