The next big question you need to answer after you decide to retire

Personal finance

When John Sullivan’s aging mother needed to move, it was a challenging experience.

Sullivan’s mother had macular degeneration and couldn’t drive anymore. Consequently, he and his brother looked for senior living communities.

But they had many questions, many of which they didn’t know the answer to. Adding to those difficulties, they were trying to sell the home nine years ago, when the recession still plagued the real estate market.

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The experience prompted Sullivan and his wife Ingrid, both real estate professionals, to start a business aimed at helping other families facing the same dilemma. Called Senior Downsizing Experts, the Arlington, Texas-based business’ services includes help with estate sales and liquidations, finding home repair contractors and movers.

The No. 1 thing they typically hear from their clients: “I wish I would have done it sooner.”

For many, deciding at what age they will stop working is the biggest retirement decision they face. After that, the next big question is: Where will I live?

Aging in place is a common goal for retirees who are attached to their homes and reluctant to consider nursing homes.

But the idea of downsizing is gaining traction as more baby boomers enter retirement. Last year, a TD Ameritrade survey found that 42% of Americans plan to downsize in retirement.

A 2018 report from Fannie Mae pointed to a coming “mass exodus” of baby boomers from the 32 million homes they own and occupy as they leave for rentals or senior care facilities, or sadly, pass away.

Experts say there are a couple of key reasons retirees may want to get a jump on relocating to prepare for that next life phase: money and health.

Why you could be ‘house poor’

A recent analysis from MaxiFi, a personal financial planning platform, found that the more assets a retiree couple has, the more their discretionary spending will increase in retirement by downsizing their home.

“Just sitting in the house, they’re giving up the ability to take that equity and earn some money on it,” said Laurence Kotlikoff, president of MaxiFi’s parent company, Economic Security Planning, and an economics professor at Boston University.

Take one hypothetical couple, John and Vanessa, both 65, who have $600,000 in their 401(k), $150,000 in other investments and a $300,000 house they own.

Their lifetime discretionary spending would be $1.37 million in their current situation. But after downsizing to a home worth $150,000 – one half the value of their current home – they would also cut their housing expenses including homeowner’s insurance and maintenance.

The result, according to Kotlikoff, would boost their lifetime discretionary spending to $1.69 million, a 23.7% increase.

The larger the home you downsize from, the more the lifetime discretionary spending increase, MaxiFi’s analysis found. That is because high-income couples face higher taxes and Medicare Part B premiums.

For another hypothetical couple, Duncan and Tess, downsizing from a $900,000 home to a $450,000 home boosts their lifetime discretionary spending to $3.81 million from $2.85 million, a 33.7% increase.

Frank and Susan, who move from a $1.5 million home to a $750,000 home increase their lifetime discretionary spending to $5.35 million from $3.85 million, a 39% increase.

And finally, Joe and Janet, who move from a $3 million house to a $1.5 million home boost their discretionary spending by 55.2%, to $8.43 million from $5.43 million.

The issue, according to Kotlikoff, is black and white. “A lot of people are house poor and they don’t realize it,” he said.

The examples come from a proprietary analysis done by the MaxiFi tool, which analyzes personal spending, saving and insurance data to determine how individuals and families can make the most of their wealth.

Your health could catch you off guard

For financial advisors who advise clients who are making such a transition, the issue is more complex. That’s because there are expenses, namely property taxes, that can keep retirees’ cost of living high, even after they scale down, according to certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan, director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida.

Through McClanahan’s platform, Whealthcare Planning, most clients indicate they want to live at home as long as possible.

But by staying put, you run the risk that a health crisis will force you out of your home unexpectedly.

“We recommend that people do it long before they need to do it, not doing it reactively,” McClanahan said.

One key thing to look for: a home that’s aging-friendly. Even if you’re healthy now, 10 years to 15 years from now, you could be frail. And if your home has a lot of stairs or narrow doorways, that could be a disaster, McClanahan said.

Long-term care at home is often much more expensive, McClanahan said. That means it’s often more affordable to move to an assisted living facility.

More from Personal Finance:
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Another thing you might not want to consider, but should: Where will you live if your mental health declines?

If you do start to experience cognitive issues or dementia, then whether you’re going outside your home or not for care is less of an issue. “[If] you don’t know where you are, does it really matter where you are?” McClanahan said.

One important issue to consider that also impacts your health: loneliness. “People who live alone in their house for years and years, their health declines,” Ingrid Sullivan said.

Relocating to a 55-and-over community might not save money, she said, but does provide more social opportunities.

To get an idea of the kind of care you would want, McClanahan recommends touring those living facilities now. “They love to show people what they have and what they’re doing and explain exactly how it works,” she said.

John Sullivan said he also recommends clients start to get their paperwork – such as power of attorney or trust documents – together now or make sure existing documents don’t need to be updated. It’s also a good idea to check in with a financial advisor to see what you can afford.

“Even if their plan is three, four, five years down the road, start thinking about it now and put together a plan,” Sullivan said.

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