By Celeste M. Smucker –
Some major trends in today’s real estate market reflect the preferences of its two most active groups of buyers, Boomers and Millennials. Surprisingly many of the same floor plans and amenities are attractive to both suggesting that their appeal is universal encompassing lifestyle preferences that are good for now as well as for the long term.
High on the list are smaller, greener homes that are easy to care for both inside and out along with home designs that facilitate independence in the long term featuring one level living and open floor plans.
Design for the Long Term
Design elements that facilitate aging in place apply whether home owners are renovating an existing house or starting from scratch to build new. Either way they must evaluate their unique needs and determine how best to meet them.
Linda Broadbent with BHG Real Estate III did this evaluation when building her own home, and has assisted many clients who face the decision of whether to sell a house they love or renovate to make it more livable as they age. She explained that often it makes sense for them to modify their older home, paying for the renovations by taking out a home equity loan.
Before making a decision, however, Broadbent suggests they make a list of concerns, then decide if they can be addressed through renovation. If they choose to go the new home route, they can take their list to a builder who will help them incorporate their ideas into their favorite house plans.
She did just that when building her own home, starting with a list and narrowing her preferences by determining what she felt she needed versus what would be nice. She gave the example of an aesthetic consideration such as the installation of quartz countertops that are popular today but more expensive than granite or some of the other alternatives.
For some people upgraded countertops would be worth the extra money. For others it may make sense to put the savings towards more practical upgrades such as adding pull out shelves or a lazy Susan inside cabinets—for easy access to what is stored there—and replacing a double kitchen sink with one big one.
Why the larger sink? Broadbent explained that many people prefer it because the extra space makes it easier to wash large items like pots and pans with the less flexible fingers often associated with aging.
Planning for the long term may also require that people change how they view their existing space. Broadbent and others who are self-employed often work out of a home office. In her case she recognized she might also want a place for someone giving in-home care should that need arise in the future. To accomplish these two objectives she “borrowed” space from the garage area and what was originally designated as the laundry room to create what is now an office or a den, but which in the future could be a bedroom for a live-in care giver.
In addition to major items there are also many smaller changes that can be incorporated into a new or renovated home to facilitate living there long term. These include installing rocker switches in place of traditional light switches, replacing door knobs with levers, and cabinet knobs with pulls. Another significant improvement is updating light fixtures and adding brighter bulbs to make it easier to read, write, work in the kitchen, or do crafts.
Strips of lights in stair wells, hallways, and along sidewalks between the house and the driveway can make a big difference as well, and while an elderly person may particularly appreciate these, so would a parent walking a hallway at night to comfort a teething baby, or a teenager with a leg in a cast due to a ski boarding accident.
Of course today home owners can control their lighting and heating systems remotely using their smart phones. Rob Johnson, owner of Green Mountain Construction described home automation as an upgrade that is “increasingly popular through all age groups.”
Long Term Design Popular at All Ages
While certain design elements such as grab bars would not be on the “must have” list of many younger home owners (although they might be if one of them is disabled), other amenities that facilitate aging in place are popular among Millennials as well as Boomers. And when building or remodeling, if the need for grab bars is anticipated, it is easy and inexpensive to plan for their installation in the future as required.
There is more interest today in “transitioning in a house,” said Keith Smith with Roy Wheeler Realty Co., and this is true even among younger buyers, he added. He described what people of all ages are asking for today as “minimalistic” with more open space and not such a big kitchen. They want a house that is “more open and light driven,” with less maintenance. “They don’t want to spend Saturday and Sunday cutting the grass,” he continued, but would rather spend free time hiking, canoeing and visiting breweries and vineyards.
Of course from a marketing perspective, building or renovating a home that appeals to a wide age range also means it will be easier to sell if the owners don’t stay as long as they had originally intended.
Johnson’s clients are mostly 40 and older. Some of the more popular items they ask for are one level living, a master suite on the first floor and a high efficiency HVAC with good air filtration.
He added that “we do install many showers that are handicap accessible but still very attractive in the effort to be prepared for the long term. Additionally, adding blocking in walls for grab bars is important whether those items are installed as part of a current project or in the future.”
Anne Hughes with BHG Real Estate III agrees that one level living is important for a long term stay in a house, or at least that the master bedroom and bath and the laundry room should be on the first floor. She pointed out, however, that we are somewhat limited by our local topography. The hilliness can be a challenge when building or planning a renovation sometimes making it difficult to stretch out and expand the home’s footprint to fit in everything that would be desirable to have on the first floor.
Smith described a recent renovation completed by some clients on a Belmont home built in 1902. The house was purchased when the owners were much younger and they recently decided they wanted a more livable floor plan but weren’t willing to move to a newer home and give up their close-in lifestyle.
While the property didn’t lend itself to putting on a downstairs master suite, the owners were able to extend the living space on the back of the house and add a half bath and laundry area on the first floor. Smith believes this newly renovated house is not only more livable, but the owners now have a place that will be more marketable in the future with a great deal more equity.
Renovations like this that create more open space and, in some instances, wider hallways, are appealing for aesthetic reasons but the space also becomes easier to maneuver for someone with a walker or wheel chair. Access can also be improved with entry ramps, or by increasing the size of bathrooms by removing linen closets and tubs.
However, it is not just the over-65 age group that appreciates these kinds of bath upgrades. Broadbent described a recent sale to a young couple with children who planned to widen doors and rearrange space for a more open look in a bathroom where they also intended to install a walk-in shower.
A related trend in bath remodels involves removing the once-popular Jacuzzi tubs that take up a lot of space and installing a much bigger shower stall, expanding it from three to four feet to a more generous five to six feet, said Troy Yancey, a remodeler with T.E.A.L. Construction.
While some home owners choose to put in a smaller tub as well, these can be hazardous for elderly people, Broadbent explained, as accidents often happen when people are climbing in and out. She also recommends vinyl rather than tile for the floor stating that it is safer. People who like the tile look, can choose vinyl designed to look just like tile, she added.
Elsewhere in the house, upgrades that improve accessibility while opening up high traffic and work areas also appeal to home owners of all ages. Yancey expressed that some of his more popular kitchen renovations include installing pull-out trashcans under countertops and inside cabinets and getting microwaves off of counters and above stoves and putting them under the counter as well.
Low Maintenance Landscaping
One aspect of planning for the long term is landscaping that is easy-care, drought resistant and doesn’t require a lot of physical labor. Broadbent explained that many people who would like to stay in their homes, often decide to move when they can no longer take care of their yard. Easy care landscaping helps people remain in their home whether they choose to maintain it themselves, or have it done by someone else since they won’t have to pay as much for the work. Of course this concept also appeals to younger folks who don’t want yard work to detract from their leisure activities.
One way to avoid yard care is to move to a townhome or other community where the HOA takes care of exterior maintenance. And for people who still enjoy a little gardening, often these communities set aside space for that purpose, Hughes said. It’s not unusual for there to be a designated garden area, or, in one case, prepared raised beds that are available for homeowners who want to claim them, she continued. Even condo owners can participate by planting container gardens.
Another popular feature for downsizers with a small, private back yard is outdoor living spaces that feature seating areas, fountains, plants and even stoves that expand their living space without adding a lot of maintenance.
Planning for aging at home can be a win-win for everyone involved. Not only are we creating homes that are easier for everyone to live in and enjoy, but the occupants have longer to entertain friends and family in a place they have grown to love.
Careful planning also means fewer in-home accidents, and less demand for nursing home and assisted living situations as home owners are able to age safely in place for longer.
From a real estate perspective we are creating homes that meet a genuine demand from people of all ages whether the owners live there just a few years, or happily enjoy their homes long term.
Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.