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By Warren Wolfe

RISMEDIA, February 2, 2009-(MCT)-Every morning Joyce Reedstrom, 82, struggles to the stair lift that carries her from her second-floor bedroom downstairs for the day. At night, helped by her husband, Kermit, 86, she reverses the trip.

Last summer, it looked like the couple had a solution: move from their New Brighton, Minn., townhouse to a one-story apartment for seniors.

Then reality hit: A 20-percent drop in what they could get for their townhouse of 27 years has left them feeling houselocked.

Similar stories are playing out for other elderly homeowners as the housing market suffers through its worst slump in decades.

In the face of these dilemmas, real estate agents and people who run senior housing developments are inventing creative ways to lure seniors. Among their tools: financial assistance, help planning a move, and one plan that guarantees a home sale, usually in 120 to 150 days.

Instead of eating a $45,000 loss on their townhouse, the Reedstroms chose to stay and pay $7,000 for the stair lift a month ago. They may try again next summer to sell, or they might invest another $7,000 in a second lift gliding to the basement garage-then wait until their declining health forces them to move to an assisted-living facility.

“It’s not working out the way we wanted,” said Kermit Reedstrom, a former Medtronic executive, who with his wife worked in retirement for the Lutheran Church in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

The economic slump has battered savings, too, further hurting some elderly clients, said Cathy Clairmont, director of marketing at English Rose Suites, small suburban Twin Cities homes that cater to older people with memory loss.

“I had a man-very embarrassed-who had to take his wife home after six months here because his retirement savings just went south,” she said.

“There are a lot of obstacles for seniors trying to decide whether to downsize and move into more convenient housing,” said real estate agent Lisa Dunn, a former psychologist who now works primarily with older homeowners.

“There’s the housing market, of course, but there’s also years of accumulated memories and possessions,” she said. “Downsizing can be daunting.”

At Heritage Place of Roseville, Minn., a 49-unit building where the Reedstroms had planned to move, there are more vacancies than usual for rental apartments because “some people on our waiting list can’t sell their houses now,” said Cindy Donovan, who handles marketing.

Heritage Place, which opened four years ago, has offered new tenants up to $2,000 to help move or buy furniture. Recently it added optional inducements: three months of free parking, meals or housekeeping. That drew two new tenants. “But to be honest, they really needed to move,” she said.

Feeling most stuck by the housing downturn are healthy seniors ready to leave a house they’ve owned for years and move into independent-living developments. They at least have the option of waiting.

But people whose frail conditions are forcing them to move into housing with health care or similar services “are biting the bullet, taking the loss and doing what they have to do,” said Dustin Schultz, director of housing at Good Samaritan Society, which owns Heritage and other senior housing in 25 states. “Minnesota’s bad enough, but it’s a lot worse in some other areas-California, Florida, Denver,” he said. “It’s a nationwide situation.”

To boost occupancy, Presbyterian Homes is about to announce a program with Minnesota’s Coldwell Banker Burnet in which it will finance prospective tenants’ access to housing-relocation services that Coldwell typically offers to corporate clients.

Presbyterian Homes will start with homeowners moving to three new senior housing projects. A seller can work with a specially trained sales agent and a Coldwell “moving manager” who will oversee the entire process. That includes repairs and preparation for sale, help with the move and insuring the home’s appliances. Sellers also will get a rebate-$400 to $650, depending on the sale price.

“Moving is a very big deal, and having these services and a single go-to person should help take some pressure off,” said Deb Black, Presbyterian Homes’ marketing director.

That has Joyce Johannessen interested. Now almost 80, she was ready last summer to move to nearby SummerHouse of Shoreview, Minn., an independent-living apartment complex owned by Presbyterian Homes.

She took her home off the market last fall after dropping the price to $120,000-and still getting no takers.

“I’ve been here 30 years and I’m not waiting until they carry me out,” said the retired assistant to the provost at Bethel College. “I’ll move before I’m too frail to meet new people and do fun things. Maybe in the spring. …”

After working with older homeowners waiting for house prices to rise, real estate agent Dunn paired up with another agent to offer clients a sure way out of their homes.

For 27 years, Jack Bilski has offered customers a guarantee: If your house doesn’t sell in a certain number of days, he and investors who back him will buy it at an agreed-upon price. If he sells it for more, the customer pockets the difference.

Dunn and Bilski now are offering that service to seniors.

“I’ve never made a dime on those sales, although I’ve lost some a few times,” Bilski said. “People have to be realistic. We’ll agree on a guaranteed price that’s 5 to 10 percent below what I think it should sell for within maybe 120 to 150 days.”

Older homeowners eager for more convenient housing face this agonizing choice: Take the financial hit now and sell, or stay put until home prices rise. “This is going to be a long, slow process,” Bilski predicted. “Homes that are priced right are selling now. Will you gain by waiting? You have to decide whether the cost of waiting is more than the cost of taking the current market price.”

That’s small comfort to the Reedstroms.

“If we’d sold two years ago, we’d be in more comfortable living right now,” Kermit Reedstrom said. “As it is, my guess is we’ll just stay here as long as we’re both healthy enough.”

© 2009, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.