As today’s pre-retirees start looking ahead to life in retirement, a common thread seems to be emerging: seniors are selling their big family homes and looking for smaller digs. Downsizing has become practically universal among retirees – right?
Well…not so fast. While many seniors are looking for smaller homes with better livability, lower costs and less maintenance, there are plenty of folks making the opposite decision. In this recent NextAvenue article, freelance writer Randi Mazzella spotlights a much different trend: boomers who want more square footage, not less, as they age. In a way, the rationale makes sense, as many feel they’ll need that extra space for aging parents or for adult kids returning to the formerly empty nest. Let’s take a look and see what’s behind this “anti-downsizing” trend.
Empty Nesters and Downsizing
Mazzella begins her NextAvenue article with the story of a woman named Tracy Beckerman, She and her husband moved back into a small New York City apartment after raising their kids in the suburbs of New Jersey. The empty nesters looked forward to retiring within walking distance of all the city had to offer – but then the pandemic hit, along with lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.
Beckerman told Mazzella, “I felt like a prisoner in the apartment. 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.”
Mazzella writes, “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.” She spoke with Amanda Pendleton of Zillow Home Trends about these equity-rich retirees. “They can use these equity gains,” said Pendleton, “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.”
But the Beckermans’ story perfectly captures the current mood among retirees looking to age in place. While downsizing is still extremely popular among empty nesters, since it’s often easier and less expensive to maintain a smaller home, the events of recent years have definitely made some look more carefully at their long-term housing plans.
The COVID Pandemic Has Scrambled the Equation
Mazzella notes that there are three common reasons that empty-nesters move or downsize: the need for less space, an easier commute, and lifestyle changes. But all three reasons have become less compelling since the pandemic.
The need for less space is no longer an imperative, since so many adult children have moved back into their parents’ home in the last few years. Amanda Pendleton explains, “ Zillow research found nearly three million young adults moved back home during the early months of the pandemic. That likely delayed downsizing plans for some former empty nesters, who suddenly had a full home again.”
As for those long commutes, they are becoming less common, now that so many jobs have shifted permanently (or partially) to remote roles. “The ability to work remotely has allowed some older workers to move to a more affordable location or downsize,” Pendleton said. “Those housing savings have helped them retire earlier than expected.” But for other pre-retirees, the urge to move has been dampened with at-home work.
Lifestyle changes refers to the shift in priorities that so many people experience as they age. Mazzella explains it this way, “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.”
Downsizing Trend Was Already Declining
It may come as a surprise to learn that downsizing was already becoming less common for empty nesters, even before COVID threw a wrench in the works. Jessica Lautz of the National Association of Realtors explains, “Even before the pandemic, downsizing was on the decline for empty nesters. 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.”
Ankeny, Iowa resident Jody Halstead told Mazzella that she had intended to downsize, but had reconsidered in more recent months. Halstead said, “Looking at jobs and cost of living, I wonder if my (current) teens will be able to afford to move out. It might be smarter for us to keep our large house and convert the basement into an apartment space when they can pay rent.”
Multi-Generational Living is an Attractive Option
For the NextAvenue article, Mazzella spoke to a few families who had decided to return to what was once a cultural norm and blend generations of family together, with grandparents moving in with adult children in mother-in-law apartments or wings of the home. This offers both proximity to family and the independence that comes from downsizing.
What became of the Beckermans? They left the city and ended up in a lake home in New Jersey even bigger than their original home in the suburbs. Tracy Beckerman explains, “I felt sad when we sold our family home; it was a final goodbye to my time as a full-time mom. 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.
“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
Mazzella ends the article with a list of tips for those who may want to move in the next few years, but are still on the fence. We’ve summarized them below:
- Organize your finances: Zillow’s Amanda Pendleton suggests, “Take steps to boost your credit score if necessary and understand how much home you can afford. This is especially important if you plan to be on a fixed income in retirement and will need a mortgage on your next home.”
- Tidy slowly: Mazzella suggests, “Start small, one drawer at a time. Also, do not view your house as a storage unit.” It took some time for all of that stuff to accumulate, so don’t expect it’ll all get cleared away in a weekend. And make sure your kids understand that Mom and Dad’s house is not a repository for their things, either!
- Watch the market: Pendleton says, “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.” Monitor those areas you might potentially like to move to.
- Weigh home improvement priorities: Mazzella writes, “Houses need to be well maintained, but upgrades such as remodeling a kitchen may not be necessary.” Real estate experts suggest that refinishing hardwood floors and putting on a fresh coat of paint is usually good cost-to-value. But investing in a massive change, like putting in a swimming pool, might not be to your best benefit.
- Consider the future: Think about how it would look to age in whatever space you’re choosing. Since we live longer now and we’re healthier than we ever have been, we want to enjoy our senior years. Mazzella suggests, “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.”
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)