When my grandmother, a lifelong renter, announced at age 77 that she planned to buy her first house, many of us in the family thought the whole idea was a little bit loopy. She would be getting a 30-year mortgage that her children would likely have to deal with someday.
But she went ahead with her plan. She had a spotless credit record, so getting a loan was no trouble. Eight years later, she's 85 and still lives in her house — one floor, one bathroom — in Middletown, Ohio. She's never been happier.
"I feel more relaxed and more secure," said my grandmother, Mary Wellinghoff. The landlord at the old place was "very good to me, but I was always afraid that one day, they'd say that they were selling the place, and I'd have to move out." That's a scenario she'll never have to consider now.
Even her three kids, in their 50s and 60s, concede that it was the right move for her.
"Buying a second home after you're 60, or another house for investment purposes — that's common," says Jason Bonarrigo, a senior mortgage banker at the Boston offices of Wells Fargo. "But buying your first home, unless you're cosigning for your son or daughter, is pretty rare."
Bonarrigo says that if adult children are concerned that their inheritance will be wiped out with a house, a financial adviser or attorney can help them map out an estate plan, so everyone knows what to do when the day of reckoning comes. And "the way the housing market is now," he adds, "buying a house is essentially always going to be an asset. I'd be much more concerned with my old man throwing his life savings into the stock market."
A buyer's market helps
Older first-time homeowners may be inspired by today's buyer's market.
For years, Larry Sand, a retired teacher in Los Angeles, felt that a house was simply not within reach. But Sand, 62, who now runs a nonprofit called California Teachers Empowerment Network, and his wife, Ginny, 60, bought their first house this summer in Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, because prices had fallen so much.
"If I live to 92, I'll have paid it off," quips Sand, who admits that making the purchase was "kind of scary." But he says he doesn't regret it.
And while the prices came down to feasible levels, Sand wasn't just handed a door key. "The bank really looked under every nook and cranny, especially with all that's been happening with banks and mortgages," says Sand. But he says he didn't resent the attention. Rather, when he got the A-OK, he felt the bank had validated what he believed: They could afford the house.
Bonarrigo says age isn't a factor in judging a buyer's ability to pay a mortgage.
"If an 87-year-old wants to buy a house with a 30-year mortgage, it's illegal for me to suggest that he won't be able to pay it off," says Bonarrigo. Lenders look the hardest at the last two years of a borrower's credit history and their projected income for the next three years, he says.
"We can't disparage your age either way, whether you're 21 or 91."
That said, Bonarrigo suggests that if anyone is going be at a disadvantage because of age, it'll probably be the 21-year-old, because that person is unlikely to have much of a credit history.
For some people, affordability and money aren't the issue. It's all about quality of life — that white picket fence and the tire swing.
Bill Gilligan of Somerville, Mass., retired from the Catholic priesthood in 1990 and finished his working life as a state employee.
Why people buy
Gilligan bought his first house five years ago when he was 64 and sold it last December in order to move into another house with his partner. He says of his time living solo in that first house: "I really felt grounded, and I felt at home. I also was proud. That's the word. I was proud of having my own home."
Sand voices a similar sentiment. "I just love our neighborhood," he says. "It's very quiet here, and this is our house. It's just a nice feeling to live in something that's ours."
It might seem that a mortgage is the last thing one would want at a time when many boomers and those in their 70s and 80s are trying to simplify their lives. But people are living longer, and having a place of their own can convey a very secure feeling.
Then there is the thought that went through my grandmother's mind: Wouldn't it be nice to have a place that you don't just call home, but really is home?
Finally, there is the feeling that the flexibility of renting is just fine — until it isn't. Ann Cassin, 69, and her husband, Jim, 77, used to live in Washington, D.C. They continued to rent because they could explore different areas in the city and different houses until they decided where and what would be best for them to live in. When they retired in Gainesville, Fla., they thought it would be nice to finally plant some roots.
And did their family members think they were crazy to buy a house at their age? Quite the opposite. Says Ann: "Everybody thought we were crazy for years — for renting."
Geoff Williams writes about business and personal finance. He lives in Loveland, Ohio.