Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

When Less Is More: Planning a Move to Smaller Quarters

A married couple in their 30s -- two IT professionals who work from their laptops -- have just put their colonial house in a leafy Baltimore neighborhood up for sale. Their plan: to hit the road in their Airstream travel trailer, along with their little Jack Russell terrier.

"This couple wants to see all of America, Canada and Mexico. They're lucky not to be tied down to an office routine," says Ashley Richardson, the veteran real estate agent who's listed the pair's property.

For decades, retirees have unloaded excessive belongings, left big houses and moved to smaller, more carefree quarters. But in recent years, more young adults are also choosing to downsize.

"These sellers figure that life is short and they don't need a big house to be happy," says Richardson, who's affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (www.crs.com).

Of course, few downsizers make as radical a shift in lifestyle as this couple. A more typical case is Dave Bruno, a strong proponent of the voluntary simplicity movement. He and his wife -- the parents of three school-age children -- sold their 2,100-square-foot Spanish-style property and moved to a 1,300-square-foot place in the same San Diego suburb.

"A lot of us have traded true wealth for the illusion of affluence," says Bruno, author of "The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life and Regained My Soul."

Bruno pared his personal possessions down from 300 to just 100 and has kept at that level for several years. With less energy spent managing a spacious and crowded house, Bruno says he was able to sharpen his focus on higher priorities -- including his family, friends and writing. Happy with the results of his challenge, he convinced his wife and children that downsizing the family's housing would also yield significant quality-of-life improvements.

"By moving to a smaller place, we have more time to relax and enjoy family time. We're living below our means and saving for our kids' college funds," says Bruno, a professional speaker who also heads a consulting firm called Middle Makers (www.middlemakers.com).

Bruno allows that downsizing involves trade-offs. His family remained in the same neighborhood so his kids could attend the same schools, but everyone in the house has less personal space. Two of his three kids now share a bedroom. Also, the family's communal rooms -- including their kitchen -- are much more compact.

To be sure, many Americans of all ages still favor large houses and are especially likely to seek more space as their young families grow. Even so, inventory-tight neighborhoods are now beginning to witness a gradual increase in supply -- with some of the newly listed properties sold by downsizers.

Here are a few pointers for homeowners hankering to downsize:

-- Recognize that a smaller lifestyle can take many forms. Duane Elgin, who's authored several books on voluntary simplicity, estimates that perhaps 20 percent of U.S. adults are now challenging the commonly held view that a bigger house is always better. But he also allows that the dreams of downsizers are quite varied.

Your vision could be to stay in the same suburban community, though with a smaller and less financially demanding home. Alternatively, you could choose to leave suburbia and reinvent your life in an urban loft or a rustic rural cottage.

Though many view downsizing as a form of sacrifice, Elgin says it can lead to greater richness.

"We live in such a frenetic, driven society. To evaluate our lifestyles, we need to step back and get clear. We need to ask whether the pressure of payments on a big house is worth it," he says.

-- Start with small victories in your quest to live more compactly. Even before you put your current property up for sale and begin searching for the right smaller place to buy, Bruno suggests you begin a methodical process of plowing through your accumulations to contain your material life.

"Start in your bedroom closet. We all have too many clothes and this is one area where you can score an early victory against clutter," Bruno says. "As you go through your clothes, select a unique outfit for every day in a two-week period. Put your extra clothes in storage for two months and see if you even miss them."

After that, look for other satisfying victories by sifting through your "junk drawers" one at a time. Next, head to your garage for a purging.

-- Give yourself sufficient time to make the transition. Bruno cautions homeowners that the process of downsizing -- from the day you make the decision to move to the day you close on the purchase of a smaller property -- can be time-consuming.

"You need to allow yourself plenty of time to make this transition and especially to sort through all your things. It took years to accumulate all that stuff, so you're not going to clear through all of it overnight," he says.

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