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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tiny Houses Popular but Can Have Big Issues

Many older adults are drawn to tiny houses, which can be a good way to downsize and achieve a more carefree life. However, zoning laws across the country have not kept up with the popularity of these small dwellings, which exist in a gray area between homes and RVs. Finding a place to put your tiny house can be a big challenge.

Tiny houses are big news. Several TV shows are devoted to them, and many articles and books highlight this scaled-down form of housing. Many older adults, in particular, are drawn to them, looking to downsize or simplify their lives. They also appeal to young people who are just starting out in life, because they are cheaper than buying a house or even renting an apartment. Others praise a life that frees them from big financial obligations, allowing them to work part-time or travel more.

However, living in a tiny house is not that simple. The biggest challenge is where to put it. Zoning laws across the country have not kept up with the popularity of these small dwellings, which exist in a gray area between homes and recreational vehicles. Also, depending on whether you build or buy your tiny house, costs can be higher than you might expect, ranging from $20,000 to $90,000.
Tiny-House Communities

Because of the lack of good options for tiny-house locations, communities for these dwellings, much like mobile home parks, are springing up across the country. Walsenburg, Colo., became the first city in the state, and one of the first in the nation, to change its land use codes to allow tiny homes on any residential lot. On a three-acre lot in this small rural town, a developer is creating a park for 28 tiny houses.

Other tiny house communities are being planned, built or finished across the country, including Lemon Cove Village in northern California, which transitioned from an RV park and rents lots for $450 to $595 per month. Orlando Lakefront at College Park in Florida, a year-round tiny-house community/RV park rents lots for $350 to $550 per month. Tiny House Estates, a tiny-house manufacturer, at the Traverse Bay RV Resort in Williamsburg, Mich., sells empty lots starting at $64,900, or lots with a tiny house for $229,000.

To see a list of tiny-house communities, see “Communities, USA,” Tiny House Community.

One Person’s Story

Ryan Mitchell, 30, who manages a website,The Tiny Life, and published a book about tiny homes, writes about his experience. After being laid off from his job, Mitchell knew he wanted a living situation “where I could take control of my life and its destiny.” He found the solution in tiny houses, but not before he had to clear a lot of hurdles. After a year of working nights and weekends to build his 150-square-foot home, plus a sleeping loft, he searched for land. His first choice fell through after the landowner decided to sell his land. Knowing that the zoning laws in Charlotte, N.C., his hometown, would be restrictive, he started looking in the country, but farmers weren’t willing to lease their land to him and trailer parks wouldn’t “let me in even if I got designated as a park model, RV or mobile home.”

“This is the story of tiny houses that isn’t told,” Mitchell writes. “It’s not a glamorous one, it’s frustrating, it’s stressful and it will keep you up at night.” Ultimately, he decided that he wanted to stay in town, near family and friends. He found someone who would lease him land for $1 a month in return for Mitchell’s help with his website. Next up was securing water, power and building a road. The most expensive part was getting water. While many tiny house owners want to collect rain off their roofs for water, when Mitchell crunched the numbers, he couldn’t get enough supply for showers, cooking, drinking, etc. Putting in a well was prohibitively expensive, so he ended up paying the city $2,230 to connect to his property.

However, it was all worth it in the end. “What I’ve found is that changes in my life were the real impact. . . . My financial situation has changed drastically, because my cost of living dropped so significantly. . . . Time-wise I have a lot more of it and even better, I have more control over it. I now can spend more time with my friends and family. Peace of mind and lower stress have been another outcome of this journey.”

Where to Put a Tiny House

A tiny house is generally 150 square feet but can be as “big” as 500 square feet. They are either built on wheels, which means you can transport it from site to site, much like a mobile home, or on a platform, which works if you have one place to stay. Many tiny-house owners pride themselves on building their own, using plans sold by tiny-house manufacturers, while others prefer to buy their small dwellings outright. As Mitchell found out, building the house was easy compared to finding a place to put it. Zoning laws in most cities (some are more progressive than others) don’t allow main residences smaller than 450 to 1,500 square feet. Some cities are rethinking those minimums, especially where real estate prices are high. You can apply for a variance, but that’s not a sure thing.

Other zoning laws can require minimums for emergency vehicle access; sewer or septic connections; rainwater runoff control; municipal water or well-water hookups; and minimums for lot size and restrictions on how many residences can occupy a lot or given area. In most towns, a building permit isn't required for a structure of 120 square feet or less. However, these small structures are considered sheds or workshops and therefore not considered livable.

Most cities allow accessory dwelling units, what could be called granny flats, although restrictions exist on how many people can live there. One tiny-house advocate recommended living in your tiny house in your backyard while renting out your larger home. Others have found success in parking their tiny houses behind other people’s houses or on a corner of their property in exchange for money or barter of services, like Mitchell did.

Because tiny houses don’t have their own classification, local governments see them as an RV or mobile home. As recreational or camping vehicles, they are generally banned for full-time living outside of an RV park. In addition, many RV parks require that a certified manufacturer constructed your tiny house. (With this regulation in mind, many tiny-house builders are getting certified.) Similarly, if your tiny house is registered as a mobile home you can live full time in a mobile home park. However, as with RV parks, mobile home parks sometimes require that a licensed manufacturer built the home.

As a solution, many people find a piece of property, put their tiny house on it, make all the utility connections, and then hope that no one complains to the zoning department. One city official told Ryan Mitchell, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Problems could arise if you live in a neighborhood of big, wealthy homes, where neighbors might worry that you are lowering their property values. If someone doesn’t want you there and complains, the city could fine you or condemn your land. However, many people who have settled down on a city lot with their tiny house have found that most local governments are not interested in chasing tiny-house dwellers off their property. As these small abodes become more popular, municipalities likely will start to create ordinances for their use.

Another solution is to live in communities created just for tiny houses (see sidebar, “Tiny House Communities”).

Where to Buy Tiny Houses

If you are not building your own tiny house, many manufacturers offer customizable models. Most building companies are small, often catering to local markets. For example, Sprout Homes, of La Junta, Colo., is constructing a tiny-house community in nearby Walsenburg (see sidebar). The company, which emphasizes “eco” homes that are energy efficient and include chemical-free interiors, sought a location for its tiny houses, because so many municipalities don’t allow such small dwellings.

One of the original tiny-house companies is Tumbleweed, which operates throughout Canada and the United States. It offers several models with customized floor plans and optional dormers and skylights. One of its models, the Elm, ranges in size from 117 to 161 square feet and costs between $57,000 and $66,000.

As the tiny-house movement grows, builders work to create more adaptable spaces, such as using the stairs for storage space. One tiny-home builder, Humble Homes, has a model, the Turtle Tiny House, with a first-floor bedroom that can transform into a study with a Murphy bed.


“The Best Tiny House Building Companies,” Affordable Housing Designs

“Could You Survive in 150 Square Feet? The Lowdown on Tiny Homes,” June 18, 2015, US News: Money

“Understanding Zoning and Tiny Houses,” February 20, 2015, Tiny House Community

“Tiny house, big benefits:?Freedom from a mortgage and worries — and stuff,” June 25, 2015,Washington Post

“Where Can You Park a Tiny House?,” June 25, 2014, MiniMotives

“Walsenburg Has Big Hopes for Tiny Houses,” Oct 7, 2015, Colorado Public Radio

Tiny Houses Popular but Can Have Big Issues was featured in the November 2015 Senior Spirit. 

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Protect Yourself from Financial Abuse

Most financial exploitation comes from family members, unfortunately, but there are ways to protect yourself, including choosing direct deposit for retirement checks.

While we may become wiser in many ways as we age, research shows that our financial capability decreases after age 60. It may not be as easy to balance the checkbook, add figures in your head or decide on the best car deal. Poorer financial reasoning may be one of the reasons that financial abuse of the elderly has become so prevalent.

In a survey by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, 71 percent of care managers surveyed said financial abuse and/or exploitation of the elderly is a growing problem in their communities. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans age 65 or older (about 7.3 million) have been victimized by financial fraud, according to the Investor Protection Trust. Perhaps even more worrisome is that many older adults who score low on financial literacy tests thought they did well (“Financial Literacy and Financial Decision-Making in Older Adults,” American Society on Aging).

Family Members Not Always Trustworthy

You may have read the articles about New York socialite Anthony D. Marshall’s conviction of defrauding and stealing from his elderly mother, philanthropist Brooke Astor. With help from his lawyer, Marshall changed her will to favor him, took millions of dollars without her consent and stole paintings from her home on Park Avenue.

There are many lesser-known stories about trusted family members swindling older adults. A social worker tells the story of an elderly woman who loaned her grandson most of her savings, after which he used the title to her mobile home to get a bank loan. She now needs the money to live on and faces the possibility of losing her mobile home if her grandson defaults on the loan. Yet she refuses to report her grandson to the authorities because she doesn’t want him to go to jail.

The sad truth is that over 90 percent of reported elder abuse is committed by the older person’s own family members, most often their adult children, followed by grandchildren, nieces and nephews, according to the National Council on Aging . Common tactics include depleting a joint checking account, promising but not delivering care in exchange for money or property, outright theft, physical abuse, threats, intimidation and neglect of basic care.

A relative can convince an older family member to transfer assets to them, get them to change their will or lift jewelry or other valuable items from the home when the elder is not looking. If the family member is caretaking in exchange for access to the elder’s Social Security funds, they may be spending as little as possible on the elder and more on themselves.

What You Can Do

Most of us want to believe that our own kin would never betray us. But to keep temptation out of harm’s way, you can take proactive measures to protect your assets, especially at a time of life when your financial abilities may be waning and you’re not always sure about making the right financial decision.

Have your income (e.g., retirement, disability) directly deposited into your checking account.

If managing your daily finances becomes difficult, consider hiring a daily money manager. This professional can help you with bills, insurance claims, phone calls to financial institutions and troubleshooting.

Engage a CPA or certified financial planner to handle issues such as how much money you can withdraw safely from retirement funds.

Put together an estate plan. Talk with an attorney about helping you create your powers of attorney, will and advanced directives.

When you choose a power of attorney, don’t assume the person closest to you will do the best job; you might be better off giving it to someone more detached and financially secure.

Put limits on your powers of attorney, such as assigning a different person to monitor your power of attorney or assigning joint powers of attorney, which would require two signatures on every check.

Build a network of family, friends, neighbors and groups that you can interact with often. They will notice if something is amiss.

Create a buddy system with other elders, call each other daily for reassurance and friendship and visit each other if possible. Older adults with a social network are less likely to be preyed upon.

Get your financial affairs in order. Good financial housekeeping will make you less vulnerable.

Keep valuables in a safe place. If there's nothing worth stealing in your home, you're less likely to become a victim.

Consult with a financial advisor or attorney before signing any document you don’t understand.

Get to know officers and tellers at your local bank or credit union. They can look out for any suspicious activity related to your account.

If you think you’ve been taken advantage of, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to contact authorities, starting with your local Adult Protective Services (see sidebar for other resources).

Efforts to Fight Financial Abuse

Governments and businesses are aware of the growing problem of financial elder abuse and are starting to take steps to counteract it. The Department of Justice has created an Elder Justice website, “a resource for victims of elder abuse and financial exploitation and their families, practitioners who serve them, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, and researchers.” You can report elder abuse or find support in your area by entering your zip code on the site, which will provide the names of agencies and places to go in a 5-, 10- or 20-mile radius of your home. The Justice Department has also created training programs to help attorneys recognize and address financial exploitation of older Americans.

Growing concern in the financial industry about elder abuse has resulted in a new regulation. Brokers can delay or refuse transactions if they believe a caregiver is defrauding or exploiting a client who may be suffering from dementia. In the medical field, the nonprofit Investor Protection Trust trains doctors, medical professionals and lawyers to spot and report elder financial abuse.

Twenty-five states have laws requiring financial institutions to report suspicious withdrawals from seniors’ accounts and other uncharacteristic activity, according to the American Bankers Association. The state of Maine has a program, Senior$afe, that trains bank tellers and managers to identify and report suspected cases of financial exploitation. The program is expanding nationwide.

Businesses are seeing opportunities in this field also. EverSafe can monitor your financial activity, such as credit card statements and bank and investment accounts, on a daily basis. The company scans transactions for suspicious activity, such as financial behavior patterns that don’t fit your regular habits, and then sends a notice to you and someone that you have chosen to oversee your spending.

Another company, True Link , has a prepaid Visa debit card that lets you determine daily spending limits and the types of purchases or withdrawals that are and are not allowed on the card. If a purchase is outside of your parameters, it is rejected. The card also sends alerts of any suspicious charges.


“Why Elder Financial Abuse Is Such a Slippery Crime,” Feb 13, 2015, Forbes

“Protecting Mom & Dad's money,” January 2013, Consumer Reports

“Financial Abuse,” National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse

“Protect Yourself,” University of California Irvine's Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect

“Protect Yourself,” Elder Financial Protection Network

“How Seniors Can Protect Themselves from Scams,” National Council on Aging

“How to Stop Mom or Dad From Stupid Spending,” Next Avenue

“How Aging Impacts Our Financial Decisions,” Next Avenue

Protect Yourself from Financial Abuse
 was featured in the November 2015 Senior Spirit Newsletter.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Science of Caregiving

What we expect from life’s stages is often what we read, research and hear. But there is one life stage perhaps we don’t see coming and are inadvertently not prepared to shoulder – caregiving for someone with memory loss. One in nine Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s, equating to millions of people who do their best to help care for them. Just as expectant parents devote energy to researching techniques that support child development, let’s apply the same rigor to thoughtful adult caregiving approaches. In my field, I rely on the Validation Method.

Here’s how it works. Take “Joe,” who I first met when learning about Validation. Joe was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and pounded the table while repeatedly shouting, “I’m cold!” I ran to get his sweater and asked his caregiver to serve him hot tea, but this did not ease him. Naomi Feil, developer of Validation, suggested I ask Joe where he felt cold, because he might be expressing a deeper emotion. The next time Joe shouted, I asked this very question. Joe put his hands over his heart, and through additional questioning, he responded, “I miss my wife.”

Many caregivers instinctively try to reorient those they are caring for to reality, which can potentially worsen the situation and cause anxiety. With Joe, I learned to look beyond his words and actions to focus on what he may be feeling. Validation helped me understand that Joe was communicating his basic human need for security and love.

By inquiring more about Joe and fully opening myself to his emotions, I learned he provided end of life care for his wife. This insight revealed his actions were communicating his loss of purpose. By validating what a good husband Joe was, his shouting and pounding eventually stopped.

I realize caregiving is much more complex than this one example and not every attempt to validate will result in such a dramatic change. But I’ve studied and applied the Validation Method countless times, and believe it can be an effective technique to rebuild lines of communication and reduce stress for both the caregiver and person with memory loss.

Before you communicate with a loved one, try centering yourself by taking a few deep breaths. Don’t worry about reality or trying to redirect a loved one if they are disoriented, instead ask open questions to help them freely express their emotions. These techniques will help you be more open and responsive to your loved one and address their basic human needs: to be heard, to feel loved and to have a sense of purpose. 

Many may feel that once a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they’ll lose the ability to connect with them, but through Feil’s work we know there is an art and science to effectively communicate. It is a method that restores the perceived “lost” connection, and shows us that even though memory loss may have profoundly changed our loved ones, they are still present. 

For more resources and information about caregiving, visit the Sunrise Senior Living website.

Courtesy of SCSA guest blogger, Rita Altman, SVP of Memory Care & Program Services, Sunrise Senior Living

Society of Certified Senior Advisors