Smart Moves: Consider buying two, smaller homes for retirement

By: Ellen James Martin

Once, the notion of owning two homes was solely for the wealthy. But now more middle-class baby boomers entering retirement are “trading down” from a big family house to two small abodes in separate states, according to real estate specialists.

“These aren’t rich people. … Yet they have traditional pensions that give them enough income to support homes in two parts of the country,” says Margie Casey, a veteran real estate broker and author of “Relocate at Retirement or Not?”

In a typical scenario, a retiring couple will first sell their large family house. Then they’ll buy a smaller home nearby for use as their primary residence. Finally, they’ll purchase a small, secondary residence in another state, most often in a resort setting.

Wherever they choose to live, most boomers want low maintenance, with exterior upkeep provided through a condo or homeowners’ association.

“People want the total freedom of ‘lock and leave’ homes,” Casey says.

Of course, many boomers lack the wherewithal to pursue a two-home retirement strategy, often due to financial setbacks in recent years. But Casey says those with enough money are willing to spend it in order to enhance their retirement lifestyle.

Here are a few tips for those considering a two-home retirement dream:

•First check out the financial implications of your plan.

Casey, who reviews retirement communities, says anyone considering two-home ownership should first discuss the financial implications with a professional adviser.

“A planner can help you calculate what you can afford and give you a second opinion on your plan,” she says.

On paper, it should be no more expensive to own two small units than a single large one. But in reality, dual homeownership can be more expensive after you take into account homeowner’s association fees and transportation costs.

Local taxes are also a big factor, especially in today’s tough times, where cash-strapped municipalities are frequently raising them.

“Once you investigate the taxes, you may decide to live one state away from your grandchildren, assuming that lowers your cost of living,” Casey says.

•Think through the choice of a condo as one of your two homes.

Michael R. Crowley, a real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents, says homebuyers considering the purchase of a condo should exercise caution.

As an example, he tells of a married couple he advised on the purchase of retirement property in Hawaii. The couple chose a condominium development that seemed attractive. Before they concluded a purchase there, however, they rented a unit as a trial run.

“After a brief time renting, they realized they hated condo living. It felt way too crowded to them. They were glad they’d tried it out before actually buying,” Crowley recalls.

As he notes, there are other options for small-scale living that provide many of the worry-free features as a condo-apartment.

For instance, in many “planned unit developments,” you can buy a one-level detached unit that comes with exterior maintenance, including a lawn service, Crowley notes.

•Consider transportation before deciding where to relocate.

Many a retiree has selected an idyllic retirement setting without taking into account airport access, which is a major mistake, Casey says.

Relying on an out-of-the-way airport makes it harder to travel to distant locations for vacation or to see your offspring. It can also add to your transportation bills.

“Try to live near an airport that’s a hub for one of the major carriers. That can save you a ton on air travel costs,” Casey says.

Another transportation factor to consider is proximity to major interstate roadways.

“Most retired people want to live within a two-hour drive of their grandchildren,” Casey says.

•Avoid high expectations for visits with your offspring.

“Living near the grandkids is the No. 1 thing for a lot of retirees,” Casey says.

Still, she cautions those choosing a retirement habitat to be realistic about their expectations on how often they’ll see family, no matter how close they live.

“Your kids have busy lives. Sure, you can hope to see them often. But don’t focus your whole retirement lifestyle on seeing family. First and foremost, choose the lifestyle that works for you,” Casey says.

•Remember the benefits of two-home living.

One reason retirees like owning two abodes is that they can take advantage of two distinct climates, avoiding harsh winters and interminable summers

By living in two places, Casey says, many retirees have “the best of both worlds.” They can choose a primary setting near family and a secondary one that satisfies their desire for intellectual stimulation, perhaps in a college town where they can enjoy classes, lectures and cultural events.

For instance, Casey cites low-cost courses available to seniors on many campuses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, www.osherfoundation.org Buying a home near a college town offering such classes can enrich retirement.

Obviously, not all retirees are suited to living in two homes. Some prefer a sedentary life with little travel involved. But many others thrive on a dual-town lifestyle, Casey says.

“Living in two places can be exciting. The change of going back and forth is stimulating. And that’s good for a lot of people,” she says

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