After a long foreign-service career and early retirement, a couple in their late 50s decided to leave their sprawling 5,000-square-foot suburban home for a 3,500-square-foot place in a resort town an hour's drive away.
The couple envisioned the resort house, with its five bedrooms, as a mecca for their grown children and many grandkids. And indeed the offspring piled in -- all too often for the couple's taste. Exhausted by all the entertaining, five years later they moved again, this time to a 2,000-square-foot apartment with just one guest room.
As this true story illustrates, downsizing is a reality for many people in the second half of life. And a surprising number of retirees go through the process more than once, says Dorian Mintzer, a psychotherapist and author of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle."
"Energy and priorities shift in retirement for a lot of people. Although many want to age in place in a big family house, others find it's more than they can handle in this phase of life," she says.
Mintzer says her downsizing clients include many older people with health issues that limit their housing options. Although they don't yet need assisted living, they hanker for a simpler life in a low-upkeep place free of stairs.
"Some people move because they have current or anticipated health problems," says Mintzer, whose retirement coaching practice is called Revolutionize Retirement (www.revolutionizeretirement.com).
Other retirees find it necessary to liquidate a big house to help underwrite living expenses.
"Given the high cost of college tuition for their kids and other factors, many boomers simply haven't been able to save enough for retirement. They have no choice but to cut living costs by moving to a smaller place," Mintzer says.
Although many seniors downsize out of necessity, others do so by choice. These are people with long-postponed passions they wish to fulfill. By simplifying on the home front, they hope to increase their time and energy for higher goals.
"Many older people want to streamline their lives before it's too late. And keeping up a big house doesn't make it on their bucket list," says Natalie Conrad, a professional organizer who specializes in downsizing.
Conrad, who heads a small firm called Organized Habits, has authored a workbook to help those who must purge accumulations and move to a smaller property. It's called "Organize to Downsize" and is available through her website (www.organizedhabits.com).
Regardless of the reason you're moving to a smaller place, the entire process can seem daunting. Here are a few tips to help keep it under control:
-- Focus more on features you want in a home than those you wish to leave behind.
As they contemplate an idyllic retirement setting, many people think primarily about the annoyances of living in their current property. For example, they may be running from the demands of a large yard or seeking to exit an area plagued with noisy traffic. But Conrad urges downsizers to concentrate more on features they're seeking than those they wish to avoid.
"Don't just think of retirement as retreat. Make sure you're much more proactive than that," she says.
-- Think twice before choosing an area with a strong homeowners' association.
Longtime life coach Lin Schreiber and her husband, a software specialist, thought they wanted to live in a new custom-home community surrounding a manmade lake. They bought their "dream house" there and assumed they'd stay for the rest of their lives.
But after just three years, they were so rattled by the rigid rules imposed by the strong neighborhood association that they sold the property and moved elsewhere.
Looking back on their experience, the couple wishes they'd investigated further before buying into the lakeside community, where Schreiber says neighborhood leaders proved bothersome and intrusive.
"Residents there were always arguing over minor matters related to the appearance and running of the community," she remembers.
Though she acknowledges that some people appreciate a strict neighborhood association, which can help protect property values, she says others find life in such a community too constricting.
-- Don't allow your children to make key housing choices for you.
Lots of retirees have grown offspring whom they both like and admire. But downsizers vary greatly in terms of the role they'd like their children to play in the next phase of their life.
"Some empty nesters feel a void in their lives and hope to see their children more often," she says.
Even so, Conrad cautions downsizers against giving their kids too much influence in the selection of retirement housing.
"Though their intentions are good, sometimes kids don't realize their parents' interests have changed since retiring. They only remember what their parents were like during their growing up years," she says.
-- Give yourself ample lead time before you have to move.
It's unusual for homeowners who've lived in a property for several decades to reach retirement without amassing a vast collection of material items, says Conrad, who conducts de-cluttering webinars and workshops for downsizers.
The issue is that to successfully sell a property and squeeze into a smaller space, nearly all downsizers must sift through possessions and make countless decisions on which to keep and which to let go.
"The real crux of the matter is mindset. Before you even put one thing in a box, you must be confident you know where you're going. At that point you shouldn't still be second guessing yourself on where to move," she says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at email@example.com.)