Retired and Buying a Starter Home. It’s Forever.
Many older home buyers say ownership was worth the wait, as they finally make a major real estate investment and consider their financial legacy.
Danette Jenkins was just about to celebrate her 55th birthday when she closed on her first apartment in New Jersey. Hilary Lensky was 66 when she got the keys to her condo in South Florida. And Dorothy Kopelman was 80 when she decided to finally stop renting in New York City.
First-time homebuyers in America have never been older, and an influx of all-cash buyers, as well as a younger generation leaning financially on their parents for longer than ever before, has made it staggeringly difficult for older, lower-income renters to save enough for a home. In 2022, the typical American getting keys to a starter home was 36 years old, an all-time high, and many buyers are into their golden years before they can scrounge together a down payment.
For many of those buyers, the desire to lock in costs as they transition to a fixed income is reason enough to finally shift from renting to owning, said Jeff Tucker, a senior economist at Zillow. “As they’re considering how their pension, social security and income will be fairly fixed moving forward, the beauty of the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is that you don’t have to worry that rising rents could force you out,” Mr. Zucker said.
About 20 percent of buyers between the ages of 50 and 59 in 2022 were purchasing for the first time, according to Zillow’s Consumer Housing Trends Report. Eleven percent of buyers aged 60 to 69 were first-time homeowners, and among buyers over the age of 70, 7 percent were buying for the first time.
Though they are late starters to the starter home, many older buyers say homeownership was worth the wait because their first home is also their forever home. The starter is where it stops.
‘If Not Now, When?’
Ms. Lensky, 71, spent decades as a renter in Brooklyn. Her daughter was 5 and her son was 3 when she became a single mother after a divorce. To cover the rent on their two-bedroom townhome in Bensonhurst, she often rushed from a full shift as a clerical worker at Coney Island Hospital to a second job manning the desk at a bowling alley in the evening.
“Until I was 60 I never even had a savings account because I couldn’t afford to save,” she said. “I’m proud of myself that I kept a roof over our heads all those years.”
In 1999, her daughter moved to South Florida and married, and several years later, her son followed. Ms. Lensky was left alone in New York, and when she retired and began collecting her pension, her children began pushing her to consider joining them in the Sunshine State. Her son-in-law, Michael Ryan, is a financial planner, and he encouraged her to consider, as she planned to her move to Florida, to also think about becoming a homeowner.
“Purchasing a home was the best decision for her, especially given her fixed income in retirement,” Mr. Ryan said.
In 2018, she pooled funds from her 401(k), as well as accumulated pay from unused sick days and vacation time that she had stored up.
Mr. Ryan helped Ms. Lensky find a one-bedroom condo in Delray Beach, Fla., in a community for adults aged 55 and older. It was priced at $42,000, and amenities included swimming pools, pickleball courts and several restaurants.
“It was freshly painted, with brand-new carpet, and everything was redone,” Ms. Lensky said. “And even with the mortgage and the HOA fees, the monthly cost is less than my rent was in New York. What’s not to like?”
She misses the excitement of New York City, and sometimes feels homesick for the Broadway shows she used to see as a treat. But she swims every day, is learning to enjoy the slower pace of life in her new condo, and savors the security that has come with finally owning her own home.
“At 66, they gave me a mortgage for 30 years, so now I know I have to live until I’m 100,” Ms. Lensky said with a laugh. “But I’ve left this place to my kids, so they can have it when I’m gone, and it’s a nice feeling knowing that nobody can take it from me.”
Even if older buyers take out a mortgage that is likely to outlive them, they need not be overly concerned about passing costs onto their heirs, because children who don’t wish to take over the monthly payments can most likely cover costs by selling the home, often with profit left over, Mr. Zucker said. “Given the way home prices have gone up, as long as they’re not underwater, sale proceeds are almost always enough to pay off the loan,” he said.
Ms. Kopelman, 80, and her husband, Max, 81, are lifelong renters in a rent-stabilized building in Gramercy Park. Ms. Kopelman started out in a studio that cost $400 a month in 1973, and later she and her husband upgraded to the one-bedroom that cost $800 — rents that allowed them to save and even invest in modest vacation homes: a condo in Boca Raton for $152,000; two acres of land in East Hampton that they purchased for $130,000 and later built a weekend house on.
The couple often spoke of buying a piece of New York City real estate that they could customize, but it felt foolish to give up their apartment.
But Ms. Kopelman, an artist, heads uptown to the Upper West Side at least five days a week for painting classes, to enjoy meals with her friends at kosher restaurants or to take in ballet performances at Lincoln Center. And as she approached the half-century mark in her apartment, she decided she was tired of living in a space that she couldn’t renovate. And while a rent-stabilized apartment is a rare treasure in Manhattan, the couple do not have children, so they knew they could not pass it on to family when they died. “There are no heirs to the throne,” she said.
“There’s a saying from Rabbi Hillel,” she said, referring to the Jewish sage. “‘If not now, when?’ And that’s just what I began to think to myself.”
Mr. Kopelman, a retired professor of education, agreed. In early 2020, the couple hired a real estate agent to help them zero in on apartments in the $1 million to $1.5 million range on the Upper West Side. The pickings were slim — the apartments she saw were either very small, or in such a state of disrepair that they would have required significant renovations.
Then the pandemic hit, putting a pause on their plans. In the meantime, Ms. Kopelman discovered the website StreetEasy, and by 2022, she was finding listings herself. One of them was a one-bedroom near Lincoln Center, on the 21st floor with sweeping views. It was priced at $1.95 million, well above their budget, but she felt the location and the panoramic city views made it worth the stretch. They bought it in November for $1.88 million and hope to move in later this year after renovating the kitchen.
After half a century in her rental apartment, Ms. Kopelman said she is ready for a change, and not feeling sentimental. “It’s time,” she said. “So many people I was friendly with left my building, and now they’re all 20-somethings,” she said. “I wanted a nicer apartment, and I didn’t want to be up and down on the trains all the time. Fifty years is a long time to be in the same place, and if I wasn’t going to do it now, when would I do it?”
Leaving a Legacy
Some seniors find they’re motivated to buy when they begin to consider their financial legacy.
“I never really thought about owning a home, but then my daughter and son both went to college, and I thought, if something happens to me, I have to have something to leave them,” said Dana Gibson, 54, who bought her first home in Memphis for $95,000 when she was 50. To build enough credit to qualify for a mortgage, she took out her first credit card and spent two years diligently paying her monthly bill, then applied for an FHA loan, a government-backed loan that allows qualified buyers to purchase a home with a reduced down payment.
The mortgage on her three-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style home is $739 a month, which is less than her previous rent. She lives there alone — her husband became ill with lung cancer shortly after she began the home search, and died last year — so she keeps a room for her three grandchildren and looks forward to their visits.
Danette Jenkins, 58, also decided to buy after considering what she would leave behind for her son. She spent 32 years working as a telecommunications field technician for Verizon, and now does similar work for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she moved to New Jersey 25 years ago, living in a series of rented two-bedroom apartments.
She hopes to retire by 63, so in 2020, when interest rates dropped during the pandemic, she decided to dip into her 401(k) and purchase a $222,000 condo that she will leave to her son, now 25, who lives nearby.
“It’ll be a wealth transfer, and a chance to build equity,” she said of her home, a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath condo with a balcony in Woodbridge, N.J.
Climbing the stairs to her second-floor unit helps her stay fit, she said, and she feels comfort in living with neighbors close by.
“It was important for me to live in a community rather than a single-family home,” Ms. Jenkins said. “My neighbors can hear me if something happens, there’s a lot of eyes and ears nearby and I’m just a yell away.”
While searching for her condo, she worked with Todd Seward, a real estate agent with RE/MAX in New Jersey who specializes in both first-time and older buyers. Older buyers can be easier to work with, he said, because they’re more realistic about what they can afford.
“When you have more experience in life, you get accustomed to not always achieving your goals quickly,” Mr. Seward said. “Older buyers are often much better prepared to deal with the inevitable frustrations that come with trying to buy a home.”
Ms. Jenkins agrees. Had she been able to buy her first home decades earlier, she said, she wouldn’t have been as savvy in her choice.
”If I would have done this when I was younger, I would have gone for the biggest, fanciest house,” she said. “When you’re younger, you’re more concerned about what others think rather than focusing on your own personal goals.”
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