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RISMEDIA, June 26, 2007?(MCT)?Marsha Cummings considers selling homes just part of her job.

Mostly, the Dallas real estate agent says, she helps boomers and seniors figure out where to go next in life and how best to get there.

That may mean finding a smaller house next to a golf course for a couple in their 50s who have just become empty nesters.

Or it may be helping a couple in their 60s settle into a high-rise condominium downtown so they can be near the symphony.

Or it may be escorting a widow in her 70s on a tour of retirement communities where she can receive nursing care.

“There are days when I feel like a member of the family,” she said.

Specially trained to serve the over-50 market, Cummings works in a niche of the real-estate industry that’s gaining cachet as the number of older Americans doubles over the next two decades.

Only a few years ago, senior real estate specialists were pretty much overlooked by fellow brokers.

Today, they command a higher profile as a number of real estate firms have started to tailor services to older clients.

“There are two huge markets here — 77 million boomers, who haven’t bought their last home yet, and seniors, who are sitting on top of $2 trillion of home equity and wondering what to do,” real estate author Tom Kelly said.

Rich Thomas, chief executive of the MetroTex Association of Realtors, expects the Dallas-Fort Worth market to be fertile ground for real estate agents who cultivate the over-50 population.

“North Texas is emerging as a retirement destination because of its climate, easy access to health care and breadth of housing choices,” he said. “Plus, many older adults are staying in the area but trading homes.”

Hoping to corral some of that business, Ebby Halliday Realtors in Dallas recently launched “Ebby Lifestyle Transitions.” The program caters to people making moves during the second half of life.

Besides handling the real estate transactions, the firm partners with a network of businesses to run estate sales, pack and move households, and help clients get the best return on the equity from their sold homes.

The 5% to 7% commission that clients typically pay real estate brokers on a home’s sale covers the program’s basic costs, though there are separate charges for such services as moving and estate planning.

“Through our network, we aim to be the one-stop shop,” said senior vice president Pandra Dickson.

1% with designation

More than 100 Ebby Halliday agents have completed a two-day training course to become senior real estate specialists.

About 15,000 real estate agents nationwide, including more than 250 in D-FW, have earned the professional designation.

That’s still just 1% of all Realtors, but the National Association of Realtors says it plans to double the number of senior specialists within five years through aggressive marketing to its members.

“We’re taking the senior designation to the next level,” said Marc Gould, the association’s vice president for business specialties.

The course teaches agents how to relate to older clients and meet their special needs.

Cummings, who’s been with Ebby Halliday for 24 years, took the course early this year and said it helped her understand the differences between senior housing options — from active-adult communities to assisted living.

One of her clients, Linda Tuell, said Cummings had a sixth sense for sizing up her needs and finding a home that would be the perfect fit.

Tuell, 61, was following her daughter and son-in-law to North Texas from California but wanted her own place and circle of friends.

She had lived in a community for adults 55 and older in California and was looking for something similar near her daughter in Allen.

Cummings showed her an active-adult community in Fairview.

“With the equity from my old place, I was able to trade up and buy a home here that’s double the size — and pay cash for it,” Tuell said.

The agent also found a house with wide doorways to accommodate her client’s wheelchair.

The two women have since become friends.

When Tuell was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, Cummings, a cancer survivor herself, took her shopping for a wig.

“Marsha was a big support,” Tuell said.

Counselors, too

Many senior real estate specialists see themselves as counselors as much as salespeople.
At Virginia Cook Realtors in Dallas, broker Barbara Husel has created an “eight-step program for seniors” called GoodLife Pathways.

“Putting a house on the market and moving can be hard for anyone, but it’s often overwhelming for an older person,” she said.

After going through the throes of caring for her elderly mother, Husel set out to design a program that would help seniors and their time-strapped children sell the family home and find a retirement community.

It begins by sitting down with the senior and listening.

“We start slowly. We don’t talk about selling anything. We talk about their life,” Ms. Husel said.

The agent then evaluates the client’s needs and wants, develops a plan of action and investigates the housing options.

Husel has toured 30 senior communities in the area and shares her written summaries of those visits with families trying to narrow their choices.

Seniors pay from $500 to $1,500 upfront, depending on the home’s value, but get their money back if they list and sell their house through GoodLife Pathways.

Husel has also lined up a financial planner to help clients decide what they can afford, and an elder-law attorney to review residence contracts.

“I urge my clients to at least think about their next move before something happens and their children make the decision for them,” she said.

Peace in the family

Grace Hoover, 97, chose an assisted-living community before her health began to fail her and she could no longer live by herself.

But that still left her family with the task of downsizing her belongings from her home of almost 50 years to a one-bedroom apartment.

One of Ms. Hoover’s children, Kathy Snyder of Dallas, called in Husel.

“I didn’t want Mother to feel as though the house was being sold out from under her,” Snyder said. “Barbara showed patience and tact and made sure my mother was always the one who said yes or no.”

Also at Husel’s suggestion, Snyder put together a photo album of the family heirlooms and asked the six grandchildren to study it and state their preferences.

The items were then divided up accordingly.

“It was very orderly,” she said. “And we kept peace in the family.”

Lock and leave

Senior specialists say not all of their clients are looking to move into retirement communities. Many are simplifying their lives by selling their high-maintenance house and buying a low-maintenance condominium.

“They want a place they can lock and leave,” said Martha Morguloff, who’s been a broker for 34 years and a senior specialist for four.

Morguloff, a member of Ebby Halliday’s Lifestyle Transitions team, helped Fredye Factor and her husband, Dennis, sell their two-story house in Dallas and negotiate the purchase of a condo three minutes away.

“We bought a log cabin in New Mexico and plan to go fishing often, so the condo fits our new lifestyle better,” Factor said.

Morguloff advised the couple on how to sell their antiques, coached them on how to get the full asking price for their house, and thoroughly researched the condominium development’s amenities and warranties, Factor said.

“We couldn’t have done it without her,” she said.

As lucrative as the 50-and-older real estate market may prove, there’s no easy money in it, said senior specialist Armand Christopher, who recently joined Ebby Halliday Realtors to help roll out the Lifestyle Transitions program.

“Our brokers understand this is a mission as much as it is a job,” he said. “You’ve got to have the passion.”

Copyright ? 2007, The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.