Aging Alaskans need homes made for their needs

Housing By Barbara,Clair Ramsey

Homeownership, like life, evolves. When you're young and starting out, your first home is likely to be much smaller than the one you may own as your children grow. A later home, after you've established yourself in a career, may be even larger. Then, after children leave home, the trend reverses and you downsize. And downsize again when living alone becomes difficult.

So why is it the Anchorage real estate market has plenty of homes and condominiums to fit the first three stages of ownership but not the last two?

The first reason is we just haven't aged enough -- yet. According to the August edition of Alaska Trends, Alaska is a demographically young state, with a median age of 33.8 years, the third youngest population after Utah and Texas. Young workers, high birth rates and fewer older baby boomers help keep Alaska young.

However, the biggest demographic change in Alaska in coming years will be with the over-65 group. In 1980, Alaska had roughly 12,000 seniors. By 2010, that number had grown to about 55,000. By 2030, the number of seniors is expected to be 150,000. While this group made up only 7.7 percent of Alaska's population in 2010, seniors are expected to make up 17 percent of the state's population by 2030.

A benefit to Alaska from this growing senior demographic is that seniors are more likely to remain a part of our work force. In the 1970s, Alaska seniors were 28 percent of the work force, compared to 16 percent nationally. The disparity decreased to just 2 percent during the 1990s and early 2000s -- likely the result of higher competition with baby boomers for jobs. During 2006 to 2010, as boomers began to retire, the trend reversed again, with 22 percent of Alaska seniors in the workplace, compared to 16 percent nationally. It is expected that by 2020, Alaska will be at or above the 1970 high as more baby boomers retire.

Between 2006 and 2010, the number of Alaska seniors continuing to work may have contributed to the 33 percent difference between annual median income in Alaska ($45,414) and the national average ($33,906). The additional income allows Alaska seniors to maintain their homeownership longer.

However, Anchorage's current selection of universally designed homes (suitable for all ages and abilities) is very limited. A universally designed home has the following basic elements:

• Minimal steps and stairs;

• Main-level bedroom with hallways at least 42 inches wide and doorways at least 36 inches wide;

• Kitchen and bathrooms with a 48-inch minimum turning radius to accommodate wheelchairs;

• Non-slip flooring or low-pile carpeting with contrasting colors at transition points;

• Adequate light sources (because middle-aged adults need twice as much light as 20-year-olds; 70-year-olds need three times as much);

• Electrical outlets 15 to 42 inches above the floor, or a few combined with light switches for easier access; and

• Lever handles on doors for easier opening.

In the Anchorage real estate market, ranch-style homes fit those needs best. Unfortunately, ranch-style homes currently for sale in Anchorage, and those sold this year, made up slightly more than 15 percent of floor plans listed in the Alaska Multiple Listing.

Even more striking is the fact that ranches built before 1980 make up 53 percent of those for sale and 62 percent of the sales closed this year. The next largest group is ranches built in the 1980s, which make up 27 percent and 24 percent respectively.

As Anchorage ages, housing needs will have to change. As a group, seniors will affect our economy and housing configurations. Their effect and contribution will keep dollars flowing through our economy.

As more generations grow up in Alaska, the draw of grandchildren will keep seniors here longer, or, at least, keep them returning to Alaska. Eventually, the availability of universally designed housing will have to increase to meet the need.

Clair and Barbara Ramsey are local associate brokers specializing in residential real estate. Their column appears every month in the Daily News. Their email address is

Housing By Barbara and Clair Ramsey