Downsizing: Knowing when it’s time to move on
Pick up a design magazine or scan the real estate section of the local newspaper and you’ll probably find something about downsizing. But the word means different things to different people. Ask a realtor, and she or he will probably tell you that downsizing isn’t what it used to be. Instead of moving into smaller, less expensive spaces, some people are trading up and starting over.
Talk to a housing expert, and you get a different take. "Downsizing varies by segments of society," says David Turcotte, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "In my parents' generation, coming out of the Depression, if you had a home, the view was you 'age in place,' stay in the home."
That's still the case with many older homeowners. According to the US Census and the American Community Survey, more than half of homeowners in the 55-to-64 age group are not buying new properties — luxury or otherwise. Some of them are staying where they are, but a growing number are selling their homes and moving into rentals.
Labor economist Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University, describes the latter trend. "We have found a sharp swing toward moving to rental units compared to homeownership among the 55-plus population," he writes in an e-mail. "During 2000, just over half (52.5 percent) of older recent movers moved to a rental unit. This proportion rose to 63 percent by 2013-14."
At the same time, there is a luxury market among well-off seniors looking to buy. Some realtors, including Sheryl Simon, a principal in the Wellesley realty company Benoit Mizner Simon & Co., report that demand is outpacing inventory for upscale units on the market for this age group.
Regardless of whether they are looking to buy or to rent, downsizers are a highly visible group these days. There are 37 senior-moving companies in Massachusetts alone, according to the nonprofit National Association of Senior Move Managers.
If you are weighing whether to downsize, you may benefit from hearing how these folks did it.
In Groton, Ann and Jeff Wilson looked around the four-bedroom Colonial where they had raised three children and knew it was time to go. Jeff, who is 63 and essentially retired from the high-tech industry, would work out the finances; Ann, 65, who fills in as a library assistant, would begin sorting through their things, choosing what to keep, what to donate, and what to toss out.
"It was a long process of letting go of things and of my emotional attachment to all that the house represented to me," Ann remembers. "There were thousands of small decisions to make in letting go of the past."
They would invite the kids to take what they wanted, agonize over what to do with cherished school projects, and consider the fate of family heirlooms, including the table Ann's great-grandmother hand-carved in Manchester, N.H., around 1910, and Ann's mother's slant-front desk, made in the 18th century. Ann and Jeff measured, calculated, and eliminated what would not fit into a much smaller home, an interim stop on the way to an as-yet-unknown retirement destination.
The Wilsons then sold their house quickly, purchased a manufactured home, and rented a pad at a park 10 miles north in New Hampshire. At Rodgers Mobile Homes Park, it would cost $405 a month to rent the space, which included a septic connection, nonmetered city water, and weekly garbage and trash collection; an additional $150 a month in real estate taxes; about $85 a month for electricity; and roughly $95 a month for propane for heat and hot water.
In the end, the hardest part wasn't finding someplace to live; it was weeding through their belongings.
"Letting go of things we loved was painful," Ann says. "You get the closest to the bone, keep what you really need to. There's a lot of heartache."
Downsizing was a faster, less sentimental process for Kara Kardon, a business consultant, who 18 months ago traded her five-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home in Weston for a 1,400-square-foot brownstone in Boston's South End.
Kardon, who is 53 and divorced, had raised her three kids in a big house they all loved, but with twin sons having graduated from college and starting careers and a daughter away at school, it made no sense to stay. When her office relocated downtown, she decided to move, too, giving up the cars, the 2 acres, the mudroom where she stored her squash equipment, and her wine cellar.
"I did it with a very heavy hand. I was ruthless," Kardon says of the purging and packing it took her four months to complete. "I left the kids in charge of their own things."
In the city, she hired a decorator and added built-ins, closet systems, and bookcases, including one with a wine-storage unit.
"I was less sentimental about stuff," Kardon says. "I missed my girlfriends and the neighborhood, squash partners at the old club. I missed the people, not the house."
For Kardon, downsizing was a lifestyle change: Instead of driving, she takes the train or uses Uber or Zipcar; she traded the mudroom for a locker at a city club; and she replaced her yard with a front stoop large enough to fit four boxwoods and a planter.
Whether downsizers sell and buy or sell and rent, there is one tax advantage, a "big one," says Jonathan Pond, a Newton-based financial planner and investment counselor.
US tax law generally allows an individual seller "to exclude from federal taxes the first $250,000 of gain on the sale of a primary residence ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) that has been occupied for at least two of the five years preceding the sale," Pond writes in an e-mail.
"This can be a big windfall for people who are selling in anticipation of retirement," he adds. "Also, the aforementioned rule applies to the house sale, no matter if a cheaper or more expensive home is acquired to replace the sold residence or if no replacement is made, e.g., the homeowner moves to a rental."
Either way, moving is a forbidding task, but you don't have to go it alone.
Marie LeBlanc started Transitions Liquidation Services in 2002. LeBlanc, 57, now manages dozens of moves a year inside the Interstate 495 belt, and in January 2015, she organized the move she and her husband made from their 3,000-square-foot home in Harvard to a 1,650-square-foot condo in Hyannis.
"We traded space for the lifestyle," LeBlanc says. "Once you get to a certain point in your life, it becomes apparent what spaces — and stuff — you use and need, and then it's time to ask yourself, "What do I do with the stuff?' "