Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Widowed Women: How to Shape Your Housing Plans

When she hit age 70, a teacher married to a university dean anticipated a long and rewarding retirement. But that was before the dean died from a rare disease. Suddenly, the teacher became a widow.

The wife’s new status feels emotionally overwhelming. It’s also raising numerous questions about her housing plans. Should she sell the couple’s commodious Tudor house and move to a retirement community? Or should she retrofit the suburban property to age in place?

Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (wiserwomen.org), doesn’t know the teacher in this true story. But she urges any woman entering widowhood to make real estate decisions slowly and thoughtfully.

“For every widow, the answers are different. You have to figure out your own thing. That requires forethought and good counsel,” she says.

Hounsell’s nonprofit organization, known informally as “WISER,” helps guide women through secure and satisfying elder years. It operates as a national clearinghouse for tools and information on retirement planning, including complex financial issues.

“Our goal is to advocate for the economic security of all older women, but especially those with low to moderate incomes,” Hounsell says.

To advance its mission, WISER sponsors numerous events and publications, including those focused on the needs of widows struggling with housing challenges. One brochure, called “Going It Alone: A Guide for Widows,” includes step-by-step advice for newly widowed women on how to evaluate their real estate options. This 18-page booklet is available free of charge from WISER’s website.

Obviously, all housing decisions carry financial implications, and many widows face income limits in retirement. But Hounsell says there are several ways widows can handle a housing change within their means. For example, some widows wishing to stay in a long-time residence might consider finding a housemate who helps cover mortgage and utility expenses, along with property taxes. Another option would be to sell a large house and use the proceeds to buy a smaller one-level residence.

Patricia Nowak, the author of “The ABC’s of Widowhood,” agrees with Hounsell that it’s ideal for widows to delay making major housing moves until they are emotionally ready.

“If you can afford to wait, don’t make any big decisions for the first six months, because you’re in a fog for at least that long,” says Nowak, who was widowed at 47 after her husband died in a car accident.

Loneliness and confusion make it especially tough for widows -- who outnumber widowers -- to determine the best possible life trajectory for themselves after a spouse is gone. Nowak says their first order of business should be to organize their finances.

Though many young women now take a vital interest in money matters, she says those who become widowed at a later age often need financial counsel to make solid choices. But she advises against turning to relatives for such help, because they typically lack objectivity.

“Don’t hire that cousin for your accountant, attorney or real estate adviser. People who do business with family are often left in a bad way,” Nowak says.

Rather, she recommends seeking advice from neutral third parties whose names you obtain through business or professional associates, just as you would if hiring an employee at work.

Arlen Olberding, a financial planner affiliated with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org), says widows who own a big family house should think carefully before deciding to sell and move to a small condo.

“Trading down to a condo can have financial benefits -- including a reduction in energy costs and upkeep demands. Yet after taking your monthly condo fees into account, you may save less than expected. And your lifestyle could be compromised,” Olberding says.

Here are a few pointers for widows (and widowers):

-- Consider housing choices as part of your overall financial plan.

Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” says many people see their real estate choices in isolation from their larger plans and dreams. But where you live can affect your lifestyle in important ways.

To whom should you turn to help chart your lifestyle planning for the next stage of your life? Nash says that sometimes a real estate agent who’s willing to listen to your story (and won’t push you to sell) is a good bet.

“Besides consulting a financial adviser, you may wish to discuss your plans with a therapist, counselor or life coach,” he says.

-- Don’t discount your emotional attachment to a family home.

After becoming widows, some women are less interested in recasting their lives than in strengthening their ties with children and grandchildren. Some are strongly attached to the home where they raised their children and want to keep a place with extra bedrooms for extended family visits.

Nash, a longtime real estate broker, says he’s worked with many older women who live to regret the sale of the spacious family home.

“Once it’s gone, they feel like a fish out of water,” he says.

-- Weigh the pros and cons of moving near your grown children.

As the years pass, many widows are drawn to the idea of moving to a place close to the home of one or more of their children. But, as Nowak says, you don’t necessarily need to move permanently to see more of your extended family.

“Why not rent an apartment near your kids for a few months of each year? That could allow you to remain the rest of the year in a part of the country where your friends live and your favorite activities are based,” she says.

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