Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

How to Craft a New Housing Plan in the Wake of Tragedy

An engineer in her early 60s was shocked when her husband died suddenly from medical complications. The couple had long enjoyed living in a sprawling cedar contemporary overlooking a lake. But with her husband gone, maintenance on the house feels overwhelming -- as does the idea of selling.

More than a year later, the engineer is still grieving and pondering her real estate options. Should she sell her suburban property and move to a condo in an exciting part of the city, as several friends have done? Or should she stay put in the house that she and her husband so lovingly designed?

Arlen Olberding, a certified financial planner, doesn’t know the engineer in this true story. But he’s advised many clients grappling with tough housing choices after losing a spouse. In such cases, experience has taught him there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

“People in this position should avoid making any step too hurriedly if they can afford to wait,” says Olberding, a fee-only planner affiliated with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org).

Here are a few other pointers for newly widowed homeowners:

-- Face your financial realities first.

The engineer above owns her lakeside house free and clear. She can easily afford the taxes, insurance costs and maintenance fees for the property.

Still, for her and others who’ve lost a spouse, keeping a large family home indefinitely means serious financial trade-offs, says Mark Nash, a long-time real estate broker and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.” In such cases, he suggests you consult a trusted financial planner or accountant before making any major real estate decisions.

“Crunching the numbers will tell you a lot about your options and help you face reality,” Nash says.

In advance of a visit to see your financial adviser, Nash suggests you determine how much your house is costing you in mortgage payments, taxes and maintenance outlays.

-- Make housing decisions in the context of your overall life plan.

All too often, people see their real estate choices in isolation from the broader issues of their lives, Nash says.

To whom should you turn to help chart your plans? Sometimes a real estate agent who’s willing to listen to your story (and who won’t push you to sell) is a better bet than a close friend or family member, according to Nash.

“Your family and friends aren’t always the most objective advisers. Besides an agent, you might want to talk to a therapist, counselor or life coach,” he says.

-- Take into account your emotional attachment to a property.

Nash says that in their 50s or 60s, more men than women are open to selling a family property and recasting their lives. He contends that more women are strongly attached to the home where they raised their children and want to keep a place with extra space for their extended families to visit -- a concept called the “mecca house.”

Nash says he’s worked with many older women who live to regret the sale of the spacious family home. Many of those who stay wish to slightly alter the place, perhaps with the help of an interior designer.

“This way a woman can put her imprint on the property for the next stage of her life,” Nash says.

-- Allow yourself ample time to make a solid decision.

Like others who’ve sold real estate for many years, Nash knows it can be a mistake to rush into a home sale right after a traumatic life event -- such as a spouse’s death. He says becoming an empty nester can also represent a surprisingly tough transition.

“The departure of the last kid from home can create an identity crisis that lasts until you find a new sense of purpose. This can throw into question the future of the family home,” Nash says.

Whether you’re still reeling from widowhood, a marital breakup or the departure of your grown children, you may be flooded with conflicting feelings about how to proceed with your real estate. In this state of mind, mistakes can happen.

Take the case of a medical researcher who lost her husband, a prominent doctor, after his brief battle with pancreatic cancer. Under pressure from her two grown daughters, the woman immediately sold her large Tudor and moved to a three-level townhouse nearby.

But the hasty sale netted the widow less than the market value of her property, and the new townhouse -- with tall ceilings and steep stairs -- was a poor choice for a woman in her late 50s already experiencing knee problems.

That’s why Nash urges you to take your time during any late-in-life housing transition.

“If you’re in doubt about whether to sell that big house, step back for a while and give yourself as much processing time as you need and can afford to take,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)