Downsizing isn't easy in tough market

People who want to move into smaller houses often have to cut prices deeply

November 19, 2009|By By Jamie Smith Hopkins | The Baltimore Sun

Bob Kean really likes the Roland Park house he carefully restored. But now - as he searches for a job to replace the one he lost - five bedrooms and 4,200 square feet strike him as a luxury he can't afford.

His plan: Sell and move into a much smaller home with much smaller costs. Cheaper utility bills. Lower property taxes. Little or no mortgage.

"I'd prefer to stay exactly as I am, but that's not going to happen. And I accept that," said Kean, 60, who lost his credit management position more than a year ago after his employer was acquired. "If I find a place with about 1,500 square feet, I'm good to go."

The trouble is this: When more people are thinking small, it's not a simple matter to sell a larger house.

"The high end [of real estate] is seeing a lot of days on the market, and a lot of houses that were previously $1 million and above have taken rather large hits on their price ranges," said JoAnn Moncure, who is Kean's real estate agent. "About 20, 25 percent in some cases."

For Kean, that has meant cutting the asking price of his home by more than $200,000.

His Tudor Revival house - three stories with 4 1/2 bathrooms, two staircases and a suburban-sized yard - is a 94-year-old example of expansive real estate, from an era when Baltimore's wealthy elite hired staff to run their households. But in the days of the housing market bubble, even working stiffs were thinking big. Price wasn't the only thing that inflated: The typical new American house was 11 percent larger in 2007 than in 2000, and McMansions abounded.

Now - with jumbo-sized mortgages harder to get, one in 10 Americans unemployed and lots of people pinching pennies - the trend is reversing. The median new house built last year was 2,219 square feet, a 2.5 percent decrease from 2007 and the first year-over-year drop since 1995.

That's not to say that homeowners are jettisoning big places left and right. Twenty-two percent of sellers were trading down in the 12-month stretch that ended in June, and they were typically older Americans making "a lifestyle choice," said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. But real estate agents say they're seeing both the want-to and have-to downsizing.

"There are a lot of folks who have been in their houses for decades who need to downsize for obvious reasons - there's no kids, no spouse," said Moncure, an agent with Yerman, Witman, Gaines & Conklin Realty, which has offices around the Baltimore metro area. "And then there are the other ones who have realized maybe they've bit off more than they can chew."

As homeowners rocked by the downturn look to economize, even some living in homes of comparatively modest size are thinking of going smaller.

"Tough economic times call for desperate measures," said Rich Pugh, 35, who expects to move out of his 1,700-square-foot Federal Hill rowhouse at the end of the month so he can start renting it out. He has a renter lined up.

Pugh rehabs homes in the city and is feeling the effects of the down market. He figures he can save $950 a month by switching to a 1,200-square-foot apartment, even accounting for the fact that the rental payments on his rowhouse won't cover his mortgage. Pugh is attached to his place, with its bright colors, skylights and Jacuzzi tub, but he's philosophical about the impending change.

"I don't need a place that big when it's just me, my girlfriend and two dogs - two small dogs," he said.

Kean, the Roland Park resident, feels the same way. His kids are grown, and he thinks his house was really meant for a family. Because he doesn't have a large mortgage, he could use the proceeds from a sale to buy a smaller property outright and eliminate those monthly payments.

"When your income is so significantly diminished, any level of debt is unacceptable," he said. "Any."

Kean's place has been on the market since January. His asking price is $779,900, down from $995,000. Counting the money he put into it when he did a top-to-bottom renovation, that price would leave him with about $150,000 less than he spent.

The work he did after buying in 2006 was extensive, including updating the electrical system, refinishing floors and fixing damage caused by a collapsed ceiling. He put the washer and dryer into one of the five bedrooms to get the laundry out of the basement. He repaired windows. And he completely revamped the kitchen, which had the closed-in look of a place intended for the help rather than the owner.

"It was kind of an 'Upstairs, Downstairs' scenario," said Kean, referring to the British television series about an upper-class family and its servants.

He had expected to stay until he retired, the more common sort of downsizing. But he's not complaining. Considering how many people owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth, he knows his situation could be worse.

And even in these days of national belt-tightening, he can say with confidence that 4,200 square feet is not too large for all the buyers out there.

"What's really funny is, some people have looked at the house and said, 'It's not big enough,' " Kean said.

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