Before You Move

Before You Move

The Upside of Downsizing
By Ellen James Martin, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
September 20, 2009

Regardless of your reasons, the move can be an adventure.

Has the economic downturn caused you to recast your housing plans, even though you’re still employed and own a property worth more than your mortgage balance? Are you like many empty nesters who now expect to sell your large family house? If so, you have lots of company. “People who planned to downsize in five to seven years, once they’re closer to retirement, have decided to sell their houses and downsize now, instead,” says Rowena Emmett , a 23-year veteran real estate agent who specializes in working with home sellers over age 50.

“Many people are moving for economic reasons. Everyone’s income has contracted. And people with big house payments are feeling the strain,” she says. Emmett says that after the stock market took a steep slide last autumn, “lots of folks went numb for several months. They were stunned by the new economic realities and it took them several months to assimilate the information.” But once they got a grip on the situation, she says numerous empty nesters with large properties decided to put their homes on the market earlier than they’d expected, in the hope of safeguarding their lifestyles.

“People are downsizing now to preserve their vacations and retirement plans, and to keep their kids in college,” Emmett says. Whether mandatory or voluntary, a move to smaller quarters can represent a jarring transition. But the move to a less spacious property can also have surprising positives, if handled well. Here are a few pointers for downsizers:

** Look upon downsizing as an adventure. Among her clients, Emmett says there are many in their mid-to-late 50s who view downsizing as an opportunity to create a less encumbered lifestyle. She also has clients who have sold a large suburban house in favor of a small unit in a culturally rich city and are happy with the major change.

** Test drive your move before making any dramatic changes. Few people would trade in their car for a very different vehicle without first test-driving the new one. But some who’ve sold a home in an area where they’ve established roots make dramatic changes in their housing with relatively little investigation, according to Leo Berard, charter president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents.

As he notes, many downsizers over age 50 opt to move from a free-standing family house to a condominium in a high-rise building. Yet few do so with sufficient diligence. They may reverse course later, regretting that they made a snap decision on the choice of a new housing unit. “There are some folks who just aren’t cut out for condo living. They don’t like the density and would be better off moving to a small bungalow. The problem is that returning to their old way of living can be very difficult,” he says.

** Position yourself near family and friends. While it’s true that downsizing can be a positive choice, it can also become a misadventure if people move to a faraway location where they have few ties, Emmett says. “We all need a network of people we can count on. This is especially true if you plan to downsize to the home where you’ll be retiring. Retired people have an even greater need for community. Hawaii might be paradise. But even this could be depressing if you’re alone there,” she says.

** Cull through your belongings before you downsize. According to Emmett, some who must sell their homes and make an involuntary move to smaller quarters cling to the notion of keeping all of their furnishings and other possessions, hoping to squeeze everything into the new home. But she says that’s a mistake. “Don’t assume you can buy a miniature version of the same house you must give up. If you try to drag everything there, you’re going to feel incredibly cramped,” Emmett says. Instead, she recommends you do a thorough “edit” of all your belongings before moving to the new place.