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The Boomer Issue | Magazine

The kids are gone, but their boomer parents can’t afford to downsize

In the Boston area housing market, there’s no longer an upside to downsizing for many empty nesters.

Illustration by Dan Page

LET ME FIRST APOLOGIZE for any part my wife and I may be playing in worsening the Massachusetts housing shortage. Our youngest child has a freshly minted college diploma and a job. That officially makes us empty nesters, although our golden doodle might object to the description. After more than 20 years at the same address in Plymouth, we’re theoretically in a position to downsize, to ditch the drudgery of yardwork and upkeep for a simpler life governed by condo association rules. We’ve built up a pile of equity. Our 120-year-old house sits on a corner lot in a “desirable” part of Plymouth, about two blocks off the ocean. It’s updated and spacious, ideal for a growing family stretching at the seams.

That may sound like the draft version of a Zillow listing, but please don’t make an offer. We’re not budging. Crazy as it sounds, we can’t afford to sell. Not in this market. Or not without exiling ourselves to a place where we don’t want to live. Oh, we sometimes tour open houses south of Boston, just to “see what’s out there.” We’ve trailed our fingers across the obligatory quartz countertops, admired fancy stoves with more burners than anyone needs, and discovered the benefits of a “comfort height” toilet. We’ve also learned that safely “aging in place”  —  the notion that old folks should have a say in where they live  —  will require a first-floor master suite and technology that allows over-scheduled adult children to spy on their feeble parents from afar.

These experiences have led me to ask: Where have I been? When did downsizing become as expensive as upsizing? For many older homeowners in Massachusetts today, there’s no place like the home they’re already in  —  as in no place to go. This is especially true for those who live in cities and towns 25 miles or more from Boston, where home prices have yet to climb back to the heights they reached before the economy plunged in 2008. In Plymouth, the median sale price of a single-family home at the end of 2017 was about 4 percent below its pre-recession peak in 2005. Towns such as Hyannis and Southbridge sat deeper in the hole  —  still more than 15 percent down. Compare that with Cambridge, where the median sale price rose by 96 percent between 2005 and 2017. In parts of Boston, prices have outright doubled since 2005. Never has home-value disparity in Eastern Massachusetts been so extreme.

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Even couples with considerable resources can blanch at what it costs to move into the city. With their youngest child about to head to college, Wellesley residents Andrew and Marian Wrobel began contemplating selling their five-bedroom home last year. In retrospect, it almost sounds naive, but the Wrobels thought that for $800,000 to $1 million, they could find a three-bedroom condo in Charlestown or the Seaport District big enough for their two children to comfortably stay overnight on visits, and in walking distance of restaurants, shops, and public transportation. After a few months of repeated trips into the city to scope out the possibilities, reality prevailed. “There just isn’t much for sale at that price,” says Andrew, who is 55. “And what there is is very small.” In January they bought a four-bedroom, four-bath condo on the second and third floors of a 100-year-old house in Watertown, a much shorter commute for Marian, who works in Cambridge. “We added quality of life while putting money in our pocket, and downsizing some,” Andrew says.

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There is little appeal to swapping out a comfortable suburban house for a 350-square-foot condo in Boston whose biggest selling point is its proximity to a T stop. There is no appeal to taking out a new mortgage at age 54 or older instead of feeding a 401(k). “Empty nesters are losing out,” says Marie Presti, president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors and owner of The Presti Group in Newton. “They should be downsizing, but it’s not saving enough money for them to make the move.”

Instead, many are hunkering down in three- and four-bedroom houses, hoping for the best further along the road of life. A Realtor.com survey last summer found that 85 percent of homeowners nationwide over age 55 didn’t plan to sell during the following 12 months. That accounted for 33 million properties, most of which will likely remain off the market for the next 12 months, too.

“People are staying in their homes longer,” confirms Nela Richardson, chief economist at the real estate firm Redfin. “And not just boomers, but Gen Xers, as well.” A decade ago, Richardson tells me, people swapped homes an average of every 4.5 years. Today, that figure is closing in on 10. According to a 2017 National Association of Realtors report, repeat buyers expect to remain in their homes for a median of 15 years, up from nine in 2006.

Jerry Shusterman and Carol Salo bought their house in Natick in 1979 for $60,000.
Jerry Shusterman
Jerry Shusterman and Carol Salo bought their house in Natick in 1979 for $60,000.

Jerry Shusterman and his wife, Carol Salo, both 72, have been in their Natick home a lot longer than that  —  since 1979. The Cape-style house cost them $60,000. He figures it might sell for as much as $490,000 with some sprucing up and a freshly paved driveway. The couple planned on downsizing to a condo in their hometown. “We love Natick,” he says. “Everything in the world I need is here.” Then they started looking. “It’s been really discouraging,” he says softly. A real estate friend told him, “There’s nothing in Natick within the price range you want.” Now Shusterman worries about growing older in a house that he can’t take care of the way he used to, and has stairs that are getting harder to traverse.

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Shusterman and Salo are far from the only members of the middle class finding that condos, long the go-to option for downsizers, are now out of reach. Instead, Presti says, developers pad their profit margins by loading generic glass-walled units with marked-up amenities like $60,000 kitchens, and selling them to well paid “ultraprofessionals” who are less cost-conscious.

When boomers and other older homeowners can’t move down, younger buyers can’t move up.

In April only about 11,200 single-family homes were up for grabs in Massachusetts, down more than 25 percent compared with the same time in 2017. The number of available condos  —  about 3,500  —  was off by 20 percent year over year.

It’s no wonder that when an affordable and habitable home gets listed for sale, prospective buyers swarm like zombies in a feeding frenzy of overbidding. It’s an unforgiving competition that’s made sight-unseen offers the norm in some neighborhoods. Last year 35 percent of prospective buyers nationally put an offer on a home without first setting foot in it, Redfin says, up from 19 percent in June 2016. I can’t imagine. When I bought my house, in the 1990s, the search was closer to a stroll than a sprint. Zillow and Trulia didn’t exist. The MLS book  —  with grainy pictures that could make a palace resemble the Texas Chainsaw Massacre homestead  —  ruled.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I took to Facebook for a discussion about middle-aged homeowners who might feel “trapped” in their houses  —  people who, unlike my wife and I, actually need to shed the responsibilities and expenses of a property that’s one or two sizes too large.

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“First World problem,” someone quickly posted. Yes, but not everyone in the First World lives on Easy Street. Some boomers remain in recovery from the economic collapse, both psychologically and financially. “They rode the wave of the Great Recession,” Richardson says. “They felt all the pain of losing home equity and may still be trying to become even on their mortgage.” It’s true  —  plenty of boomers and seniors are paying off home loans. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College in May reported that homeowners older than 60 were three times as likely to be stuck with mortgage debt in 2015 than they were in 1980. Then there are the real estate poor, people who own a home outright, but are getting crushed by the weight of rising property taxes, utility bills, and homeowners insurance. For them, a single major expense, such as a roof replacement or busted heating system, can be devastating. “If I downsized,” one friend tells me, “I’d be in a paper bag on the side of the road.”

This is not what we boomers expected. “[My parents] were able to buy a condo for a quarter of the price of their house and they were able to live on the rest of the money for the rest of their lives,” says Kate Linden, 60, who owns a house in Plymouth with her husband.

One solution to the problem would be to build more apartments and condos clustered around downtowns and, ideally, public transit. But in many places that will require changing zoning rules that “tightly restrict multifamily and high-density single-family construction,” says Richardson. In December, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker proposed that simple majority votes be allowed for local zoning rule changes, instead of the two-thirds approval many cities and towns now mandate. It’s part of his administration’s ambitious plan to spark construction of 135,000 homes over the next eight years. The Legislature, naturally, has yet to act on the proposal.

Meantime, aging in place  —  a phrase meant to conjure independence  —  is starting to sound like a penalty to many older homeowners. “I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel,” Linden says. “We’re just going to stay [in our house] until we can’t anymore.”

Mark Pothier is a senior assistant editor at the Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.