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Downsizing: Making do with less

Downsizing to a smaller house isn't only for empty nesters and retirees. With the credit crunch and job losses, many homeowners must make do with less space than they desire. For those relocating to areas of the country with pricey real estate markets, downsizing might not be just a "choice" -- it may be the only option.

The disadvantages of downsizing are obvious: To get everything to fit, you may have to get rid a lot of furniture. Family members may feel crowded and squeezed.

Despite the problems, moving to a smaller space does have advantages. If you spend less on your new home than your old one, that's cash in the bank and likely a more manageable mortgage payment. A smaller space may bring your family together for more fun activities as you find that you're sharing more time together in fewer rooms.

Donna Busch, a nurse in Lake Orion, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, found her family "repurposing rooms" in an effort to make their possessions fit in a three-bedroom ranch after downsizing from a spacious four-bedroom house in Erie, Pa. "We had to get rid of a lot of stuff," she says. "Even then, we ended up using our garage for storage and not parking the cars there. We used the dining room as home-office space and ate in the kitchen."

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Condos vs. small houses
When considering the advantages and disadvantages of a condo, town house or other type of attached unit versus a freestanding house, think about your tolerance level for noise and neighbors in proximity. If you're skittish about being close to other people but still want an attached unit, look at units on the top floor of a building and at the corner or end of a building.

While condo living frees you from time-consuming chores and large maintenance projects, you're still on the hook for your share of those expenses through a condo fee. "Condo fees include exterior maintenance on common areas, water, insurance on everything except personal possessions and amenities such as clubhouses and pools," says Dick Gaylord, 2008 president of the National Association of Realtors and broker with ReMax Real Estate Specialists in Long Beach, Calif.

Although that fee may seem initially manageable when you're looking to move, fees can rise sharply and you have little or no control over those increases. In a house, you have more control over when you make repairs and are freer from the noise and comings and goings of your neighbors.

And even though you still have to deal with yard work, a much smaller yard can mean that the time spent outside is greatly reduced. If you landscape carefully, you can eliminate flowers and plants that are beautiful to look at but require lots of time and care, such as roses.

Jo Ann Judy, a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio, moved with her husband into a condo when her children were grown. "Although we loved our house, it just consumed too much of our time to maintain it, especially the yard, which was enormous, so we moved into a condo," she says. However, after a number of years, they grew tired of living so close to so many people. So they moved again, this time into a smaller house.

Costs such as the mortgage payment and electric and gas bills will fall if you relocate to a smaller house in the same or a less expensive area. "Our mortgage payment fell by more than a $1,000 a month," says Busch. "Utilities were less too, but it was the lower mortgage payment that made a big difference."

Organizing your new space
When downsizing, it's important to avoid cluttering up your new home with too much stuff. So, as soon as you've made a final decision on where you're going, carefully measure every room in your new home.

Go beyond the basics, recommends Joanna Brandt, former owner of Your Next Move: Organizing Services (and current yoga teacher and yoga therapist in the Baltimore area). In your measurements, include anything that protrudes, such as radiators and windows. You don't want to inadvertently place your bookcase in front of a window and then have to shuffle around all your furniture on moving day.

Once you have the precise measurements in hand, invest in a cheap computer program, such as Total 3D Home & Landscape Design Suite, or a pad of graph paper and a bunch of pencils. Carefully plot out which pieces of furniture will go in each room.

Brandt cautions against being overly optimistic about what will fit in a room -- if your floor plan shows that only a sofa and two chairs will fit in a room, let it go at that. "Leave at least 2 feet of space around each piece of furniture," she says. "Seniors should leave more space because they may need a wheelchair or walker one day."

What to toss
Big items such as furniture aren't the only culprits when it comes to clutter. The rule of thumb is if you haven't used something in a year, pitch it. And while big items take up a lot of room, odds and ends also add up, hogging space.

Brandt notes that many people have a hard time parting with collections such as books, figurines, records/DVDs or other objects. Paperwork is high on the toss list. "It's amazing what people save," she says. "I know one person who saved her mother's bank receipts and other papers from 50 years ago." Consult your tax adviser to see which tax returns and records you must keep and get rid of everything else.

Many empty nesters continue to store their kids' stuff for years after they have moved out. Brandt recommends calling your kids, giving them a date by which they have to get their stuff out and tossing everything by that date except a few precious items.

Don't succumb to the temptation of leasing a storage unit for stuff that won't fit in your new home, Brandt warns, unless you plan on moving again to a bigger house in the near future. "Cut the cord, and just get rid of it," she says.

How to get of rid of it
Judy and her husband held a garage sale to get rid of their extra things. "We had way too much stuff in our house, so we had a garage sale and sold a lot of things that we knew we wouldn't have room for," she says. "Also, since both of our kids were just furnishing apartments of their own, much of the furniture stayed in the family."

Because they moved quickly, Busch didn't have time to have a garage sale, so she asked friends to take some things that she didn't have room for and donated other items to charity. In some areas, Goodwill and the Salvation Army will come and pick up donated items, but in other areas you have to get the items to their location.

Think outside the traditional charity outlets. Many families are in desperate need of furniture and household items in just about any condition. Check with the Red Cross, churches and other local agencies for tips.

If you have a lot of nice furniture and larger items that have value, consider holding a home auction. In many large cities you can hire a service that will catalog your furniture and other stuff, help you value it appropriately and conduct the auction on your behalf for a flat fee or percentage of the profits.

Check with your garbage company. Some companies allow you to put out items to be picked up with your regular garbage. Some cities have special cleanup dates when residents can place large items on the curb for pickup. As a last resort, you could just put furniture out on the curb in the hope that someone will pick it up.

Making do with less
Once you move into your home, how do you adjust to having less space? Brandt suggests using items for more than one purpose. For example, you can use a trunk as a coffee table, placing items such as extra sheets, towels or blankets in it to save room in your closets.

If you had a large family but now are feeding only yourself and your spouse, you can eliminate or cut down on extra serving dishes, pots and pans and even whole sets of dishes, especially if you won't be entertaining much.

Busch emphasizes the idea of using rooms for more than one purpose. You may be able to squeeze a small computer desk into the corner of a bedroom or the dining room. Instead of a freestanding washer and dryer, consider a stackable unit that will take up less space.

The hardest part of having less space is having family members on top of each other all the time. At the time of their move into a smaller house, Busch and her husband had a teenager and a baby.

"It was tough to get used to having so much less space, but we did it," she says. "You can do it if you have a family that gets along well."

-- Updated: July 24, 2008

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