Ready To Move, Stuck In One Place

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By Caitlin McDevitt | NEWSWEEK
The market crush is hurting most Americans, but it’s especially painful for senior citizens who are ready to move into retirement communities but can’t sell their homes to get there. Seniors pay out of pocket for most of their long-term housing needs, and because entrance fees for retirement communities can cost as much as a house, making a move is often contingent upon a sale. “The idea is that a senior has built up equity in [a] house, and this assures that they can have care for the rest of their lives,” says Larry Minix, of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. But not if they can’t find a buyer. And with a glut of houses on the market, even reduced asking prices don’t always lure prospective buyers. Ruth Scher, 85, put her condominium in Delray Beach, Fla., on the market last year and “nobody came,” she says. The clogged market helps explain why vacancies in senior living facilities are on the rise””most dramatically in areas where the market is most distressed. In Tampa, for instance, 12 percent of senior housing units are unoccupied, up from 4 percent last year.

Already pinched by high food and utility costs, some retirement-home operators are hiring real-estate agents to help their new residents hasten the sale of their old homes. But agents say that selling an elderly person’s home can be a challenge: “It takes so much more than just the FOR SALE sign,” says Debbie Miller, an agent in Arlington, Va. Outdated wallpaper, old appliances and poor maintenance often deter buyers. According to a 2008 survey from the American Seniors Housing Association, nearly a quarter of seniors haven’t made a home improvement in 10 years, and 41 percent say they won’t spend money to attract a buyer. Few have the money anyway, says Robert Kramer, the president of the National Investment Center, an industry research group. Just as the real-estate bust has cheapened the value of their primary asset, seniors have watched their retirement accounts shrink, too, as the market plummets.

Some seniors have made their peace with staying put. Preston Dixon, of Dallas, wants to move into an independent-living facility, but he won’t budge from his home until the market improves. “If I get my target price, fine,” says Dixon, 85. “If not, I don’t move.” That might be the smart play financially, but holding out can be perilous. According to Jeffrey Love of the AARP, money trou-ble can cause some seniors to pinch pennies on things they really need, such as heat, medication or nutrition. With winter coming, those are choices many of them can’t afford to make.

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