Carol Cashon was miserable. She knew she had to move out of her six-bedroom home in Malvern. Situated on 21/2 tree-lined acres with a pool, the home where she and her husband, Gary, who is now deceased, had raised their two sons had become just too much work.
"For the longest time, I couldn't bear the thought of leaving the home that we had worked on inside and out," Cashon, 61, said. "But I couldn't take care of it all myself, plus work full time" as a mental-health therapist at Elwyn Inc.'s Market Street branch in West Philadelphia.
Yet, she said, "I couldn't think of anywhere I wanted to be."
Finally, a friend gave her the name of Virginia Harris, a real estate agent in the Wayne office of Coldwell Banker Preferred.
Harris had left a career in pharmaceutical marketing to become a real estate agent specializing in clients like Cashon - people who want to downsize from a family home into something more manageable.
She is among the growing ranks of real estate professionals tailoring their businesses with specialized information, services and referral networks to meet the needs of clients over the age of 50.
Over the last five years, real estate professionals have been seeing fast growth in the 55-plus housing market, spurred by empty-nest baby boomers and their elders. But the demographic has diverse segments - ranging from people who are merely downsizing into condominiums and "age-restricted 55-plus communities" to the physically frail client moving into assisted-living communities or retirement homes.
A 2006 National Association of Realtors report on "Baby Boomers and Real Estate" found that 11 percent of baby boomers report they were likely to buy real estate in the next 12 months.
In the Northeastern United States, 12 percent of all buyers (from July 2005 to June 2006) were between 55 and 64 years old, while 6 percent were between 65 and 74 years of age, and 2 percent 75 years or older, according to statistics collected by the association.
Nationwide, desire for a smaller home was the most popular primary reason for buying a new home cited by 22 percent of buyers 65 years and older, the real estate trade group said. Retirement was the second-most-popular reason cited by 20 percent.
These older buyers are not necessarily pulling up roots. A 2006 AARP study, "Aging, Migration and Local Communities: The Views of 60-plus Residents and Community Leaders," found that nine out of 10, or 41.5 million Americans older than 59, preferred to stay in the same home or county rather than move out-of-area.
To help Carol Cashon, Harris used a questionnaire she developed to help identify what Cashon wanted in a new home (trees, a place to walk, a place that would allow her cat, room enough for an office and a guest bedroom, and no maintenance responsibilities).
Harris then guided Cashon through the process of de-cluttering her home, coaching her on how to work with her sons to decide what to take from the house. Harris also gave Cashon referrals to an antique dealer, a moving company, and a rubbish-removal service.
With Cashon's house ready to go on the market, Harris began showing Cashon options for a new home, mining her database of condos, townhouses and 55-plus communities within 50 miles of Philadelphia.
Cashon's eldest son, Scott, and his wife, Julie, then expecting their second child, began to consider buying Cashon's house to move out of their small home on Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia.
It took several months for everything to fall into place, but ultimately, Cashon bought a three-bedroom, multilevel, Chesterbrook townhouse, and moved in Sept. 29. Her son and daughter-in-law bought the Malvern house, which never went on the market.
"I'm happy how it turned out," Cashon said. Finding Harris who specializes in helping older people move is "a great thing because I don't know if I would ever have got it done, otherwise. I might still be there."
More and more real estate agents are gathering information and resources needed by this older demographic. They are sharpening their communication skills needed for working with older clients and networking with age-restricted communities, assisted-living facilities, and local condo associations; elder-care attorneys, accountants, and financial planners; and contractors, antiques dealers and moving firms.
The goal? Not just sales leads, but the construction of a dependable web of support for older clients going through what is often an emotionally and logistically difficult transition.
Many real estate professionals also are training to obtain the Senior Real Estate Specialist designation, in order to counsel senior-citizen clients involved in relocating, refinancing, or selling the family home. In March, the designation became a part of the National Association of Realtors' family of designations, having originated with the Los Angeles-based Senior Advantage Real Estate Council.
Walter H. Blauvelt, an agent with Re/Max Central Inc. in Lansdale, earned his designation a year ago. "Not only have I gotten referrals from it, but I think that my overall performance in dealing with the age group, the 75-plus category, has improved," he said.
Blauvelt, an agent who has sold real estate for 18 years, estimates the 55-plus client makes up a quarter of his business: "It's growing because that population is growing. I am one of them. I'm 60 years old."
In working for older clients, Blauvelt said, "there's much more responsibility on my part to control and direct all of the different entities of the transaction." So he winds up negotiating prices with contractors doing pre-sale home repairs, and helping his clients respond to "oftentimes unreasonable requests" in prospective buyers' home-inspection reports, for example.
Dianne Krause, an agent with Prudential Fox & Roach in Bryn Mawr, estimates about half of her business comprises clients age 55-plus. She is also membership chair of the Professional Care Alliance of the Delaware Valley, a referral network of caregivers, retirement community professionals, and real estate agents.
Krause also holds the senior-specialist designation and obtained the Certified Senior Advisor designation through the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, based in Denver. Financial planners tend to seek that designation, but Krause said she had found the training - which addresses everything from Medicare/Medicaid programs to how to tell when seniors should stop driving - to be particularly helpful in understanding the issues her older clients face.
"These people have been in their homes a very long time. They might be infirm; their financial situations might be precarious," she said. "It's important for them to get top dollar for their homes."
Krause helped Cheryl Rosenberg's mother, Edith Simon, 85, sell her Overbrook Park rowhouse before moving into Saunders House, a nursing home in Wynnewood. Simon and her late husband, Harry, had lived in the home for more than 50 years, as its first owners.
Rosenberg said Krause helped her family de-clutter the home before putting it on the market and gave them referrals to contractors for replacing windows, repairing a leaking basement, and cleaning rugs.
The repairs cost roughly $8,000 and took about three weeks to complete, but the costs were made up in the sale of the home, which sold at asking price after 11 days on the market.
"It was a really stressful time," Rosenberg said. Krause "really helped us a lot."