Understand Your Housing Options
Here's how to plan for different scenarios.
Where will you live when you’re older?
About half of retirees (52%) remain in the homes they had in their 50s, according to a 2020 report from Boston College Center for Retirement Research. Another 17% are “stable movers” who relocate to a new home at retirement, then stay put. Then, 14% move often in retirement and 16% are “late movers,” who are forced to move following a health crisis in their 80s.
“The challenge is that it is very difficult to tell early on which households will need to move in their old age,” say the report’s authors.
What’s key? A realistic assessment of your wants, needs and financial situation.
As you consider:
Do the math. Your choice has to fit your retirement budget through your remaining life. A useful tool: the Social Security Administration’s Life Expectancy Calculator.
But factor in the “heart math.” That covers social-emotional needs (family, services, activities), climate, safety, recreation, transportation (to medical care, shopping, volunteering, the airport) — and your dreams.
“You have to sit and think about what’s really important to you,” says Michael Trickey, a CPA and author of “Finding Home Over 50: Achieving Your Housing Needs and Life List Dreams in Retirement.”
“The older you get, the harder it is to make changes,” he says.
Don’t get hung up on labels. Terminology in the housing market is inconsistent. One region’s “retirement community” is another’s “assisted living.” The warm-and-fuzzy word community is tacked onto a wide variety of differing set-ups.
Stay open-minded. Baby boomers are remaking yesterday’s versions of almost every genre in their own image.
These are the main buckets of later-life housing:
Aging in Place
Aging in place means staying in your current residence and community and not relocating to a retirement community, assisted living or nursing home. This is what most people ideally want. Here’s what to consider if you’d like to age in place:
Maintenance needs. It’s not just you getting older — your home will, too. Most single-family homes that those over 65 live in today are more than 40 years old. (The median age of a home in New York is 63 years, compared to 26 years in Nevada.)
Finances. Even if a mortgage is paid off, property taxes may continue to rise, eating up more of a fixed income. As millennials with work flexibility continue to flee urban areas, some family-sized suburban homes are worth a premium, making selling and downsizing more attractive. For others, reverse mortgages make sense to tap equity to stay put.
Changing needs. Home modifications can prolong independence when based on Universal Design principles (barrier-free designs accessible and safe for all), such as no-step entryways, lever handles and higher commodes. Often needed over time are a main-floor bedroom and full bath, plus halls, shower openings and floor surfaces (wood, not carpet) that accommodate wheelchairs.
Support for the long haul. “If you choose to live independently, you don’t have to do it alone,” Trickey says. Home care services ranging from rides to personal help to companionship can be hired, while home health care agencies can provide skilled nursing and physical therapy. These services, of course, come with costs.
To assess your home room-by-room, see AARP’s HomeFit guide. Consider consulting a certified-aging-in-place specialist (CAPS), an expert who’s completed a National Association of Home Builders program.
Variations to Aging in Place
Forming or Joining a ‘Village’
In the grassroots Village Movement, groups of local residents band together to form nonprofit membership organizations that allow them to remain in their own homes while pooling resources for joint benefits. This is not to be confused with The Villages, a large retirement community in Florida.
Monthly or annual fees cover such services as shopping, transportation, home repairs, dog-walking, tech support and health/wellness programs. The area served can range from a few blocks to (in more rural areas) many square miles.
Boston’s Beacon Hill Village pioneered the concept in 2001, and its robust website provides a good picture of what this model can look like.
Village-to-Village Network offers both a locator and toolkit for starting one.
Naturally-Occurring Retirement Communities (NORC)
Is your apartment building, neighborhood or rural community aging together?
Unlike Villages, naturally-occurring retirement communities (NORCs) are unplanned. Large numbers of residents happen to be over 60. In response, government agencies and private partners sometimes provide special services, such as transportation, activities or volunteer opportunities.
Despite the growing need, they’re not yet widely funded. New York State’s NORC program is a pioneering example.
In this “Golden Girls” model, retirees live together — either in a home that one person owns and others rent or that’s purchased or rented together. Alternatively, a home is shared with still-working adults or students.
Cost savings and companionship make this a popular option among single retirees, who are often women, according to sharinghousing.com.
Sites that let users list or find rooms include Senior Homeshares, Silvernest and the National Shared Housing Resource Center, a network of nonprofit home-share programs.
Downsizing and Relocating
Some people choose to move to a more right-sized or age-friendly home, or to a new location that’s closer to family or fits better with their lifestyle.
“You don’t have to make it permanent. Maybe you buy or rent in different types of places,” Trickey says.
Finding Home Over 50 offers free downloadable planning worksheets to assess your finances and preferences. You’re required to create a free account to download the worksheets, but that’s simply to deter bots.
One-fifth of those over 65 live with an adult relative of another generation, according to the Harvard report Housing America’s Older Adults 2019. There’s been a sharp uptick since 2000, says the advocacy group Generations United, driven in part by the recession, boomers’ relative financial stability (positioning them to host other generations) and growing numbers of chronic health conditions and disabilities.
Plus, COVID-19 has made congregate living situations like assisted-living less appealing to some.
Co-Housing With Adult Children
About 65% of 65- to 79-year-olds in multi-generational households live with adult children in homes they own, while most of those over 80 in multi-generational households live in adult children’s homes. Adding an “in-law” suite with a separate kitchen to an existing home combines togetherness with privacy.
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)
Also known as backyard cottages, guest houses or (less appealingly) “granny pods” or “granny flats,” these tiny homes are located on the property of another residence (often an adult child). ADUs provide independence but close proximity to relatives who can provide help as needed.
Zoning regulations vary widely by state and locality, but there’s a growing push to ease restrictions on secondary residences. Costs vary, too, as an ADU can be as simple as a used trailer in the backyard or as elaborate as a custom-built home.
Rentals are a newer option. Care Cottages by UMH are temporary, 600-square-foot, one-bedroom prefabs delivered for an installation fee (of $8,000 to $10,000) plus a monthly fee ($2,000).
Moving to a New Place, Together
Some families pool resources to find a better intergenerational fit. Builders are responding to the under-one-roof trend with purpose-built homes.
Homebuilder Lennar calls its Next Gen models “a home within a home,” featuring separate suites with their own entrance and a kitchen that connect to the primary floor plan. More of the same: D.R. Horton’s MultiGen Home and Toll Brothers’ MultiGen. This twist on the duplex is sometimes found within planned communities. Custom builders increasingly offer such plans, too.
Independent Community Options
Another option is age-restricted communities for adults living on their own — sometimes referred to as retirement communities.
These often contain a mix of detached or semi-detached houses, townhomes and apartments, as well as communal spaces like walking paths, golf courses, pools, gyms, recreation centers and other forms of entertainment. There are usually amenities, too, like community activities, on-site hair salons, meal services, housekeeping or laundry.
Their character, lifestyle, and costs vary enormously.
Known as “active adult” communities, these enclaves have evolved beyond the stereotypes of a generation ago. Think spas, pubs, sports teams and pop-up cafes.
Case-in-point: the Jimmy Buffett-themed Latitude Margaritaville brand, with locations in Florida and South Carolina, include beach clubs, town square and a “Barkeritaville” pet spa.
Within the sprawling Rancho Mission Viejo in California’s Orange County, a gated 55+ community is connected to family neighborhoods that share parks and a farm.
Some developments have additional services as residents need more help, such as housekeeping or meals, though not medical or nursing care. As in any private home, these can be hired as needed.
Smaller, Retirement-Focused Communities
Communities emphasizing wellness and social connection on a smaller scale are springing up in cities and suburbs. Some are constructed in repurposed buildings like former shopping malls or hospitals. These “adaptive reuse” build projects often combine the convenience of apartment living with amenities targeted to older people, including social activities and outings.
Increasingly popular: College-linked communities, located on or near campuses. The extent of connection varies by school. Some allow residents to take classes and use facilities. Although popular with alumni, a degree isn’t a pre-req. Some are continuing-care communities, meaning residents can access additional services should they need more help.
Co-Housing and Intentional Communities
More grassroots are intentional communities: groups of people who choose to live together and share resources on the basis of common values. These aren’t necessarily age-restrictive.
Two increasingly popular types are green retirement communities, which focus on sustainable construction and a green lifestyle, and cohousing, where residents have their own homes but share kitchens, dining spaces and outdoor spaces.
"Co-housing provides the privacy we've all become accustomed to with the community we seek," says Karin Hoskin of Cohousing USA, a nonprofit that supports co-housing communities.
The Foundation for Intentional Community keeps an online directory and many resources for finding and forming such communities.
Manufactured Housing Community
Some newer “senior mobile home communities” are age-restricted and feature community centers, pickleball courts and more. Even upscale versions tend to be more affordable than fixed-site homes. Some communities are land-lease, meaning you own the home and rent the land it sits on.
Some commercial groups maintain listings, such as Active Adult Living.
Continuing Care Retirement Communities
Continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) are independent dwellings that double as assisted living and skilled nursing care as more help is required. (Confusingly, in the senior housing market these are sometimes referred to as “independent living.”)
CCRCs often have wellness centers, activities, events and transportation. Residents pay an entrance fee (often in the tens of thousands) as well as monthly or other fees depending on the level of care needed.
This arrangement is ideal for those who find it appealing to remain within the larger community they’re familiar with even if they become sick or frail. Here are the questions to ask yourself before signing onto a CCRC.
Assisted living is residential housing that emphasizes privacy and independence while providing 24-hour access to help with certain everyday activities, like meals or transportation.
Assisted living best serves those who may find managing a household too taxing but don’t need as much personal assistance and want to live in a safe environment near other people. A care plan, including some medical and personal care, is tailored to individual needs.
Residential care homes (sometimes called board-and-care homes) are smaller assisted living facilities — often in an actual house. The Green House model has been used to create hundreds of these settings, with private rooms and outdoor spaces.
You can also look for members of the Eden Alternative Registry, which emphasizes individualized care in “life affirming” environments.
The Eldercare locator provides the local lay of the land for assisted living and other care-specific options.
Care Community Options
Many facilities provide a stepped-up level of skilled nursing care and support. These are intended for those who are frail or ill and require 24-hour care. Few people plan ahead to live in this style of housing.
At nursing homes, care is supervised by a medical doctor (who is not typically on site, though a registered nurse may be).
Skilled Nursing or Rehabilitation Care
A shorter-term housing provided at nursing homes or stand-alone facilities, this is for those who have been discharged from a hospital or have a chronic illness and require more even care services than is typically provided at a nursing home, such as rehabilitation therapy.
This round-the-clock residential care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias may be located within a dedicated wing of a nursing home or in a stand-alone facility.
Care is provided by those with some training in memory disorders and typically includes activities like art or reminiscence therapy, in a secure environment for those who wander or forget where they live.
Whether in stand-alone facilities or located within skilled nursing centers, this care emphasizes quality of life for those with a terminal illness. Here’s how to choose hospice care.
The transient life. Move from place to place using an RV, boat, or cruise ship as your full-time home. A newer example: Storylines residential cruise ship.
Retiring abroad. The trend jumped by 40% from 2007 to 2017, motivated by a mix of cost-savings and adventure.
Long-term voluntarism: While some kind of home base is eventually necessary, options that include long-term housing include seasonal national park work and The Peace Corps.