Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

The Two-House Retirement Option

A man in his 60s who retired from a sales job for a building supplies firm figures he’s cracked the code on an idyllic lifestyle. His secret? He acquired two small houses -- one in sunny Arizona for the winter and another in Washington state, where the summertime climate is more comfortable.

“This guy has two big passions: golf and Harley Davidsons. Every June he bikes north to escape the torrid Arizona heat. ... Then come each fall, he’s back to Arizona where he can play the rest of the year,” says Michael Crowley, a real estate broker who assisted the man with several transactions.

The golf enthusiast in this true story is thrilled with his two-house solution. Yet Crowley says it’s rare for retirees to sell a large home in favor of two retirement properties. Many simply downsize from one large place to a smaller one in a different area. Still, he says a two-house scenario is plausible for those with adequate retirement resources.

“The key is to avoid overspending on either of the two homes you buy,” says Crowley, a past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

One major advantage of the two-home strategy is that it allows retirees the potential to enjoy two different climates at advantageous times. Avoiding wintertime cold weather in favor of life in a balmy recreational area helps them stay healthier by letting them maintain their outdoor exercise routines.

“Lots of people in colder parts of the country talk about buying a home in a warmer recreational area where they can spend the winter. But after doing the math, they can’t make the numbers work. Instead of buying, they decide to rent a wintertime retreat in a warm area,” Crowley says.

Margie Casey, an experienced real estate broker based in the Florida Keys, says that wherever they choose to live, most retirees want low maintenance. Ideally, they like all exterior upkeep to be provided through a condo or homeowners’ association.

“People want the total freedom of ‘lock and leave’ homes,” says Casey, the author of “Relocate at Retirement or Not?”

Here are a few pointers for those pondering a two-home retirement:

-- First, think through the financial implications of your plan.

Casey, who reviews retirement communities on her website, realestatescorecard.com, says anyone considering two-home ownership should first discuss the financial implications with a professional adviser.

“A planner can help you calculate what you can afford and give you a second opinion on your plan,” she says.

Property taxes are also a big factor, especially if the local jurisdictions are running budgetary shortfalls and may have to raise taxes.

“Once you investigate the taxes, you may decide to live one state away from your grandchildren, assuming that lowers your cost of living,” Casey says.

-- Think through whether living in a condo would suit you.

Crowley says buyers considering the purchase of a condo should exercise caution before making this choice.

“Going from a house to a condo is a big change. It’s just personal taste, but some people always feel uncomfortable in a condo,” says Crowley, who’s worked with homebuyers since 1993.

To illustrate, he tells of a married couple he advised on the purchase of retirement property in Hawaii. The couple chose a condo development that seemed attractive. Before they concluded a purchase there, however, they rented a unit as a trial run.

“After a brief time renting, they realized they hated condo living. It felt way too crowded to them,” Crowley recalls.

Those contemplating a dual-home retirement plan should be doubly cautious about buying two condos at once.

“For Pete’s sake, don’t buy two condos if you’ve never ever tried living in an apartment. There’s too big a risk of disappointment,” Crowley says.

-- Look into your transportation options before deciding where to relocate.

Many a retiree has selected an ideal setting without taking into account airport access, which Casey considers a major mistake.

Relying on an out-of-the-way airport makes it harder to travel to distant locations for vacation or to see your children. It can also add to your air transportation bills.

“Try to live near an airport that’s a hub for one of the major carriers. That can save you a ton on air travel costs,” Casey says.

Another transportation factor to consider is proximity to major interstate roadways.

“Most retired people want to live within a two-hour drive of their grandchildren,” Casey says.

-- Temper your expectations for visits with your offspring.

Living near grandchildren is the No. 1 priority for many retirees. But Casey cautions those choosing a retirement habitat to be realistic about their expectations for how often they’ll see family, no matter how close they live.

“Your kids have busy lives. Sure, you can hope to see them often. But don’t focus your whole retirement lifestyle on seeing family. First and foremost, choose the lifestyle that works for you,” Casey says.

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