If you spent your teenage years waiting anxiously for one of your siblings to get out of the shower, the idea of selling your spacious, multi-bathroom home and moving into a smaller house or condo may feel like a reversal of fortune.
Yet for many retirees, downsizing makes financial and practical sense. Younger baby boomers — those currently ranging in age from 57 to 66 — made up 17% of recent home buyers, while older boomers — ages 67 to 75 — accounted for 12%, according to a 2022 report from the National Association of Realtors Research Group. Boomers’ primary reasons for buying a home were to be closer to friends and family, as well as a desire to move into a smaller home, the report said. Both younger and older boomers were more likely than others to purchase a home in a small town, and younger boomers were the most likely to buy in a rural area.
Not all retirees move into a smaller home. A survey by Age Wave and Merrill Lynch found that about one-third of retirees opted to “upsize” to a larger home. But a smaller house or condo typically requires less maintenance and may be more accessible than a two-story suburban house. And at a time when homeowners age 62 and older have more than $12 trillion in home equity, down-sizing offers a way to free up some of that equity for other purposes, such as shoring up retirement accounts or saving for long-term care.
For retirees Fred and Shelby Bivins, selling their home in Green Valley, Ariz., will enable them to realize their dream of traveling in retirement. The Bivinses have put their 2,050-square-foot Arizona home on the market and plan to relocate to their 1,600-square-foot summer condo in Fish Creek, Wis., a small community about 50 miles from Green Bay. They plan to live in Wisconsin in the spring and summer and spend the winter months in a short-term rental in Arizona, where they have family.
Fred, 65, says the decision to downsize was precipitated by a two-month stay in Portugal last year, one of several countries they hope to visit while they’re still healthy enough to travel. “We’ve had Australia and New Zealand on our list for many years, even when we were working,” says Shelby, 68. The Bivinses are also considering a return visit to Portugal. Eliminating the cost of maintaining their Arizona home will free up funds for those trips.
With help from Chris Troseth, a certified financial planner based in Plano, Texas, the Bivinses plan to invest the proceeds from the sale of their home in a low-risk portfolio. Once they’re done traveling and are ready to settle down, they intend to use that money to buy a smaller home in Arizona. “Selling their primary home will generate significant funds that can be reinvested to support their lifestyle now and in the future,” Troseth says. “Downsizing for this couple will be a positive on all fronts.”
Challenges for downsizers
For all of its appeal, downsizing in today’s market is more complicated than it was in the past. With 30-year fixed interest rates on mortgages recently approaching 8%, many younger homeowners who might otherwise upgrade to a larger home are unwilling to sell, particularly if it means giving up a mortgage with a fixed rate of 3% or less. More than 80% of consumers surveyed in September by housing finance giant Fannie Mae said they believe this is a bad time to buy a home and cited mortgage rates as the top reason for their pessimism. “This indicates to us that many homeowners are probably not eager to give up their ‘locked-in’ lower mortgage rates anytime soon,” Fannie Mae said in a statement. As a result, buyers are competing for limited stock of smaller homes, says Hannah Jones, senior economic research analyst for Realtor.com.
Here, though, many retirees have an advantage, Jones says. Rising rates have priced many younger buyers out of the market and made it more difficult for others to obtain approval for a loan. That’s not an issue for retirees who can use proceeds from the sale of their primary home to make an all-cash offer, which is often more attractive to sellers.
Retirees also have the ability to cast a wider net than younger buyers, whose choice of homes is often dictated by their jobs or a desire to live in a well-rated school district. While the U.S. median home price has soared more than 40% since the beginning of the pandemic, prices have risen more slowly in parts of the Northeast and Midwest, Jones says. “We have seen the popularity of Midwest markets grow over the last few months because out of all of the regions, the Midwest tends to be the most affordable,” she says. “You can still find affordable homes in areas that offer a lot of amenities.”
Meanwhile, selling your home may be somewhat more challenging than it was during the height of the pandemic, when potential buyers made offers on homes that weren’t even on the market. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported in October that mortgage purchase applications slowed to the lowest level since 1995, as the rapid rise in mortgage rates has pushed many potential buyers out of the market. Sales of previously owned single-family homes fell a seasonably adjusted 2% in September from August and were down 15.4% from a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors. “As has been the case throughout this year, limited inventory and low housing affordability continue to hamper home sales,” NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement.
However, because of tight inventories, there’s still demand for homes of all sizes, Jones says, so if your home is well maintained and move-in ready, you shouldn’t have difficulty selling it. “The market isn’t as red-hot as it was during the pandemic, but there’s still a lot to be gained by selling now,” she says.
Other costs and considerations
If you live in an area where real estate values have soared, moving to a less expensive part of the country may seem like a logical way to lower your costs in retirement. While the median home price in the U.S. was $394,300 in September, there’s wide variation in individual markets, from $1.5 million in Santa Clara, Calif., to $237,000 in Davenport, Iowa. But before you up and move to a lower-cost locale, make sure you take inventory of your short- and long-term expenses, which could be higher than you expect.
Selling your current home, even at a significant profit, means you will incur costs, including those to update, repair and stage it, as well as a real estate agent’s commission (typically 5% to 6% of the sale price). In addition, ongoing costs for your new home will include homeowners insurance, property taxes, state and local taxes, and homeowners association or condo fees.
Nicholas Bunio, a certified financial planner in Berwyn, Pa., says one of his retired clients moved to Florida and purchased a home that was $100,000 less expensive than her home in New Jersey. Florida is also one of nine states without income tax, which makes it attractive to retirees looking to relocate. Once Bunio’s client got there, however, she discovered that she needed to spend $50,000 to install hurricane-proof windows. Worse, the only home-owners insurance she could find was through Citizens Property Insurance, the state-sponsored insurer of last resort, and she’ll pay about $8,000 a year for coverage. Her property taxes were higher than she expected, too. When it comes to lowering your cost of living after you downsize, “it’s not as simple as buying a cheaper house,” Bunio says
Before moving across the country, or even across the state, you should also research the availability of medical care. “Oftentimes, those considerations are secondary to things like proximity to family or leisure activities,” says John McGlothlin, a CFP in Austin, Texas. McGlothlin says one of his clients moved to a less expensive rural area that’s nowhere near a sizable medical facility. Although that’s not a problem now, he says, it could become a problem when they’re older.
If you use original Medicare, you won’t lose coverage if you move to another state. But if you’re enrolled in Medicare Advantage, which is offered by private insurers as an alternative to original Medicare, you may have to switch plans to avoid losing coverage. To research the availability of doctors, hospitals and nursing homes in a particular zip code, go to www.medicare.gov/care-compare.
At a time when many seniors suffer from loneliness and isolation, a sense of community matters, too. Bunio recounts the experience of a client who considered moving from Philadelphia to Phoenix after her daughter accepted a job there. The cost of living in Phoenix is lower, but the client changed her mind after visiting her daughter for a few months. “She has no friends in Phoenix,” he says. “She’s going on 61 and doesn’t want to restart life and make brand-new connections all over again.”
Time is on your side
Unlike younger home buyers, who may be under pressure to buy a place before starting a new job or enrolling their kids in school, downsizers usually have plenty of time to consider their options and research potential downsizing destinations. Once you’ve settled on a community, consider renting for a few months to get a feel for the area and a better idea of how much it will cost to live there. Bunio says some of his clients who are behind on saving for retirement or have high health care costs have sold their homes, invested the proceeds and become permanent renters. This strategy frees them from property taxes, homeowners insurance, homeowners association fees and other expenses associated with homeownership
The boom in housing values has boosted rental costs, as the shortage of affordable housing increased demand for rental properties. But thanks to the construction of new rental properties in several markets, the market has softened in recent months, according to Zumper, an online marketplace for renters and landlords. A Zumper survey conducted in October found that the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment fell 0.4% from September, the most significant monthly decline this year.
In 75 of the 100 cities Zumper surveyed, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was flat or down from the previous month. (For more on the advantages of renting in retirement, see “8 Great Places to Retire—for Renters,” Aug.)
Aging in place
Even if you opt to age in place, you can tap your home equity by taking out a home equity line of credit, a home equity loan or a reverse mortgage. At a time when interest rates on home equity lines of credit and loans average around 9%, a reverse mortgage may be a more appealing option for retirees. With a reverse mortgage, you can convert your home equity into a lump sum, monthly payments or a line of credit. You don’t have to make principal or interest payments on the loan for as long as you remain in the home.
To be eligible for a government-insured home equity conversion mortgage (HECM), you must be at least 62 years old and have at least 50% equity in your home, and the home must be your primary residence. The maximum payout for which you’ll qualify depends on your age (the older you are, the more you’ll be eligible to borrow), interest rates and the appraised value of your home. In 2024, the maximum you could borrow was $1,149,825.
There’s no restriction on how homeowners must spend funds from a reverse mortgage, so you can use the money for a variety of purposes, including making your home more accessible, generating additional retirement income or paying for long-term care. You can estimate the value of a reverse mortgage on your home at www.reversemortgage.org/about/reverse-mortgage-calculator.
Up-front costs for a reverse mortgage are high, including up to $6,000 in fees to the lender, 2% of the mortgage amount for mortgage insurance, and other fees. You can roll these costs into the loan, but that will reduce your proceeds. For that reason, if you’re considering a move within the next five years, it’s usually not a good idea to take out a reverse mortgage.
Another drawback: When interest rates rise, the amount of money available from a reverse mortgage declines. Unless you need the money now, it may make sense to postpone taking out a reverse mortgage until the Federal Reserve cuts short-term interest rates, which is unlikely to happen until late 2024 (unless the economy falls into recession before that). Even if interest rates decline, they aren’t expected to return to the rock-bottom levels seen over the past 15 years, according to a forecast by The Kiplinger Letter. And with inflation still a concern, big rate cuts such as those seen in response to recessions and financial crises over the past two decades are unlikely.
Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, a monthly, trustworthy source of advice and guidance. Subscribe to help you make more money and keep more of the money you make here.
Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.
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