Senior Downsizing Decisions: Which Housing Style Is Right For You?

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When you’re younger, you might look at a 2,500-square-foot two-story home and see tons of storage space, the perfect spot for a backyard swing set, and a private upstairs retreat from your growing family. But 30 years down the line, when you view the same home, it may become empty rooms collecting dust, a daunting yard, and a lethal staircase you have to battle just to get to your bedroom every day.

Even if you adore your current living space, you’ll want to take your future needs into consideration. It’s wise to weigh the features of different housing options to ensure that your plan to simplify your space doesn’t backfire. The last thing you want is to take on too much property or maintenance at this stage of life, or to spend your nest egg on a place where you can’t stay long-term.

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We’ve done the research and spoken with top real estate agents who walk seniors through this next stage of homeownership every day to round up the benefits and drawbacks of a variety of housing styles and features. That way you can seek out a new place to call home that feels like freedom, not sacrifice.

Which property type best suits you?

1. Single-family single story home

A single-story detached home stands on its own and tends to be the most expensive housing purchase. You own both the living space and the land — and when either needs repairs or maintenance, you have to handle that yourself.

If you’ve previously lived in a neighborhood with a homeowner association, or HOA — and many people do, with more than 370,000 HOAs in the United States — a single-story home that’s HOA-free offers additional freedom. Without an HOA, you’ll save hundreds of dollars a month in HOA dues — a cost you might not want at this point — and you won’t have to check your community’s guidelines regarding your yard decor or how many visitors can park in the street (beyond common courtesy, of course).

“People just want to have a simple life; they don’t want complications,” says Crystal McCall, a top real estate agent in Ocala, Florida with 43 years of experience. She services The Villages, a Central Florida active adult retirement community, and she has a Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) certification.

“I have many people, that’s their first request: They don’t want anything two-story,” says McCall.

The single story provides a lot of opportunity. Florida’s residents, for instance, love to grill outside, and many have a lanai, an enclosed furnished porch, she adds.

With a single-story detached home, you can change the interior and exterior to suit your needs (and local bylaws), and apply for building permits when necessary, such as adding a ramp to a front or rear door. A single-story house also offers the most privacy.

The downside:

If you’re not keen on shoveling snow, raking leaves, or mowing the lawn — or if you’d like someone else to handle repairs like a clogged sink or busted screen door — you might not want all the responsibility this entails. If you’re HOA-free, you also won’t have someone to mediate for you in a dispute with a neighbor over, say, tree branches that keep falling in your yard.

A single story might be right for you if:

  • You want to keep living the single-family lifestyle, and you’re not ready to compromise on privacy.
  • You need to live on one level because of functional or health reasons that make stairs difficult.
  • You have no problem continuing to handle yard maintenance or hiring it out.

2. Condo

Condominiums have a mixed ownership model, with some tenants renting and others owning their units. (This model also can apply to other housing communities, such as apartment buildings where tenants have purchased apartments.)

In this scenario, you don’t own the land or any common spaces, just the unit where you live. In addition to your mortgage payment, you pay an extra monthly fee to maintain the shared areas, such as the parking lot, elevators, front entrance, carpets, lawn, and recreation facilities.

You’re not responsible for certain upkeep and maintenance issues. Most condo associations handle the common spaces, such as landscaping, trash removal, and snow removal. Others will take care of old paint and roofing repairs, but this can vary by community.

The downside:

Condos have certain bylaws called Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (or CC&Rs). In general, these guidelines for all owners and tenants outline what you can and can’t do beyond the commonsense restrictions you’d expect in an apartment lease.

Some associations charge fees for parking too many cars in front of the building; they also might not welcome pets or limit the number of units that can be rented at any time — a snag if you plan to lease or sublet your condo while traveling.

What’s more, if your condo is more than one story, navigating stairs might be a problem for you or your loved ones down the line. It’s not unheard of for seniors to have a whole floor that they don’t use simply because it’s not convenient to access.

“Who needs stairs? I have them in my house, and I only go up them about once every six months,” McCall says. “More and more people are having back surgeries and hip surgeries. Climbing stairs is not helpful at all.”

If you are in a multistory building with a parking garage, be sure that the building and garage are accessible with elevators, McCall says.

A condo might be right for you if:

  • You’re glad to let someone else handle the landscaping and outdoor maintenance and don’t mind paying fees for community amenities.
  • You have no issues that would prevent you from using stairs or the entire layout.
  • You have no pets or don’t mind searching for a community that welcomes them. “Most of them today honor small pets,” McCall said.

3. Townhouse, semi-detached house, duplex or triplex

These types of housing involve sharing: sharing a wall on either side with another unit, or a building divided into multiple units. Some communities with townhouses or semi-detached houses are run similarly to condominiums, with residents owning just the living space and not the land. Others allow people to own both the living space and the land. A duplex or triplex offers separate entrances for each unit and specifies that the residents are responsible for the care of their own units.

If your community is run similarly to a condominium, you won’t need to handle any exterior upkeep. Depending on your geographic area, these types of housing also tend to be less expensive than a single-story house or condominium.

If you buy a duplex or triplex, you may also have the option of living in one unit while renting another for extra income. In addition, if you have good neighbors, you’ll enjoy waving hello as you cross paths and feel a bit more at ease knowing someone’s nearby in case of, say, a power outage.

Finally, unlike an apartment or condo, in a townhouse or semi-detached housing, you likely won’t have anyone living above you, so you won’t have to worry about noisy upstairs neighbors.

The downside:

Community bylaws can be bothersome, and stairs can pose challenges for those with mobility or vision issues. Also, if you’ve lived in a detached house for years, you might not feel comfortable having neighbors in such close proximity. If you like your privacy, it can feel unsettling to hear someone walking around upstairs or a dog barking next door.

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘I don’t want to be anywhere where I have a shared wall. I don’t want the noise,’” McCall says. “There are little things you don’t think about until you get put in a place where the living is a little bit closer. Yes, you don’t have to take care of your yard, but meanwhile, you have to put up with the neighbors — more so than you normally would.”

A townhome or semi-detached home might be right for you if:

  • You don’t have the money for a single-story house or condominium.
  • You’re comfortable with navigating the unit’s layout as you age.
  • You appreciate having nearby neighbors and aren’t bothered by everyday noises.

4. Apartment

Renting an apartment can be similar to living in a townhouse, condominium, or other housing situation with shared space.

A property manager handles maintenance to the exterior and yard — and the interior as well, if you rent. This type of housing can also be affordable if you need to stretch your dollars.

The smaller square footage overall means less space to clean and maintain, leaving you more time to do the things you love. If the apartment offers amenities like a swimming pool, workout facility, grilling area, and clubhouse, you can use them as you like without ever having to worry about upkeep.

The downside:

In addition to the privacy issues mentioned earlier, apartments tend to have similar floor plans, so there’s no way to adjust your living space if you or a loved one suddenly need a walker or a wheelchair that’s too wide for a door frame. And if your unit doesn’t have a built-in washer and dryer, doing laundry can become a huge chore.

Apartment living might be right for you if:

  • You’re looking for a more affordable housing option.
  • A standardized floor plan won’t affect your mobility or other medical issues.
  • You don’t mind not having the privacy of a single-family home and can handle scaled-down amenities, like not having a designated parking space, for instance, or using an on-site laundry room.

Which features should you have in your next home?

A small yard

A small yard (less than a quarter of an acre) tends to mean lower landscaping costs overall, plus some space to enjoy the outdoors with visitors and pets safely. Fewer people insist on a large yard for gardening because it becomes too difficult, McCall adds.

Properties with small yards or no yards also tend to be newer and in areas that are more populated, meaning a shorter commute time to amenities such as groceries and other activities, as well as public transportation.

The downside:

If you like peace and quiet, you might also like the vista that only a larger yard can provide — and the longer commute from a more suburban or rural area that accompanies this type of property.

A small yard might be right for you if:

  • You prefer living in a more urban area with access to public transportation and shorter driving times.
  • You don’t have a green thumb or much interest in developing one.
  • You’re happy to entertain inside or on a smaller scale with easier cleanup and maintenance.

Spacious ground-floor bathroom

Having a large full bathroom on your home’s main level can be beneficial to an aging resident. A large bathroom can allow for an open floor plan, a wider doorway, no-lip showers, adjustable shower heads, raised toilets and countertops, and other design elements that support independent and safe living.

“Many of the newer homes today, especially in mature communities, are accommodating with roll-in showers and a bathroom where you can definitely fit a wheelchair in,” says McCall. “But if the unit is 10 to 15 years old, regulations weren’t so tough back then, and you may have to remodel.”

The downside:

If a property is older, the bathroom might not suit your current needs — and those as you age — and might need remodeling. Small bathroom spaces and the need to navigate around fixtures can be difficult for those using walkers or canes. Stepping over the tub or shower ledges can also be challenging for individuals with limited mobility or balance issues.

A large bathroom on the main level might be right for you if:

  • You or a loved one has mobility issues, or you can visualize how the bathroom would suit your needs as you age without much trouble.
  • You have the financial resources to modify the bathroom as needed.

Casual dining area

Many homes have formal dining rooms where families gather for holiday meals and parties. But if you don’t have the energy for that type of entertaining, having a single eating area — whether an eat-in kitchen or one just off the kitchen — can save you money on your housing purchase.

A casual dining space provides a more open feel than a formal dining room. And if you have guests, you won’t feel as isolated while working in the kitchen and can interact with them more. Many of McCall’s clients enjoy using the lanai as a casual dining room.

The downside:

A casual dining space tends to be open to all the sounds and aromas of the kitchen, even the less tasty ones like onions. Some people also feel pressured to tidy up the kitchen more quickly if they see the disarray of pots and pans.

A home with a casual dining area might be right for you if:

  • You like the open feel of a dining space off the cooking area.
  • You don’t host formal holiday meals or get-togethers often.

Other housing features to weigh in your home search

Older homes — those built before the 1960s — tend not to have some key design features and amenities that allow you to “age in place” or maintain your independence and quality of life.

Knowing that, in your next home you may want to seek out housing features such as:

  • Non-slip flooring.
  • A shower with no-step entry, grab bars, or an adjustable shower head.
  • A raised or adjustable height toilet.
  • Automatic or rocker-type light switches.
  • Hands-free faucets or faucets with lever handles.
  • Lower cabinets or those with pullout or pull-down shelves.
  • Multilevel or adjustable-height countertops.
  • Wider doorways (about 32 to 36 inches to allow access to a walker, wheelchair, or other assistive devices).
  • Lever handles on doors and cabinets instead of knobs.
  • At least one step-free entrance into the home.

Choose the right space for you for effortless and joyful senior living

Being mindful of how you’ll use your space as you age removes a lot of stress and worry down the line — and gives you more freedom and independence.

If you want to maintain certain passions, such as gardening or entertaining, seek out spaces that will enable you to do that on a manageable scale over the long term — a small patio versus a large yard, for instance, or a kitchen with lower countertops and cabinets. It’s a matter of ensuring your space works smarter, so you don’t have to work harder, and that what brings you joy doesn’t become a hassle.

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