Why many older home buyers are ‘smart sizing’, not downsizing

Michele Lerner

The Washington Post – Robin and Stefanie Wohnsigl, a couple who recently moved to the Four Seasons at Kent Island active-adult community in Chester, Maryland, have been on a four-year journey to find the right place for their retirement.

“We sold our big house in Great Falls four years ago and downsized to an apartment in Reston, Virginia,” said retired Air Force colonel and airline industry executive Robin Wohnsigl. “The apartment was great, it had indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and we loved Reston, but we had downsized too much plus we wanted a backyard for our dog.”

The Wohnsigls moved from an 8,000-square-foot house to a 1,500-square-foot apartment before their recent transition to a 3,700-square-foot single-family home on Kent Island.

“Not only did we want more space and wanted to get back to owning a home, but we realised that every time we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to visit our daughter in Dover, Delaware, we felt this complete decompression,” said Robin, who is 76. His wife, who retired about 20 years ago, is 74.

For empty nesters transitioning out of their long-time houses, making the choice of a new place to buy in a 55-plus community doesn’t always mean downsizing.

“Older home buyers today are ‘smart-sizing’ rather than just downsizing,” said Mollie Carmichael, a principal with Meyers Research, a housing research firm in Costa Mesa, California. “Affordability is a big priority before and during retirement, so people think they need to downsize for financial security, but that’s not always true.”

The Four Seasons is an active-adult community in Chester, Maryland. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Robin and Stefanie watch a Nationals game in the sitting room of their new house at the Four Seasons development
Robin Wohnsigl keeps an eye on his 14-year-old Basset hound from the back patio of his new house

In active-adult communities, where typically residents must be 55 or older, the average home size is 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, Carmichael said.

“We’ve found that about 30 per cent of people who move to age-restricted communities move to a larger place within the community after they’ve lived there for a while,” Carmichael said. “They just want a little extra space and yet want to stay in the neighbourhood.”

When Kevin and Sue Hanrahan retired at age 55, they fully intended to downsize from their three-level house in Ashburn, Virginia. But like other older buyers, they found something better than downsizing: a “right-size” home.

“Our priority was not having three levels,” Sue Hanrahan said. “We would have been fine with a one-level house with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, but we ended up buying a house that also has a lower level with a third bathroom and the option for a third bedroom.”

The Hanrahans purchased their home from Shea Homes at Trilogy at Lake Frederick in Lake Frederick, Virginia, four years ago to be closer to their two adult daughters. The basement level is primarily used as a playroom for their three grandchildren.

Home buyer at the Atrium at MetroWest being built by Pulte near the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU Metro station in Virginia Rhea Jacobson downsized once already and plans to downsize a little more to move into the new active-adult community adjacent to her current home at MetroWest.

“Two years after my husband passed away, I moved from King Farm in Rockville, Maryland, to a two-level townhouse at MetroWest to be closer to my daughter and my grandkids,” Jacobson said. “My two priorities were to buy something new so I didn’t have to do maintenance and to be near Metro so I could get downtown. My friends are scattered around the area and so my social life is more downtown.”

Her first move cut her living space in half. Her next move, into an active-adult community where she plans to live in a one-level condo, will reduce her space by about 150 square feet.

Jacobson is also looking forward to the social life in the active-adult community, the yoga room and an indoor swimming pool.

Figuring out where to go and what to buy for the pre-retirement-into-retirement life phase can be complicated by finances and careers as well as lifestyle choices, said Alison Bernstein, president and founder of Suburban Jungle, a national real estate advisory service based in New York City that recently opened a “ReSizer” division aimed at people in their 50s and 60s.

“The people we work with aren’t retiring yet, but they are in a ‘now what’ phase where they can choose where they want to be based on their lifestyle rather than on their kids’ schools,” Bernstein said. “We talk to them about what they want out of their next home and provide them with free advice and then recommend our partner real estate agents to help them find a specific home.”

Some of Bernstein’s clients stay in their same region to maintain close ties to friends and family, while others are ready to move someplace where it’s easier to travel and experience new things.

“We take a personal inventory of what people hope to accomplish with their move, such as reducing their commute, eliminating home maintenance or downsizing to something less expensive so they can use their cash for something else,” Bernstein said.

That evaluation of finances as well as emotional goals is an important element for buyers and can help them decide if they need to move to a smaller or larger home.

Mark Ash, national director of design at PulteGroup, said consumer research helped it develop 13 GenYou floor plans ranging from 1,400 to 3,000 square feet.

The GenYou floor plans, available at the Del Webb Nocatee active-adult community in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and Del Webb eTown in Jacksonville, Florida, will eventually be introduced at Del Webb communities nationwide.

“These new floor plans cater to all sorts of buyers, including those who want to downsize, right-size and upsize,” Ash said. “They’re all single-family homes designed with large sliding-glass doors that link to a covered patio, which addresses the need for more living space. And these designs have the flexibility to accommodate families with aging parents or boomerang adults living with them.”

For Kari Peterson, a 62-year-old ReSizer client who now rents a townhouse in Haymarket, Virginia, the decision to move was triggered by her realisation that her consulting business allows her to live anywhere. She chose Haymarket to be closer to her children and grandchildren.

“Having family nearby means a lot to me, but I also don’t want to just follow my kids everywhere,” she said. “I like being nearby but not involved in their daily life. I want to be happy in my own life.”

Peterson, who lives about four miles from her daughter, downsized from a larger home in an active-adult community in Atlanta into her townhouse, which has two bedrooms, three bathrooms and a garage.

“I right-sized to where I am now,” she said. “I found it liberating to get rid of things like lawn equipment, a desk and a fire pit. I plan to buy in a year or so.” The right-size home depends on your family needs, budget and location.

For the Wohnsigls, the re-adjustment back to a home that’s more than double their apartment but about half the size of their original home means sorting through the belongings the couple had stored while living in Reston.

But they have plenty of time now that their lawn care will be handled by their homeowners’ association.

Then again, an active social life with their new neighbours at brunches has already kicked into high gear for the retirees.