Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Downsizing Options for Simpler Living

For the more than 30 years that a doctor has lived in his architect-designed house, he’s relished the place -- making numerous upgrades. Among the improvements, he added a tastefully landscaped piazza, complete with fountains and a pond stocked with koi fish.

But now as he approaches age 70, upkeep on the house and grounds have become more of a burden than a pleasure for the doctor. The last straw came when his pond sprung a mysterious leak that cost many hours and hundreds of dollars to diagnose and fix. As a result, the doctor vows to give the house to one of his married sons.

What are the doctor’s housing aspirations now? Surprising even himself, he yearns for the simplicity of life in a small apartment.

Julie Jason, the author of “Retire Securely,” a newly published book, doesn’t know the doctor in this true story. But she’s not surprised that he’s opting for a downscaled lifestyle that offers greater freedom from maintenance demands.

“Many of my clients are going smaller,” says Jason, a certified financial planner who specializes in helping wealthy clients.

Of course, the transition from a large property to a smaller one can be difficult. She says it can be especially tough for affluent homeowners who face a major psychological adjustment to downsize.

To help ease the transition, she suggests that retirees intent on downsizing frame the future as positively as possible, focusing on the greater freedoms that come with low-maintenance living.

Here are a few pointers on housing for retirees:

-- Consider a carefully selected condo-apartment.

For those seeking a simpler life, one obvious choice involves apartment-style living, and an increasing number of retirees prefer owning rather than renting their units, says Tom Early, who twice served as president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

But he urges caution before committing to any condo.

“It’s crucial that the owners’ association has put money in an escrow account to keep up with such improvements as painting and parking-lot paving, along with the eventual replacement of the roof,” Early says.

Before investing in any condo, he recommends you examine the minutes of the condo association’s meetings for the last two years.

“The minutes will tip you off about repair problems and tell you if there are lawsuits pending against the firm managing the complex,” he says.

-- Look for a detached house on a single level.

To some retirees, life in any apartment would feel cramped and regimented.

“People who hate apartments but want simplicity should ponder downsizing to a smaller detached house on one level with four walls of its own,” says Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

“Given the demographics of an aging boomer generation, buying a one-level house is a great bet for appreciation,” Nash says.

Beyond their investment potential, one-level properties offer advantages when it comes to routine upkeep.

“It’s a whole lot easier to keep a single-level house clean, because you don’t need to drag your vacuum up and down stairs,” Nash says.

-- Search for a place owned by a perfectionist.

Are you planning to purchase a home where you’ll live for just three to five years? If so, buying a place owned by maintenance-minded people could let you coast on their upkeep for a few years. Their place will probably be in good repair, including all appliances.

Those who baby their homes are usually also meticulous about pruning their trees and manicuring their flowerbeds. Still, Early warns against thinking you could coast for several years on the prior owner’s conscientious yardwork.

“Well-kept grounds require near constant attention -- either by you or people you take the trouble to hire,” he says.

-- Include brand-new houses in your search.

Clearly, not all new developments are created equal. Some new homes will give you years of maintenance-free living while others could mean headaches from the outset.

“There’s a price for quality. So, you may have to pay more for solid construction,” Early says.

A dedicated real estate agent should be familiar with both new home and resale options in your area.

Early believes that builders who add custom features to their homes usually give buyers a better product than those who mass-produce houses cookie-cutter style.

How can you find a builder with a quality edge?

“It’s always smart to poll the people who already live in the new subdivision. Ask them if they’re satisfied with the builder’s work,” Early says.

Home inspectors are another good source of information.

“Really good inspectors know who’s building shoddy houses and who’s building solid ones,” Early says.

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