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Seniors Series: Real estate buying and selling tips for seniors

Lifestyle needs, taxes, family among key considerations for older residents

Taxes, family and doorways are just some of the important factors senior homeowners and homebuyers need to consider before making a move or deciding to stay put.

Murline Monat, a Realtor who specializes in senior clients, said the first thing senior homeowners thinking about selling and moving elsewhere should consider are taxes.

"Because many seniors may have significant equity in their homes," Monat said, "I want them to make sure they know what the tax implications are."

Property taxes also come into play.

Tim Ambrose, president of the Bay East Association of Realtors, said, "If they are selling a home, make sure the county where they are moving to has property tax reciprocity so that they are not looking at a new, higher tax bill if they've been in their home for some time."

Ambrose and Monat both encourage seniors to talk with a tax professional.

Ambrose suggested that seniors pay attention to a statewide measure on the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would allow homeowners aged 55 and older to take their current property tax basis anywhere in California. "That will open up so many options for seniors. It will allow them to not be so specific in where they are moving," he said.

Once a senior homeowner has addressed the tax issue, Monat urges seniors to answer a set of questions about family. The answers can help determine where to move.

"Where does your family live? Where do your kids live? Are they going to be nearby? Does the move make sense?" Monat said.

She added, "As you age, your circle of influence becomes smaller and more intimate and generally involves your family, and I always like to make sure there's family wherever seniors want to move to."

Lifestyle is another factor seniors should consider when choosing a new community. "You want to know where the senior centers are. Activities are hugely important for mental health," Monat said.

Local Realtors agree that most seniors prefer a single-story home or at least a multi-story home that has a full bedroom and bath on the first floor. However, those types of homes may be hard to find in the current, highly-competitive market.

As an alternative, a smaller home could be a good fit, according to Realtor William Doerlich. "Take a look at the advantages of less maintenance, easier accommodations and more comfort," he said.

Before a senior homeowner determines that a move might make sense, they need to understand the current real estate climate.

"If they bought their home 25 years ago and haven't been keeping up with the market, they're going to need some counseling and advice from a professional because the homebuying process has changed radically during the course of that time," said Doerlich, past-president of Bay East.

Ambrose agreed, saying, "What I tell my clients, and you have to trust and believe in it: you pretty much have to sell your home first before purchasing your next home. In this market, trying to buy a home that's contingent on the sale of your current home is very, very difficult to get an offer like that accepted."

Ambrose explained that a seller may have to ask the new owner of their home for a two or three-month "rent back" while finding a new home while competing with many other buyers.

"Be prepared to have not as much money left over from the sale of your previous home because home prices have gone up so much since when you purchased your home," Ambrose said.

For seniors moving into the Bay Area, he warned of sticker shock. "Even if you sold a home in another state, those proceeds may not come close to what you need to make a purchase here," he said.

Doerlich said that senior homeowners local to the area may have some advantages. "If they're a homeowner here in the Tri-Valley then they will probably have a fair amount of equity in their home if they've owned the home for ten or fifteen years and that's an advantage," he explained.

According to research cited by Doerlich, 38% of current homeowners are Baby Boomers and older.

"Which means seniors have power in the market place," he said. "The kind of home you're moving from is the kind of home that the people coming into the market are looking for. A lot of times the homes that seniors are selling are the kind of homes people want who are looking to buy in the Tri-Valley."

Many seniors are choosing to age-in-place rather than try to compete with other homebuyers or move into a "senior" community. For these homeowners, remodeling can make their homes safer and more comfortable.

Monat said there are several popular and practical home remodels among seniors choosing to age in place, including removing carpets to avoid falls, walk-in showers instead of bathtubs and good lighting.

"If you're wheelchair-bound or not as ambulatory, you may want ramps coming up to the home or going into the backyard," she said, adding that widening doorways and even lower toilets may be needed to accommodate wheelchairs.

Doerlich said advice on selecting contractors is as close as your Realtor. "Always get a professional's advice. Many Realtors have contractors they work with who can make a referral," he added.

Doerlich's final suggestion for seniors: "Before you get active in the market, understand what your capabilities are, what you're looking for and really make some lifestyle decisions about what's going to be good for you. Don't settle. There are good choices and good alternatives in the marketplace."

Editor's note: David C. Stark is public affairs director for the Bay East Association of Realtors, based in Pleasanton.

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