Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Easing the Pain of a Sudden Move

Sometimes people need to make a sudden change in their housing plans.

Take the true story of a couple in their early 60s, two elementary school teachers with grown children who'd planned to stay in their sprawling cedar-sided contemporary house indefinitely. Because they'd intended to remain in their high-end neighborhood through their retirement years, they'd spent most of their retirement funds to pay for a pricey addition that included a first-floor master suite.

But they got a wake-up call after their first session with a financial planner. To save for retirement, he strongly recommended they sell their expensive house and move to a modest place with smaller mortgage payments. The couple concurred, deciding to act immediately.

While many are reluctant to trade down, it can help you streamline your material life because you'll have to purge yourself of clutter to fit into a smaller place. And liberation from excess possessions brings a surprising sense of clarity for many people.

In a smaller home, you have fewer upkeep demands, including less yard work and housecleaning. And most importantly, freedom from high monthly mortgage payments can relieve a lot of stress.

Of course, as Ashley Richardson, a longtime real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (crs.com) notes, there are also drawbacks to an involuntary home sale. You may need to leave a neighborhood where you've known people for years. Also, those who must sell for financial reasons often lack funds for the kinds of pre-sale fix-ups that would yield them the best possible price.

But no matter the hardships of having to sell suddenly, you'll fare better if you take a proactive approach. Here are a few pointers:

-- Don't let regrets stall your forward movement.

Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of "A Survival Guide for Selling a Home" says many people with mortgage problems delay making the tough decision to sell their home, hoping a miracle will let them keep the place. But it's a bad idea.

"Time is definitely not in your favor," Davis says.

Perhaps the value of your home has slipped below the outstanding balance on your mortgage. This means you'll have to write a check at closing to complete a sales transaction, a step that could be worth taking as opposed to letting your lender foreclose.

"Most people who walk away from their home and let their property go into foreclosure find that their credit is ruined. That usually means they'll be barred for several years from purchasing another property, even a much smaller one," Davis says.

-- Visit communities where you could live after the sale.

One way to keep a positive outlook through an involuntary home sale is to begin investigating alternative neighborhoods where you might live, with the purpose of selecting the best option your pocketbook will realistically allow.

The main advantage of previewing communities early is that you'll have a tangible vision of where you're headed.

Even though Davis advocates that sudden movers start shopping for a new community as soon as possible, Davis urges them to resist the temptation to tour specific properties until a sale contract in hand.

"Why fall in love with that little vine-covered cottage before you're really free to buy it?" he says.

Yet by choosing your target neighborhood early in the process, you'll be prepped to immediately begin visiting specific homes in the new area as soon as the time is right.

-- Get to know residents in the community where you plan to live.

Even before you sell your current house, you can begin meeting people in your target neighborhood. As Davis says, developing a few fledgling friendships should help ease the emotional pain of your transition.

"It shouldn't be hard to get acquainted in the new area," Davis says. "One approach to making new friends is to volunteer for work with a local community group. Or you could attend services at a nearby church or synagogue."

-- Celebrate memories of a home where you've lived happily for years.

Davis says one good way to hang onto happy memories of your place is to stage a "farewell party" involving family and friends. Then during the party, take photos in your favorite settings.

Looking back at these photos should help you realize that those who truly care about you won't abandon you just because you must move to a less prestigious area.

"People forced to leave their mini-mansion for cheaper quarters should remember their core values and the people who matter most to them," Davis says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)