12 Questions Seniors Should Ask Themselves When Downsizing
From finding the right community to deciding how much space you need, these are important factors to consider.
Sue Staas at her new Hershey's Mill townhouse. Photo by Jim Graham.
Sue Staas knew that she’d have to leave her beloved home near Phoenixville at some point—it was just a question of when. “I think the last snow did it,” says Staas, who recently relocated to a Hershey's Mill townhouse that could better accommodate her husband, Phil, who has Parkinson’s disease.
Steve Elliott wanted to have the cultural attractions of the big city. So when he decided it was time to sell his heavily wooded property in Southern Chester County, he moved to a townhouse within walking distance to the Wayne train station. “I can be in downtown Philadelphia in just a few minutes,” he says.
Philip Pyle was coming off successful surgery to remove a brain tumor when he and his wife, Paulette, decided to downsize. They wanted on-site medical care and rehabilitation services—just in case. That led them to the Jenner’s Pond retirement community in Jennersville.
And then there’s the Liskas. “About two years ago and five years from retirement, we got serious about looking for a smaller property,” says Jay Liska, a pharmaceuticals executive who was then living in a 5,000-square-foot home in Unionville with his wife, Karen. After a few “boomerangs,” their three grown children had finally moved elsewhere. “More than Karen, I like my space,” Jay says. “We briefly considered in-town living and even discussed a senior community. Neither of these options appealed to me, so we spent the last few years keeping our eyes and ears open for a smaller house with character.”
Last fall, they found one just a couple of miles from their home—about half the size and on three acres, with lots of privacy. They moved into their new 2,500-square-foot residence a few months ago.
For many of our parents, downsizing was never an option. Now, it seems to be on everyone’s mind, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors of the housing market. If you’re in your 50s, you’ve most likely had discussions about where and when. According to 55Places.com, there are 91 active adult communities in the Pennsylvania arc that surrounds greater Philadelphia, all of them almost totally devoted to downsized housing. Options range from neighborhoods for residents 55 and older to retirement communities that offer continuous care. Many have a mix of single-family dwellings and shared units, including townhouses, apartments and condominiums. Generally, there are strict limits on age and the number of adults per residence, and most have crews to care for the grounds.
By definition, downsizing means you’ll be moving into a smaller place—and almost everyone wants to live on a single floor when health issues demand it. But where do you go from there? Here are a number of factors to weigh.
Who do you love being with?
It’s not unusual for retired parents to buy a place closer to their children and grandkids. But many couples prefer to stay close to lifelong friends, buying a house or condo with an extra bedroom for family visits.
Are you in the right climate?
For some, year-round warmth trumps everything else—and often they lure like-minded pals to southern states like Florida, where it’s common to see large clusters of friends in a single community.
How social are you?
Typically, the more residents a community has, the more organized activities and facilities there are. “There are 1,700 homes in several different villages in Hershey Mill, so there’s always going to be people doing things,” says Staas.
The Pyles saw things differently. “Since we’d lived in the area all our lives, we already had lots of friends in the community,” Philip says. “We weren’t looking for clubhouse activities.”
How much privacy and solitude do you need?
For the Liskas, a smaller house was fine, but the need for more exterior space excluded a retirement community. Even within communities, though, there are privacy choices. Some people don’t want to live in attached houses, and they search out communities that have single-home options.
What do you like to do?
“Convenience is a big deal to me,” Elliott says. “I can walk to the bank, a barber, UPS, the post office, the library, a liquor store and a dozen restaurants.”
Staas was looking for a community garden and a place for her bird feeders. “One village here only lets you feed birds in the winter, so we didn’t bother to look there,” she says.
How’s your health?
Having a nearby medical center with an array of specialists is a security blanket many downsizers want. The Pyles had lived in a standard 55-plus community before health became an issue. Now, in addition to medical options in their community, a regional hospital is minutes away.
Is this your last move?
Downsizing once is hard enough. For many, a continuous-care community allows for an easy transition from independent to assisted living and eventually to nursing-home facilities. Some communities even oversee the resale of their properties.
What kind of floor plan are you looking for?
Most homes in retirement villages also have open floor plans. Downsizers often want basements (for storage or studios), a two-car garage with room for tools, a deck or a patio for outside living, and an upstairs bedroom for guests. “Most homes in new communities emphasize universal design—wider hallways (for wheelchairs), better lighting, fewer transition areas, lots of storage, higher vanities,” says Greenville, Del.-based Rita Wilkins, who bills herself as “The Downsizing Designer.”
How do you separate your treasures from the junk?
Wilkins suggests an “ABC list”—A for “must keep,” B for “would like to keep if it fits,” and C for “we haven’t used this in years.”
What do the kids think?
Deep down, most grown children know that having their parents live in a smaller house with a safer floor plan and fewer upkeep demands means less worry for them. “Rationally, they understood the decision and support it. But emotionally, it was difficult for them when we sold the home they grew up in,” says Liska. “My parents refused to leave our home when they got older. Of course, they also had four sons who rotated home coverage on a four-to-six-week cycle for many years.”
How much home can you afford?
Unless you have a McMansion on a huge lot, it may be a shock to discover that smaller new homes aren’t necessarily less expensive to purchase or maintain—especially once you factor in fees, utilities and, possibly, higher taxes.
One final thought:
Don’t be surprised if your grown kids don’t want your furniture and accessories or don’t want to invest the time and money to have them moved. After all, downsizing done correctly is supposed to make life easier for everyone.