Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Real estate agents say it's a common occurrence: A couple in their 60s or 70s sell their big family house and then set out to buy a smaller condo. But after rethinking their plans, they decide life in an apartment would be too big of an adjustment.

"All the condos they visit seem cloying and dark. They dislike the idea of smelling other people's cooking or hearing footsteps above or below their unit. And they don't like having to get in an elevator just to get to their car," says Mary Biathrow, an agent who's sold property to many seniors since entering the real estate field in 1992.

But if you're like many older homebuyers who loathe the idea of life in an apartment yet wish for fewer home upkeep chores, there are a number of other ways to achieve your goal, says Biathrow, who's affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (

Tom Early, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (, says the right housing choice for buyers over 60 depends on individual preferences.

"Obviously there's no single perfect answer for housing in your retirement years," Early says.

Here are a few pointers for purchasers:

-- Consider a one-level house for easy cleaning.

As Early notes, the demand for single-story houses is increasing rapidly, particularly among older people. And a detached, one-level house can have benefits over the classic condominium.

"People want a one-story house not only for lifestyle, but because they expect it to appreciate in a country with an aging population," he says.

Beyond their investment potential, one-level properties are easier to clean than two-story homes.

"To clean a single-story place you don't have to drag a vacuum cleaner up and down stairs. That eases the strain of keeping your home tidy," Early says.

-- Investigate the idea of acquiring a "patio home."

Most people think of a condominium as a unit in an apartment building that's owned by its occupants. While such is typically the case, homebuilders are increasingly bringing to market detached or semi-detached, one-level condos that are often called "patio homes."

These are essentially small houses in a community with some jointly owned property, such as a clubhouse. Patio homes afford their owners more privacy and autonomy than do condo-apartments. Also, outside maintenance is typically provided as well.

"If you hate apartment living, but also hate mowing grass and trimming bushes, a patio home could be the answer for you. When you travel, you just lock the door and you never have to worry about outside upkeep," Early says.

But Early reminds homebuyers that caution is in order when you're considering the purchase of any type of condo property.

"Make sure you find out if the homeowners' association has put money into an escrow account to keep up with such improvements as painting and parking lot-paving," Early says.

Also, before buying into any condo community, he recommends you look at the minutes of the condo association's meetings for the last two years.

"Within the minutes, you'll find clues about any lawsuits pending against the association or a former management company," he says.

-- Focus on finding a "cream puff" property.

Realtors use the term "cream puff" for a home that's been so babied by its owners that it's in excellent repair -- including all its appliances and major systems, such as plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning.

Acquiring a property sold by a meticulous owner can let its buyers coast for as long as five years without the need for any costly or time-consuming fixes.

"People who buy a cream puff get a home where nothing has been left undone, not even a tiny window crack or a shaky stair railing," Early says.

Those who baby their homes are usually also conscientious about their flower beds and pruning their trees. But Early warns against thinking that by buying a cream puff you'll have years to let your yard work slide.

"You've got to face the fact that well-kept grounds require your attention every year, either through your own labor or people you hire," he says.

-- Include brand-new houses in your search.

Not all new subdivisions are created equal. Some new homes give you years of maintenance-free living, while others mean headaches from the outset. However, as a general rule, a brand-new home will give you freedom from maintenance problems.

"You don't always get what you pay for. But many times, you do," Early says.

A dedicated real estate agent should be familiar with both new home and resale options in the area where you're looking.

Early believes that builders who add custom features to the homes they construct usually give buyers a better product than do those who mass-produce properties.

How can you find a builder with a quality edge?

"A reputable home inspector should know who's building solid homes rather than shoddy ones," he says.

-- Look at your options for a "nearly new" home if new ones are unavailable.

Early says those who purchase a brand-new home typically enjoy 10 or more years of freedom from worry about major repair or replacement issues. But if you aspire to live in a neighborhood where no new homes are available, he says your second-best option is to find a place less than five years old.

"In real estate, as with anything in life, there are no absolute guarantees. Still, older buyers can increase their odds of easy upkeep with the purchase of a place that's only a few years old," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at