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Buying a Second Home You'll Live In at Retirement

The key: finding one that'll work for you now and in the future

By Craig Venezia

Earlier this year, Peter Phinney, 59, and his wife Gail, 57, bought a second home in Pioneertown, Calif., about two hours from Los Angeles, where they live. With Joshua Tree National Park a scant 12 miles away, the Phinneys’ three-bedroom purchase makes for the ideal weekend getaway. But they had more than weekends in mind when they bought it.
“When we both reach 65, our plan is to live there full time,” Peter says.
With over a quarter of a million Americans turning 65 every month and half of all second-home buyers over 46 (according to the National Association of Realtors), the idea of buying a second home now for future retirement is a certifiable trend.

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Armand Christopher, owner of Senior Living Realty in Dallas, Texas, notices it. “I’ve seen a 60 percent increase in clients who are either considering or have recently purchased a second home. It’s not uncommon for many to be thinking about making that home their primary residence when they retire.”
If you’re considering this path to retirement, the type of house you choose and what’s nearby makes all the difference. Both should support independent living as you transition from being an active adult to, well, less active.
Pick a House of All Ages
The more “age-friendly” a second home is when you buy, the less time and money you’ll need to put into it when it becomes your principal residence.
“As you age, your house should enable, not disable you,” says Rodney Harrell, AARP’s housing expert. “To the greatest extent possible, it should be usable by people of all ages without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

(MORE: Rent or Buy a Home In Retirement?)
Harrell suggests looking at houses with features that offer universal appeal.
For example, open floor plans, wide doorways and unobstructed exterior entryways work for everyone but won’t inhibit mobility as you age.
For two-story houses, make sure there’s a room on the bottom floor that could one day serve as a bedroom. Two other features worth scoping out: lever handles on doors (easier for arthritic hands) and at least one bathroom with a walk-in shower.
John Egnatis, CEO of Grenadier Homes in Dallas, Texas, assessed the Phinneys’ second home for universal appeal. “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being optimal, I’d give it a solid 8,” Egnatis says.
The desert house is one-level with a spacious flow in the front living area and easy access to the rear patio. Inside are wide doorways, many lever-handled doors and a bathroom with a step-in shower.

(MORE: Where In the World Should You Retire?)

Balance Medical Access with Recreational Activity
You’ll also want to look for a home with nearby medical services — in case you need them some day — and local activities to keep you healthy in body and mind, too.
“We sought a balance between having daily services we thought would be important to us as seniors and having loads of recreational services, restaurants and entertainment nearby for us, our children and grandchildren,” says Peter Phinney.
With Hi-Desert Medical Center just 12 minutes away, and a nature preserve, hot spring swim club, horseback riding and restaurants within a 20-minute drive, the Phinneys seemed to have struck a proper balance.
Aim to be Mortgage-Free In Retirement
From a financial angle, you’ll want to purchase a place that won’t laden you with mortgage debt.
Jean Chatzky, financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show and AARP’s financial ambassador, says that since most retirees are on a fixed income, it’s important to reduce debt as much as possible going into retirement. And the largest debt you’ll most likely have will be on your primary and second homes.
“The closest you can come to being mortgage-free in retirement, the better off you’ll be,” says Chatzky.
Paying heed to Chatzky’s advice, the Phinneys rent out their second home part of the year, which covers a portion of their carrying costs. They’re also on track to pay off its mortgage in 10 years, not long after they’ll turn the house into their principal residence and enjoy it to the fullest.

Craig Venezia is a real estate writer for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of Buying a Second Home: Income, Getaway or Retirement. He and his wife own a second home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read More
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