Dreaming of that little seaside cottage where you’ll spend your days painting watercolors? Or maybe you see yourself studying the mountains from your porch rocker. Or perhaps you imagine yourself in one of those all-the-rage tiny houses, artfully managing in 300 square feet or less. If any of these scenarios seem to be yours, odds are you’re considering downsizing.
You're not alone. Every year millions of people, particularly empty-nesters and retirees, downsize to one degree or another, either planning to stay where they are and make room for things like health-care equipment or more people, or moving to a smaller space that affords greater convenience, less maintenance, greater financial freedom or a simpler way of life. It’s a growing trend as baby boomers in large numbers reach retirement age.
“I ask people, ‘How do you see your days? What will you be doing?’ when people begin to think about where they want to live,” says Ann Bass, owner of A Lighter Move, an Asheville, N.C., company that specializes in helping older adults downsize.
"I work with a lot of people who downsize, most of them in their 50s and 60s who live in a big house, but who dream of living at the beach,” says Realtor Teresa Turner, broker associate with the Premier Property Group in Seacrest Beach, Fla. “But the dream of living at the beach and making it a reality is not always easy.”
There are the obvious issues around leaving your current home and finding a smaller space you can afford in a neighborhood that suits your particular needs and tastes. Buy or rent? Do you like to golf? Need a neighborhood with walking trails and tennis courts? Do you want a clubhouse where you can make new friends? Is there a branch of your church nearby? Opportunities to enjoy your hobbies or volunteer work?
For some, the answer may be an assisted living or continuing care community. For others, it’s a smaller single-family home. For still others, a tiny 'lock and leave' condo fills the bill.
It’s All About the Stuff
Everyone, though, faces one major challenge: stuff. Over the years we all accumulate it, from high school letter sweaters to baby pictures to books to china and crystal. But when it comes time to downsize, a good chunk of these treasures will have to go. And that is one of the toughest parts of downsizing.
“People get very invested in their things, and finding the right time to start going through your stuff is the million-dollar question,” Bass says. “The optimal time to downsize is early. Deal with it now, even three or four years before you plan to actually move, and don’t keep postponing it. Some people laugh and say ‘My kids can deal with it,’ but most of us don’t really want that.”
Downsizing experts agree the best way to start is to start small, and go slowly. Don’t try to go through your entire house all at once.
“We started with the low-hanging fruit,” says Sandra Roberts of Nashville, Tenn., who downsized from a 3,500-square-foot home she and her husband had lived in for 20 years to a 2,500-square-foot cluster home in 2014. “You don’t start with the things that have great sentimental value to you. You start in those storage areas where you’ve just been stuffing things for a long time, then you get more and more ruthless as you go. Eventually you arrive at a Goodwill mindset. We were taking trips to Goodwill nearly every day.”
Roberts and her husband, Parker Duncan, donated most of their unwanted household stuff and sold a few pieces of furniture on Craigslist. Finding what’s sellable can be a challenge, Bass says. And Turner recommends consulting with children and other family and friends first, although they are more than likely not going to want Grandma's dishes or your cherished silver and crystal.
“I tried to give things to my kids and they said ‘No, it doesn’t really go with our stuff,’” says Turner, who downsized three years ago when she and husband, Doug, moved from Tallahassee, Fla. “They have their own things, and more often than not your things don’t work with their things.”
Once you’ve shed your stuff and found your (smaller) dream home, you may find you’ve left not just things but a whole life behind in favor of something more exciting.
“You need to be open-minded and flexible, and you can wind up with the freedom to really be who you want to be in this next season of your life,” Turner says. “You can live a much simpler life, a life based on friendships. When you downsize, you open up a whole new way of life.”