Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Change Your House, Change Your Life

A couple in their mid-30s, parents of three boisterous boys, felt cramped in their tiny suburban house. Because they longed for more elbow room and loved animals, they dreamed of moving to a small farm outside their city.

The couple’s real estate broker, Sid Davis, found them just such a property. But the night before they were to submit an impulsive offer, they couldn’t sleep. All night, they fretted about the implications of living on a farm. As they ruminated, it occurred to them that caring for animals would seriously hinder their plans to travel with the kids, and they backed off.

Davis, the author of “A Survival Guide for Buying a Home,” says the couple avoided a potentially disastrous move, but that many buyers fare better when they thoroughly investigate the consequences of a major lifestyle change.

“Sit down and really look at the reality of any significant move well before you finalize your decision. One way to do this is to take a weeklong vacation and hang around the new area, to get a good feel for what it would be like to live there,” Davis says.

Of course, many people who methodically plan a major housing move turn out to be very pleased with their decision.

Take the case of Sheree Bykofsky, a writer who left a pricey Manhattan neighborhood for the Atlantic City area of New Jersey. There, after a thorough investigation into all her options, she found a brand-new apartment with large windows that overlooked the ocean and a picturesque lighthouse for much less money than her New York City place.

Here are a few pointers for those seeking a more fulfilling existence through a housing transition:

-- Examine your larger life plan before making a major housing decision.

Inevitably, making a lifestyle change involves trade-offs, says Bykofsky.

“You have to ask yourself questions, focusing on your needs and desires and figuring out which ones are strongest,” says Bykofsky, author of “Me: Five Years from Now,” a step-by-step approach to lifestyle change.

She recommends the use of visualization techniques to picture how your ideal future would look. In doing so, she says you should take into account not only your housing preferences, but also your professional and financial situation, along with health concerns.

“It’s not just about the money,” says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert who also advocates taking a holistic approach to real estate decisions.

Though financial planners can help, Tyson says many tend to overlook non-financial variables when they advise clients on housing choices.

-- Take into account your savings for retirement.

Before you upgrade your housing, Tyson urges you to review your preparations for retirement, especially if you’re nearing retirement age.

“Even though your dreams of upgrading your real estate may seem pretty modest, if you’re facing retirement in the near term you may need to postpone these dreams until you’ve saved more for retirement,” Tyson says.

To gauge how well prepared you are for retirement, he suggests you use the free planning calculators provided on the websites of such mutual funds as Vanguard and T. Rowe Price.

-- Remember that a bigger property will consume more upkeep time.

Suppose you'd like a bigger house complete with elaborate landscaping, such as a topiary garden, in the backyard. If a financial analysis shows you can afford it, should you go ahead on that basis alone?

Not without considering the implications for your time of owning a much larger property, Tyson says.

“Maintaining a really big home can be draining, both emotionally and physically,” he says.

Of course, if you relish gardening and are willing to expend much of your free time maintaining your grounds or overseeing the contractors who do the work, the purchase of a property with extensive landscape requirements may seem less of a burden.

Tyson, who co-authored “Home Buying for Dummies,” suggests people carefully review their personal priorities before taking on ownership of a property that will tax their time.

“You may want to rethink your dream if it involves a high-maintenance home that means you’ll have much less time to spend with friends and family. People can be house poor in time as well as in money,” he says.

-- Factor relative property costs into your moving decisions.

As a self-employed writer and literary agent, Bykofsky is free to live anywhere she likes. If you’re in the same position or are on the verge of retirement, you, too, could upgrade your lifestyle at a lower expense by moving to a new area.

As Tyson says, a disparity in property valuations means you might get a home you like much better at a lower price, just by changing venues.

“The truth is that property costs are intensely location specific. Someone leaving a high-cost area is often stunned by how much more house they could own for the same money in a cheaper city,” he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at