With her children just off to college, a widow in her early 50s tackled a tough question. Should she keep the big family house with high mortgage payments that symbolized security and comfort for her kids? Or should she sell to cut expenses and pursue the dream of leaving her corporate job for interior design school?
"On the one hand, she felt wedged in by her high-paid career. But on the other, she worried her kids would be unhappy if they couldn't return to their old home for summer vacations and holidays," says Savannah Mayfield, the life coach who helped guide the widow through her decision- making process.
After several hours sifting through the pros and cons, the widow finally decided to sell, which proved the happier choice in her case.
Mark Nash, author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," tells the true story of his mother, a longtime homemaker who became single soon after all three of her children left home for college.
"It was only after she sold our family's large house and moved to a place less than half that size that she was free to explore her strong interest in bridge. Eventually, she got so good at bridge that she became a competitive bridge player who won several national tournaments," Nash says.
But while selling the family home is the best option for many women with grown kids, it's not the right choice for all. Nor is it always the best plan for empty-nest men who live alone, he says.
"Sometimes there's lots of regret about a decision to downsize from a large house to a condo. People miss the sense ... of control that comes from owning a detached house. Also, others miss the people they knew in the old neighborhood and never feel at ease in the new environment," Nash says.
Here are a few pointers for single empty nesters considering a sale:
-- First consider the money issues around your decision.
In recent years, many breadwinners have experienced a decline in income. Moreover, some still haven't recovered all of the home equity they lost when the real estate bubble burst, Nash notes.
"With so much at stake, along with the rising cost of college and retirement, single parents can't afford to put on blinders when it comes to financial matters," he says.
He encourages single parents considering a home sale to consult a trusted financial adviser or accountant before moving forward.
Prior to a session in your adviser's office, he recommends you spend time with your checkbook and credit card statements to analyze the full cost of your house per year.
When choosing a financial adviser, Mayfield encourages her clients to select a "fee-only" professional who's compensated directly by clients rather than through the sale of life insurance or other financial products.
"Because of how they're paid, fee-only planners are in a position to give you more objective and impartial advice. Ideally, they'll be free of conflicts of interest," she says.
One source of referrals to fee-only planners is through the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).
-- Consider a possible sale in the context of your holistic life plan.
Often, people see their real estate choices in isolation from the larger issues of their lives, says Michael Knight, a financial planner affiliated with the Garrett Planning Network, which is comprised solely of fee-only planners (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com). But he says all major financial decisions should be made with lifestyle values in mind.
Nash says it's sometimes a good bet to turn to an experienced real estate agent (who doesn't push you to sell) rather than to a friend or family member.
"Those closest to you probably have the best of intentions. But they aren't always the most impartial. If you don't feel comfortable confiding in a real estate person, consider engaging the services of a life coach or therapist," he says.
-- Glide into your action plan rather than hurrying ahead.
Nash, like many veterans of the real estate business, knows it can be a mistake to hurry into a home sale soon after a life-altering event, like the death of a spouse or a marital breakup. For many single parents, this is an especially traumatic period if the event occurs around the time their children are leaving home.
"When the last child leaves, some parents have such a let-down feeling that their judgment is clouded. Some even go through a temporary identity crisis," he says.
Nash recommends that single parents with the option of postponing a decision on a house sale wait at least six to 12 months after the kids move out before deciding whether to hold or sell a longtime residence.
"If you can wait, let the dust settle prior to finalizing any firm moving plans," he says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)