With life expectancies increasing—from 68 in 1950 to 79 in 2016, according to the US Census—and the 65-and-older population set to nearly double in size by 2050, aging well is a hot topic spanning industries from medicine to beauty. Aging is a trending topic in homebuilding, too—specifically, aging in place, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level. According to a 2014 AARP survey, 87 percent of seniors want to age in place. The key to maintaining independence in your golden years is planning ahead to create a home that will work for you for years to come.
But that’s forever away, you might say. And it very well may be! Regardless, you can lay the groundwork now for a home that will be durable enough to last you into your senior years, low-maintenance enough that you’ll be able to manage it at that point and, depending on your age, able to grow—and then downsize—with you as you go through different life stages.
“We often approach these types of projects in phases,” says Heather Laminack of Ferrier Custom Homes. “That way we keep the big picture in mind and don’t perform scopes [of work] now that will have to later be redone, which adds an unnecessary additional layer of cost.”
Ready to get started? Here are tips for building a home for the ages (and yours).
When to Build Your Forever Home
Most builders we polled said clients who set out to build their forever home were nearing retirement. “They are usually empty nesters and ready to downsize into a home that requires less maintenance and fulfills more of their golden-year living requirements,” says David Leite of David Leite Custom Homes. But if you’ve found the perfect lot in a neighborhood that you love, it’s possible to build a home in your younger years that can adapt. Just know it’ll take serious thought. “The lifestyle inventory necessary to anticipate the same spaces in future decades requires some really intense planning,” says Bob Hoebeke of Hoebeke Builders. Regardless of your age, he says, “If you do this correctly, it will take some time to get it right. Remember, bloated square footage masks inefficiency, and tailor-made living spaces require much planning.”
Location, Location, Location
Where you build your home is, as in any stage of life, of paramount importance when you plan to live in it for the long haul. Your age will determine the people and places you factor in. What do homebuilders typically hear? “As close to shopping, grocery stores, church, and the grandkids as possible,” says Les Owens of LRO Residential, who laughs: “I never hear any clients say they want to be close to their kids, but they all want to be close to the grandkids!” Adds George Davis of George Davis & Associates: “Other considerations should be climate, medical facilities, and transportation centers.”
Eliminating the need to drive has long been seen as a plus for senior living. “Many of our clients are renovating whole floors of condominiums and high rises where there are so many amenities that they approach a ‘cared for’ community,” says Susan Newell of Susan Newell Custom Homes. At the same time, Newell acknowledges that modern conveniences are making proximity less of a factor: “Now that so much is deliverable to your home, it opens the door to more opportunities.”
Money matters are another tricky—albeit important—topic when it comes to building a forever home. As your financial needs change with age, you’ll want to think differently about housing costs as you approach retirement. “Financing can be expensive, especially if you are on a fixed income,” says Michael Munir of Sharif & Munir Custom Homes. “Consult with a financial planner to make sure you develop a lifestyle budget. You probably need less than what you think.” But don’t forget to factor in leisure. “Be realistic about what you want to do with the rest of your life,” says Tommy Garrett of Garrett Brothers Luxury Homes. “The more expensive the house, the less you have to enjoy your free time with.”
Build for the Future
Planning how you’ll live for the next decade or more can be overwhelming. But Bob Hoebeke lays it out for you: “Start with the basics—kitchen, laundry, living spaces, required bedrooms and baths, and some storage—and inventory how you like to live. Hire an architect who can tailor a design to fit your needs and a contractor who understands available low-maintenance materials and costs. Together, they should be able to walk you through the process, identifying spaces that have multiple functions: Today, it’s a downstairs office, but 30 years from now, it’s converted into a master bedroom and bath.”
Flexibility and accessibility are key. Says Greg Alford of Alford Homes: “I started building one-story homes about 15 years ago because I had empty nester after empty nester that didn’t want or weren’t able to go up the stairs. It’s very easy to downsize when you live in a one-story.”
If a second story is necessary, plan how you’ll use it (or not) later. “You can lay out the floor plan so that the main areas are all on the first floor, and the second floor is really more geared toward kids or guests. This way when you get older, you can really live downstairs,” says Stacy Brotemarkle of Bella Custom Homes.
Elevators are another option, though Brotemarkle advises not putting one in until you need it: “If you put in the elevator at the beginning, by the time you really need it, it may be 10 or 15 years old.” Instead, plan for seamless integration down the line. “Allow for a future elevator location with placement of closets that stack on the first and second floors,” says Alan Hoffmann of Hoffmann Homes.
Think about lifestyle before scrapping square feet, such as entertaining or traveling. If you plan to spend time away, you’ll want a low-maintenance home you can leave for weeks or months.
Choices That Will Last for the Long Haul
Think durability, accessibility, and maintenance. Such high-quality materials may mean higher price tags, but the investment now will pay dividends down the line. “You can pay for it now or pay more for it over time,” says Chad Hatfield of Hatfield Builders & Remodelers.
“Artificial grass.” —Greg Alford, Alford Homes
“Hardscape-only exterior areas.” —George Fuller, George C. Fuller Custom Homes
“Buffalo and Zoysia grasses reduce watering.” —Bob Hoebeke, Hoebeke Builders
“Wi-Fi sprinkler systems so you or your yard person can control it away from the property.” —Les Owens, LRO Residential
“Sidewalks without steps or change in elevation.” —George Davis, George Davis & Associates
“Concrete insulated walls are wind- and weather-resistant.” —Alan Hoffmann, Hoffmann Homes
“Hardie board exteriors hold paint longer than wood and will not rot.” —Tommy Garrett, Garrett Brothers Luxury Homes
“Maintenance-free materials like metal siding panels.” —Brad Ellerman, Ellerman Homes
“Fox Blocks ICF [insulated concrete form] walls keep energy bills low.” —Alan Hoffmann
“Full masonry exterior.” —George Davis
“Iron doors for security.” —Tommy Garrett
“Aluminum-clad windows reduce maintenance.” —Bob Hoebeke
“Lifetime roofs such as standing seam metal.” —Heather Laminack, Ferrier Custom Homes
“High-impact roofing products reduce hail damage.” —Bob Hoebeke
“Plywood roof decking—not OSB [oriented strand board]—and modified, impact-resistant shingles.” —Alan Hoffmann
5. Plumbing & HVAC
“Tankless water heater with automatic shut-offs and generators.”—Susan Newell, Susan Newell Custom Homes
“Higher quality plumbing valves and water heaters hold back water in your home.” —Chad Hatfield
“Mini split HVAC with zones [so] you can shut off the AC to certain rooms.” —Alan Hoffmann
“Door and sink faucet levers instead of knobs; Decora light switches instead of toggles.” —Bob Hoebeke
“Have the oven located up high instead of below the range so you can access the upper oven while standing.” —Ben Roostai, Danes Custom Homes
“Door thresholds need to be as flush as possible to minimize tripping hazards.” —Les Owens
“Same flooring in the majority of the house—either woods or stones.” —Susan Newell
“Lower curb or no-curb showers.” —Chad Hatfield
“Home automation systems allow you to operate lights, sound, TV, draperies, and more with your smartphone or a simple remote.” —Ben Roostai
“36- to 42-inch-wide door openings.” —George Davis
“Quartz countertops minimize upkeep.” —Paula Howell, Tim Jackson Custom Homes