Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


For several months, a nurse and her accountant husband tried in vain to sell their yellow stucco house in an upscale neighborhood. But it was only after their real estate agent began promoting the home's senior-friendly features -- like its first-floor master suite -- that the place finally sold.

After their agent's change in marketing strategy, the couple was able to beat out rival sellers in their community. Given the aging population -- coupled with a shortage of senior-friendly houses in many areas -- the agent was wise to target the older-buyer market, says Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."

"It's no secret our nation has an increasing number of older folks, including a lot of boomers with chronic health conditions and bad knees. And many older people want property that's easily accessible -- where they can live comfortably without the pain of having to scale stairs or overcome other barriers to mobility," Davis says.

Granted, one-level apartment-style condos are widely available in numerous communities. But according to Davis, many seniors who've spent their adult lives in detached suburban housing have an intense aversion to apartment living.

"They say they'd feel trapped if they had to live in a condo," he says.

Dorcas Helfant, a real estate broker and former president of the National Association of Realtors (, says some seniors who try apartment living later reverse course, heading back to a traditional detached house.

"We've had people who've come out of a high-rise condo after trying it for just one year. A single-family house is part of their heritage, and that's where they feel at ease," Helfant says.

Some seniors who try apartment living miss the privacy of a detached house.

"They don't want to have to get in an elevator and see other people just to get outside for a walk. They want more personal space and a little land around them, including a small garden," says Helfant.

Are you seeking to sell a detached house with features that would make it suitable for older buyers or people with disabilities? And do you and your listing agent believe such features are in high demand among buyers in your community? If so, these few pointers might be helpful:

-- Assess the market supply of senior-friendly houses in your area.

A number of suburban areas where tracts of ranch-style homes were built during the decades after World War II are still well stocked with these one-level properties, many of which have been expanded and updated.

But as the cost of buildable land has risen in recent years, many fewer one-level houses have been constructed, says John Rygiol, a real estate broker affiliated with the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

"Except where land is cheap and plentiful, most builders are stacking houses two and three stories high," says Rygiol, who notes that many of his home-buying clients find it challenging to locate a single-level house that meets their needs.

Davis says that senior-friendly homes in areas where such domiciles are in short supply could fetch a premium price of up to 10 percent more than homes of similar square footage that lack these features.

But he cautions sellers to make sure that the supply-demand ratio is in their favor before putting a premium price tag on their property.

-- Consider adapting your house to make it more appealing to seniors.

To cater to the burgeoning senior market, some sellers are tempted to renovate their houses to make them more user-friendly. For example, they might consider adding a first-floor master suite. But Davis says such a major investment is usually a mistake -- unless you intend to enjoy the improvement for several years before you move.

"Spending too much on a pre-sale basis is overkill. Normally you can't expect to get any more than 60 percent back for a major addition when you sell," he says.

Still, there are less expensive steps that could be justified by sellers who have the senior market in mind. For example, you might wish to replace shag carpet with laminate flooring to make your rooms easier to navigate by those in wheelchairs.

Also, home sellers who are already planning to redo a kitchen might want to incorporate some easy-to-use features such as low kitchen cabinets and countertops, as well as wide doorways.

"Many people don't wait until they have health problems or need a wheelchair to think about buying a more accessible house. Once they hit their early 60s, they start preparing for their future needs," Davis says.

-- Highlight your home's senior-friendly features to the public.

Any home placed on the Multiple Listing Service can be easily tagged by a listing agent to reflect its senior-friendly features. Because of this, any agent searching on behalf of senior buyers can do a computer check that will locate nearly all the available one-level homes in a neighborhood, as well as those with a first-floor master suite.

But, as Helfant says, the listing agent for a senior-friendly house can do more than just identifying its features through the MLS. Ask your agent to highlight your home's special features through all forms of advertising, including newspapers, Internet and social media.

"These days homebuyers of all ages, including seniors, use many means to collect information about homes that interest them. In fact, by the time they drive up for a visit to a property, they often know more than the agent does about the house," Helfant says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at