One Thursday night last spring, Myrtle Mercer and her two daughters, Brenda and Verna, found a third-floor apartment Myrtle liked at Holiday Retirement's Lincoln Tower in Odessa, Tex. The family signed the residency agreement, paid the deposit and the first month's rent, and got the key.
But that weekend they realized the apartment posed some problems for 86-year-old Myrtle. "Mom couldn't raise her arms high enough to reach the light switches," Brenda said. "And her walker was too big to fit through the door of the bathroom."
On Monday the family let Lincoln Tower's management know that the apartment wouldn't work after all, but they were told that Myrtle would still be on the hook for 90 days of rental, plus another month's rent for the 30-day move-out notice.
Neither the family's pleas nor their lawyer's follow-up letter to the Holiday Retirement executive offices could sway the company. Because Myrtle Mercer had signed the agreement, the company insisted that — even though she'd never occupied the apartment — she would be responsible for $8,600 in rent and fees.
Two months later, after Holiday Retirement had, as promised, tapped her mother's bank account for more than $6,700, Brenda contacted AARP On Your Side. "I didn't have a lot of hope," she said. "But I thought, 'What harm can it do?' "
We reached out to the company and were able to persuade it to revisit Myrtle Mercer's lease and provide a full refund. And while we appreciate Holiday Retirement's willingness to reverse direction, this case raises several red flags for anyone considering a move into a retirement or assisted living facility.
For one thing, be aware that the rules and regulations that protect consumers in a conventional leasing or rental contract don't apply to many assisted living communities, according to senior housing expert Don Redfoot of the AARP Public Policy Institute. "In most states, many key aspects of retirement living are governed not by housing laws but by regular contract law, which gives providers a lot more leverage and removes many expected consumer protections — including causes for eviction or changes in fees," he says.
Don Redfoot of AARP offers the following suggestions:
1. What will I need in the future? Retirement communities often pitch their properties as "the last place you'll ever have to move." But people may eventually need levels of care — such as ventilation or hospice — that are not provided at a particular facility. Having to move when dealing with challenges like these is not a situation most people would want to face.
2. What's covered in my fees? Facilities differ widely in the kinds of services included in the rent. Be honest about what you need now and what you may need in the years to come, and be sure to include the price of those services in your overall cost consideration.
Consumer advocate Ron Burley writes the On Your Side column for AARP and is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For. Got a complaint? Tell your consumer woes to Ron at aarp.org/ronburley.
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