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Before buying, seniors can take a 'test-drive'

Adult-living communities offer short stays.

For 86-year-old Lillian Fisher, the move from Florida into an adult-living community in New York was a test of courage.

Used to fending for herself, especially after her husband died a few years ago, Fisher began having health issues. Reluctant at first, she decided to move to a retirement community where a staff cooks and cleans and provides medical care.

But instead of flying blind, full of fear and uncertainty, Fisher stayed a month at Atria Kew Gardens to make sure she liked the accommodations, the amenities, and her potential neighbors.

"You don't feel nervous about the move," says Fisher, who uses a walker but still plays Rummikub with friends, the oldest of whom is 102. "Psychologically, it is a bit more comforting."

Developers of senior housing aim to attract buyers and renters by offering stays of a few days to a month at rates comparable to hotel rooms.

Such "test-drives" are gaining traction as more than 75 million baby boomers enter or approach retirement.

During these visits, prospective residents get a chance to learn about the community - shoot a round of golf, use the hot tub, play bridge in the clubhouse - before deciding if they want to move there.

The strategy also helps companies sell homes by overcoming a common obstacle in sales - getting the buyer in the door.

"Moving from one's home to a senior living environment is a life milestone," says Khristine Rogers, a vice president with Atria Senior Living Group. "From a psychological, emotional and social perspective, temporary stays . . . can help relieve at least some of that pressure."

A builder of senior housing, Del Webb, offers "vacation getaways" of one to five days at more than 20 communities.

The stays cost as little as $39 a night during the summer in communities in the Southwest, says Caryn Klebba, spokeswoman for Del Webb, which is owned by Pulte Homes Inc.

At the company's Sun City Anthem community in Florence, Ariz., bookings are up 10 percent this year. At its Sun City Festival community in Phoenix, nearly half of those who took a "vacation getaway" in 2008 actually bought a property.

Del Webb's Sun City community in Hilton Head, N.C., had more than 800 vacation stays last year, generating 132 sales.

Retired teacher John Ossenmacher paid $69 a night during a two-day stay in March at Del Webb's Bridgewater community outside Detroit. Ossenmacher, 67, and his wife stayed in a ranch-style home. An avid swimmer, he liked the Olympic-sized pool. The Ossenmachers met their future neighbors, and he even ran into a retired teacher he used to work with.

He liked it so much he signed a purchase agreement for a new $246,000 house with two bedrooms and den that should be ready in September.

"I suppose if everyone was snobby, it might have been different," he says.

Most Atria Senior Living Group communities offer short stays, based on availability. Daily rates vary with the level of care the resident needs, but the average is between $125 and $200. Some seniors visit more than once, Rogers says.

At a Classic Residence by Hyatt in Yonkers, N.Y., prospective residents can pay to stay in an independent living apartment. Actually, a potential customer who shows "serious interest" can stay at a Hyatt adult community for free, for up to a week, says Meg Ostrom, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Short-term stays are a good idea because "you are not just moving into a new house, you are taking on a new community attitude, and you want to make sure it fits you," says AARP's Elinor Ginzler, the organization's housing expert. (AARP notes that about four-fifths of baby boomers and 90 percent of seniors over 60 decide to stay where they are rather than move).

The ideal strategy would be to visit the new city for a few months to truly get to know the community and its surrounding area, but that can get too expensive, says Ron Manheimer, executive director of the Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

One should pick a time of the year when the weather is the most harsh - summer in Arizona, winter in Colorado - to get a true sense of the year-round living experience.

Seniors on short-term stays should ask as many questions of residents as possible: Does the community allow pets? Does it allow grandchildren to stay for long periods? Are construction repairs prompt? Is transportation into town easy to get? What's the crime rate?

"It's an issue of comfort and trust," Manheimer said. "Who better can sell a community than the people who live there?"