"There are many more ways to be attractive than to be beautiful. "
-- William Landay, Mission Flats

Friday, August 16, 2019

Should This Couple Downsize?

     We were at a wedding reception recently and sat down with another couple from our old hometown. We know them, but not too well. They are a few years younger than we are, and they live in a big house in one of the pricier neighborhoods in the area.

     Of course, they wanted to know why we moved to Pennsylvania, and so we filled them in on our recent move to downsize to a smaller home, in a place where the cost of living, and especially the tax burden, is considerably less. They were interested in our experience and eager for advice.

     They had raised their three children in a New York suburb. Now they were rattling around in their big house and thinking about downsizing. They had vacationed on Cape Cod a number of times, and were thinking about moving to the area. In fact, they had been on the Cape for a couple of weeks this summer, and had seen a cottage one block from the water that they liked.

     "It's a really nice little place," said the wife, "with two bedrooms upstairs and a bedroom downstairs with a bathroom. We'd take the downstairs bedroom, so we wouldn't have to do stairs, and then the kids could stay upstairs when they came to visit."

     "It's smaller than your house in Westchester?" I asked.

     "Oh yeah," said the husband. "We'd be going from 3500 square feet to 1500 square feet. But what do we need more room for, at this point?" he asked rhetorically.

     "But I don't suppose things are much less expensive in Cape Cod," I ventured.

     "Oh, you'd be surprised. Not income tax. But the real-estate tax on the Cape Cod house is less than $5,000, compared to over $15,000 for our current New York house."

     "But what about our friends?" the wife wanted to know. turning to B. "Do you keep up with your old friends in Westchester? And were you able to make new friends?"

     So we explained how we'd considered moving into a planned community, with a clubhouse and a pool and built-in social groups, where we would almost automatically make new friends. But in the end we decided we wanted to be in a real town, with sidewalks, where we could walk to the restaurants, movie theater and library.

     How did that work out for you? they wanted to know.

     It was probably a little harder than moving to a place where your social life is already set up for you, we explained. But B has met plenty of people through church and the local women's group. And I joined a golf league and found a place where they play ping pong once a week. And we both have become involved in our senior learning center where we've met some like-minded people.

     Then we told them we get back to Westchester three or four times a year and meet up with old friends for dinner or some other occasion. A few friends have come to visit us in our new digs. It's a 2 1/2 hour drive, so they can do it in one day if they don't mind a five-hour round trip. Or several have come down and stayed overnight, either with us or at an airbnb.

     They brightened up when they heard about that, since they figured they'd have no problem attracting their old friends to come visit them on Cape Cod, even though it is a little farther away from home -- about 4 hours. And they liked the idea of  settling in a town. The house they were interested in was one block off the main street, near a church they could join.

     So, thinking about Cape Cod, I asked them if they liked to sail or go fishing. No, they said. They liked being near the water. But they were not big on boating or fishing. But the husband already had his eye on a golf course -- he'd played it once, and saw that there were several leagues. He felt he could find a group of guys to play with. He even thought he might get a part-time job at one of the golf clubs, in the golf shop or working on the course.

     Still and all, they were having second -- and third -- thoughts about moving from the home where they'd lived for 25 years, where they raised their kids and where their kids stored all their old toys, stuffed animals, high-school reports -- and the athletic gear they hadn't used in years but assured their parents they would use again, just as soon as they got a chance.

     But, like us, they have kids who have left home -- one in Virginia, one in New Jersey, and one on the West Coast. And they didn't have any grandchildren yet, so they didn't feel the urge to move to be near any one of the kids. Besides, they said, you never know when the kids are going to move again for a new job. None of them had bought a house yet; and they'd all moved at least twice since leaving college. They figured if they moved near any of the children, the kids would only up and move away again.

Our garage after we moved
     But still, the wife thought maybe they should wait to make their move, until they did start to have grandchildren. That way they could move near the new family that would be more likely to stay put.

     And the kids themselves were resisting the idea of their parents moving to Massachusetts. They wanted to have a home base when they came back to see their friends, several of whom were still around, or if they wanted to take a trip to New York City.

     And this couple also found the prospect of downsizing rather daunting. They had a four-bedroom house with a finished and furnished basement -- and probably very little of it would fit into a smaller New England home. And they had shelves and shelves of their kids' books and trophies and toys and equipment. Were they ready to deal with all that, or insist their kids come home and deal with it?

     When the reception was over, after the speeches and the cake and the dancing, we said goodbye to our friends and wished them well. On the way home, B and I talked about them, wondering if they were really ready to make the big move, or if they were just dreaming.

     We know that, despite all the people we know who move to the Sunbelt, or the articles we've read about downsizing, that in the end most people choose to stay where they are after they retire. A Freddie Mac study from a couple of years ago showed that over 60% of older homeowners said they would prefer to age in place, rather than move to new quarters. It's the easiest option. You don't have to say goodbye to your friends. You don't have to find a new place to live. You don't have to clean out your basement or garage or attic, and confront your kids about leaving behind their childhood home.

Downsizing? It's never over. -- my closet today.
     I remember when my first wife and I sold our family home, soon after our daughter went away to college. My daughter was devastated. "What do you care?" I asked her. "You've moved away, and you're in college now."

     "I know," she said sadly. "But I've lived in that house my whole life. It's my home."

     That certainly gave us pause. But in the end we had to do the right thing for us, which was to move to smaller, cheaper quarters because it was a turbulent time, in the post-9/11 political and economic atmosphere. Or, to put it bluntly, I was losing my job, and we had to consolidate our finances.

     Anyway . . . we thought that this couple was serious about moving. They seemed to have things figured out, as much as possible, and I also noted that the woman got a gleam in her eye when she talked about that house they were interested in. That's usually a telling sign.

     We'll be interested to find out, next time we're back home in New York, if these people made the move, or decided to stay where they are, at home in their familiar community.


Donna said...

We are approaching retirement in a year or so and planning to downsize. I enjoyed your blog post.

gigi-hawaii said...

Interesting post. David and I have decided to age in place, mainly because of our reverse mortgage. The caregiver could come stay with us instead of us moving to a care home.

Tabor said...

Big decisions that can have big regrets. My adivce would be to rent for ayear where you want ot move.

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! Definitely an interesting conversation and one that seems to be popping up more and more these days -- at least with the people I've run across. As you know, I'm a BIG fan of "rightsizing" which is so much more optimistic than "down-sizing!" And as your conversation points out, much of the reason people don't want to leave that BIG house that they are rattling around in and having to pay large sums for--is because they are trying to please their kids. Plus, they are homeowners to begin with and oftentimes, especially if they have a big house to start with, are already of a certain demographic. Freddie Mac likes to quote things about homeowners, but that institution pretty much ignores the fact that many seniors simply can't afford to stay put--but if asked I'm sure would say they would "rather." Plus, 20% of the population doesn't have children and they are less likely to want to be tied to a home. Lots of things to consider when it comes to finding a home for this stage of life. Sure, don't many of us want things to stay as they always were? But unfortunately they don't so I believe it is better to plan ahead for the years to come...both financially AND physically. That usually requires rightsizing. ~Kathy

Lizzy D said...

My parents moved to Cape Cod full time after we the kids had moved away. My dad was working but it was at first easy to fly out of Logan as OHare. I suppose your friends won t read this but here's a few thoughts: How close to the water is the new place; Cape Cod has noreasters and hurricanes. And blizzards w power outages. Is it winterized? Have they ever been to CC in the cold desolate winters, when many things are closed? Or tried to live a normal life in the traffic and chaos of a holiday resort destination. Traffic is a nightmare! There is no public transit and no taxis, tho maybe there's Uber now. There is NO garbage pick up, you have to go to the dump on designated days. Food and water are very expensive; supermarkets can be far. The hospital is really far, esp. if you have a heart attack [and die] like my dad did. Any big medical issue requires a trip to Boston with , again, its horrible traffic and it is not all that close---2 hours? As a single parent I wish I could have taken on the beautiful house my dad built [no downsizing] but the drawbacks are enormous compared to suburban NYC. Just saying.

Tom said...

Kathy -- Count us among those who couldn't afford to stay put ... but we knew that all along, so relocating was always in our plan. And Tabor, I think rent for a year where you want to move is excellent advice. Also, good point Lizzy ... we should all check out available medical facilities, wherever we live.

Olga said...

It would be a big step. Although the kids have opinions I hope they don't get the deciding votes. They have started their own lives and will undoubtedly want to return to the home town less and less. And let's face it, that sports equipment gets outdated pretty quickly. I totally agree that renting for a year is the way to go though.

Gail, northern California said...

I'm in the midst of downsizing. Lost my husband of 43 years six years ago. It was during those six years that I realized I can't do it alone. Home maintenance is for young people. Plus, his very soul permeates every square inch of this house. Some days that's a comfort, other days it's torture. I've already found a smaller place to rent and little by little I'm going through four decades of memories, saving my children time and money to rent a dumpster after I'm gone. ;-)

Don said...

Tom, an interesting way to present a very common (and relevant) situation for those of our age and stage of life. So, you asked the question, "Should this couple downsize?". My answer--YES! I realize everyone has different thoughts, but this whole thing of living in houses that are too big (and frankly were probably too big even WITH the family) is nuts. My wife and I sold our house a couple of years after I retired and we moved 1100 miles to be nearer our only son. We rented a 950 s.f. condo and love it! Our plan was to take the first year and look for something to buy. Almost 7 years later we're still in the rented condo and no longer even want to buy. When I drive around now and see houses all I see are huge piles of wood, brick, and pipes just waiting to need upkeep, painting, repairing, etc. And, if you've tried to find a good repair person these days it not easy. So, after 35 years of "owning" various homes, I'm a BIG proponent of renting in retirement. And something small!

Niculina McClanahan said...

Thank you for bringing up a topic that I’m sure resonates with a lot of people our age. I suppose the idea of downsizing is different for every single situation. My husband and I are in the process of finding another place to live. It’s a rather long process and we’re taking our time. The drive for the move is finding a place that is more mentally stimulating where we can have easy access to concerts and plays, arts exhibitions as well as access to good quality health care and amenities. We want to live in a beautiful community, where we feel comfortable walking our dog and meeting new neighbors. I personally don’t think money should be the only reason to move, because one may have more money to spend but if they don’t like the place, if they don’t feel they can integrate themselves in that community, what is the point? We also have discovered that downsizing too much it’s not going to work for us, because we would like to be able to age in place, which means that there must be room for a walker or wheelchair, if necessary. Plus, we don’t like to feel too cramped in our own home. We still want to be able to go on vacations, so we’ll stay away from vacation spots with our primary residence. Lots of factors to consider: climate, taxes, food prices, public transportation, proximity to a major airport.
For the couple you have mentioned I would suggest to take their time and figure out what is important to them, what is the final goal they are trying to achieve by making such a big change in their life. Although children should be brought along in this important decision, IMHO they shouldn’t have the last saying. Family memories are just that, memories, they live in one’s heart and brain, not in a house.The rest is just logistics, getting rid of the unnecessary stuff is quite refreshing and freeing. “All things must pass” is a famous quote and we just need to let that happen.

Wisewebwoman said...

It's a huge decision and I am a firm believer in not moving to be closer to a kid, grandchildren or no. I have seen far too many unhappy grandparents forgoing their lives to become perma baby sitters with no friends of their own. Not to mention the seething resentment of their other kids not so "blessed."

My biggest surprise when I did decide at 60 to move 3500km away to the ocean and a totally different life was the fact that Daughter came here 6 years ago, I thought temporarily, but she has settled here permanently, loving the whales and icebergs in season and chugging back the bracing sea air every day. Landing a good job helped, of course.

It has been one of the best things I've ever done. And it was early enough to form new circles of friendship that have been so rewarding.


Hope Springs said...

Very interesting conversation and hits close to home for us. We have decided to sell our home and move to a condo which we will have built in the next six months. Same area we live in now, so we don't have to change doctors, volunteer activities, friend circles, etc. But we will give up mowing and tending an acre of land and gardens which are becoming more challenging as we age (him: 73, me: 66) and taking up too much of our time. We researched together for about six months, but I have been looking and working on DH for about two years. Subtly, of course. :-)

As for your friends, I hope they make the decision based on their own desires and needs and not those of their children. We have kids living in multiple places, and I don't expect any of them to live very near us again, nor would we move near any of them, since they have all moved multiple times since graduating from college - countries as well as states in the US.

Terra said...

Oh the interesting pros and cons of moving. One thing I noted is that the couple is considering moving a 4 hour drive away and I am imagining that they will be cut off from old friends. Especially as they all age, that 4 hours will be a daunting obstacle. Maybe they could downsize and stay in town. I retired 10 years ago and still enjoy my home of 34 years and my children live in town.

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Rebecca Olkowski said...

I have always envied people who have lived in the same house for decades. I've moved so many times I lost count. Downsizing is nice, though. Less to worry about and as someone who has moved a lot, you don't need all that stuff. A friend of mine moved into a planned retirement community and is having a ball with all the social activities. But, I like being able to walk around a neighborhood too.

Barbara said...

I do hate the packing and discarding of moving but I seem to move more frequently than the average family. Sometimes starting over after a divorce or job loss feels good. Other times one might just need to shake up their life. I believe that all the "things" we hold keep in our large homes tie us down from adventure. As you know, it takes a lot of guts to make the leap but, for me, I feel freer with less possessions.

Ron said...

Yes moving can be so much work

Jennifer said...

What an interesting conversation to have with another couple. I couldn't imagine downsizing a house that large when I downsized, I was already in an 1100 sf condo. But then I also had a 20 by 20 storage bin that was packed to the gills. My mother recently passed and we had to hire two 30 foot dumpsters to cart away a lifetime of stored junk from the basement and attics. She lived in the same house for over 70 years. I want to leave behind a smaller footprint of junk.

Snowbrush said...

Tom, part of your charm is that you're so different than I. 29 years ago, Peggy and I moved into our current 1,250 square foot house (with a fair-sized lot and a double garage). It seemed a bit big to me, but we've since accumulated enough stuff (mostly due to her clothing button collection--andI AM serious ) that it's about the right size. You spend more than I and you live "bigger" than I, what with your house and travels, and social life. Yet, I remain sorry that I never got to live the Thoreauvian lifestyle, which so influenced me, and that would make the way I do live appear inundated in superfluous splendor. That's the price of marriage though, and I wouldn't trade it.