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Why People Are Rethinking Whether to Downsize

Some boomers are saving room for their parents or their children, just in case

By Randi Mazzella

Years ago, Tracy Beckerman moved from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey with her husband to raise her two children. But when the kids grew up and left the nest, her husband urged her to move back into the city.

"He is a musician and works in the city," Beckerman says. "Over the years we had dreamed about moving back, renting an apartment and having the discretionary income to partake in all the great restaurants, music and shows the city had to offer."

An older adult and their adult child packing moving boxes. Next Avenue, downsizing
Credit: Getty

So, they sold their family home and downsized to a small apartment on the 43rd floor of a high-rise tower. At first, city life was everything they had hoped it would be. And then the pandemic hit and public health authorities advised people to avoid public spaces.

"I felt like a prisoner in the apartment," Beckerman says. "We lived in a 57-floor building and I felt panicky when we would take the elevator and not everyone was masked. After all the years we talked about how fun it would be, I didn't anticipate the downside of living in a big city and I certainly didn't anticipate living there in a pandemic. Had we known what was going to happen, I never would have sold my home."

Empty Nesters and Downsizing

Many people buy a home when their kids are little because they want more space and maybe a yard. So when those kids become adults and move out, downsizing to a smaller house makes sense.

"Larger, older homes can be challenging and costly to maintain," says Amanda Pendleton of Zillow Home Trends. "Let's say your retirement plans include lots of travel. It's harder to lock up and leave a larger, older home for months at a time without worrying about potential problems like the pipes freezing during the winter or overgrown landscaping."

In any case, the fewer people who live in your house, the smaller the house needs to be. "Regardless of how big your house is, older adults wind up only using a small portion of their space, maybe five-hundred square feet, daily," says Matt Paxton, a downsizing and cleaning expert and host of "Legacy List with Matt Paxton."

Longtime homeowners may see that their house has increased substantially in value, offering them an opportunity to profit if they sell in the current market. "They can use these equity gains and have a sizable nest egg for retirement, travel or purchasing a smaller home that may have more desirable features or be in a more desirable location," Pendleton explains.

The COVID Pandemic Has Scrambled the Equation

However, the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has led many people 50 and over, like Beckerman, to reassess their next chapter.

"Had we known what was going to happen, I never would have sold my home."

Common reasons to move or downsize once the kids are grown have become less compelling. For example:

Need for Less Space. "Zillow research found nearly three million young adults moved back home during the early months of the pandemic," Pendleton says. "That likely delayed downsizing plans for some former empty nesters, who suddenly had a full home again." Even though life is slowly returning to normal, many people are no longer sure they want to downsize, given life's uncertainty.

Easier Commute. While Beckerman's husband has continued to work in the city, many other people's jobs have become remote and may stay that way. That eliminates commutes from the equation about whether to stay or sell. "The ability to work remotely has allowed some older workers to move to a more affordable location or downsize," Pendleton explains. "Those housing savings have helped them retire earlier than expected."

Lifestyle Changes. The pandemic forced people to examine their lives, their interests and redefine what is important to them. For example, if you have spent the past few years separated from loved ones, you may realize that it's time to move closer to friends and family. Or maybe you thought your next move was into an apartment like the Beckermans did, but now wonder if a big building will feel confining or you will miss having a yard of your own.

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"Even before the pandemic, downsizing was on the decline for empty nesters," says Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights for the National Association of Realtors. "Instead, many (people) are looking to maintain square footage so that they can still have room for their adult children to stay over for holidays. They are trading for comparable size in more affordable neighborhoods or small towns that are good for retirees. They are also selling older homes in favor of brand new, turnkey properties."

Jody Halstead, 51, from Ankeny, Iowa, thought she would downsize but now is considering staying put so she has space for her adult children.

"Looking at jobs and cost of living, I wonder if my (current) teens will be able to afford to move out," she explains. "It might be smarter for us to keep our large house and convert the basement into an apartment space when they can pay rent."

"After the pandemic, she wanted to be nearer to her grandchildren," Paxton says of his mother-in-law. "This option offers her proximity to family as well as independence, and she can use the equity from her home sale to travel."

Paxton's mother-in-law, Cecelia, decided to sell her home and use the money to travel. But she wasn't sure where she wanted to move, until Paxton suggested she live with his blended family of six boys under 14 and a 16-year-old girl. He built a small apartment with an entrance in the back of his house.

"After the pandemic, she wanted to be nearer to her grandchildren," Paxton says of his mother-in-law. "This option offers her proximity to family as well as independence, and she can use the equity from her home sale to travel."

As for Beckerman, she and her husband wound up moving out of the city and buying a lake home in New Jersey. Instead of downsizing as an empty nester, they upsized to a home bigger than the one they raised their kids in.

"I felt sad when we sold our family home; it was a final goodbye to my time as a full-time mom," says Beckerman, who writes humorous books about life in suburbia. "I thought the city would be like living a fantasy, but ultimately it wasn't right for us.

"Instead, we found this house that needs a lot of work (and) it turns out that restoring the house is just the lift I needed at this point in my life," she says. "A bigger house means we can entertain and host our adult children and their spouses; I'm looking forward to hosting my daughter's rehearsal dinner at the house later this year."

Here Is How to Prepare, Even if You're Still Not Sure

If you think you may want to move in the next two to five years (even if you are not sure where you want to go) you can do the following to get ready:

Get your finances in order. Take steps to boost your credit score if necessary and understand how much home you can afford, Pendleton says. This is especially important if you plan to be on a fixed income in retirement and will need a mortgage on your next home.

Clean a little at a time. Start small, one drawer at a time. "It took fifty years to accumulate all of this stuff, so it's going to take more than a weekend to clear it out," Paxton advises. Also, do not view your house as a storage unit. "It's time to tell your adult kids to take their stuff and to purge the old art projects and Legos you have held onto for thirty years," he says.

Pay attention to the real estate market. "Keep an eye on new listings in your neighborhood to see how much they're selling for, particularly homes that could be considered comparable to yours," says Pendleton. Also, research the real estate in areas you might consider purchasing a new home.

Consider cost vs. value on home improvement. Houses need to be well maintained, but upgrades such as remodeling a kitchen may not be necessary. "Improvements such as refinishing hardwood floors or painting usually have a good cost-to-value ratio," Lautz says. "But other projects such as putting in a pool may bring you joy but not up the value of your home when it comes times to sell." Before making any major investment, consult a local realtor.

Think about your future needs. "Older Americans are healthier. They're living longer and want to enjoy their golden years," says Pendleton. Consider things like climate, being close to family, and accessibility (such as a first-floor primary bedroom or minimal stairs) when moving to a new home.

Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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