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
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."
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
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
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
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