Ask Money

First home

Chris Farrell Jul 21, 2009

Question: I am considering buying my first home at age 52. What would you consider as the best strategy for scoping out a wise real estate investment at this rather late date, as opposed to channeling my savings to other types of investment? Katie, Arlington, VA

Answer: You’ll need to address all the classic home buying issues about affordability. You’ll also need to figure out how ownership fits in with your overall savings when you enter into your retirement years.

Here are some guidelines to thinking through homeownership:

*Compare the cost of owning vs. renting.

*Buying make more sense the longer you will live there.This may be more of a consideration at your age. But you should plan on being there at least 5 years.

*Buy only if the deal is financially conservative. In other words, put down a hefty down payment, hopefully the traditional 20%. You don’t want to end up stretched financially or house poor.

*Keep the mortgage and financing simple.

  • Small is beautiful. It’s both financially practical and environmentally friendly to own a smaller home. It’s cheaper to own and to run.

Now, you’re still young and retirement is far off. But when I can I like to add a twist, something else for you to think about. So, let me add an assumption: If you buy, chances are you’ll live in the home for many years. If that’s the case, what I’m about to add to the basic first-time home buyer questions may seem strange, but it’s financially savvy over the long haul: Ask yourself, is this the kind of place I can see my self comfortably living two to three decades from now?

This suggestion builds on a conversation I had a year or two ago with Jon Pynoos. He’s head of Gerontology policy, planning, and development at the University of Southern California. He recommends that homeowners in their 50s that are considering remodeling projects take advantage of the construction to add in design changes that make it easier to age comfortably over time. “People in their 50s often upgrade their homes and spend the most money in the kitchen and bathroom,” say Puynoos. “If you’re doing a major remodeling, it’s the ideal time to make changes that will let you remain independent.”

His comments made a lot of sense to me. Now, you aren’t facing a remodeling project. You’re buying a home. But I think for most buyers in their 50s–assuming it’s a long term purchase–this is something to add to the list of things to take into consideration. As Jane Austen wrote in Emma: “Ah! There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort.”

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