Growing older: move or stay?

#142 in a series of true experiences in real estate
April 1996, Hills Newspapers

We received a letter this week from a reader who, at age 86, is still contentedly living alone in her house. But she has some concern that a sudden illness might mean that she’d have to sell and she’s wondering how she’d manage.
Also, apparently she has quite a sizable accumulation of memorabilia and such and can’t think whom she would have deal with it. Do we have any suggestions?

Her relatives live out of state and, while they might come to her aid, she assumes that other responsibilities would prevent little more than a brief visit.

A number of thoughts rushed to mind as I read this letter. First, that we are all growing older, most of us have a lifetime collection of stuff and, at some point, someone is going to have to deal with us and our things. Then I thought about my own mother who lives alone in her house in El Cerrito. She is now 78 and ha recently been quite sick.

Her house is too far away to allow me to visit her or assist her very often and so, for the last several months, she has had to rely on good friends and hired help to do her grocery shopping, laundry and cooking.

I invited her to come to stay at my house but she, understandably, prefers to be on her own. In fact, over the years, she has told me a number of times that she would like to live out her days in the house she chose, up on a hill where she can look out; she would like to go on doing her quilting and seeing her friends and, hopefully, will die peacefully in her own bed. This sounds good to me. I wish it for her, for myself, and for our letter writer.

Unfortunately, we can’t always choose. We frequently see houses for sale belonging to people who have moved in with relatives or gone to retirement or nursing homes. I can immediately remember well three older home sellers I’ve met over the years: women whose families had insisted that they make a move before they wanted to.

These were not my clients; I had simply gone to see the houses and yet, in their despair, each expressed to me, a stranger, their dismay over their circumstances.

“My daughter says it is not safe for me to live alone any longer,” said one. “She is making me go to Texas to live with her. I left Texas 50 yeas ago because I hated it there, but what can I do?” I was at a loss for an answer.

A year or so ago, a woman asked us to come to look at her house and talk to her about what she should do next. She was, she said, getting older and she felt she should be thinking about selling. “Of course,” she added, “I have no idea where I’d go.”

We asked if she was comfortable in the neighborhood, if she still enjoyed living in the house. She said she liked the house very much, could still easily manage the stairs up front and she had many friends on the block.

“But, I suppose, I’ll have to move one day, and probably need to redo the kitchen – it’s so old-fashioned – and probably the inside of the house should be painted, too.”

We didn’t think the kitchen needed redoing. And, although perhaps painting would be in order, it could be easily accomplished when needed. We said it seemed that things were working just fine for her and that it was premature to worry about selling. We gave her the name of a handyman who could make some minor repairs, and wished her well.

But what if she got sick and had to move? Who would oversee the painting and cleaning and the disposition of her belongings?

Usually there are family members who would come and go through the house. If not, or if help was needed, we would recommend an estate liquidator who could sort, pack and sell any unwanted items. And we would provide referrals to others: roofers, a termite company, painters, cleaning people, etc.

We could recommend someone who specializes in getting houses ready for sale. Perhaps also a professional stager who might do as little as put new curtains here and there to make the house more attractive or as much as provide extensive accessories and furnishings.

We would work in conjunction with these people to recommend what should be done to the house, and detailed bids would be obtained. Then the owner (or the owner’s friend or relative) would decide what amount of money would be spent, and on what items, and we would follow the work as it was done.

It is also possible that we would look at the situation and decide that selling the property without dong any work would be best. Maybe no money is available, or extensive repairs are not necessary. In these cases, it may make more sense to look for someone wanting to buy the house in its present condition.

Occasionally we’ve seen houses sold with everything still in them: rugs, couches, chairs and beds, Christmas tree ornaments and books. Even basements crammed full of old jars and newspapers have been included in sales.

In one Berkeley house an owner and her husband had gathered many fine things. She died without heirs so the estate attorney decided to sell everything all at once. It was quite a treasure hunt, and there was tremendous interest from people who vied with one another to buy this unusual package deal.

I would hope that all of us are able to comfortably stay in our homes until we die. That is what most of us would prefer. But regardless, whether a house is full or empty, in good repair or bad, with intelligent help from an agent, it is always possible to sell.

Our advice: if you can keep yourself from it, don’t worry too soon.

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