Retirees Find the Time May Be Right to Buy


The euphoria is past. The era of rampant house flipping is gone. What was once a seemingly unstoppable climb in home prices has given way to a plunge in value in many areas.

Yet, there is a bit of good news: This might be the right time to find a bargain, especially for buyers approaching their retirement years who can afford to take their time.

Not only are home prices down more than 25 percent in some parts of the country, there remains a glut of inventory on the market in traditional retirement destinations like Florida, Arizona and Nevada.

Of course, anyone looking to buy can also find good reasons to take a wait-and-see attitude, like the fact that good deals may not exist in every location, and no one really knows if prices will continue to decline.

“It’s like missing the top of the market — it’s the same thing with the bottom,” said Maurice Veissi, president of Veissi and Associates in Miami. “Generally you know it’s happened because you’re looking in the rearview mirror and it’s passed you by.”

According to the latest Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, the average price for a single-family home is down nearly 27 percent in Miami compared with a year ago, versus a 25 percent decline in Phoenix and a 27 percent drop in Las Vegas.

All three markets were at the forefront of the recent run-up in home prices and are now leading the decline — a pattern reflected to varying degrees in other markets in all three states. But that means there are deals to be found in places where buyers previously felt priced out of the Sunbelt lifestyle.

One beneficiary of the bust is Franke Watson II, a 69-year-old retiree from New Orleans who purchased a home in Prescott, Ariz., in February for more than $100,000 below its initial list price.

“The house had originally been listed for $430,000,” he said in a phone interview after a morning hike. “When I looked at it, it was $349,000. I offered them $300,000 and we finally settled at $309,000.”

Mr. Watson first discovered Prescott, a city of around 40,000 people 100 miles north of Phoenix, on a road trip to California. After scouting out options near San Diego and Long Beach, he returned to Prescott, preferring its climate, proximity to hiking and small-town feel. (The city’s motto is “Everybody’s Hometown.”)

But when he relocated to Prescott last July he decided to rent at first rather than buy. “I didn’t think the real estate market was where I wanted it to be,” he explained. He finally purchased a three-bedroom brick ranch once prices came down to what he expected to pay.

That is the same approach Mercedes Gutierrez and her husband, Alex, are taking in looking for a second home where they will eventually retire. They currently live with their 9-year-old daughter in Cooper City, Fla., but would like to buy a home in the Keys to use as a weekend getaway until Mr. Gutierrez, a police officer, retires in a few years.

But so far, prices haven’t fallen into the $500,000 to $520,000 range they hope to pay for a three-bedroom home on the ocean side of the Keys — ideally on a canal, since Mr. Gutierrez plans to spend some of his free time fishing.

“We’ve found a few things, but at the same time we’re not in a hurry because we have time on our side,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “We’re playing the waiting game to see how much people will drop their prices.”

Although she said brokers haven’t balked at the couple’s expectations, most of the properties that fit their criteria are currently listed in the $650,000 to $700,000 range, which means they may have to compromise if prices don’t decline.

“At some point, we’re going to have to sit down and say what’s more important and what can we live without,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “Because if the prices are still high, we’re going to have to give in on something.”

Wayne Archer, executive director of the Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Florida, said many buyers were still waiting on the sidelines to see where prices settle, but he emphasized that the state’s housing market was more complex than general statistics — and some news reports — might suggest.

“Florida is not over, as far as we can tell,” Mr. Archer said. While acknowledging challenges like the oversupply of condos in Miami and the decline in people moving to the state, he pointed to the wide variation in the housing markets in different areas.

According to data from the Florida Association of Realtors, although the median sales price for an existing single-family home declined 28 percent in the Fort Pierce-Port St. Lucie area in the first quarter compared with last year, prices declined only 1 percent on Marco Island during the same time period. Statewide, prices dropped an average of 15 percent.

Aside from the ups and downs of the real estate market, what may end up becoming more of a factor in Florida and other retirement destinations is broader demographic trends, particularly as baby boomers approach retirement age — or delay those plans.

An April survey by AARP looking at how people 45 and older are managing the economic slump found that 19 percent of respondents aged 55 to 64 were postponing their retirement, which underlines a long-term trend of people planning to stay in the workforce longer, at least part-time.

When they do finally retire, 9 out of 10 people stay either in the same home or the same county — a pattern that is expected to continue, if not increase, with the baby boomer generation.

“People are looking to stay where they are — they’re closer to family, they’re closer to friends, they’re closer to the life that they built,” said Jim Dau, an AARP spokesman.

But turmoil in the housing market has certainly played a role in some people’s decision to stay put. William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution who studies migration patterns, said the most recent census data showed a slowdown in the number of people flocking to Florida, Arizona and Nevada, all previously hot destinations.

For instance, Florida gained 35,000 residents in the last year measured, through July 2007, versus an average of 230,000 per year for the previous three years. Mr. Frey attributed that change partly to the tightening credit market and the difficulty of selling a current home in order to relocate somewhere else.

He expects that baby boomers will further affect migration patterns as they head into their retirement years and settle in a wider range of places than previous generations of retirees.

“It will be a much more varied group of destinations — they’re going to sprinkle out all over the place,” Mr. Frey said. “Some will go to the city, others will go to high-amenity places in the West and Southeast, others will be going to the classic retirement communities in Florida and Arizona. So it’s hard to pigeonhole this generation.”

Although not a boomer at age 73, Hank Wintczak fits the profile of a retiree who has no intention of moving far from home. He and his companion, Kelly Guyett, live in Elgin, Ill., west of Chicago and recently purchased a two-bedroom home for $330,000 in the nearby Sun City Huntley development. It is one of 60 Del Webb active adult communities open for new home sales in 20 states, an expansion that reflects the diversity of destinations appealing to buyers, who must be 55 or older.

Mr. Wintczak said he and Ms. Guyett both have children, grandchildren and lots of friends in the area, so never considered relocating far away, but were attracted by Sun City Huntley’s activities and amenities, which include a fitness center, swimming pool, softball field, tennis courts, a restaurant and many classes and clubs.

“We’ve just heard from a lot of people that they love it there,” he said, mentioning the daily poker games friends reported as a particular draw.

That hobby may explain why Mr. Wintczak was willing to take a gamble and go ahead with the purchase, even though he still has to sell his own home, which is listed for $269,000.

“I know I’m taking a chance, but eventually it’s going to sell,” he said. “It’s time to get on with our lives in a different situation where we can have a lot more fun.”

For those who are thinking about relocating, Las Vegas may be a good place to take a gamble. Patty Kelley, president of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, said more than 50 percent of closed sales in May were foreclosures, and prices in some areas are down more than 30 percent compared with a year ago.

But the median price of a single-family home increased 0.3 percent between April and May, an early if tentative sign that prices may be stabilizing.

Acknowledging the impossibility of determining a market bottom “until we look back six months after the statistics have come out,” Ms. Kelley said she is blunt about that point with prospective buyers.

“I say, I don’t know when the bottom is going to hit,” she said. “But we’ve got great buys here right now — you decide.”