Patricia Nowak was thrust into widowhood suddenly at the age of 47, when her husband was struck and killed crossing a street. She was overwhelmed by grief and the realization that she'd become both the sole parent and provider for her young children. But her problems multiplied when, just 18 days after the accident, her refrigerator caught fire, burning the family's house to the ground.
Tackling one issue at a time, Nowak, a public relations executive, eventually restored calm and order to her life. Because of the hardships of the experience, she later dedicated herself to helping other widows of all ages rebuild their lives. Drawing on her experience, she authored a book: "The ABC's of Widowhood."
Unlike many widows, Nowak didn't confront the thorny question of whether to sell the family home. But she says it's common for those who've lost a spouse to confront complicated real estate matters, including whether to put their property on the market.
Nowak says that anyone who loses a spouse is well advised to wait for a time before making a major move.
"If you can afford to wait, don't make any big decisions for the first six months, because you're in a fog for at least that long," Nowak says.
Nowak says the first order of business should be to organize your finances.
Though many young women now take a vital interest in money matters, she says those who become widowed at a later age often need financial counsel to make solid choices. But she advises against turning to relatives for such help, because they typically lack objectivity.
Rather, she recommends seeking advice from neutral third parties whose names you obtain through business or professional associates.
Arlen Olberding, a financial planner with the Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com) says widows who own a big family house should think carefully before deciding to sell and move to a small condo.
"Trading down to a condo can have financial benefits, including a reduction in energy costs and upkeep demands. Yet, after taking your monthly condo fees into account, you may save less than expected. And your lifestyle could be compromised," Olberding says.
Instead of buying a condo, he says widows might be better off downsizing to a small, one-level house.
Here are a few pointers for widows (and widowers) trying to formulate their housing plans:
-- Make sure your finances are in order before making any move.
Mark Nash, a real estate expert and author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," says keeping a large family home indefinitely often means serious trade-offs for those who survive a spouse.
"I recommend you consult a certified financial planner or accountant before making any major real estate decisions. They can help you crunch numbers and forecast the implications of any options you're considering," Nash says.
Prior to meeting with an adviser, Nash suggests you spend some time with your checkbook and credit card statements to see how much your house cost you during the previous 12 months. Be sure to include mortgage and utility costs, along with taxes, insurance and maintenance expenses.
-- View housing as an integral part of a holistic planning process.
Nash says many people, widows included, see their real estate choices in isolation from their larger plans and dreams. But where you live can affect your lifestyle in important ways.
Suppose, for instance, that as a newly widowed person you'd love to go back to college to audit classes or work toward an advanced degree. In that case, you might wish to move from your current home to one closer to a university. Alternatively, those who love the arts might choose to leave a suburban location for a one closer to galleries, theaters and concert halls.
To whom should you turn to help chart your lifestyle planning for the next stage of your life? Nash says that sometimes a real estate agent who's willing to listen to your story, (and won't push you to sell,) is a good bet.
"You could also discuss your plans with a therapist, counselor or life coach," he says.
-- Take into account your emotional attachment to a family home.
Some widows are less interested in recasting their lives than in strengthening their ties with family. Some are strongly attached to the home where they raised their children and want to keep a place with extra bedrooms for extended family visits.
Nash, a long-time real estate broker, says he's worked with many older women who live to regret the sale of the spacious family home.
"Their home is their pride and joy. Once it's gone, they feel like a fish out of water," he says.
-- Think through plans to move near your grown children.
As the years pass, many widows are drawn to the idea of moving to a place close to the home of one or more of their children. But, as Nowak says, you don't necessarily need to move permanently to see more of your extended family.
"Why not rent an apartment near your kids for a few months of each year? That could allow you to remain the rest of the year in a part of the country where your friends live and your favorite activities are based," she says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)