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Tom Kelly: Be honest about remodel needs for aging in place

If you or your folks decide to stay in your own home rather than move – and an overwhelming number of seniors would prefer to stay put – what will you do to make it work? Be honest. What changes offer the best potential for making it comfortable and safe for you?

Before deciding on and executing the typical major renovations – roof, bathroom and kitchen – plus other applications that are often needed to age in place, remember that any renovation will cost money. All dollars are precious, so it’s important to do it wisely.

As with any expenditure, you ought to work through a decision process before the project starts. No matter what it is that you will be doing to the house, ask yourself the following four questions:

How long do I realistically intend to stay in this house? While the answer is often difficult to figure out, give some thought to a best guesstimate. While minor home modifications are fine for the short term, it’s usually not advisable to go through the anxiety of a major room remodel if you will move out in a few months. Roofs are a different story because they often are mandatory.

Who will do the work? When you employ construction help, it’s important to find efficient and honest workers. If you have used contractors in the past, you probably have a roster of dependable helpers.

How do you find contractor referrals? Your primary source is friends who may have used others in the past, or the local senior center can help. Also, ask the local homebuilders association about its certified aging-in-place specialists.

How will you pay for the remodel? If you are using a reverse mortgage for all or part of the remodel, consider a program that features a line of credit. That way, you will only pay interest on the funds you use, and the remaining balance can increase over time. For example, you could pay one lump sum for a roof replacement, then wait until other remodeling bills, or maintenance receipts, are sent to you before drawing on your credit line.

Before anxiously worrying about the financial return on home improvements, understand that seniors often don’t really care if they recoup their investment. The upgrades are for them in their remaining years. Other seniors, however, want the peace of mind of knowing that their children might recover a portion of the remodeling costs if or when the house is eventually sold.

The process of altering a home to age in place is often complicated by the limited dollars you have. Every dollar of your hard-earned cash can easily be spent elsewhere, so it’s always important to plan before you remodel. Renovating your house is not an all-or-nothing process. Every area offers a lot of possibilities to spend. However, if you are spending money to become more comfortable and be safer as you age, do your best to get what you pay for.

“The probability of being poor at some point in old age remains very high, and many people underestimate the costs associated with aging,” said Tony Copeland, former AARP counselor. “Seniors often have unrealistic expectations about their physical abilities as they grow older.”

My mom was a good example. She, like many widows and widowers, lived alone and lost her ability to climb steps long before anticipated. Disabilities typically mean home modifications or a move to another place despite the desire to stay put.

What adjustment do you make first? Are you honest about need versus want? One of the first places seniors plop down money is to repair or replace the roof of their longtime home. When asked how they are going to spend their money, they say something like: “I need a new roof before I do anything else.” A bad roof will make even the best of houses unlivable. So, it is a necessary evil that the owner cannot do without.

Kitchen and bathroom remodels historically have been next on the must-do list to age in place. Bathroom remodels and additions historically have been some of the most profitable of all discretionary house projects. Returns tend to be higher in larger metropolitan areas, even though costs are seemingly unrelated to city size. In part, this is a result of higher prices in larger metro markets.

If you plan to stay in your home, take the time to answer you need-or-want questions. The simple exercise will save you time, anxiety and money down the road.

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