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By Barbara Ballinger for REALTOR® Magazine

It’s no secret that the United States is aging. The Alliance for Aging Research asserts that by 2030, over 71 million people will be over the age of 65, and over 33 million will be over the age of 75. These older homeowners may need to make changes to live their coming years in smaller, more affordable homes where they’ll be safe as their eyesight, hearing and mobility decline.

However, the topic can be difficult to approach. Older homeowners struggle with the concepts of downsizing and needing additional assistance, and real estate practitioners aren’t always sure how to help clients navigate this sensitive terrain, let alone initiate the first conversation. 

Typically, agents don’t realize that they need a specific skill set to help this particular cohort of clients until they help an aging senior in their personal lives. Jean-Marie Minton, SRES, SRS, with Keller Williams Realty in Beverly, Mass., earned her Seniors Real Estate Specialist designation after she helped her parents move from a 3,000-square-foot farmhouse to a two-bedroom rental in a 55-plus community when they were in their 70s. “I found the skills most needed were patience, listening, and having a sense of humor to decrease stress,” she says.

Ruth Adams, CRS, SRES, with Coldwell Banker Realty in Austin, Texas, also learned from experience and by working with her mom. Adams found that she and colleagues may be trained for what they think will happen with this age group, but every situation is different. “Some may have concerns over aspects of everyday life, such as how caring for the yard has become unbearable, or may need a bigger income stream to live rather than spend on their home’s upkeep,” she says.

Part of the challenge is weighing what’s become an abundance of choices. Seniors have more access to resources to age in place, or they can go to a 55-and-over community if they prefer. There’s also assisted care facilities, continuing care retirement communities, senior co-housing, green community projects, and nursing homes.

We talked with SRES specialists about how they and their colleagues can best help homeowners choose. Along with Adams and Minton, Lakala Abrams, SRES, a salesperson at Keller Williams Town Center in Virginia Beach, Va., and Stafford Manion, ABR, SRES, broker-owner of Gladys Manion Real Estate in St. Louis joined the conversation.

Question #1: How do you initiate the first downsizing conversation?

Jean-Marie Minton: So much depends on how long I’ve known the homeowners. If I’ve known them a long time, we’ve probably had repeated discussions, and I’ve taken notes so it’s easier to bring up the topic. I might say, “I know this has been on your mind. Has anything changed with you or your spouse?” They might reply, “I don’t want to go through another winter in this house.” If the homeowner is someone I don’t know and was referred, I might ask, “What’s your biggest concern about staying here?” or “What does life look like if you don’t stay and no longer need to shovel or mow?” Answers help trigger a conversation, but I make it clear they’re the boss.

Stafford Manion: What I hear is that this change represents a step toward the end of life. Maybe they bring it up or their children do, but it’s subtle. They don’t say, “They’re making me sell my house,” but that’s often what the conversation is about. They’re attached to it and the memories. You turn into a therapist. I try to talk about the good times they had in their house but help them realize they may use only 20% of it now or live there alone, so it doesn’t make sense for them anymore.

Question #2: What is their biggest concern and how do you try to help?

Minton: They’re overwhelmed by their stuff. Many find it daunting physically and emotionally to decide what they’ll do with everything. Some are afraid of their kids butting in too much because of their agenda rather than understanding what their parents want to do. I try to share that it’s hard to take these steps on their own, but there’s lots of help. It also helps if they know where they’ll go so they can envision what they’ll need.

Lakala Abrams: I’ve had clients who lost a spouse and that person’s closet is still locked two years later. My advice is to get help so they don’t manage tasks on their own. I send links to organizations that pick up. I’ve offered to help some move and find companies that do that. I might host a sale or find a professional organizer. I give them time to go through stuff and let go.

Ruth Adams: Economics. Even my Austin market, which has been one of the hottest, has come to a screeching halt. They want to protect their assets, especially if they’re not working. If they downsize, they may have a smaller mortgage or none and fewer economic pressures. This fear is closely followed by concern about their health.

Manion: I try to help them see the new reality. They may not be able to have everyone around the Thanksgiving table, but another family member can take on that role. What’s so hard is that they’re in transition. Their world is getting smaller.

Question #3: Do you also help them weigh staying put?

Abrams: Yes, but it often boils down to financials. Is there enough money and assistance to cover maintenance and their care if help is needed? Is there room for a caregiver?

Adams: A professional real estate person has to understand their job is to facilitate the correct situation. If it means going through an analysis once or twice and seeing that the finances lead to staying, that’s the right choice.

Question #4: Are most seniors aware of all of their options for their living situation?

Minton: Some may be; some aren’t but have adult children who are more inclined to know about different places. I usually offer to show them possibilities or provide names of contacts. Most want to do this on their own.

Abrams: I’m always happy to explain choices and talk about reverse mortgages. I’ve found that many in the older generation aren’t great researchers.

Manion: I’ve found a lot have decided what type of living situation they want before we talk based on what their friends and family have done. For those I know well, we may have a private conversation, but I’ve found grown children do a lot of the heavy lifting of advising them.

Question #5: Do you try to avoid two moves—first smaller and later to assisted living or a continuing care retirement community?

Minton: I think a two-step process is more practical. Many in their 70s aren’t ready for assisted care. Some want apartments or condos with less upkeep and isolation.

Abrams: There’s not one answer since it depends on their level of health, independence, whether they still drive, finances, where adult children may be, how many friends they have in their area, and what type of social life they seek. It requires exploring options, budgeting and planning. I think it’s important to circle back to the activity level they envision and avoid being isolated as they age. It’s important to know if they want to remain in their area. I don’t want to push too much but counsel them that aging can be an adventure if they move away from pain toward a place of pleasure.

Adams: I’ve found it rare that clients recognize the need for this discussion. I try to bring it up casually and avoid having homeowners take a multistep approach. I try to compress all the knowledge and possibilities into one or a few discussions, yet not overload them. For many it happens because of age and quality of life. Maybe they want to play golf more. I might bring up a 55-and-older community in the area with a house with a zero-lot line and an attached golf course. I try to paint a picture of what the person seeks that involves less responsibility. The key is patience.

Expand Your Knowledge on the Subject

Build your real estate business with specialized knowledge to meet the special needs of maturing Americans when selling, buying, relocating, or refinancing residential or investment properties. The Greater Lehigh Valley Real Estate Academy offers the Seniors Real Estate Specialist® designation. Learn more and/or enroll here!