Uneasiness is keeping some aging baby boomers in their current homes, even though that's not what they had in mind.
As Realtor Allan Domb, who sells condos in Center City, sees it, "The decline in prices in the suburbs appears to be keeping a lot of aging boomers . . . from selling and moving to something befitting their changed lifestyle."
That, and "general uncertainty over the economy and personal finances, and a desire to see house/condo prices bottom before making a move," said Philadelphia economist Kevin Gillen, vice president at Econsult Corp.
Gillen received a call from a "boomer, nearing retirement," who had just placed a $60,000 deposit on a condo in a Center City high-rise.
The caller and his wife "were going to spend their golden years splitting time between there and another new condo they put a deposit down on in Florida," he said.
Developers told him both units were complete, and it was time to go to closing.
"He worried that his retirement income wouldn't be sufficient to service both mortgages; that the units were going to depreciate in value after his purchase, and that he wouldn't be able to get a sufficiently high price for his home to allow him to upgrade," Gillen said.
The man ended up walking away from both deposits and staying put, telling Gillen that "he was looking forward to never having to shovel snow or mow the lawn again, and that this hurt more than losing the deposits."
David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, sees data supporting anecdotal evidence like this.
"National conditions for this sector have not yet turned the corner," Crowe said, and they will not improve "until employment improves and consumers are more confident of keeping their jobs."
And in the meantime?
Boomer-watchers say this wants-to-move-but-can't generation is engaging in "recession remodeling," making small and not-so-expensive changes to their houses to accommodate health or other life-changing issues.
Considerable evidence now shows that relatively few aging boomers pull up stakes altogether and move to 55-plus communities in the Sun Belt. Even the nervous boomer who contacted Gillen planned to live in Florida only part of the time.
Eighty percent of those 65 and older responding to a July telephone poll of 1,616 adults ages 45 and up conducted in July for AARP said they wanted to stay in their houses as long as possible.
Eighty-two percent said they had a full bath on the main level of their homes, and 81 percent had first-floor spaces that could become bedrooms if the need arose.
"Far too often, a person has to break a leg or contract a serious illness to discover that the home they love could restrict their comfortable lifestyle," said Elinor Ginzler, AARP senior vice president for livable communities.
A few tweaks to remodeling plans can make a house more user-friendly. And to drive home the point, AARP sponsored a "recession remodel" contest to demonstrate that comfort and efficiency were achievable, even in hard times.
The winners: a kitchen in a farmhouse in Richfield, N.C., about an hour from Charlotte, and a bathroom in a house in Snohomish, Wash., near Seattle.
The kitchen renovation was the result of a move to the house by the owner's 67-year-old mother, Jamie Hammill, after the death of the owner's father, who had built the house.
The kitchen was outdated and difficult to use. AARP's makeover expanded and brightened the room, and added an open floor plan, cabinet and counter space, multilevel work and eating space, and easy-to-reach appliances.
The bathroom renovation was for Mary Waggoner, who cares for her eightysomething parents, Louise and Clarence Waggoner, on weekends at her house.
Louise Waggoner uses a wheelchair because of Parkinson's disease. Clarence Waggoner has had hip and knee replacements, and uses a walker and a cane to get around. His eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration.
A cramped bathroom that could accommodate neither parent was changed to remove barriers and add a walk-in shower, a heated nonslip floor, and glare-free lighting.
AARP arranged donations to the two winners of appliances, fixtures, and other building products, along with designer and contractor services, so it is difficult to determine the actual cost of each makeover.
But the changes appear to be similar to those included in kitchen and bathroom remodels described in Remodeling magazine's Cost vs. Value Report for 2011.
If such projects were done in the Philadelphia region, the bathroom changes might cost about $19,000, the kitchen renovation $64,000, according to the report.
"These makeovers demonstrate what homeowners can do when they finally get around to remodeling," AARP's Ginzler said. The work "can make them ready for whatever surprises life can bring."
Videos and photographs of the makeovers can be found at www.aarp.org/remodel.