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Empty-Nesters Fly Their Own Coops

Millions of boomers are opting out of homeownership and going mobile

By Suzanne Gerber

I read on Facebook that my friend Scott had rolled into town, but he was only here for a few days — in between his summer in Paris, autumn stint in Vermont for leaf-peeping, a quick trip to L.A., then his annual extended stay in Oaxaca — so I didn’t get to see him this time around.

Scott, who’s 54, is one of my homeless friends — homeless in the most delightful way. He actually owns a beautiful house in L.A., but was getting divorced just as  the market tanked and it didn’t make sense to sell. So he found long-term tenants to cover the nut, followed his heart and moved to a cabin in the backwoods of Vermont for a year.

That got a little lonely, so he started coming down to New York on a regular basis, staying in my son’s abandoned room or with other friends in Manhattan. He’s the perfect houseguest — tidy, small footprint, helps out with the cats—and we’re happy to host him. Then he discovered the joys of Oaxaca, a Colonial Mexican city that’s home to thousands of U.S., Canadian and European expats. It’s also warm and cheap.

Scott’s no slacker. He’s got a full-time gig as a marketing director for a software company; the beauty part is, he can work anywhere there’s an Internet connection. I don’t know how much it costs him to live, but it’s a safe bet that it’s a fraction of what most of us pay. And a heck of a lot more fun.

Creative Homelessness

Scott may be a bit of a trendsetter, but he’s hardly alone. Thanks (if that’s the word) to the economy, new technology’s effect on various industries and the natural shifts that happen to many of us at midlife, plenty of empty-nesters are themselves taking flight.

There are as many ways to live without a home as there are reasons for doing it. We wrote about the RV boom among boomers, and those numbers keep growing. As Lou Carlozo reported in a story for, the number of retirees who live in RVs year-round is “probably north of 25,000.” Makes a lot of sense, when you compare the average cost of that lifestyle, which runs most people between $10,000 and $15,000 (after you buy the vehicle, of course) to what homeowners shell out.

And talk about freedom! If you can afford the gas, there’s no limit to where you could go (except across major waterways). Fancy Florida in the winter, Arizona come spring, the Pacific Northwest for summer and a New England autumn? Set your GPS and go.

Another popular way that boomers are “dropping out” is by living on houseboats. Not only is this cheaper, it’s one of the most laid-back existences I know of. I’ve spent a week here, a week there living on boats. Granted, I wasn’t the one doing the maintenance, but every night at cocktail hour, surrounded by other congenial boaters, I was struck with the same thought: I could definitely get used to this.

(MORE: Road Trip: Finding America's Heart Driving Cross-Country on Route 6)

Free as a Bird Now

Don’t want to own anything? There’s another way to go that’s even less encumbered. More and more boomers are either chucking all their possessions or seriously downsizing and putting the truly important stuff in storage and going mobile. Home-swapping is a way to test the waters before making the commitment, and there are dozens of sites dedicated to this.

A more radical approach, which can be a bit riskier but also way cheaper, is to crash in strangers’ homes for free via A friend of mine who’s active on the other end, as a host, had people on his sofa more than 200 nights in 2011. He likes interacting with interesting new people — and knows that when he travels, he's kind of paid his "debt" forward. Of the many cool folks he met, one of his favorites was a 68-year-old theater-loving Canadian guy who came down just to see shows every night for a week.

According to Carlozo, 160,000 couchsurfer members are over 50, a number that “at least doubled since 2009.” When you check out the site, you find all sorts of boomer groups, including “Adventurous Women Over 50,” “Bangkok Hosts 50 and Over” and “Kayaking 50s and Over.” You’re not limited by age, of course, and you might enjoy some of the site’s other intriguing subcategories, including “Beer Lovers,” “Vegetarians,” “Queer,” “People Who Have a Sense of Humor” and “Naked Sleepers.”


Meet, Plan, Go!

A relatively new website, Meet, Plan, Go!, describes itself as “leading the career-break movement in North America; encouraging and teaching others how to travel the world and have it be beneficial to your career.” The site further “envisions a world where the term ‘career break’ is a part of your overall career strategy.”

How cool is that? The three founders give seminars around the country, and Meet, Plan Go! offers all sorts of support to get started. (I’ll be attending one of their talks next week and will cover this topic more extensively in the future.) In their network are a couple, Betsy and Warren Talbot, who wrote an ebook, Getting Rid of It: The Step-by-Step Guide for Eliminating the Clutter in Your Life. It gives advice and tells the story of how they spent a few years saving and downsizing, then took off on their own “career break.” Two years later, they’re still “elsewhere.”

(MORE: Save Money and Feel at Home by House-Swapping)

Different Folks, Different Strokes

One needn’t become a total vagabond to live more creatively and freely. I have quite a few friends who are bucking the traditional, plant-roots lifestyle. Renée, an art director who can telecommute, splits her year among her home in Brooklyn (with an equally peripatetic husband), an apartment in India, where she practices yoga and studies Ayurveda and various vacation destinations in South America, Europe and tropical islands.

Steve, a writer, is based in Amsterdam but hates the cold, so at any given time, he could ping me from Italy, Israel, Morocco, Mexico, Portugal — or New Jersey. Rebecca, who literally has no home of her own, leads health retreats around the world: India, France, Australia, Canada. Toby’s passport is full of foreign stamps. Her lifestyle as a writer and translator allows her to live in Berlin and come to New York, Massachusetts and Florida for at least three extended visits a year.

My retired pal Sally lives most of the time on her sailboat in the Caribbean, but when the weather gets rough, she rounds up a group of women and leads them on scuba-diving adventures in Indonesia. Ruth, who I interviewed years ago for a “Radical Sabbatical” story and became a good friend, is a freelance video editor who goes back and forth between three locations in the northeastern United States and Thailand (and wherever else she and her entrepeneurial beau get a wild hare to wander).

I’ve had so many inspirational role models for a nomadic lifestyle that it’s kind of amazing I’m still tied to a mortgage and 1,250 square feet of stuff — more if you count what’s in my sister’s country house and friend Judith’s garage. I’m not ready to make the leap, but fantasies of island tradewinds and couches on Hawaiian lanais are what's going to get me through the long, cold winter that lies ahead.

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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