Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Single- vs. Multi-story Living for Seniors

Under heavy pressure from her grown daughters, a Baltimore woman in her early 70s suddenly sold her huge Tudor house. Once widowed, living alone in the property wasn’t a viable long-term option.

But what followed the sale was a hurried and ill-conceived property purchase recommended by the two daughters. This involved a three-level townhouse in the same neighborhood. This proved a mistake because, like the Tudor house, the new place requires the widow to climb stairs -- a painful ordeal given the arthritis that afflicts her knees.

For seniors, protecting the knees is not only a matter of comfort. It’s also a key health and safety priority, says Dr. Michael Nevitt, an expert on osteoarthritis at the University of California, San Francisco.

Nevitt says every year an increasing number of seniors suffer from a dangerous fall due to knee buckling and poor balance linked to weak muscles or osteoarthritis. Such falls are especially likely to occur when older people descend stairs.

Of course, moving to a high-rise apartment building with an elevator solves the problem of stair use for numerous seniors. But many longtime homeowners fear the loss of autonomy that comes with apartment living. They’d rather move to a smaller, one-level detached property if they can find one in their price range.

Unfortunately, in communities where one-level homes are scarce, those seeking to downsize pay more per square foot than they would for a multi-story property, especially a very vertical townhouse.

Sandy Jurich, a longtime real estate agent in Michigan, says that soaring land costs explain why multi-story homes are generally less expensive than similarly sized single-level homes.

Still, for those who can afford it, there are a number of advantages to a single-story house. Chief among these is efficiency of movement. You can go from room to room without climbing stairs, sparing yourself time and exertion.

“There’s a lot to be said for convenience. For instance, it’s a lot easier to clean a single-level house,” Jurich says.

Mark Nash, a real estate broker and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” says senior buyers should think seriously about the purchase of a multi-level place before they commit.

Here are a few pointers for older buyers:

-- Select your next place with an eye to the future.

Whether you’re 29 or 69, it can be hard to picture your future housing needs. Yet no matter your age, projecting into the future is important.

Nash recommends that buyers look at least three to five years ahead.

“Planning for the future is especially important if you’re approaching your late 50s and anticipate retiring in the next few years. In this age range, health or mobility problems can start to develop at any time,” Nash says.

However, not all seniors find stairs to be problematic. Indeed, some who are especially physically fit may actually prefer to remain in a multi-story house because stair climbing gives them a form of daily exercise.

-- Factor in the advantages of a second-floor “hideaway area.”

During your retirement years, do you intend to launch a home-based business or start writing that romance novel you’ve planned for years?

If so, Nash recommends you consider the advantages of an out-of-the-way second-story office where you can concentrate with few interruptions. Likewise, many homeowners enjoy an upstairs bedroom where they can pursue a hobby.

“Sometimes, it’s nice to have a getaway place in your home, where you can leave a project all spread out and go back into that ‘cave’ when you want to. For example, this would be good for someone embarking on a family genealogy project,” he says.

Another less obvious advantage of an upper-level retreat: You’re further from the temptations posed by food in your kitchen.

-- Rule out a property that would require an addition to be livable.

Some budget-minded seniors consider purchasing a traditional two-story place with the intention of building on a first-floor master suite later.

That’s usually a poor idea, Nash says.

“Sometimes, real estate agents encourage clients to buy a house that needs an addition. But getting an addition done is expensive and can take six months or longer. And remember, it’s not your agent’s time or money at stake,” he says.

-- Don’t necessarily duplicate your relatives’ lifestyle.

After their children are grown, it’s customary in many families for the elders to surrender their large homes and move to much smaller quarters with fewer upkeep demands, such as an apartment or a townhouse. Perhaps your parents, aunts or uncles made such a move after they reached the age of Social Security eligibility.

But Nash says that just because your relatives were happy with their late-in-life moves doesn’t mean you should replicate their thinking.

“There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all housing choice. How you live is an intensely personal decision,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at