Tired of hassles, some families opt for smaller homes


October 14, 1990|By ELLEN L.JAMES

They're an affluent Columbia couple who seem to have it all: two good jobs, a couple of bright young kids and a fancy contemporary complete with spacious bedrooms, sunken family room and oversized garage in the rising subdivision of Clarey's Forest.

But there are cracks in this seemingly perfect suburban picture. The monthly mortgage payment ties up much of their discretionary income; the husband resents his relatively long commute to downtown Baltimore; and the Columbia schools are not what the couple imagined.

"It's not nirvana in the suburbs. There are problems with the public schools everywhere," says the 33-year-old man.

As a result, the couple is considering something they wouldn't have imagined doing just a few years ago. They're thinking of selling their suburban home and moving to a more modest and convenient place in the city. That would reduce the husband's commute and spare enough cash to pay the children's tuition at a private school in the city.

Like the Columbia couple, a small but gradually increasing segment of the population is opting for a voluntary downshift in their housing. Once it was primarily seniors and those in declining economic circumstances due to divorce or unemployment that downscaled. Now other younger or more prosperous people are looking to more modest housing choices.

"The house used to be No. 1. Now it's tied with a number of other things -- including the kids' education, travel and other personal priorities," says Karl Breckenridge, author of such books as Staying on Top in Real Estate, published by Dearborn Financial Press.

Part of the trend toward downscaling relates to the conservative financial mood sweeping the country. Status-seeking may have been the lifestyle quest of the 1980s, but many families in the '90s are more interested in financial security, realty experts say. They'd rather have a smaller mortgage payment than a Jacuzzi in every bathroom.

"A lot of people who bought into the house as a big, opulent statement in the Yuppie 1980s are sitting back now and asking whether that's the lifestyle they really want," says Arthur Davis III, president of Chase Fitzgerald, the Roland Park realty firm. "A little conservatism has crept back into the overall buyer mentality."

Another factor is shrinking leisure time, a painful reality for many two-career couples. A recent Harris poll found that the average American's leisure time has diminished by 37 percent since 1973, while the average workweek has jumped from 41 to 47 hours. Longer and more traffic-ridden commutes are one explanation for the trend.

People who downscale don't always move from suburb to city. Downscaling is generally not a revolt against the suburban lifestyle per se. But it's often a revolt against the demands imposed on the owner of a big home -- a property with a big yard to cut and prune and a lot of square footage to be maintained.

Hence, a person scaling down could as easily move from a large suburban home -- usually a big single-family house -- to a smaller single-family town house or condominium in the same suburb. Or he could move from a larger to a smaller house within an urban area.

Mr. Davis, for instance, went from a large house in Homeland to a much less spacious apartment in a co-op apartment nearby. His primary motivation was to spare himself the time and attention that maintaining the big house required.

"It was a colonial house with four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths. There was a constant list of items that needed attention if the place was going to be maintained. And I knew that if I didn't maintain it, the house was going to decline in value," Mr. Davis recalls.

The Roland Park realty executive says that he and his wife prefer the freedom afforded by what he calls "one-door living," noting, "when we close that door, we don't need to worry about anything -- not maintenance or security or anything."

Besides the freedom, many who choose downscaled housing like the savings. Education costs loom especially large for many homeowners of the baby boom generation. Although families are smaller, educational ex-pectations are rising and confidence in public education for elementary and secondary students is falling -- along with test scores -- in a number of neighborhoods. For some families, money for a good private school has become a higher priority than a fancy home.

Even those firmly committed to public school education for their youngsters are beginning to de-emphasize housing expenses in favor ofsaving for college costs, which are looming larger.

"I think people are planning earlier and earlier when they see the staggering amount of money it takes for college," Mr. Davis says.

To be sure, it's not all positives when it comes to a housing downshift. In many communities, it can be costly and time-consuming to liquidate property at a good price these days. And if you move from a larger to a smaller house, you could find your capital gains taxable. It's imperative to consider the financial implications of such a move, says Dorcas Helfant, first vice president of the National Association of Realtors.

The home may have faded in many Americans' minds as a status symbol, but most Americans still favor as large, expensive and comfortable a property as they can afford, says Ms. Helfant. If you're considering trading down on real estate, Ms. Helfant suggests you ask yourself serious questions about your lifestyle preferences before you act.

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