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Forget Downsizing: Try Rightsizing

What matters isn't how big or how small you go, but how appropriate the new space is for your lifestyle and budget

By Michele C. Hollow | February 5, 2013

There's an assumption that when retirement or semi-retirement rolls around, or when the kids leave, people will downsize: sell the house and move into a condo that’s easier to keep up and grow old in. But when that day comes — if our health and resources allow us the luxury of choosing where and how to live — many of us realize that we’d prefer to get a bigger place, or one with more land or enticing amenities. Ultimately, for a growing number of midlifers and seniors, the next move in life isn’t about downsizing or upsizing: It’s about rightsizing.

Deciding Where to Go
 
Ellen Greenfield, 72, was recovering from hip surgery in October 2010, when she decided she needed to move out of her four-story home in Maplewood, N.J., and into a smaller, one-level apartment. Climbing up and down three flights of stairs from the basement laundry room to her art studio in the attic was painful and difficult.

Her husband, Don, was open to moving into a smaller home, but he wanted to stay close to his work — he’s an ophthalmologist and volunteers at a local hospital and nursing home. Plus he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the neighborhood he has lived in all his life.
 
Leaving Maplewood would be tough for Ellen, too. She’s a founding member of an arts center in town, and has served on many committees, including First Night and the Community Coalition on Race.
 
One night while the Greenfields were contemplating a move, they were invited to dinner on the outskirts of East Orange, N.J., just six miles away. While parts of that city can be a little sketchy at night, their friends’ apartment building is secure, spacious and lovely. And they found the grounds and property immaculate and well cared for.
 
Over dinner the foursome talked about the appeal of the building and the area. Manhattan is just a 24-minute train ride away. Don could continue working and volunteering. And they wouldn’t be far from family and friends in Maplewood.
 
The next day, their hosts, both in their 60s, put the Greenfields in touch with a real estate agent, who showed them an available three-bedroom unit on another floor. As fate would have it, when they were leaving the building, they met a couple who said they were moving out of the penthouse and would be happy to let them see their apartment.
 
Ellen and Don were blown away: The penthouse had four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a powder room, an oversized kitchen with lots of counter and prep areas, a large living room, a formal dining room, stunning views of New York City, plenty of walk-in closets and a terrace with a container garden. At more than 5,000 square feet, the interior space was twice the size of their Maplewood home.

(MORE: Sandwich Generation: Time to Downsize?)
 
Living Larger
 
When the Greenfields got home, they discussed both apartments. Living on one spacious floor in an elevator building with incredible views and being so close to their old neighborhood made this an ideal place. They put in an offer on the penthouse, and it was accepted. Then their lovely Maplewood home sold quickly for more than the cost of the penthouse apartment ($400,000).
 
Many people hold garage sales before they move, but Ellen and Don had to buy new furniture to fill up the new apartment. There’s a lot of wall space to display the art they’ve collected from their decades of travel. And the terrace has added a new dimension to both their lives: Don has taken a shine to gardening, and Ellen joined the building’s garden committee. They get excited when the seed catalogs arrive in the mail. “Don used to look at grass and say, ‘It’s green,’” Ellen says. “Now he and I are loving gardening.”
 
One of the greatest perks of their apartment is that it has room for the grandkids. “Before we moved in and the place was empty, my two grandsons came over and were able to play dodge ball in a walk-in closet,” Ellen says with a smile.
 
The building is pet-friendly, too, so not only is there room for the extended family, but both their kids bring their dogs when they visit. And that, of course, makes visiting all the more appealing — and frequent.
 
Country Girl, City Boy
 
Nancy Heins was 27 and working as a camp nurse in New York’s Catskill Mountains when she met Noel Glaser in 1976. She had gone to the Catskills to escape Houston’s summer heat. Noel, an art teacher in New Jersey and one year her junior, was employed at the camp as a supervisor. “One day he brought in a kid with an injury,” Nancy says, “and we fell in love.”
 
It was a classic case of opposites attracting. Nancy had been raised Methodist in a small Wisconsin town and had lived down South and out West for most of her life. The Catskills, Noel and most of the locals seemed completely foreign to her. For his part, Noel, who was Jewish, found Nancy to be unlike any Jersey girl he had ever known.
 
Things happened fast, since they were both ready to settle down. “He convinced me to move to New Jersey,” Nancy says. “But the bargaining chip was that I would move as his wife, not his girlfriend, and when he retired, we would travel and move out West, where I belong.”
 
The couple bought a four-story, 2,800-square-foot Victorian on a small lot in central New Jersey and pursued their respective careers. Noel liked being close to New York City, and they stayed put for more than 30 years. Both were involved in town events, like progressive dinners, and Nancy volunteered as a producer and host of a local arts show on cable television.
 
Honoring a Promise
 
When he was finally ready to retire, Noel knew he would keep his promise to move out West. The couple had taken many vacations to California, New Mexico, Colorado and other Western states, but while he liked the San Diego area best, Nancy’s first choice was New Mexico, with Southern California a close second. “It was easy to compromise [on California],” Nancy says. “I’m just thrilled that we will be out West and that we’ll be on this adventure together.”
 
The couple loves being a short drive to everything: a big city and a funky college town, wineries, mountains and beaches, including Laguna Beach, the site of an annual arts festival that they love.
 
The new house, which cost $510,0000, was bought with money they'd saved for decades (they're still waiting for the N.J. place to sell). In the bargain, they went from four to three bedrooms (they’ll convert one into an art studio) and have two baths instead of three, but the 1.25-acre lot is more than double the size of the old one. And, they say, it feels even larger because of the wide-open vistas and the backdrop of the Palomar mountain range, which can be seen from almost every room.
 
“We’re both thrilled at this chance to reinvent ourselves and get involved in our new community,” Nancy says. “We’re looking forward to playing golf, riding horses — and finding out what ‘leisure’ means.”

(MORE: If I Could Live Anywhere, Where Would I Go?)
 
A Change of Heart — and Direction
 
Cathy and Peter Chumbley were both 60 when they retired from teaching in Guilford County, N.C., last year. He had taught middle school art; she was a special education teacher. “We spent 30 years in Greensboro working, raising our two daughters and enjoying the community,” Cathy says. But the couple, who had both grown up in Miami loving the ocean, always looked forward to the day they could retire to the North Carolina coast.
 
But the birth of their first grandson in 2011 changed all that. “My daughter and son-in-law live in Brevard, N.C.,” Cathy says, “and we knew the area well because my mother lived near here for 25 years." So they gave up their dream of living near the ocean and bought a house that’s 1,000 square feet larger than their old one. It cost about the same as what they got for their Greensboro house (though their new taxes are a bit higher).

"It’s not the coast, but we love Brevard because it’s a quaint, friendly town with lots of a healthy lifestyle, culture, music venues, art galleries, a college and music academy.” Another perk for the couple, who love mountain hiking, is being sandwiched between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.
 
“Upsizing wasn’t our intention,” Cathy says. “But it actually works out nicely. When all the family gets together for the holidays” — another daughter and son-in-law come down from New York — “we have plenty of space.”
 
To keep busy, Peter started working as a substitute teacher at one of the local public schools. Cathy takes yoga classes every morning, and volunteers part time at a local thrift store that benefits abused women and children. But even with part-time work, Cathy says all they have to do is look out their windows, and they feel like they are on vacation.

Michele C. Hollow writes about interiors, travel, and a lifestyle pet blog called Pet News and Views.