- - Thursday, April 26, 2012

Moving and selling a house is rarely an easy proposition, but perhaps the hardest scenario is when the owner has lived there for 40 or 50 years and is now unable to live independently because of age or health issues.

“This is not just a real estate transaction, there’s a huge emotional component here,” explained Robert Ray, owner of Caring Transitions, a consulting firm in Bethesda specializing in estate sales, downsizing and senior relocations, adding that it’s important to have the proper real estate agent.

“You don’t want someone rushing in and saying, ‘Here are the comps in the neighborhood, here’s the listing contract, sign here,’ ” he said. “You want someone who’s specially certified and who understands the needs of the elderly.”

Fortunately, the National Association of Realtors recognized the need for this designation and instituted the senior real estate specialist program in 2007.

Brian Cusick, a real estate agent with Urban Brokers in the District, participated in the two-month program, which consisted of online courses and a series of tests to gain accreditation.

“It teaches about the different generations in terms of what are the similarities and what are the differences,” he said. “Older people may view their homes in terms of security, whereas younger generations may view them more as investments.”

When dealing with older homeowners, Mr. Cusick said, health issues are often a determining factor for the timeline of the sale and move.

“Someone may be in poor health and need to move to a nursing home,” he said. “Someone else may be in perfect health but has decided to move to a retirement community.”

Mr. Cusick remembered one client who knew he had less than a year to live.

“Even though he was in good shape when he first contacted me, he knew he wasn’t long for this world, and his goal was to sell his house before he died to spare his children the burden of selling it and emptying its contents,” he said. “We were able to do that for him, and it was immensely gratifying.”

Another client wanted to sell her home, but it took her a year to sort through her possessions and hold an estate sale, Mr. Cusick said.

“I told her, ‘Your timeline is my timeline,’ ” he said, pointing out that it’s essential to gain the trust of the homeowner. “I’m not a stranger coming in with the intent to sell the house as quickly as possible.”

Kathy Byars, an agent with McEnearney Associates in the District, also has the senior real estate specialist accreditation and said it served to reaffirm what she learned helping her parents’ friends sell their homes.

“Nobody wants to leave their home and admit that they can no longer handle the day-to-day care of themselves,” she said. “People want their independence as long as possible.”

For that reason, selling the house of an older person often is event-driven, Ms. Byars said.

“Someone falls down the stairs and breaks a hip - that makes it very difficult,” she said. “By the time someone has gone into a hospital or rehab center, sometimes that person is not allowed to go back home, so you have to scramble around and find out what’s available. And what’s available may not be your first choice, so that’s double the trauma.

“My job is to take the stress out of the situation, so the homeowner can sell the house and spend the money where needed for the next chapter.”

Ms. Byars pointed out that adult children can help the process by talking to their parents about their plans for the future and understanding their parents’ financial situation.

“You need to broach the topic sooner rather than later,” she said, pointing out that senior care is expensive in the Washington area. “Adult children should not wait until the eleventh hour to deal with their parents or the house.”

When adult children visit their parents, they should be checking on the house as well, Ms. Byars said.

“Is the roof leaky? Is the furnace being maintained? Is a housekeeper coming in?” she said. “For many older people, the only thing they have is their home, so you need to take care of that investment. In today’s economy, buyers can’t borrow to fix up the house, so you don’t want a situation where you’re selling a $700,000 house for $500,000 because it’s in disrepair.”

It’s faster and easier to sell a house if the older person already has moved out,” Ms. Byars said.

“If there’s some money for updating and some fresh paint, that’s great,” she said. “But if not, at least move everything out and scrub the house and wash the windows.”

If the homeowner cannot move out of the house until it’s sold, Ms. Byars said it’s still necessary to take out clutter and excess furniture.

“Often, they’ve got 50 years of stuff in the house,” she said.

Mr. Cusick noted that older homeowners are happiest if their possessions can be repurposed.

“As much as you can, give things to Goodwill, to charities - that makes people feel better because their things aren’t just being thrown away,” he said.

Ms. Byars added that adult children also should look into legal documents, such as medical directives and power of attorney.

Robert Bullock, a principal of the Elder Law & Disability Center in the District, pointed out that, ideally, older homeowners should have a comprehensive estate plan.

“It’s not enough to sign over power of attorney to an adult child when selling your home,” he said. “For most middle-class Americans, their equity is in their house and this is what they hope to pass on to their children.

“Selling the house has far-reaching implications in terms of taxes, capital gains, Medicaid. Hire an elder-law attorney because this is not a job for amateurs - the house is too valuable an asset.”

Hiring outside help to deal with some of the logistics of the move may make sense as well, particularly when adult children live far away or are busy with their own jobs and families.

An organization such as Caring Transitions can help sort household items, bring in experts to price antiques and arrange for charity pickups, as well as make recommendations about rehab centers, assisted living or nursing homes, Mr. Ray said.

“We also clean the house and coordinate movers,” he explained. “We can even get the blueprints of the new living arrangements and oversee the furniture layout in the new place so that it’s similar to the old home. If a certain chair was always by the window, we’ll make sure it’s by the new window. We bring in the human element to make it an easier transition.”

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