The single biggest expense you face in retirement is housing, which accounts for more than 40% of spending for people 65 and older, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Yet all too often, you end up shelling out those bucks for places that don’t serve your needs well as you age.
By age 85, for example, two-thirds of people have some type of disability. If you can’t get around your house or community or you don’t have easy access to the medical and social services you need, you could land in a costly nursing home prematurely, according to a Harvard Center for Joint Housing and AARP study.
“People don’t think about how their home will support their needs until they face a health issue,” says Amy Levner, manager of the Livable Communities initiative at AARP. “It doesn’t have to be a catastrophe either. Even something as simple as a knee replacement could make it difficult to stay in your home or drive, at least short term.”
Here are 3 ways to make sure you’ll stay comfortable in your home as you get older.
1. Get your house in shape: Three-quarters of people would prefer to stay in their current home as long as possible in retirement, according to AARP. Yet just 20% live in a house with features to help them live safely and comfortably there in their older years. Among them: a first-floor bedroom and bath so you can live on the main level if stairs become hard to climb, wider doorways that make getting around easier if you need a walker or wheelchair, and covered entrances so you don’t slip in rain or snow.
Those can be pricey renovations, so the best time to do the work is while you are still employed so that you can use current income to pay the bill instead of tapping savings, says Levner. But many adaptations that make a big difference when you’re older are inexpensive. Those include raising electrical outlets to make them easier to reach, putting grab bars and a shower chair in the bathroom, and installing nonslip gripper mats under area rugs. (A list of the most important steps to take and their typical cost is below.)
2. Take it down a notch: To save money without necessarily moving far away—two-thirds of people want to remain in their hometown when they retire, AARP says—you can downsize to a less expensive, more manageable house. You could use the proceeds from the sale of your current home to add to your retirement savings, while significantly cutting maintenance costs.
The potential savings, based on estimates from the Center for Retirement Research, are compelling. If you move from a $250,000 house to a $150,000 one, for instance, you could net $75,000 to add to your savings, after paying moving and closing costs (typically 10% of the sale price). Meanwhile, your annual bill for upkeep would probably fall from around $8,125 to $4,875, assuming typical property taxes, insurance, and maintenance of about 3.25% of the home’s value. These calculations assume that you own your home outright; if you still have a mortgage, the savings you would reap from downsizing might be even bigger.
Move in step with your peers: Relocating can also help you cut expenses if you move to an area with lower taxes and a cheaper cost of living. Look for places that have good public transit, transportation services for seniors, and walkable, bike-friendly neighborhoods that are a short distance to stores and entertainment and close to medical facilities.
Where should you go? AARP is now working with dozens of places to create age-friendly communities. They include Birmingham, Denver, Des Moines, and Westchester County in New York (find the list at aarp.org/agefriendly). Next spring AARP will launch an online index with livability data about every community in the U.S. For more inspiration, check out MONEY’s Best Places to Retire.