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The Independent Investor: The Suburban Dilemma

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
Over the last decade, the percentage of Baby Boomers, those aged 65 to 74, living in the suburbs increased by almost 50 percent. Over the next 20 years, that age group will double in size, and by 2040, 1 in every 5 Americans will be age 85 or older. The majority of them will continue to live in the suburbs.
 
Older adults, it appears, move less frequently than any other age group. Over the last 10 years, only 6 percent of persons over 65 years of age moved, according to AARP, compared to 17 percent of those under 65. It's called "aging in place," which is a standing trend that describes how older Americans prefer to stay in their homes and never move. They are attached to their dwelling, their neighborhoods, even to the corner deli (if it still exists).
 
These adults have lived in their homes for the greater portion of their lives. They are the result of an enormous and long-lasting American socioeconomic trend that began after World War II. It was an age when Americans abandoned the inner city. By the hundreds of thousands per year, they embraced the tract home, the white picket fence, and quarter-acre of lawn or back yard far from the busting crowds of the city.
 
And as they migrated to greener pastures, shopping malls, and garages, restaurants and other businesses followed, catering to this new suburban lifestyle. The good life in the suburbs became so much a part of our culture that it generated dozens of movies, television shows and novels celebrating this new America.
 
The problem is that times change. Back in the day, the American family may have selected their suburban dwelling because of a good school system or proximity to the train station or bus depot to their day jobs in the city. But in retirement, those reasons no longer exist.
 
Neighborhoods have changed as well. What may have been a middle-class subdivision when first purchased may have changed over the years. Many older adults now find themselves living in poor, high-crime neighborhoods. I recall that my neighborhood outside of Philadelphia had been all Irish-German Catholics when I was a kid. Today, it is a haven for Ethiopian refugees and their families. Crime is rampant and the streets, pavements and other infrastructure have fallen on bad times. As a result, older residents do not venture out as much, if at all, virtually becoming prisoners in their own homes.
 
It is a fact that most suburbs require the use of a car to accomplish the most basic of chores, things like grocery shopping, visiting the doctor, etc. However, it is also true that many of this current generation's women never learned to drive. Now that their husbands have passed, many need to rely on others for mobility. But it is not just women, older adults in general are often required to reduce or stop driving altogether because their eyesight or motor functions have deteriorated to the point where they are a danger to themselves and others on the highway.  My suburban mother-in-law, at 90, is facing that problem today.
 
Suburbia has also fell victim to the internet. Strip and shopping malls are disappearing and with them the services that many older adults need to sustain their suburban lifestyles. As a result, driving distances have lengthened and public transportation is both costly and not easily obtainable.
 
From an income perspective, while many older suburban dwellers may have paid off their mortgages, they are still faced with large amounts of property taxes, insurance, and utility bills.
 
The Tax Reform Act of 2018, with its $10,000 cap on state income and property tax deductions, has made that situation much worse for older Americans. As it stands, seven out of 10 of the elderly occupy dwellings that were built at least 30 years ago. Ask any contractor to inspect that house and you will likely be handed a long list of
costly but necessary repairs and upgrades.
 
As we get older, the very items we will need the most — things like efficient and energy-saving lighting, electrical, air and heating systems, are sorely lacking in the older housing stock.
 
Enhancements such as handrails or grab bars, entrance/exit ramps, easy-access bathrooms and kitchens, widened doors or hallways and modified sinks, faucets or cabinets become critical, but few of us have the money to install them.
 
As time goes by and more and more of us age in place, the challenge of suburban living could gradually become more of a nightmare than a case of "living the dream." While there are some strategies, services and support groups that recognize the danger, for the most part, we are on our own. My advice is to plan accordingly when considering your move into retirement.
 
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management (BMM), managing over $400 million for investors in the Berkshires.  Bill's forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Bill at 1-888-232-6072 (toll free) or email him at Bill@afewdollarsmore.com.
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