Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Seniors: Charting a Life Trajectory With Housing in Mind

He was an IT specialist and she a nurse-practitioner. Through their 30s to 50s, this couple lived contentedly in their brick ranch in a wooded suburb with highly rated schools. But after they hit their 60s and their kids cleared college, the pair entered a period of great indecision -- as well as marital conflict -- about where to live in their later years.

As a retiree, he dreamed of relinquishing ownership of their big place with all its obligations and proposed moving to a trendy city hamlet where they could run a cozy coffee shop. But his wife, also retired, had mixed feelings about leaving their 3,000-square-foot home, which was so filled with happy family memories -- a place perfectly decorated to her taste.

It took nearly a decade for this couple to decide whether and where to move. Ultimately, they sold their handsome rancher and found a smaller loft to their liking in a semi-suburban town where they now teach yoga classes rather than run a coffee shop.

Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and analyst, doesn’t know the couple in this true story. But he’s not surprised that as retirees, they went through such an agonizing ordeal before charting their final housing path.

“A lot of Americans have so much of their identity tied up in their house -- and letting go is all the harder the older you get. Downsizing has plenty of benefits. But waiting too many years makes it very difficult,” Nash says.

Of course, many retirees -- including those who rely heavily on Social Security checks that currently average less than $1,500 monthly -- have limited housing options. Many in this category must either remain in a modest house they own free and clear or sell and move to an inexpensive rental unit. Still others who face significant health issues must move to assisted living.

But couples like the retired nurse and her husband, who are healthy and have ample retirement savings -- as well as substantial home equity -- have many housing choices open to them.

“Ironically, seniors who are financially secure often have so many real estate opportunities they can suffer from over-choice. This can cause great discomfort and discord in their personal lives,” says Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home.”

After weighing the pros and cons of scaling back their housing, an increasing number of people are now interested in smaller living, says Lauri Ward, author of “Downsizing Your Home With Style.”

“More people now want to live a calmer, simpler life. In a smaller place, you not only cut expenses but you reduce your carbon footprint. It’s like going from a big luxury car to a Prius,” Ward says.

Here are a few pointers for seniors debating between downsizing and aging in place:

-- Actualize your alternatives through in-person visits. A major factor in your decision on whether to sell your big house and downsize comes down to your comfort level with a smaller property. You can ruminate endlessly about your options, but there’s no substitute for onsite visits.

“Get out of that armchair and go see the smaller properties. Once inside, you’ll have an easier time imagining if you’d be comfortable with a more condensed lifestyle or whether you absolutely can’t part with your current house,” Nash says.

-- Make sure you and your partner are in agreement. “If you’re making a big housing move, there’s always a relationship dynamic for couples. You can’t ignore this reality,” Nash says. “You never want to pressure the other person into selling if they’re not really on board with the plan. That could backfire when resentment builds later,” he says.

-- Consider a few sessions with a life coach. Obviously, there are many financial implications to a major real estate move. And that’s all the more so now, given that homes continue to gain value in many neighborhoods.

“In any market, it can take quite a while to reverse a real estate mistake. So you don’t want to make a mistake in the first place,” Nash says.

Some people consult a financial planner or accountant before deciding to sell a long-held home. That’s fine, says Nash, but he adds, “A good life coach will help you think through the meaning of your real estate decisions for your life as a whole -- not just your financial life.”

In choosing a life coach, he recommends that seniors select someone who has reached their age or is older.

“If you’re 60, someone who’s 40 isn’t going to grasp your situation,” he says.

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