Nikki Woods has been a REALTOR for just three years, but she’s already made a name for herself in Southwest Iowa. She’s become the de facto REALTOR for families looking to sell their elderly loved one’s homes. And that’s not just because she can move them in any market, but for her expertise in helping clients navigate the often complicated process of these late-in life moves that, at times, must occur in quick fashion.
“It’s usually a desperate situation by the time they get to me,” Nikki, who is a member of the Iowa Association of REALTORS' Diversity Committee said. “It’s often a family that has to sell their assets to pay the nursing home bill. They usually think it’s a fire sale, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I try to educate them on what’s happening and what their options are.”
This month - recognized as Older Americans Month - Iowa Association of REALTORS, along with Nikki, hope to bring awareness to the often difficult subject of estate pre-planning and what that means for family real estate.
“Everything falls back on education,” Nikki said. “As REALTORS, we can educate clients and let them know their options or the path they should explore to help their families. People need to protect their assets. At any given time you could become injured or incapacitated and you might need a nursing home or assisted living situation. If there isn’t a living will, trust or estate, they can be vulnerable.”
It’s a reality that Nikki and her family found themselves in when her father passed away 9 years ago. While her mom was still living, Nikki and her brothers, along with their attorney, made the decision to create a living trust to protect their mom’s home and farm land. Several years later, Nikki’s mother was relocating to a nursing home. Because the family had created the trust, they weren’t forced to immediately sell their mother’s home to pay for her care.
"Our family was fortunate enough to be able to pay those six months out of pocket (private pay). Without this in place, we would have had to liquidate all my mother's assets,” Nikki said.
Still, nursing homes are a business and when Nikki’s mother’s trust ended, the family was required to pay for her care. As the family worked to switch her mother to Medicaid, they ran into issues.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “They were denying her and telling us we had to keep private paying, but I knew the rules. I know we didn’t have to. They were making us jump through hoops. That’s what a lot of families are dealing with.”
As Nikki traversed this new world with her family, her name was passed along to others and she found herself in the nursing home-real estate circuit, so to speak.
“It’s usually a desperate situation with people rushing to sell their assets - cars, homes, farm ground. It doesn’t make a difference if they have vacation homes or single-family homes, it affects everyone,” she said. “There are steps we can help them take.”
Nikki recalls helping one client whose mother fell and couldn’t go back home after the injury.
“I know what our rights are and how the system works,” she said. “In these desperate situations the family feels they have to sell their house immediately to pay for care. Once you talk to the family and listen to what they are dealing with, you can calm them down and back them up a minute. We can help them realize they aren’t at a fire sale. Let’s talk to the nursing home. Communication is key.”
While building trust with clients is a priority for Nikki no matter the situation, it is vital when working with families going through emotional and complicated moves for their older loved ones. Once she’s built rapport with clients and their families, Nikki will often begin to put out feelers for how the family wants to proceed, before offering references for the planning process.
“I’ve personally helped with things like suggesting they speak to an attorney, or finding a contact at the Department of Health and Human Services for them to speak with,” Nikki said. “It’s a hard conversation. I’ve cried. The person you are dealing with, the family members, it’s not an easy transition to have to make.”
But on the flipside, if a loved one can come home, Nikki has helped them decide how to make the home livable, adding ramps, a roll in shower, and other measures.
“I don’t think every agent is wired to do this type of thing, but these are deals that have feelings attached to them,” she said. “It’s rewarding to help.”
As the baby boomer generation continues to age and make housing transitions, Iowa REALTORS must be prepared to work with older Iowans and their families. Through her experience, Nikki provides the following tips when assisting families and clients.
In many cases, the client may feel as if they aren’t being heard, whether by the nursing home their loved one is entering, DHS or other family members. Listen to their needs and their wishes for their family and assets.
Establishing a personal relationship with clients is key to gaining their trust. Nikki said she often shares her experiences with pre-planning and her mother’s transition to a nursing facility to help ease the mind of her clients.
“Making yourself human and vulnerable will go a long way,” she said. “This subject in particular can be very touchy. You’ve got to have that personal trust.”
Once you’ve built trust with the client and their family, gently mention the relationships you’ve formed that may be helpful in this transition.
“Find a good attorney, financial planner, tax attorney/CPA who you trust and can help guide you through the various stages of life so you can protect yourself as your lifestyle and family grows and changes,” Nikki said. “Simply saying ‘here are some people I personally do business with, there’s no harm in talking to them.”
Another avenue is offering books that broach the subject. Nikki recommends several to clients that often help them think of situations and issues they didn’t previously consider, like helping their loved one’s pets.
“Something as simple as that helps people think, ‘hey, it’s not a bad idea to get something together,” she said.
Working with the families of older Iowans, particularly those who may be transitioning to a nursing facility, can be a long process.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Nikki said. “You’re going to be in this for the long-haul. I recently worked with one family for seven months from start to finish. It’s not all just, ‘we have to put the home on the market.’ There’s more to it.”