Many soon-to-be retirees look forward to moving into a community for people over 55. These retirement communities boast of having some of the happiest, most content retirees in America. Most of these communities foster activities and interests of residents by offering classes in art, exercise, technology and even college-level courses. They sponsor special interest groups, travel programs, and shopping excursions. They all sound terrific, but how do you evaluate which one (if any) is right for you? Here are several steps to take prior to making a down payment on your new place.

  • Determine what type of facility you want to be a part of. Retirement communities are typically divided into 3 groups:
    1. Independent living facilities are for seniors who lead an active lifestyle and can fully care for themselves. Services focus on recreation, special interests, education, and physical health.
    2. Assisted living facilities provide services for seniors who need some assistance with day-to-day activities but who do not need skilled nursing care. Assisted living facilities are different from skilled nursing facilities, or nursing homes, in that they provide a lower level of daily care.
    3. Continuous care facilities usually offer an independent living facility for active seniors, but also offer assisted living and skilled nursing facilities which residents can move into as the need for care and assistance grows.
  • Initiate a conversation with your financial advisor to determine what you can realistically spend on a retirement community. Prices, and quality of the facility services, can vary greatly. And most have numerous financing plans available, which may or may not be a good choice for you. Ask questions about the impact on your savings as well as your other assets. Will you be able to continue to enjoy your retirement? Will you have money left to pay for the activities that you find enjoyable? If you own a home already and want to sell it, you may need to obtain a market analysis to determine how much the sale of your home will realistically bring.
  • Ask for referrals from friends, relatives, and others in your community. Read as much as you can about each facility before determining your interest. If possible, drive by the facility—the internet photos and sales brochures tend to only show the best side of the community. Contact the Better Business Bureau about each facility you tour.
  • Determine what activities you want access to. As you visit facilities (and you should visit several), take your list of important activities and ask if your choices will be available at the facility. If you are particularly interested in travel, ask about upcoming trips. If you love art galleries and museums, find out how the facility will support your interest. If you are an exercise fanatic, ask to see the calendar of related events.
  • Make a list of your “must-haves” vs. “nice-to-haves.” What are the amenities you must have? Does the facility provide the furniture and appliances you need inside the living areas, or will you have to move or purchase them? What about transportation, particularly for personal trips? Find out if the facility has any special rules such as overnight guests or visitation hours—you would hate to find out your grandchildren can’t spend the night if that’s something you enjoy. If you have pets, find out if they are allowed.
  • Tour as many properties as possible. Pay attention to maintenance and general upkeep. Ask to see safety records. Find out what training the staff is required to attend. Ask about turnover of employees. Talk to employees you see on site. Ask  if they enjoy working there. Ask for a typical schedule to see if your interests are indeed reflected. Take a trusted friend along on the visit. While the sales staff is busy courting you, your friend may pick up on some things you miss.
  • Find out the fee structure and ask for a detailed explanation in writing of what is included—and ask about anything you don’t understand. Some facilities are basic rentals, while others are considered “purchases,” even though you do not technically own the property—only the opportunity to live there for the remainder of your life or until you become incapacitated and need a greater level of care. Don’t commit until you understand the fine print—and have asked a trusted friend or attorney to review it with you.
  • Ask about health care for residents. What help can you expect if you become ill? What hospital is used? Is your physician able to continue your care? Are there guidelines that determine when you will need a greater level of care and might need to move to another facility? If so, who will assist in that process? How is your family involved in the process?
  • Ask whether you can experience a short-term stay. Some communities allow potential residents to stay “on campus” for a few days to experience the lifestyle, activities and meal options. If staying a few days is not an option, ask for a multi-day pass for activities and meals, and stay for an extended period. Also, periodically visit unannounced. If something doesn’t feel “quite right,” mark the facility off you list.
  • If the facility requires that you purchase a residence, ask what happens if you decide to sell. In some cases, you may forfeit a portion of the sale, often thousands of dollars. Be sure you understand what happens if you change your mind about living there.