Over 50 and Buying a First Home


Older first-time home buyers belong to an exclusive club,

given that the median age of first-time buyers in 2015 was 31.


Edith Shapiro was 36 when she and her husband, Nathan, moved in 1967 to a brand-new rental building at 200 East 62nd Street. Back then, $725 per month got them a four-bedroom duplex with four and a half baths.

“It’s a fabulous apartment,” said Ms. Shapiro, who has remained there ever since, raising her daughter, developing her fashion design business — and watching the rent climb.

“It started going up and it kept going up,” she said. “Then, after a while, it zoomed up. Now, it’s $18,000 a month.”

There were two constants in the Shapiros’ long, happy marriage: her pleas, in the face of that skyrocketing monthly obligation, to purchase a co-op or condo already, and his steadfast refusal to do any such thing.

“My husband didn’t want to buy anything,” said Ms. Shapiro, now 84. “He wanted to be liquid.”

Mr. Shapiro died six years ago. Recently, 200 East 62nd went condo, and Ms. Shapiro is now in contract to buy her duplex for more than $5 million, with her monthly costs “in the same ballpark” as when she was a renter, she said.


Gary Inzana, 58, and his wife, Josephine DeMichele, 58, having lost a long-held rental, bought a two-bedroom in Washington Heights. CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

“My friends ask me why at my age I’m buying,” Ms. Shapiro added. “But I’m in good financial shape and I don’t want to be the victim of any landlord again.”

As a senior debutante home buyer, Ms. Shapiro belongs to an exclusive club. The median age of first-time buyers in 2015 was 31, according to the National Association of Realtors. Only 7 percent of newbies were in the 55-to-74 age group. Less than 1 percent of first-timers were 75 and above.

Later-in-life buyers in New York fall into several categories. Some, like Ms. Shapiro, have grown weary of landlord caprices. Some come into an inheritance and decide to put it into real estate. Still others come to the conclusion that their rent-regulated apartment, while a boon in many ways, is also a trap, the real estate version of golden handcuffs. Then there are those who could have bought earlier, perhaps should have bought earlier and who suddenly bump up against that most ugly truth: They’re not getting any younger.

“There are people who wait their whole lives to buy,” said Kathy Braddock, a managing director of William Raveis New York City. “They sit on the sidelines and say ‘not now, not now, not now.’ But,” she continued, “as Phase 3 of life comes, people see things differently and they’re more comfortable about pulling the trigger. They get to a point where they think, ‘I want to own property before I die — and not just a cemetery plot.’ ”

Better late than never. And better, in many ways, to buy in New York, where real estate values have only increased and where real estate taxes are low relative to many surrounding areas. And buying an apartment, rather than a house in the suburbs or the country, takes a lot of variables off the table — a felled oak tree in the yard, a leaky roof, the snow removal costs of a rough winter. “As a shareholder or a condo owner, you know you’ll have your real estate taxes and your maintenance or common charges,” Ms. Braddock said. “And you know that, historically, maintenance increases by X amount annually. You can budget around those fixed costs.”

Josephine DeMichele and her husband, Gary Inzana, lived happily in the East Village for 10 years in a one-bedroom rented to them by a friend. But in March 2014, “we got the horrible news that we had to vacate in three months,” said Ms. DeMichele, 58, a creative director. “Our friend wanted the apartment for his son.”

In the end, they were given six months to clear out. Even so, the whole thing felt like a bad flashback: A decade earlier they’d been obliged to move out of their West Village rental in a similarly narrow time frame; the apartment had been sold out from under them.

“We could have continued to rent, which was our M.O. in the past,” said Mr. Inzana, 58, a web designer and developer. “But we were tired of having to leave places. We were tired of things being out of our control.”

Coincidentally, he and Ms. DeMichele had just started thinking about purchasing a weekend house that would become a full-time residence when they retired.

“We were already preparing to be in a buyer’s mind-set, so when we were notified by our landlord in the East Village, it was ‘Stop the presses,’ ” Mr. Inzana said. The new headline: “Couple Begins Search for a Co-op.”

After a fruitless hunt in both the East Village and the West Village, they found what they were looking for in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan: a two-bedroom apartment with a gym in the building and access to the roof. The view of the river was a nice bonus. The price was under $700,000.


Dr. Allen Wilkins and his wife, Erica Wilkins, are renovating the Harlem townhouse they bought last August just after his 50th birthday.CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

And while Mr. Inzana is upset that “the weekend place isn’t happening now,” and while the couple are laying out a bit more per month than they did as renters, “we’re getting so much more,” Ms. DeMichele said.

Being homeowners, she added, makes them feel even more connected to the city. “New York is in our blood,” Ms. DeMichele said. “We probably could have gotten a bigger place in New Jersey or Connecticut, but we decided to stay here. And yes, we’re barely in Manhattan. But I can still say we’re in Manhattan. You didn’t kick us out.”

Michelle Beshaw knows all about landlords exercising their prerogatives. She lived happily for 27 years in a two-bedroom rent-regulated walk-up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The neighborhood was great and she could bike to her job as the manager of the gift shop at the Brooklyn Museum. But two years ago, when the landlord reclaimed the apartment for his daughter, Ms. Beshaw, 53, needed to find a new place to live.

She figured that the new place would be a rental; it was what she could afford. But she was part owner of a family farm in Iowa and it had just been sold. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Ms. Beshaw’s share of the proceeds, plus a small settlement from her landlord, netted a one-bedroom co-op with windows on three sides, in an elevator building in Kensington, Brooklyn. She paid less than $300,000, and her monthly housing costs are half what she paid as a renter.

“Until the situation presented itself, this wasn’t something I was dreaming of my entire life,” said Ms. Beshaw, who is also a puppeteer. “But I’m very grateful to be an owner.

“There’s a financial maturity I have now that I didn’t have earlier,” she added. “Coming to New York from Iowa to be an artist, I think I convinced myself that I didn’t need much as long as I was doing what I loved. That’s sort of true, but it feels good to have a place I can afford that’s really, really lovely.”

According to many in the real estate business, the “must have” and “no way” checklists of older first-timers differ considerably from those of younger buyers making their initial foray into the market. Nicole Beauchamp, a saleswoman at the brokerage Engel & Völkers New York City, said her older clients are less likely to consider walk-ups, anticipating a time when they won’t be able to walk up. And they may put a premium on an apartment with a live-in super or a doorman.

From a broker’s perspective, she added, “there’s more ‘therapy’ involved with older clients. They might find a space that works but they aren’t familiar with the neighborhood and it’s far from where their friends are. You have to help them decide if they want to reinvent themselves at this point in their lives.”

When Mr. Inzana and Ms. DeMichele had to clear out of their apartment in the West Village a decade ago, they had briefly checked out Washington Heights, where they’re now happily settled.

It’s true that many of their new neighbors are either pushing a stroller or a wheelchair, “but we’ve had the late nights and the lights and the hip scene,” Mr. Inzana said. “We were willing to take a step forward and get away from emergency vehicles 24/7.”

Age often plays a key role in the way buyers approach a real estate transaction. “Younger buyers are sometimes looking for a property that will see them through the next 10 years,” said Darryl Nipps, the salesman at the Corcoran Group brokerage who worked with Mr. Inzana and Ms. DeMichele. “Older buyers are looking for something to see them through a much longer period — through retirement.”

Such was the case with Dr. Allen Wilkins, a physician who specializes in rehabilitative medicine and who, with his wife, Erica Wilkins, closed on a $1.64 million townhouse in Harlem this past August, right after his 50th birthday. “If I were younger I might be thinking, ‘So we’ll buy this place, raise our kids and then maybe sell and move somewhere else,’ ” Dr. Wilkins said. “But now I know I want to retire here.”


Michelle Beshaw, 53, purchased a co-op in Brooklyn after living happily with her puppets in a rental for 27 years.CreditNicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

They are busy renovating. “We’re looking at the big picture of spending the rest of our lives in this place, so we want to get it just right,” he added. “We want to make it special, rather than just making it livable.”

Dr. Wilkins, who had a couple of lucrative careers before deciding to go to medical school, had the resources to buy a place in New York a few decades ago and had briefly considered doing just that. “The thing is,” he said, “I hadn’t yet met my wife.” That situation was redressed when he married Erica, now 35, in 2009.

Similar uncertainty in her personal life helps explain why Elena Castaneda held off buying until last year. “When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was thinking about how I shouldn’t buy an apartment because I might have a partner, and I also didn’t know if I was going to have children,” said Ms. Castaneda, 56, the owner of the e-commerce company Bling Jewelry.

There was also the not-so-small matter of the one-bedroom rent-regulated apartment on East 84th Street that Ms. Castaneda had occupied for almost 30 years. “I used to think it was a blessing, but in hindsight I see it as more of a curse,” she said. “It kept me from aggressively looking to buy something.”

Three years ago, frustrated by her tight quarters and buoyed by the success of her business, Ms. Castaneda began looking to buy. “At 50, your life has its direction,” she said. “I had different needs at that point and it was much more about me and what my needs were than thinking about how other people were going to fit into the scenario.”

She insisted on a co-op rather than a condo. “I didn’t want to be next to an empty apartment that was somebody’s investment, and I didn’t want to be next door to an apartment that some parents had bought for their college kids to live in,” Ms. Castaneda said. “They’d be having parties. While I would have wanted to be in that environment when I was younger, it doesn’t interest me now.”

What she had in mind was an apartment that would make her happy for the long term in an amenity-rich building on the Upper East Side. At this juncture, she said, she didn’t want to pull up stakes and venture to a new part of town. And she wanted “to have an elevator man, having someone bring up your packages, being able to call someone to come fix something,” she said.

A three-year search ended with the purchase, for more than $1.5 million, of a loft-like penthouse with terraces and a skylight in the East 70s. Ms. Castaneda made a substantial down payment, yet another decision driven by the calendar. “When I was younger I would have put the minimal amount down and taken out a 30-year mortgage,” she said. “But here it was ‘O.K., this is my financial portfolio and I need to put a certain percentage of it into real estate. And I get to enjoy that investment.’ ” Now, she’s busily buying art and light fixtures, expenditures she never would have made for a rental.

She’s not the only one. As soon as the apartment at 200 East 62nd is officially hers, Ms. Shapiro is going to convert one of the bedrooms into “a fabulous closet,” she said, and add a Jacuzzi “and all the bells and whistles” to one of the bathrooms. “I’ll make it grand for me.”

Mind you, Ms. Shapiro isn’t thinking just of herself. “My daughter loves the apartment, too,” she said. “She’s going to want it on my demise. But I’m planning to live forever.”

Source: NY TImes

Posted on January 6, 2016 at 2:27 pm
Sarah Schilz | Category: News, Seniors, Transitions

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