When smaller is better

Downsizing: That's what many homeowners elect to do when the old house is bigger than their needs.

May 27, 2001|By Adele Evans | Adele Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Her six kids were grown and gone.

She was cleaning rooms she never went into.

She was paying high energy bills to heat a basically empty home.

But deciding to downsize was still a complex, nine-month process for Laurel resident Marcia Shields.

"I remember rooms where the kids had sleepovers, or where they'd put up tents to play," Shields said. "And the kids were upset, too. They'd envisioned having their own kids back to the house where they grew up."

Though she's excited about her new Laurel townhouse, Shields still feels an emotional loss at being unable to have the gang back to the old homestead for holidays and special occasions. But she had to be realistic.

"I'd have to invest a lot of money into a home they'd be at twice a year," she said, adding as a consolation, "We can take pictures."

When do you know that it's time to go? When is it time to downsize, go from that four- or five-bedroom suburban home that you've lived in for years to a half-the-size condominium?

Everyone says the decision is one of the toughest to make and extremely personal, but there are universal clues that it may be time to start packing.

Homestead or headache? Heirlooms or clutter? Grand staircase or Mount Everest? Garden or jungle? The biggest clue that it's time to downsize may be that it's simply not fun to live there anymore.

"If they're active in the yard, their home may give them satisfaction and activity, and they may be bored if they downsize. But if the work is a pain, and they don't look forward to cleaning and all of the related things, it's time to move," said Pat Hiban, an associate broker with Re/Max Advantage Realty in Columbia.

"If you're in good health and enjoy the yard, I wouldn't go," said Dick Peebles, senior transition specialist at Re/Max American Dream in Lutherville. Those who consider upkeep and gardening to have become chores should consider leaving, he added.

Leaves and snow sparked Shield's epiphany. After months of raking and shoveling practically every weekend, caring for her single-family home definitely wasn't fun anymore.

"I wasn't enjoying it. I want to travel ... and a lot at the house needs to be redone," she said. "It's not where I want to spend my energy."

Under the "it's not fun anymore" umbrella are clues such as finding yourself in a declining neighborhood, paying for increasing upkeep or taxes on property not being fully used - or just having difficulty maneuvering through the house.

Lea and Dean Hartman's three kids had also grown up and moved out of their spacious, three-story townhouse in Idlewylde.

"We ended up having one cookout a year at the house, and we had a big yard on a hill. I got tired of taking care of it and mowing. I thought: This is ridiculous. I'm keeping up the yard for what ... one day? After 33 years of mowing, it was time," Dean said.

Lea was uncertain. It took Dean two months to persuade her. First they started looking at ranchers, but most of them needed repairs and plenty of upkeep. Then they started looking at condominiums and finally found one at Mays Chapel in Timonium that fit their needs.

"When we looked at how much space we actually lived in, we knew it was time to go," Lea said. "We were hardly in some of the rooms - only the den, bedroom and kitchen."

The Hartmans now share housework more than ever.

"The condo is easier to clean and keep up. And Dean can help me more. He's not tired from mowing the lawn," Lea said.

Dean, who recently had a knee replacement, is glad he doesn't have to climb steps. He considers his ground-floor location as added insurance in case one of them becomes seriously ill. His feelings reflect a general consensus.

Emotional losses and gains

"The first step [in the decision process] is the steps," Hiban said. "People don't like walking up and down. They get winded. It's easier to go flat."

When downsizing, feelings of "I did the right thing" don't come overnight. For some, they never come.

"Accept the fact that it really is as traumatic as it seems," said Pamela B. Mitchell, founder and president of Moving On Inc., a Towson-based firm that streamlines the downsizing process - coordinating everything from the real estate agent to antique appraisals to the new phone installation.

"I hear adult kids [of downsizing parents] say, `It'll be fine.' I jump up and say, `I don't think so!' It is very traumatic to downsize," Mitchell said. "It takes time to adjust. You will grieve for the loss, and you should recognize the pain."

"For me it was a grieving process," Lea said. "We'd been in the house 33 years. It was the only house the kids had known."

A particularly sensitive issue is what to take and what to leave. When reality hits, and the heirlooms won't fit into the new condo, it's tough.

"People are emotionally attached to some things," Mitchell said. "I see children and parents arguing over what needs to go. It's `the ratty old chair vs. Dad's special chair.' I'm on the mother's side. We can't divest ourselves of everything that has meaning."

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