Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Are you a retired or nearly retired person whose life revolves around the grandkids? Do your friends joke that you've scaled back your career to become a "professional grandparent"? Yet are financial concerns now forcing you to sell the big house that's accommodated so many family gatherings?

If so, you might worry that your need to downsize could put your relationships with grandkids in jeopardy. But with thoughtful planning and flexibility, that needn't be the case, says Sue Johnson, the co-author of "Grandloving: Making Memories with Your Grandchildren."

"Children are like puppy dogs. It doesn't matter where you live. What matters most is what you give them from your heart," Johnson says.

After retiring from full-time careers, she and her husband downsized to a lower-cost area within driving distance of all seven of their grandchildren. There they selected a modest ranch-style house on a creek where the whole family can fish and sail.

"We call this house our grandchild magnet. That's because the grandkids were a huge part of why we moved here and they love to visit," Johnson says.

Originally, the couple's three-bedroom house was a one-story place with just a single bathroom. But to accommodate family gatherings, they built on a second story, adding two more bathrooms and an extra bedroom and doing much of the construction work themselves to save money. Despite the addition, the house is still a tight fit when many family members visit.

"The kids are sleeping on cots or sleeping bags on the floor. But everyone has lots of fun," says Johnson, who co-authors a blog on the art of grand-parenting (

Sue Patton Thoele, a semiretired psychotherapist and author of a number of books on family issues, says that although most grandparents would like to own a home that provides recreational attractions for their offspring, that's not always an affordable option.

"Many of us have tremendous financial concerns we didn't have before the recession," Theole says. "And when you're retired, you don't want to have a big mortgage that strangles you and makes money concerns such a huge stressor. So you've got to work within your means."

She urges grandparents to select a place that's both affordable and well suited to their lifestyle -- noting that children adapt easily to new environments.

Here are a few pointers for homebuyers seeking a property that will serve both their needs and those of the extended family:

-- Question whether you need a big yard.

Kay West, a veteran real estate agent and a past president of the Council of Residential Specialists (, spends as much time as possible with her three grandsons, ages 3, 6 and 10, who live nearby.

As West tells her home-buying clients with grandkids, they don't need a lot of outside space to keep them happy. One good substitute is to buy a home in an area with a park nearby. For example, West chose to live just three blocks from a park with a large and colorful playground set that her grandsons enjoy.

-- Find a location on a quiet street, if possible.

West advises home-buying clients with grandchildren to think of the kids' safety when considering the street on which they plan to live.

"Most families prefer a quiet street if they have a choice. Not only is that better for children and pets but it also means less noise and stress," she says.

Protecting children from road hazards is particularly important if the grandparents are providing care for young children or if the kids live with them full-time. As Johnson notes, the number of grandparents who raise children now numbers over 8 million and is increasing.

-- Seek a home with an extra bedroom or suite.

West also encourages homebuyers with large extended families to shop for a property with an extra bedroom, particularly for those with families separated by distance.

"It's much better to put your family up at your home rather than at a hotel. It's way more relaxed that way. And because no one prefers to share a bathroom, it's great to have a guest suite with its own bathroom," she says.

Even homeowners who live near their grandchildren can benefit from a bedroom the kids can call their own. For instance, West has an extra bedroom with three twin beds and a closet full of toys that her grandsons use during overnight visits.

-- Realize that living in a resort area is optional.

Some home-buying grandparents pick a neighborhood with easy access to a recreational venue, such as an ocean beach or an amusement park. Others move near cities with sightseeing opportunities. They hope such lures will prompt their offspring to visit often.

But Theole says grandparents who plan to move shouldn't select a property based on its tourist attractions. That's because most residential areas offer sufficient leisure activities to keep the kids entertained, and grandparents need to think first about their own lifestyle preferences. In addition, families can create their own fun activities around the house, including crafts and games.

-- Don't worry if you live a distance away.

As Johnson notes, many grandparents can't afford to make a long-distance move to be closer to their grandchildren -- especially if the kids live in an area with high-cost housing. Anyway, there's no guarantee your grown children might not make another move later, should their careers cause them to relocate.

But as Johnson notes, there are many ways to stay connected with grandchildren, even if you live a plane ride away and don't have the funds or good health to travel often. Through the book and blog she co-authors, she provides low-cost strategies for staying in close touch.

"There is a multitude of ways to stay connected long distance. You just have to have the right frame of mind and a big heart," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at