Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

COVID Upending Housing Plans

Millennials and Gen-Xers aren’t the only ones the pandemic is making restless to buy a bigger home. Some baby boomers are also planning their future housing purchase with a more spacious place in mind.

Take the case of a university professor and his wife, who runs a small antique business. This Social Security-age couple raised their three kids, now grown, in a three-bedroom rancher. Before COVID-19, they’d imagined moving to a condo in their college town. But pandemic living has shifted their priorities. Now they plan to upsize to a five-bedroom house with a pool.

“COVID taught us family overtakes all else. Our new vision is for a really big place where the whole family -- including the grandkids -- can visit often and stay over for holidays and vacations,” the husband says.

Moreover, all the months of home-centered living have intensified this couple’s interest in several luxury features, like a sumptuous home theater, a fitness center, a playroom for the grandchildren and -- most importantly --two dedicated home offices.

“We’ve had it sharing the dining room table for makeshift offices. I love my wife, but I also need square footage where I can do my own thing on the internet,” the husband says.

Stacy Berman, a longtime real estate agent who specializes in luxury home sales, doesn’t know the couple in this true story. But she works with many seniors who are revamping their housing plans in pursuit of a larger home, where family is more central.

For example, she cites the case of a couple in their 60s -- a soon-to-retire neurosurgeon married to a homemaker -- who are selling their suburban Virginia house in favor of a much larger place in Tennessee to be closer to the grandchildren they haven’t seen for months due to COVID.

“Many boomers are now revising their housing plans. The isolation caused by COVID has convinced many older people that bigger is better if it brings family together,” Berman says.

Of course, there are still numerous homeowners of boomer-age -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- who can’t afford to upsize. These are empty nesters who must stay put or downsize.

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

Dychtwald, co-author of “What Retirees Want” and other books on seniors, characterizes the boomers as a generation constantly reinventing itself.

“Boomers have lived in multiple homes. They’re comfortable with change and moving. And they’re determined to make their own choices. This is natural,” he says.

Here are a few pointers for senior buyers:

-- Try to reconcile differing views between you and your partner.

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

Though many seniors favor a smaller property, McMonigal says it’s not unusual for one spouse to prefer a larger habitat.

“Americans have more square feet per person than people in any other country. So, emotionally, we’re accustomed to having a lot of private space,” she says.

-- Look for a home with intimate rooms if you want a supersized house.

Are you planning to buy a much more spacious domain? In that case, Ashley Richardson, a veteran real estate agent affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (crs.com), 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,” says Richardson, who works for the Long & Foster company.

To find a large home where you’ll feel at ease, 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’ll rarely use.

“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 the home you buy post-COVID will be your last one.

Many older people think any place they buy after retirement will be the last place they live. 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 right after retirement often reverse course after they’ve gotten the “dream home phase” out of their systems. To simplify their lives to travel or reduce upkeep demands, they may later opt for a much smaller place.

He says someone who 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 likely also want a smaller 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 ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)