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For retirees, investing in real estate grows less important

November 4, 2014 12:00 AM
By Tim Grant / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Vernon Tipton retired eight years ago, he and his wife, Linda, chose to stay in the North Versailles home they’ve owned for 46 years, but they decided to buy a second home in North Carolina to avoid the winters here.

“This is a good retirement area, but the climate is harsh,” said Mr. Tipton, 68, who retired from Verizon and was formerly executive director of the Duquesne City School District. “So, in the winter we like to go south where there is no snow and the weather is nice.”

Among the many decisions facing retirees is what to do about their homes, with many deciding that the house where they raised a family is bigger than they need in their retirement. When that time comes, the question is whether to rent or buy. Whether to stay in communities they are familiar with or relocate entirely.

It’s a decision facing many people in Allegheny County. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 there were 466,000 people ages 50 and above living in the county out of a total population of 1.2 million residents.

Many are staying — but not always hanging onto the chores that come with homeownership.

“We do not see many people moving out of the Pittsburgh marketplace after they retire,” said Jim Saxon, president of McCandless-based Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices. “We do see older residents downsizing if they have a larger home and it’s hard to maintain.

“Those on a limited fixed income will stay in their existing home for as long as it’s feasible to maintain it,” he said. “Then you have people, based on their financial position, who will downsize to a smaller home and purchase a second home in an area that is favorable during the winter months such as Florida, South Carolina and Arizona.”

Any such decisions are impacted by the financial status of the individual retirees and other factors, such as the size and condition of the house they live in.

But there are indications that fewer people ages 55 to 64 are choosing to own, and more are deciding to either rent or move to senior housing communities where they can escape many of the chores and hassles of homeownership, such as yard work and other maintenance.

“The majority don’t move. They prefer to age in place,” said Jane Bryant Quinn, a personal finance expert and columnist for AARP Bulletin. “Those who move do it for a variety of reasons — better weather, lower costs, living near children and grandchildren.

“Many move within their own community. They are leaving a house that needs care — a house is a money pit — and moving to a condo that’s all on one floor and easy to manage.”

Ms. Quinn, author of “Making the Most of Your Money Now,” said three main factors influence retirees’ decisions to rent or buy — a sense of ownership, liquidity and being near family.

“They want to feel safe in their home, knowing a landlord can’t throw them out,” she said. “They want to be able to decorate it in their own way.

“But if they buy, they will be putting up part or all of the home’s price in cash. That’s OK as long as they have enough ready money remaining to pay their bills. If their savings is low, it would be better to rent a house or condo and add the proceeds of the home sale to their savings and investments.”

For retirees who relocate to live near children, Ms. Quinn offers this warning: The child might get a new job and move away or a divorce might take grandchildren to another town.

“It’s better to rent, to stay flexible until you’re pretty sure that your children aren’t going anywhere,” she said.

The National Association of Realtors, based in Washington, D.C., reported in its 2013 Generational Trends Study — a national survey of 148,011 homebuyers and sellers — that the percentages of recent home purchases by older Americans are notably lower than that of younger people.

The report found that the largest group of buyers was the millennials, those born between 1980 and 1995, who composed 31 percent of recent purchases; followed by Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1979, at 30 percent; 16 percent were younger baby boomers, those born between 1955 and 1964; 14 percent were older boomers, born between 1946 and 1954; and 9 percent were from the Silent Generation, those born between 1925 and 1945.

The median age of millennial homebuyers was 29. Their median income was $73,600, and they typically bought a 1,800-square-foot home costing $180,000. The typical Gen X buyer was 40 years old with a median income of $98,200 and purchased a 2,130-square-foot home costing $250,000.

The median age of older boomers was 63. Their median income was $81,100. They typically bought a home 1,850 square feet costing $200,000. The median age of a Silent Generation buyer was 72, with a median income of $66,200. They typically purchased a 1,800-square-foot home costing $205,000.

The reasons for buying a home varied across generations. The millennials through the younger boomers most often cited the desire to own a home of their own, while older boomers and the Silent Generation most often wanted to downsize and to be closer to family and friends.

Mr. Saxon said national housing trends for retirees are fairly consistent to those in Pittsburgh.

“We are not seeing a lot of retirees move into town,” he said. “But more of them are moving to areas where they don’t have to worry about shoveling snow or mowing grass.

North Versailles’ Mr. Tipton has come across other people in a similar situation choosing to buy places away from the northern winters.

“When we were looking for a place to live, we looked around at several places outside of Charlotte and in one of them there was a whole community of retirees from New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” he said. “We decided not to buy there, but it was really interesting to see that.”

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.

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