Should You Put Your Retirement Plans on Hold?

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You were thinking about making a move to a Continuing Care Retirement Community. You were really, seriously thinking about moving from your home of 25 or 30 years, into one of those ‘maintenance free’ environments where activities and companionship abound. The fact that health care support is available, should you need it, and the thoughts of someone else doing the cooking, the cleaning and the yard work, put a perpetual smile on your face. BUT this economy has shaken your dream to the core. There is just no way you are going to consider putting your house on the market and moving to a retirement community in today’s economic environment!

Take heart; and for a moment, take a thoughtful look at the financial stability a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) can offer you. Rather than spending ‘the second half of your life’ in the home where you raised your children, a home purchased years ago to be near your job or in a particular school district, ask yourself this, “Why am I still grappling with escalating local taxes, worrying about interior and exterior maintenance, and seeing my monthly utility bills, food and health care costs skyrocket?”

Living in a continuing care retirement community can provide a cushion against inflation that is not possible while living independently. There is a ‘safety in numbers’ factor that the economics in a retirement community offer to buffer community members against the higher levels of inflation faced by those living outside the community. While it is true that CCRC monthly fees can increase on an annual basis, that increase is likely to be less than that faced by individual households dealing with increased costs at the grocery store, drug store, gas station and utility companies. Buying in large quantities, cooperative buying with other CCRC communities and affiliates, and careful monitoring of income account for just a few of these economic cost savers.

But what about your portfolio and the declining real estate market…………
We all understand that this may NOT be the most opportune time to put your home on the market, BUT do not assume your home will not sell. Re-sales are doing better than new sales, and despite an increase in the days a property remains on the market, homes ARE selling, with the help of a knowledgeable realtor, realistic pricing, and the utilization of light staging and de-cluttering techniques. Some local neighborhoods are still in great demand, and yours may be one of them. Your home may no longer bring you the selling price it might have two or three years ago, as values have dropped some 15-20% in most neighborhoods, but it is certainly worth far more than you paid for it 25 or 35 years ago . Most home owners have made four to five times their original investment, so, in fact, you have not “lost” any equity. And less profit on your sale now translates to lower capital gains taxes. The gain on the sale of your home is taxable only above $500,000 for a couple, $250,000 for a single homeowner.

We know that the current capital gains exemptions will expire in 2011 and we can only guess what the tax environment will be in the future, so sell now or take your chances with the unknowns of the future. The ball is in your court on this one.

Some Continuing Care Retirement Communities offer another, often overlooked tax benefit. For communities that provide health care benefits embedded in their fees, the IRS provides a one-time medical deduction on the entrance fee and an on-going medical deduction on monthly fees. These standard deductions offer a tax advantage that should not be overlooked when planning your retirement funding. Many CCRC’s offer refundable entrance fees, and given the chaotic nature of today’s real estate market, you should take comfort knowing that your refundable entrance fee is guaranteed for the percentage of return in your contract. Whether you chose a 50%, 90% or 100% refund, your ‘investment,’ unlike the current housing market, is not at risk of depreciation. You will know exactly what level of refund will be available to you or your estate. Some communities offer refundable entry fees that are returned when you leave the community; some are paid to your estate at the time of your death. Some earn interest, some do not, but all are safe from the disheartening declines currently being experienced in the residential real estate market and on Wall Street.

And speaking of Entrance Fees, these one-time fees have increased at an average rate of 4% per year since 2000, while housing values and construction costs have skyrocketed 10% to 44%, in some areas of the country. When you compare the cost of other housing options, coupled with the long list of amenities and services bundled into CCRC living, you cannot recreate the CCRC living environment for this price anywhere else.

In general, not-for-profit CCRC’s are a safe investment. The majority of these communities have been in existence for many years and almost all are sponsored by larger organizations that provide credibility and stability. Many CCRC’s have substantial endowment funds, and the ability to fund raise through affiliated support groups. Proven fiscal responsibility, active board leadership and financial transparency all offer a security unmatched by other investments. Organizations that are financed via the tax exempt public market go through a rigorous financial review with on-going financial operating requirements. These reviews are fundamental to maintaining the financial integrity of the organization and to protecting bond holders and residents. And unlike their for-profit cousins, not-for-profit CCRC’s are in business for the long haul. Their missions and visions of non-profit communities go far beyond the current crises, with strategies to maintain their relevance 20 years into the future; it’s the nature of their business. CCRC’s are also highly regulated through state departments of health, insurance agencies and other licensing entities. These regulatory agencies are in place to protect residents and the financial investments (entrance fees) they have made.

The fact remains; people living in retirement communities are healthier then people living alone. Retirement communities offer residents a community with others of a similar age, a variety of services such as housekeeping, meal plans, interior and exterior maintenance, transportation and social activities galore. In addition, when you choose a CCRC you can also be sure that you will be taken care of, regardless of the level of care you need, when the time comes. No panicked searches to find a skilled nursing or assisted living facility that meets your standards, and has availability; you will know where and who will be taking care of you should you need help. Seniors living independently will face increased “rationing” of health services, as the reimbursement environment becomes more challenging and nursing and hospital beds become scarcer. Entering a CCRC can help protect your future health care needs as you will be pre-paying health care resources that might become unattainable if you were living on your own.

Although there are a multitude of retirement options, today’s economy should not discourage you from beginning your pursuit of your ‘retirement dreams.’ Begin to visit communities. Be on the look out for CCRC’s that ‘fit’ your expectations and your budget, and then investigate further. When you visit, talk to current residents, talk to people on the community’s ‘waiting’ list, and request a copy of the annual report and other financial statements. Do you home work; do cost comparisons and be sure you are comparing apples to apples when you list the services that are included in your monthly fees. Some services are bundled and others are ‘fee-for-service;’ they vary from community to community. Be sure to ask which are which.

Plan a short stay in the community of your choice. Rent a guest room and settle in for a few days. Get a feel for the people who live there and the activities that fill their days. If you share many of their passions, you’re heading in the right direction. Taste the food, walk the grounds and attend a few activities; after all this may be your future home. Talk to employees and ask how long they’ve been working there, and what they like most about their jobs. Be sure to visit the Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing areas at the CCRC’s, as it is very likely you may spend your final days in one or both of these environments. (We all will!)

Don’t put your plans on hold; instead use this time to begin to research your options. Take your time, be observant and ask a lot of questions. You are not expected to know everything there is to know about retirement communities, so no question is considered inconsequential. The information you uncover may just help convince you that now IS the perfect time to move forward with your retirement plans.

Nancy Nolan is the marketing director for Foulkeways at Gwynedd in Pennsylvania.

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