Convenience, independence and the familiarity of home are all prime reasons for renovating rather than renting or downsizing in retirement. Even as retirements have grown longer and long-term care has become a likely necessity, plenty of seniors still want to keep the comforts of home well into their 80s and 90s. But are “aging in place” home renovations really worth the costs and potential hassles?
For many retirees and their advisors, the answer is a clear yes. “Nine times out of ten the folks I deal with want to keep the familiarity and comfort of their homes for as long as possible,” said Jeremy Shipp, President of Harbor Wealth. “They’ve already been there 30, 40 years or more and don’t want to uproot.” Whether or not their current homes are suitable for retirement, they also want to remain close to the families and social circles they’ve cultivated throughout their working lives.
According to a 2014 Better Homes and Gardens real estate survey, more than four in ten adults aged 49 to 67 plan to stay in their current homes in retirement. And while that’s not a small figure by any means, even more BHG respondents plan to renovate. 69 percent of those who don’t want to stay in place said they would be willing to modify their next home, and 42 percent said low-maintenance features would be the deciding factor in their next purchases.
Most soon-to-be retirees don’t plan on downsizing when they move, either. In fact, nearly half the Baby Boomers who expect to move in retirement actually plan to buy bigger homes or costlier amenities than they have now, according to a Demand Institute study. The same study found that even among Boomers far out from retirement, 39 percent plan to make a major home improvement in the next three years, and 44 percent of that group is doing so to make the home more suitable to aging. Overall, even seniors with a decade or more of work left seem dead-set on living out their later lives in spacious, aging-friendly houses – not retirement communities or downsized homes.
Of course, the actual costs of modifying a home for retirement will depend upon the features a couple needs. An AARP survey showed that the modifications most important to seniors included safety (80 percent), bathroom aids (79 percent) and an alert system in case of emergencies (79 percent). Other items of importance include step-free entrances, widened doorways and lever-handled doorknobs. Basic modifications such as grab bars and door openers may cost in the range of $300 to $1500, according to in-home care company Living Well, while a more involved project such as a stair chair installation could cost tens of thousands of dollars. The same goes for bathroom redesigns and other large scale renovations, which are often in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $25,000. Additionally, some of the most involved, costly projects can end up costing even more when older houses need to be brought up to code with new wiring, new plumbing or other installations.
While all of those costs are considerable, advisors and their clients still ought to consider the alternatives. Moving to a smaller house may be more costly, for instance, even with the proceeds from the sale of a current home. “In our experience it’s been a lot easier to downsize to a more elder-friendly home than to renovate an existing house,” said Joe Franklin, President of Franklin Wealth Management. “However, homes are very affordable in our market here in Tennessee. In markets where homes are a lot more expensive, it might be better to renovate rather than downsize.”
Moving to an assisted living facility may or may not be a cheaper option. The average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in an assisted living community is $3,022 per month, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America, and those costs can triple for fancier facilities in coastal states. Even a few extra years spent in an updated home could save a client thousands of dollars – savings which could be put towards more private and personable in-home care.
Ultimately, every couple and individual will need to consider the costs of the unique renovations they need, as well as their goals, new housing options and current and future finances. As much as most seniors want to stay in their homes, there are quite a few potential downsides to consider. High costs, additional maintenance, the difficulty of selling a custom-fitted home and the social isolation they face in the event of a spouse’s death, just to name a few.
For advisors whose clients are considering renovations, planning ahead of time is key to making the right decision. “Most people have the misconception that when you talk about long-term care planning, all you’re talking about is long-term care insurance,” said Shipp. “The bigger picture is having a real plan in place—are we going to age in place, are we going to go to a retirement community, etc.” To be a true resource and prevent financial pitfalls, it’s critical to provide all available figures – the costs of different types of care, the costs of renovation and the costs of other housing options. Ideally, these considerations will be made well before renovations become necessary for a retiree to stay in his or her home. “Give people a realistic view of what they’ll be able to do,” Shipp added.