- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

When seniors Jerry and Zelda Wiener decided it was time to sell their Falls Church home after 44 years, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to move into a home that was half the size of their current one.

“The emotional twang of moving from one situation to the next and giving up what we were used to was hard on both of us,” says Mr. Wiener.

Yet, Mr. Wiener advises other senior citizens, “Don’t put off selling your house if you are ready to move. Do it today. Our biggest regret is that we didn’t do this sooner.”

The Wieners worked with Anna Greves, a personal moving consultant with Greenspring, an Erickson retirement community in Springfield. Ms. Greves helped them update their home, organize their belongings, sell their home and move.

“When working with seniors, I find that their greatest fear is that they have lost equity in their home and that they won’t be able to sell it,” says Ms. Greves. “We show them that, especially if they have lived in the home for 25 years or more, they often have a lot of equity.”

She adds that if sellers price the home according to its true market value and make some minor changes to update the property, they may be able to sell in a short amount of time. The Wieners removed the carpet in their home, restored the hardwood floors underneath and replaced their front door to make the property more appealing.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that owning a granny house [a home that has been lived in for decades] is an honorable thing,” says Ms. Greves. “There’s no need to rip up the baths and the kitchen, but the owners do need to paint the fence, paint rooms a light color, cut the grass, change the light bulbs and take the photos off the refrigerator.”

Ms. Greves says a few personal photos are acceptable because many buyers like the idea of a “family home.” She recommends removing carpet if hardwood floors are underneath (instead of replacing carpet), since many people value hardwood floors.

Michelle Rios, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Friendship Heights, is a certified Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES). The National Association of Realtors developed the SRES designation for Realtors who have received specialized training to work with senior citizens.

Ms. Rios recommends that sellers update the items around the home that people touch most often, such as kitchen and bath fixtures and the refrigerator.

For seniors, it’s difficult to decide what will go to the new home and what will be left behind. Decluttering a home is rarely easy for sellers, but it is even more challenging for owners who have lived in a home for decades.

“It may take a couple of weeks or longer, working with the sellers and with a team of experts certified in senior moving, to assess what to move and what to do with other possessions,” says Ms. Rios. “We literally go around with colored stickers to identify items to give to family and friends, items to move, items to give away and items to sell. Then we go over a floor plan of the new location.”

Ms. Greves and Ms. Rios both have partnerships with places that accept donations of furniture, pianos, professional or family archives, collections and even stockpiled, unneeded prescription medicines. Senior moving services also provide unpacking services, which can be a relief to seniors who may not be up to the physical challenges of moving.

“Working with a professional team of people (experienced with seniors) takes a weight off for the sellers, who are facing a financial, psychological and physical challenge when they decide to downsize,” says Ms. Greves. “It can be particularly challenging when couples disagree over what to keep and what to sell, so having a professional outside opinion can help resolve the differences.”

Jim Kneussel, who has been trained to work with seniors and is an associate broker with Weichert, Realtors in Potomac, says that the slower housing market and lower prices have been particularly hard on seniors who anticipated moving into a new home in a retirement community.

“Some have ended up withdrawing their reservation in the retirement community, and others have adjusted their home price in order to sell more quickly or have drawn on their savings to make up the difference in what they expected to have [from the proceeds of the home sale],” says Mr. Kneussel. “Seniors need to be very careful when they are signing a contract for a retirement community to address the contingency of selling their home.”

Mr. Kneussel says that many of his senior clients have lived in their homes for 30 or more years, which means that the condition may not necessarily be up to today’s buyers’ standards.

“If a home is not in good shape, the sellers need to understand that this [should] be reflected in the price of the home. Some seniors may not recognize that tastes have changed, so their home may not be as appealing to young buyers,” says Mr. Kneussel.

Seniors selling their homes need to make the same choices as any other home sellers in today’s market, deciding how much to spend on home improvements before pricing the property.

“It may be best to just sell the home ‘as is,’ but that will be reflected in the price,” says Mr. Kneussel. “A lot depends on the condition of the home and the owners’ reserves.

“If fixing up the place will be extremely expensive, then they may not get that money back when they sell.”

Ms. Rios says that sometimes seniors are more resistant (than other sellers) to fixing up a property because they have been content with the home’s condition for so many years.

“Another challenge is that seniors are usually on a fixed budget, so we have to work hard to find ways to make the home more appealing for first-time buyers with inexpensive fixes such as paint,” says Ms. Rios. “If we feel the home hasn’t been maintained recently, I recommend taking care of things, such as a termite inspection and treatment, before going on the market in order to avoid problems at settlement.”

Some sellers in today’s market opt to move and rent their home, but this is not usually recommended for seniors. Other solutions may be available for those seniors without significant equity in their home or substantial savings.

“The responsibility - physically and financially - for another property could be too much for seniors to handle,” says Mr. Kneussel.

“If the seniors lack equity in the home, they must check their financial position and re-evaluate their options. They may simply need to stay in their home longer, or they can opt to downsize into a smaller retirement residence.”

Ms. Rios says that sometimes seniors moving into an active-adult or assisted-living community may be able to take advantage of incentive programs, such as no entrance fees or reduced homeowner association fees, which can help make the transition easier.

Another option for seniors who want to move is to take out a reverse mortgage on the home they are purchasing, which allows them to move and retain the cash from the sale of their home for living expenses.

In the past, reverse mortgages were available only for seniors who wanted to stay in their current home, but beginning in 2009, these mortgages are available for new purchases.

“For seniors who find that their current housing is not working for them, whether because it has too many stairs or just requires too much maintenance, a reverse mortgage can help them move into more comfortable housing,” says Mark Rostek, a reverse mortgage specialist with Weichert Financial Services.

“I’m finding that there a lot of seniors without a lot of cash savings who have equity in their home,” Mr. Rostek says. “:A reverse mortgage can help resolve their financial issues.”

Mr. Rostek says that a reverse mortgage for a purchase works in a similar way to standard reverse mortgages, allowing seniors to receive a lump sum or monthly payments from the equity in their home.

For example, if a senior couple sells their home and nets $350,000, they can buy a one-level home for $300,000, put $50,000 in the bank and not have any mortgage payments to make.

With a reverse mortgage, the couple can make a down payment of $150,000, take out a reverse mortgage as a lump sum to pay for the other $150,000 and then keep $200,000 to put in the bank - still without any mortgage payments.

“The negative side to reverse mortgages is that, while the closing costs are similar to a standard real estate transaction, the upfront fees on a reverse mortgage (such as the one described above) would be about $15,000,” says Mr. Rostek.

“The fees are usually rolled into the loan amount so, other than the $150,000 the couple in the example used as a down payment, they are able to keep the rest of the equity in their original home and move into a more desirable home.”

However, Mr. Rostek emphasizes that reverse mortgages are not right for all situations.

“There is a chance that there will not be any equity left in the home when the owners need to move or pass away, but on the plus side, they will have been able to live in the home as long as they want without making a mortgage payment,” says Mr. Rostek.

Seniors considering selling their home may want to search for a trained specialist, such as a SRES, who can understand the specific needs of this population.

Regardless of their financial position, Mr. Kneussel says that seniors require special respect and sometimes require more time to build a trust between the real estate professionals and the sellers.

“Most seniors have not been in the housing market for a long time, so it is extremely important to go over supply and demand and make sure they understand the current market,” says Mr. Kneussel.

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