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Downsizing From the Perfect Apartment

I tried to stay in my big home — but discovered a special joy in making a smaller new one

posted by Francine Russo, November 8, 2012 More by this author

Francine Russo's living room in her apartment in New York

Journalist and speaker Francine Russo covered the boomer beat for Time magazine for nearly a decade and is the author of They're Your Parents, Too!


Francine Russo's living room in her apartment in New York
The Manhattan apartment the author sold to buy something more affordable.
Elizabeth Dooley/Dooley Images
I moved this year — out of the spacious Manhattan apartment that my family, in its various iterations, and I had called home for 30 years. I really, really didn’t wanna. But the monthly cost had gone way up, and while it would’ve been manageable for a dual-income family, I was now, sadly, on my own.
 
In the late 1970s, when my late husband, Alan, and I bought the Classic 6, a much-coveted kind of Upper West Side apartment, it was pretty cheap. We raised our two daughters there and rode out life's ups and downs. But when the girls were 15 and 9, the biggest down hit: Alan was felled by a heart attack and died.
 
I struggled to keep our broken world stable for my grieving girls. Keeping our home was no small part of that. But when my financial advisers reviewed my balance sheet, they told me the only way it could make things work out would be by selling my most valuable asset — my fabulous apartment — when my kids were grown.
 
(MORE: Sandwich Generation: Time to Downsize?)

Twist of Fate, Part 1
 
I paid lip service to the idea of selling someday, but I secretly prayed that day would never come. Then, just as my younger daughter was heading off to college, I met Chris, a wonderful widower with three kids about the same age as mine. A year later, we were married.
 
Now there were two of us — a dual-income family! He was happy to sell his old house in an untrendy part of Brooklyn and move in with me. Together we renovated the place to put our own stamp on it and to make room for the various children who’d live there full- or part-time.
 
At Thanksgiving, we’d host out-of-town guests, turning the living and dining rooms into temporary bedrooms and the foyer into a dining room. My friends used to tease me that I was like the old woman who lived in a shoe. And I loved it.
 
Buoyant new times layered over sad old times — then, three years after the wedding, tragedy struck again. Chris received a diagnosis of lung cancer and died within weeks. Suddenly I was the sole parent to five young adult kids. I was comforted by the fact that despite our losses, everyone had a large, lovely home to come back to some of the time, a place filled with memories where we could celebrate holidays as a family knit together in a whole new way.
 
Four years passed, and expenses on the apartment continued to escalate. Despite writing a well-received book and launching a speaking career I couldn’t afford to stay without depleting all my savings — yet I still resisted selling. Since I seemed to be the marrying kind, I told myself when I finally began dating again, maybe I'd find a new partner to share my home with. Nice fantasy, and an excuse to put off dealing with the reality.

(MORE: Where Single Women Might Want to Retire)
 
Twist of Fate, Part 2
 
Sure enough, I met someone who seemed right for me. And he would happily have moved into my place in a New York minute. Hell, city real estate being what it is, some guys might have dated me just to live there. But I quickly realized he was not the man for me and broke it off.
 
With that decision, I finally let in the reality that I couldn’t spend years waiting around for my next partner. I had to make a life and a home that would work for me as I was, on my own.
 
I would sell now.
 
Once I made that decision, I was a woman on a mission. I flew my daughters in to go through and remove their ancient stuff — a bittersweet task — and I told all the kids to say goodbye to home. In a few short months, I painted and sanded. I put my shabby stuff in storage or threw it out and had the apartment staged. I hired a real estate photographer and wrote my own copy for my Streeteasy ad.
 
My first open house was scheduled for the weekend Hurricane Irene blew through town, in August 2011, and shut down the subways. But I didn’t cancel. I knew that people would want my apartment and that locals would walk over. Sure enough, they did. By that evening, I had two competing cash offers above my asking price. Within days I had a signed contract, and a closing date in December.
 
I was amazing. Everyone said so. But inside I was a mess. I’d wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat. And I cried. And cried. And cried. Every room, the view from every window was part of me. I mourned my two lost futures — where my husbands and I would grow old together. I worried that my children would never be able to come home again, and I wondered whether my role in their lives would become smaller and less important.
 
New Role, New Life, New Home
 
I leaned hard on my friends and neighbors, asking for too many favors. They, like everyone, could see I was having a hard time preparing to leave. I spent many hours searching for the (much cheaper) apartment that would be my new home. I knew it would never be as fabulous or have the views or … lots of things.
 
Still, I was determined to find a place that would have some wonderful feature that my old one did not. And I found it: a weirdly cut-up, formerly majestic apartment filled with ornate 1912 details, right on highly desirable Riverside Park. It was farther uptown than some people considered prime, but I’d always loved that leafy 'hood around Columbia University.
 
Buying and selling at the same time was tricky, but having a destination helped me cope with my sense of loss. I didn’t stop crying, though, until the day my old home closed. I walked into that conference room with weak knees, on the brink of tears. Yet as soon as I saw the assemblage of lawyers and brokers, I instantly got calm. Anticipation had been slow torture. Reality? Not so bad. When I walked out of that room carrying a very big check, I felt like a free woman.
 
As fate would have it, the new apartment has turned out beautifully and already feels like home. It may not be big enough to put up all my kids and their growing families, but at Thanksgiving I can seat everyone in my high-ceilinged dining room next to the (nonworking but gorgeous) fireplace.
 
My new boyfriend — well, not so new anymore — will be with us for the holiday this year. He lives in New Jersey and has been spending his weekends in the city with me. And while we’re not there yet, it has become clear that my new place really might just be big enough for a couple.

In hindsight, I can't help but think: "All that carrying on, that change would such be a bad thing. If only I'd realized what gifts it could bring."
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