Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips for Prospective Upsizers

The economic crisis caused by COVID has sparked two major housing trends. On the one hand, those who’ve lost jobs are struggling to keep homes they own or rent. On the other, many who’ve retained well-paying jobs are loading up on luxury real estate.

Take the true story of a married couple of executive-level lawyers. Both teleworked through 2020. As a result, they cut discretionary expenses and amassed savings. Hence, they built on down payment funds to buy a historic house in Washington, D.C. In 2021, they’ll also close on a vacation place in Maine.

Low mortgage rates have empowered homebuyers at every price level. But well-heeled buyers who’ve been working remotely during the pandemic have been most advantaged, says Dorcas Helfant, the broker-owner of several Coldwell Banker realty offices.

To a drastic degree, COVID cut the costs of upwardly mobile lifestyles. With so few parties, events and fancy vacations, upper-end families are stashing away lots of cash. That and low interest rates have greatly enhanced their buying power, says Helfant, a past president of the National Association of Realtors (nar.realtor).

Of course, extremely wealthy people have never relied on low mortgage rates or budget savings to actualize their real estate purchases. But for upper-middle-class people, low rates and personal savings have made all the difference.

Jeff Hyland, the founder and head of Forbes Global Properties, which caters to the luxury home market, says the trend toward upsizing has been driven by countless Americans feeling space-constrained during the pandemic.

“There’s been very strong demand for people looking for backyards and ‘walk streets.’ This has fueled our market at the high end,” says Hyland, who predicts that strong luxury home demand will push through to the end of 2021.

Of course, not everyone has the desire or wherewithal to move larger. Young families know their lives will change dramatically after the pandemic has cleared, which could lessen their craving for more space. And older people often hanker to simplify their lives by downsizing.

Even so, many wannabe-upsizers who’ve been waiting warily on the sidelines are now eager to move forward and they figure 2021 could be an ideal time to do so -- so long as low mortgage rates hold.

“The next home shopping season will be the hottest in recent memory, and it could be the last of its kind,” says Jeff Tucker, a senior economist for Zillow, the national real estate company.

Here are a few pointers for those weighing plans to upsize:

-- Consider your housing options in a holistic way.

Making a housing change inevitably involves trade-offs, says Michael Byrd, a California real estate broker.

“Every decision on housing is a lifestyle decision. You have to figure out which house and neighborhood features are vital for you and which you could sacrifice,” says Byrd, a former president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (naeba.org).

To sketch out their priorities, Byrd recommends prospective buyers take out a legal pad and draw vertical lines to create three columns. In the first, list “must have” features; in the second, “really want to have”; and in the third, “nice to have.”

When it comes to married couples (or those living together), Byrd says it’s critically important both partners do the paper-and-pencil exercise separately and then compare the two lists.

Though financial planners can help with trade-offs, they can’t tell you which factors to weigh most heavily, says Eric Tyson, a personal finance expert and co-author of “Home Buying Kit for Dummies.” Buyers forget to take into account their other financial priorities at their own peril.

-- Factor retirement savings into your real estate plans.

Before deciding how much to spend on better housing, Tyson urges you to think through your retirement savings situation.

“You really should start saving for retirement as soon as you start earning money. This is especially important if you’re working for an employer who doesn’t offer a traditional pension plan, which is increasingly likely,” Tyson says.

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

-- Remember that ownership of a large home can be time-consuming.

Perhaps your ideal involves a much bigger property. If a financial analysis shows you can afford it, should you go ahead on that basis alone? Not without considering the time implications of owning a much larger property.

“Many people underestimate how much time it can take to own and manage a big property. This can be a huge commitment, even if you’re handy and can afford to hire help,” he says.

Tyson suggests people carefully review their personal priorities before taking on ownership of a property that will tax their time.

“Perhaps you’re comfortable with the idea of taking care of a big house. But also be sure to ask your better half what he or she thinks,” he says.

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