Baby boomers are struggling to downsize — and it could create the next housing crisis

Veronica Dy and her husband had their retirement plan all mapped out.

They recently sold their large family home in San Gabriel, California, for $850,000 and walked away with $250,000 in net proceeds to put toward a smaller home in Los Angeles to be closer to their son’s family. They figured it would be easy to find a quaint, two-bedroom home where they could age in place without overspending on housing.

They thought wrong. The couples’ home search came up empty week after week, and the few properties within their budget – about $550,000 – are selling well over asking price almost immediately, Veronica Dy says.

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Now, the couple spends roughly $3,200 per month – nearly half of their monthly household income – on rent and other housing-related expenses farther out from the city as they keep looking. While they’re trying to remain optimistic, the uncertainty of their situation makes Veronica Dy, 61, doubt that they’ll retire anytime soon.

“I was waiting to retire when I’m 62 but with our current circumstances, now we’re playing it by ear,” says Dy, who works in health care. “I look every day for houses, but there’s nothing on the market that’s affordable. I wanted to live closer to our son and help them with our grandchildren, but it’s going to be hard.”

The Dys’ struggles are shared by a growing number of older Americans who wrestle with whether to downsize or age in place. The answer, as it turns out, isn’t so simple.

In its just-released 2018 Survey of Home and Community Preferences, AARP found that 76 percent of Americans age 50 and older prefer to remain in their current home, and 77 percent would like to live in their community for as long as possible. However, just 59 percent of older Americans think they’ll be able to stay in their community, either in their current home (46 percent) or in a different home still within their area (13 percent).

Rising mortgage rates, sky-rocketing home prices, and inventory shortages at the lower end of the market are converging to create a new housing crisis – this time for baby boomers, housing experts warn.

By 2016, there were roughly 74.1 million baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) in the U.S, according to a Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. By 2030, when all baby boomers will be between 66 and 84 years old, Census predicts boomers’ numbers will drop to 60 million people.

As boomers age, an alarming trend has emerged: they’re entering their golden years with mortgage debt. Americans over the age of 60 were more than three times as likely to carry mortgage debt in 2015 compared to 1980, according to an analysis of Census data by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Much of the increase in seniors’ mortgage borrowing is in households with below-median incomes and assets, and no pensions, the analysis found.

Generally, past generations aimed to have their mortgage paid off before retirement to better manage their reduced incomes later in life.

Carrying mortgage debt may offer one explanation as to why many baby boomers prefer to remain in their current homes. Other factors, such as retaining home equity, staying in familiar surroundings, or a lack of affordable options, also drive the decision to stay put.

Aging in place, however, can be harder to do if boomers’ homes aren’t equipped to meet their future needs, says Jennifer Molinsky, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

“There’s a growing linkage between housing and health care, and being able to stay in your house longer,” Molinsky says. “Making your house accessible for [in-home health care] is ideal, but this is harder to manage in lower density areas because of limited transportation and accessibility to doctors in rural areas. Communities need to think about how these services interrelate with housing, because that’s a real challenge for the future.”

Mobility and health issues pose the greatest barrier to seniors who want to stay in their current homes. Older homeowners may need to add amenities, such as bathroom grip bars, walk-in showers, wheelchair ramps, and wider hallways and doorways to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs as their mobility declines. Some of these improvements are simple, but when you start redoing bathrooms, for example, remodeling projects can add up quickly.

Seniors who own their homes outright or have significant home equity typically borrow against their homes to help pay for modifications, says Sam Preis, regional director of sales with BBMC Mortgage.

Several loan products can help older homeowners pay for improvements that will make their homes livable for years to come. Preis recommends the following options:

Home equity loan – A home equity loan makes more sense if you have to make several modifications at once and need an upfront lump sum to pay for them.

Home equity line of credit, or HELOC – A HELOC works like a revolving line of credit that lets you withdraw on the line as often (or as little) as you need it for improvements in stages.

VA financing – Many older veterans who served in the military mistakenly think their VA benefits expire, but that’s not true, Preis points out. The VA offers cash-out refinancing, typically with no down payment requirement, to pay for home improvements. The VA also provides special grants for adapted housing for veterans with a service-connected disability. The grants help pay for a remodel or the purchase/building of a new home that accommodates their disability.

Reverse mortgages – A federally insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM, is the most common type of reverse mortgage. Insured by the Federal Housing Administration, HECMs allow people who are 62 or older to tap a portion of their home equity without having to move. You also can use a HECM to buy a home.

At the crux of boomers’ dilemma is the shortage of affordable homes on the market. That, along with rising mortgage rates – a trend that’s expected to continue – can create significant barriers to downsizing, says Laurie Goodman, vice president of housing finance policy and codirector of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

The national average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage hit a record low of 3.41 percent in July 2016, according to historical data from Freddie Mac. As of Aug. 30, 2018, the average 30-year fixed rate was 4.52 percent – more than a full percentage point higher.

“Higher rates have a huge effect on mobility for everyone,” Goodman says.

Baby boomers who plan to stay in their current communities are likely to have the upper hand in competing for a smaller, less expensive home if they’ve paid off or have significant equity in their current home thanks to inflated appreciation. The key question is whether they’ll find the right home for their needs amid inventory shortages in the lower end of the market.

Seniors’ mobility could be impeded if they try to relocate to more expensive markets to be closer to family than where they currently live, especially given higher rates and rising prices, Goodman points out.

“There’s a limited supply of homes, along with rising prices – that’s a problem that’s not correcting and it’s getting worse and worse,” Goodman says.

Restrictive zoning laws and higher land costs are pushing builders to focus on producing luxury single-family homes (rather than economical multifamily projects) to remain profitable, Goodman says. The key to encouraging more building is a revamp of local zoning rules to enhance the variety of new housing projects, she adds.

In a lot of U.S. communities, a lack of housing variety complicates the picture for baby boomers who are seeking affordable options. And for some older folks, economic necessity is giving rise to creative solutions that buck tradition.

The AARP survey found that adults age 50 and older are open to housing alternatives, such as home sharing (32 percent), building an accessory dwelling unit (31 percent) and villages that provide services that enable aging in place (56 percent).

Whether it’s for economic viability or to gain companionship, seniors’ willingness to think outside the box is driving the growth of unconventional housing solutions, says Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities with AARP. The “Golden Girls” style of roommates is one shared-housing arrangement gaining steam. There’s also intergenerational home-sharing; an online platform called Nesterly, for example, matches older adults with college students who are looking for roommates.

“An affordable housing crisis is brewing and, in many places, it’s already here,” Arigoni says. “[These solutions are] becoming less taboo and more accepted. And that’s partially just recognition of the financial realities we’re all accepting.”

The appetite for home-sharing is being driven by a resurgence in accessory dwelling units. An accessory dwelling unit is a smaller, secondary building that’s attached to the primary home or located on the same lot. This type of housing (think granny flat or mother-in-law suite) offers a livable solution for seniors who want to age in place and generate rental income, live near family, or eventually bring in-home care help down the road, Arigoni says. The key roadblock to add accessory dwelling units, though, is securing approval from local zoning or building authorities, she notes.

Whether downsizing or staying put is in your future, housing expenses will undoubtedly play a huge part of your overall retirement picture. Preis, with BBC Mortgage, suggests crafting a financial plan for retirement (if you haven’t already). Sit down with a financial advisor, a mortgage lender (if you plan to finance a home purchase or tap your home’s equity), and your accountant to figure out what options will help you live comfortably while maximizing your retirement income, Preis says.

The decision to downsize or age in place isn’t just about affordability or the place you call home. Consider how close you’ll be to family, friends, doctors, hospitals, transportation, parks, cultural attractions, and other key amenities that make a community truly livable, Arigoni says.

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