Should I Downsize My Home?

When life happens and you've got too much house, it's time to think simpler.

It seems like only yesterday you were having your first child and setting up a home for a growing family. Fast forward to today, when your youngest calls to say she's found the perfect apartment and that the chair from the family room would really fit into her new living room. Your downsizing journey has officially begun.

It's safe to say homeowners typically don't daydream about buying a smaller home. But minimal maintenance is definitely an upside to not living large. After all, the time and money you used to spend on cleaning and upkeep can now go toward fun things. That's why some people see downsizing as a step forward, not backward. If you’re thinking less space is the place, you're not alone.

HOW YOU KNOW IT'S TIME TO DOWNSIZE

Choosing less space often has to do with a desire to live simpler, whether you're retiring or just want an eco-friendly, low-maintenance lifestyle. When children grow up and move out of the family home, for example, Mom and Dad are left with an empty nest that's too big for them. Or if adult children have moved out of the area, parents may want to live closer to them and the grandchildren.

Many adults 55 and older are leaving the suburbs behind and moving into condos or lofts in downtown areas. Not only are these homes easier to maintain, but they are also in walkable neighborhoods with easy access to amenities such as culture, restaurants and nightlife.

Sometimes the choice to downsize isn't actually a choice. Some life events, such as a divorce or unemployment, are unexpected and force you to find a smaller home for financial reasons.

WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE DOWNSIZING?

THE QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

Does size matter to me?

Think about how much your identity is wrapped up in your house.

“For most of us, where we live not only fulfills our needs for shelter but also tells the world who we are. "More than any other possession, a house is used by our family, friends and neighbors as a barometer of our status and importance within the community,” says Genevieve Ferraro, who knows what it's like to move from a large home to a smaller one: her 1,800-square-foot house in Chicago is next to one twice that size and the only one in her neighborhood that hasn’t added additional rooms.

“Moving to a smaller home goes against ingrained conventional thinking that 'bigger is better,'" she says.

Meaning that your psyche may feel like 'smaller is worse.'

Will I miss some important things about a more spacious home?

Ask yourself: Will moving into smaller digs feel like a step forward, because I'm living more environmentally friendly and simplifying my life? Or will it feel like a step backward?

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, 45, blogs about her experiences after moving from a 1,100-square-foot house in Kansas City, Kansas, to a 480-square-foot home in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.

She says there are some things she misses about her larger house (it was more centrally located, for example), and she kind of wishes her small house had cathedral-style ceilings to make the rooms look a little more spacious. But she loves that it takes her only two hours to clean her entire house. “And that includes cleaning out the refrigerator,” she says.

Karen Scott, 55, echoes the sentiment, saying that moving into a smaller house can be “amazingly freeing.” She and her husband moved from a large house in southern Florida to a smaller one in Stuart, on the Treasure Coast. With her other, bigger house, says Scott, “Every weekend, I spent from four to eight hours a weekend, just doing yard work in the summer. Plus, the house was twice as large, and even though I had help, it was still a lot of responsibility. My husband doesn’t have to worry about cleaning the pool and mowing the grass, either. It’s great how much more time you have to do what you want to do. I loved puttering in my yard, and I still do, but on my terms now.”

How will other life events affect my living in a smaller home?

Consider possible scenarios you may not expect, such as adult children moving back home.

One of Scott's daughters, a 23-year-old, may move into the "downsized" home while she attends a nearby university. Scott, who co-owns a company called Asset Advisers and has a consulting business in commercial real estate, says she won’t regret downsizing if her daughter moves in, but it’s a good cautionary tale to be aware of.

After all, one grown adult who's often off at college may not be too cramped, but what about a son or daughter (or even another relative) who may need to move in for other reasons? Would you enjoy sharing one bedroom and bath with them?

As you look for a new home, make sure it fulfills your physical and emotional needs as well as your financial ones. Just because you can find a bargain doesn't mean the home is worth it. After all, if you're going to make the effort to move, you should do it right.

THE COST TO YOU

It seems simple enough: you’re going to spend less than you would for a larger house, so the only financial consideration is, do you like to have more money?

Answer: Yes.

Done. We’re moving. Easy-peasy.

Except -- not so fast. Genevieve Ferraro (whose website, The Jewel Box Home, has the tagline “celebrate living small”) points out that it’s easy to forget that fewer rooms will mean less space for all of your stuff, and it's even easier to forget that that might cost you money.

How much will it cost to replace the furniture? “When moving to a smaller home, even furniture needs to be downsized,” says Ferraro. “Large pieces overwhelm small spaces.”

So if you have furniture that’s too large for some of your rooms -- that king-sized bed may not fit comfortably in a bedroom made for a prince -- you may feel obliged to get rid of the bed and buy something else.

Ferraro points out that smaller furniture costs less than larger pieces, so that will be a relief to one’s bank account. Still, if you’re spending a lot of money to replace furniture in order to save money eventually, you may start to wonder, “Why am I making this move again?”

How much will it cost to get rid of the stuff I don't need or won't fit? If you don’t have a thorough plan for selling or giving away your things and you do it in a rush (giving valuables away to places and people you don’t truly care about), you may start to feel right away that you’re losing money.

Consider things like family heirlooms. Fewer rooms means less storage space. Karen Scott had to answer the question all downsizing homeowners need to ask: "What were we going to do with all of our antiques and treasures that we could not take? I had to make some very tough decisions, and there were some casualties. You hold onto antiques because of family connections, but really, they are burdens, and you are only a steward.”

How much will I get when I sell my current home, and will it help cover the cost of buying my new home? Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell says that when they sold their home two years ago, they weren’t able to make as much on it as they thought they would (join the club), and then their small house cost more to build that they originally anticipated, because they decided to have an additional home office separate from their other home. So instead of spending $45,000, they wound up owing their bank $70,000.

“Everything cost more than we thought it would,” says Fivecoat-Campbell, who also hadn’t planned on having to construct a water well.

But she is seeing a return on their investment in downsizing. She estimates that she and her husband save $500-$600 a month with a smaller mortgage, less property tax and tinier utility bills.

THE HOUSE FOR YOU

In this particular stage, you're moving because your current home no longer fits you, your lifestyle or your income. You're looking for something more suitable or more economical, and your search should reflect that fact.

When it comes to low maintenance and convenience, an "attached" home -- such as a townhouse, condo, loft or co-op, in which you share walls and/or common areas with your neighbors -- is a popular choice. You won't have to worry about fixing the roof or mowing the lawn. But keep in mind that these homes are managed by homeowners' associations (HOAs), which collect monthly fees for maintenance services and impose rules for the community, so research the HOA before buying in a particular building.

When it comes to home style or architecture, the lower the maintenance, the better. Stay away from Victorians, Arts and Crafts or other styles that may require extensive renovations and major upkeep. Keep it simple. Ranchers and bungalows are your best bet for low-key living.

Lastly, when shopping for a smaller home, know how small you're willing to go, and be prepared to make some adjustments. For instance, Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell notes that not every married couple or family would necessarily enjoy the intimate quarters a small house provides.

“In our house in Kansas City, we had a television in every room, and so if my husband wanted to watch something else, he’d go off into another room. But here, we have one television, so we’ve had to learn to share the remote,” she says, sounding amused. “And that’s been a good thing. I would think that even for people with kids, a smaller house would bring people closer together. I know a woman who lives in a 5,000- or 6,000-square-foot house, and when everyone lives in a separate wing of the house, I’m not sure how, as a family, you become closer.”

THE NEIGHBORHOODS AND AREAS FOR YOU

If you'd like to stay in the city you're in, look for neighborhoods or communities with detached homes, townhouses or condos. You'll typically find a higher concentration of them closer to the center of town or downtown. This is especially helpful if you work downtown and want to keep your commuting costs low.

Oftentimes these neighborhoods are also pedestrian-friendly, meaning everything you need can be found within walking distance. Also consider buying in up-and-coming neighborhoods: you might find an affordable home that could potentially increase in value once the area is fully developed.

Also research builders that specialize in smaller homes, says Genevieve Ferraro, observing that Robinshore, headquartered in Gainesville, Florida, is “jumping on this smaller home concept bandwagon” and that Maine-based Devon Woods also specializes in creating subdivisions with smaller houses.

And if you like really small homes -- tiny homes, they’re often called, the kind that make you feel like you’re living in a big closet -- there are builders who specialize in that.

And, of course, your real estate agent should know where the smaller -- and good-quality -- houses are.

Zillow Real Estate Search


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