Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

To Move or Not to Move in Retirement

Once retirees hit their late 60s, many start hearing a chorus of voices from friends and associates urging them to sell their big family house and downsize to a much smaller place, ideally close to their grown offspring.

But real estate specialists say there’s no one-size-fits-all for retirement happiness. What’s more, they say moving near family can be a big mistake for some seniors, especially if it means they must make a long-distance move away from close friends and acquaintances.

“Older people who live in a true community ... have lots to lose by leaving the old neighborhood. In the new area, they might feel alienated and isolated,” says Eric Tyson, a consumer advocate and co-author of “Personal Finance After 50 for Dummies.”

“Most of us are much more independent than interdependent. Our extended families aren’t the kind that spend every Sunday night together,” Tyson says.

Fred Meyer, a longtime real estate broker and appraiser, says seniors should weigh their options carefully before making any major move. That’s because late in life it’s tough to reverse a major housing mistake.

Here are a few pointers for retirees:

-- Consider your lifestyle preferences as primary factors.

Meyer urges retirees to focus primarily on settling in a place where they can pursue their strongest interests.

“Ask yourself what you really like to do and then find the best places to fulfill those passions,” Meyer says.

Because lifestyle factors are so important in retirement, he says many seniors are happier living in modest housing while pursuing their dreams than in fancier housing elsewhere. Fortunately, those with more common interests, such as golf or tennis, can fulfill these in a wide array of locations. But others, like theater buffs, need a more particular location to pursue their passions.

Though not yet retired, Meyer intends to do so one day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he heads a real estate firm near Harvard University. He chose that setting because the community is “manageably small and walkable” and allows him to audit classes at Harvard. It’s also close to Boston, where he often attends cultural events.

Merrill Ottwein, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (, says advance planning is crucial when it comes to selecting a retirement destination.

“Assuming you’re in good health and aren’t compelled to consider assisted living, start thinking about where you’ll live at least two or three years before making the big move,” he says.

Here are a few pointers for retirees:

-- Do a reality check on your retirement finances.

“Cost considerations are a huge factor in retirement decisions,” Ottwein says.

Are you short on retirement savings and believe you’ll need to sell your current house to make ends meet in the future? In that case, Ottwein urges you to plot a strategy with a trusted financial adviser or accountant before making any sudden move.

As you finalize the financial plan for retirement, he recommends you give serious thought to the level of mortgage debt you’re willing to carry in retirement. For most people, a comfortable retirement means freedom from large house payments.

“As our parents and grandparents were well aware, it’s far from ideal to have a mortgage in retirement. Strip down all your living costs and you’ll feel a lot more financially at ease,” Ottwein says.

-- Don’t rule out remaining in the area where you now live.

Through his several decades selling real estate, Ottwein has helped many seniors sort through their housing options. Experience has taught him that most retirees do best when they live within a 30-minute drive of their former home.

He says that retiring to a distant location could be a particularly poor choice for those who’ve found meaning through volunteer work near the community where they’ve lived for many years.

“Obviously, you could find a new volunteer gig at your new domain. But will you already have established relationships there? Probably not,” Ottwein says.

-- Consider the potential downsides of living close to your grandkids.

As retirees, you may relish time with your offspring. But how would you feel if asked to take on the role of regular babysitter for young children?

“Even if your kids only count on you on an intermittent basis, that could make it hard for you to schedule travel or other enjoyable activities,” Ottwein says.

One problem of making a major commitment to care for the grandkids is that this could cost you time and energy that might otherwise go toward fulfilling your retirement plans -- like learning to sail or taking up the trombone.

Another risk, though uncommon, is that your grown children may be less than thrilled at having you nearby. To be certain they’re OK with the idea, Ottwein recommends you have a candid conversation with them before deciding to move nearby.

“Though people rarely say it out loud, it could be that you and the kids really don’t like spending that much time together. That’s not a crime, just a reality,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at