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Practice Management

Financial planners face the challenge of helping clients chart a future that will meet their housing and health needs while preserving as much of their assets and capital as possible.

This Practice Management article is intended for financial advisors only (registered representatives of broker dealers or associated persons of Registered Investment Advisors).

For baby boomers, the housing market downturn couldn't have come at a worse time. This generation is graying in big numbers—some 8,000 people each day are turning 65, according to the AARP—and many are looking to move into something more manageable. Yet a large percentage of the boomers no longer have the means to buy into appropriate senior-living facilities as they age.

Although the housing market is improving in some places, the overall value of real estate owned by U.S. households fell, to $17.65 trillion in 2012 from $22.7 trillion in 2006, according to the Federal Reserve. Much of that decline hit boomers the hardest, since most were in their peak earning years when the financial meltdown occurred and were living in the largest homes they would ever own.

Financial planners now face a challenge: how to help clients chart a future that will meet their housing and health needs while preserving as much of their assets and capital as possible. It won't be easy, even for affluent clients. According to MetLife's Mature Market Institute, based in New York, the average annual cost of a private room in a nursing home was $90,520 last year, while assisted living (which typically includes a one-bedroom apartment or single room and at least two meals a day, housekeeping services, and some personal care) cost $42,600. Even seniors who age in place or otherwise live independently, but need daily assistance, face high costs: The average annual rate for a part-time home health aide is $21,840, the group found.

In some cases, these costs can be mitigated by Medicare, Medicaid, or long-term care insurance. But given the rising cost of living expenses, it also may make sense for clients who were caught in the downturn to sell their homes and retire their home mortgage burden as quickly as possible, suggests financial planner Alan Olsen, who also is certified public accountant, based in Fremont, California. "As more baby boomers move into retirement, it will change the housing and stock markets," Olsen says.

Planners also should ask clients to consider whether they can live with family or be independent when they can no longer care for themselves. "If you don't want to live with relatives, then make sure that you have the funds for in-home health care," he says.

Of course, deciding whether or when to sell the family home depends in part on whether clients are financially underwater or have built up equity in their homes, and how quickly the market is appreciating. If clients owe more than the house is worth and are currently able-bodied, it may make sense to stay put for now: Home prices rose 7.5% in 2012, and are projected to rise an additional 6% in 2013, according to research firm CoreLogic.

But if clients have accrued substantial equity, it may be better to sell now and downsize. Interest rates will not stay at historical lows forever. Inventory is tight, and some markets have flipped from buyers' to sellers' markets, where bidding wars are breaking out.

Here are some other ways clients can stretch their retirement dollars by factoring in their housing needs:

1) Focus on Appreciation
Home price appreciation is likely, a variety of experts predict, based on job growth, inventory levels, and foreclosures. These projections can give some sense of where prices are heading.

Zillow, a national real estate marketplace, predicts home values will rise in 210 of the 258 markets it tracks by the end of the year. Some of the strongest appreciation is expected in California—including Riverside (12.5%), Sacramento (11.9%), San Francisco (7.3%), Los Angeles (7.3%), San Diego (6.7%), and San Jose (6.6%)—where many cities already have high home prices. More moderately priced homes can be found in Phoenix (prices forecast to grow 8.5%), Miami-Fort Lauderdale (4.6%) and Portland, Oregon (3.9%)—all places where the climate and culture tend to appeal to retirees.

By contrast, Zillow predicts home values will stay flat or rise only slightly in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Ohio also is expected to remain static.

2) Lower Your Taxes
Another option is moving to a state with lower taxes. The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based research group, has analyzed individual tax burdens on a state-by-state basis, based on a number of factors, including income, sales, excise, and property taxes. By this measure, the state and local tax burden per capita in 2010 (the latest year for which data are available) was lowest in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and New Mexico—sunny states that are home to many senior-living developments.

If your clients are still working and have substantial incomes, they also may be interested in the seven states that don't levy income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. However, governments have to get their revenues somewhere, so remind clients that those states may have higher sales, fuel and property taxes, or curtailed services, to account for shortfalls.

3) Cut Care Costs
The average monthly cost of assisted living is $3,300 for a single room with a single occupant, according to Genworth Financial, which surveyed 15,300 providers across the country. Costs for a single bedroom in an assisted-living facility have risen 4.26% since 2008. Yet Genworth also discovered a wide variation among different states, ranging from an annual average of $31,200 in Alabama to $72,000 in Alaska.

Nursing home costs also are up, rising 4.45% over the past five years for a private room. There's a wide geographic disparity here as well, ranging from an annual average of $55,360 for a private room in Oklahoma to $255,891 in Alaska.

4) Remodel
Clients who own their homes and don't want to move can live in their existing homes longer by remodeling to make them more accessible. Among the tips offered by North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design are: widening doorways; varying cabinet heights; putting the dishwasher, washer and dryer on platforms; installing handheld showerheads; replacing round doorknobs with lever handles; and increasing the color contrast on stairwells to help prevent falls.

Another factor that could help clients stay in their home: many states give property tax breaks to citizens who are older than 65 or are disabled.

5) Try Echo Housing
If the need for care is imminent, consider installing so-called ECHO housing—that is, temporary prefab units designed for seniors—on a relative's property. Although not every jurisdiction's zoning laws allow them, these housing units are typically much cheaper than a room addition and can be leased or financed. The existing home can then be rented out, providing income and preserving the asset for heirs.

6) Reverse the Mortgage
The collective home equity of homeowners 62 and older fell from $4 trillion at the end of 2006 to $3.2 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2012. Yet older homeowners who have lived in their homes since the start of 2000 have seen their total equity rise by more than 50%, according to the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association. For some, a reverse mortgage may be a good way to fund the cost of long-term care.

Homeowners can borrow against their equity in a lump sum, as a line of credit or in fixed monthly payments, for as long as they live in their homes. The loan must be paid, with interest, when the borrowers die, move or sell. Typically, the financial institution takes ownership of the home and sells it when the homeowner dies. If there is money left over, the proceeds go to the heirs.

Al Rodriguez, president of Goldstar Financial in Longwood, Florida, says he is seeing an uptick in reverse-mortgage applications in his market, even though home values have declined. Rodriguez notes that many applicants are starting to apply for the reverse mortgage lines of credit at a younger age (though they must still be 62 or older), when they can afford the hefty closing costs and have other sources of income—even if they don't plan to borrow against the line for a number of years.

As a financial planning tool, this makes sense, Rodriguez says, because the amount that can be borrowed rises every year by the interest rate of the note plus the mortgage insurance premium—even if the home hasn't actually risen in value by that amount. And until the clients actually take the money, they don't have to pay the interest or premium.

7) Invest Aggressively
Investing to recapture some of a client's lost wealth could be a riskier proposition than many older people want to take, but could be the only way to make up the shortfall. Walter Pardo, managing partner of Wealth Financial Partners in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, suggests that clients invest not just in the "salt, pepper and sugar" of traditional investments such as stocks, bonds and annuities, but also in alternative investments (such as non-traded REITs, managed futures, equipment leasing, oil and gas projects, and hedge funds) to generate income and uncorrelated returns.

The least amount he suggests allocating is 5% and the most 25%, with no one investment consisting of more than 10% of the portfolio. He also recommends that clients put at least a portion of their qualified assets—401(k)s, IRAs and simplified employee pensions—into a Roth IRA to mitigate their future tax burden, as well as their heirs'.

Housing Options
As needs change, aging seniors have many housing options, including:

  • Active-adult communities—Restricted to those who are 55 or older, these communities are designed for independent living. Housing units are often smaller than those designed for younger families, but usually include single-family houses, townhouses, or apartments. Although buying a home in such a community is usually less expensive than a typical subdivision, monthly fees are often higher to cover elaborate amenities and services, such as gated entrances, clubhouses, golf courses, and exercise rooms. Services may include landscaping and exterior upkeep, a social director, and help with transportation, travel, and recreation.
  • Continuing-care communities—Seniors join these communities when they are relatively active and live independently in apartments, then gradually move into on-site assisted-living or nursing home facilities. In addition to ongoing costs, continuing-care communities also typically charge substantial entrance fees, which can be lost if the operator files for bankruptcy, so check out the community's balance sheets before making a commitment.
  • Assisted-living communities—Licensed and regulated by the states, these communities are intended for those who need some help with the activities of daily living, such as dressing, eating, or bathing, but are not totally disabled. Residents usually buy or rent their own rooms or apartments.
  • ECHO housing (short for Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity)—These units are small, inexpensive prefab homes that can be leased or purchased and placed on the property of relatives or caregivers.
  • Nursing homes—With the cost covered by savings, relatives, private health insurance, or government programs like Medicare or Medicaid, nursing homes focus on individuals who are disabled, acutely ill, or need help with many activities of daily living. While many older nursing homes are set up like hospitals, with two patients per room, some newer ones offer more privacy and shared kitchens and living rooms.
  • Staying home—If seniors adapt or redo their homes to accommodate changes in their physical health, aging in place is an option, although help from outside or live-in caregivers may be necessary.

June Fletcher is the author of House Poor and writes the weekly online "House Talk" column for The Wall Street Journal.



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