Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Downsizing and Dream Homes in Retirement

No, after selling their suburban manse, Grandma and Grandpa won’t necessarily wish to live in a compact apartment in a retirement community, where they’ll spend their days playing bridge and pickle ball.

Many boomers are sitting on enough home equity from homes they’ve owned for many years to give them a range of housing options, says Ken Dychtwald, an expert on aging trends.

Dychtwald, co-author of “Age Wave” and several other books on seniors, says boomers are "comfortable with change and moving. And they’re determined to make their own choices.”

Stan Hinden, author of “How to Retire Happy,” has two words of advice for those on the cusp of retirement: Plan ahead.

“Where you live is very definitely a key component to a good retirement,” says Hinden, a retired Washington Post financial reporter.

Are you planning to move after retiring? If so, these few pointers could prove useful:

-- Balance the preferences of both you and your partner.

If you’re retiring on a limited fixed income, you may have no choice but to downsize to a smaller, less expensive home. But if you’ve accumulated more substantial retirement funds, you and your spouse likely have more housing options. And that means you may need to reconcile differences of opinion.

Rosemary McMonigal, a residential architect who’s advised clients for more than two decades, recommends that couples with differing views create priority lists and acknowledge the validity of each other’s preferences.

Though most retiring couples favor a smaller property, McMonigal says it’s not unusual for one member of a pair to prefer a larger habitat.

If you and your spouse disagree on how large a home to buy, McMonigal suggests you let go of preconceptions and find a way to accommodate both your needs.

-- Avoid buying a place with superfluous rooms.

McMonigal is an advocate of the “not so big home” philosophy espoused by widely quoted architect and author Sarah Susanka, who contends that homeowners are happier when they live in a place no larger than what they actually use.

Beginning around the 1980s, McMonigal says buyers “pushed for bigger spaces, the roomier the better.” But she believes it’s wise for buyers to target a property that meets their realistic wants and needs.

For instance, she says buyers should question the commonly held notion that a home should have multiple dining areas, including a formal dining room, an in-kitchen eating area and an informal dining room off the kitchen.

“Are you really going to use all those dining areas? Most people never do,” she says.

McMonigal also suggests you challenge the common assumption that you’ll need a dedicated media room and a huge master suite complete with an adjoining sitting room and a spacious master bathroom.

“Most people don’t have the time or inclination to use a sitting room for conversation or reading. Realistically, one large armchair in the master bedroom is enough. And media rooms usually go unused,” she says.

-- Seek out a place with intimate rooms if you buy a supersized house.

Would you prefer to downsize, but have agreed with your spouse to purchase a large property?

In that case, Ashley Richardson, a longtime real estate agent affiliated with the Council of Residential Specialists (, recommends you seek a home that seems intimate despite its large size.

“You don’t want to feel you’re rattling around in an oversized place that seems lonely, especially when you’re there by yourself,” Richardson says.

To find a large home where you’ll feel comfortable, she recommends you avoid a property with a two-story atrium or ceilings that soar 10 feet or higher. Likewise, avoid a home with an oversized formal living room you’re unlikely to use often.

“The coziest arrangement is to have your big family room right off the kitchen, because people spend most of their time in the kitchen area,” Richardson says.

-- Don’t assume that a place you buy upon retirement will be your last home.

Many people assume that when they buy a home for retirement they’ll live there indefinitely. But Dychtwald says it’s common for buyers in their 60s to live in two or three more places during their retirement years.

Dychtwald says those who want to buy a big home upon retirement often reverse course after they’ve gotten the “dream home phase” out of their systems.

He says someone who early in retirement would like to downsize but accedes to a spouse who wants a big property can take comfort in the expectation that sooner or later the other person will probably also want a small home.

“Sometimes you have to compromise. But that’s not so bad when your next move won’t necessarily become permanent,” Dychtwald says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at