David and Barbara Schneider.

Downsizing – or, is it finally time to confront that basement?



Downsizing – or, is it finally time to confront that basement?

David and Barbara Schneider.

When her husband, David, retired from a dental career at age 70, Barbara Schneider knew it was also time to retire from the three-bedroom Marblehead house where they’d raised their family.

She also knew moving would be a monumental challenge. “We still had wedding gifts down in the basement … from 1966,” recalls Schneider with a chuckle.

The couple faced a milestone that arrives for most people eventually: downsizing from the family home. The Schneiders opted for a fourth-floor Swampscott condo in an elevator building, around the corner from their two adult children – with an airy balcony to compensate for their former backyard.

The Schneiders are happy to have home maintenance for a streamlined lifestyle. “The biggest mistake I see people make is buying a house with stairs at age 70,” says Schneider. “All you need is one fall, and you can’t get up those stairs.” That happened to friends of theirs, “and the husband kept trudging up and down to bring her this, bring her that.”

Beyond stairs, there are myriad considerations on both ends of the transaction: How to start? When? How do we get rid of all the junk? Here’s a look at the most frequently cited recommendations from those who’ve been there.

Don’t wait.

That’s the consensus of virtually everybody who’s been through downsizing. Every part of the process – sorting through possessions, touring properties, picking out furniture, making new friends – is easier for people in their 60s or 70s than it is for people in their 80s and beyond.

Younger downsizers are more likely to make the transition as a couple, which can be reassuring. “Couples should do it before one of them gets sick,” advises veteran realtor Phyllis Sagan, of Sagan Harborside. “Because at that point, one of them has the whole responsibility. It can be overwhelming.”

At Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, a full-service senior community with campuses in Peabody, Chelsea and Winthrop, spokesperson Debbie Weisberg has seen countless emergency situations where, for example, a widowed mother falls, recuperates in a temporary rehabilitation center and can no longer live alone in a multistory house.

“It happens all the time – people have two weeks or less to move. It’s not ideal, but it definitely can be done, and they’re very good at making families feel welcome and comfortable,” said Weisberg of the Chelsea team.

Still, she recommends at least researching options well before a crisis. “Most people don’t want to do anything until they have to, but then you scramble and have to make decisions immediately,” Weisberg notes. “If you have a mother or father living alone, that’s the time to start research.”

After 35 years in the senior living industry, Weisberg sees more and more 60-somethings moving into Chelsea Jewish Life. It’s an increasingly popular option, she says, for retirees who want independence now – but the peace of mind that, should more assistance be necessary, it’s available right on campus.

List your priorities; settle for your top three.

This is a favorite tip of realtors, and for good reason: you probably won’t find everything you want, especially if “everything” involves that mythic step-free, single-story home around the corner from your old life.

That’s what many people want, Sagan says. But realtors affirm that retirees’ demand for single-story ranches far outstrips supply. Condos, meanwhile, are plentiful – and today’s myriad 55+ complexes come with built-in community and amenities, from swimming pools and art classes to beauty salons and shuttles into town.

Residents at Cohen Florence Levine Estates enjoy the many activities offered at the assisted living facility.

Full-service senior communities, like Chelsea Jewish Life, offer independent living alongside assisted-living options, often with more privacy – like detached homes – than people expect.

Speaking of privacy, there’s one area where Schneider advises retirees to think big. “As you get older, you spend more time in the bathroom,” she says. “Don’t go for a one-bathroom condo. That’s a mistake.”

Consider downsizing in stages.

With longer life expectancies, aging experts now talk about the first and second phases of retirement. People in their 60s and 70s may downsize from a suburban house to an independent house or condo – indulging a dream of living full-time in a beloved vacation destination, or closer to grandchildren.

Senior communities often welcome those same people a decade or two later, when increasing day-to-day needs and reduced mobility make practical concerns paramount. Realtors see a trend of people retiring to Florida, then moving back up north to be close to adult children – especially once an elderly parent is widowed.

Paradoxically, “it can help to go in stages,” says Weisberg. “Though some don’t have the luxury.”

Weisberg’s own mother, a spry 80-something widow, moved from a two-bedroom condo in Florida – where she’d retired years earlier with Weisberg’s father –  to Chelsea Jewish Lifecare. Downsizing into a one-bedroom unit at Chelsea, her daughter recalls, would have been far more stressful coming from the family’s rambling New Hampshire house.

What’s your budget?

Here, there’s lots of good news. Virtually all real estate has appreciated beyond what purchasers envisioned years or decades ago – and Massachusetts property values are exceptionally high. Downsizing seniors, therefore, are typically among the lucky real estate shoppers who don’t have to worry about today’s mortgage interest rates.

Still, buyers need to ask themselves how much of that windfall they’re willing to invest in a new home. A couple selling a house that has appreciated to $1 million, for instance, might invest half the proceeds into a condo or assisted-living deposit, and use the remainder to live on (assisted living rents can be $6,000-$10,000 monthly).

Accept that your house will be staged.

Many people are taken aback by the suggestion that their carefully chosen wallpaper is unappealing. It also feels counterintuitive to pay thousands of dollars – staging starts around $3,000, depending on the size of the house and the amount of clutter the stager has to stash elsewhere – for a makeover that’s just temporary.

But realtors insist the investment more than pays off in higher sales prices. Redecorating so that a property looks as spare and spacious as possible, they say, allows potential buyers to picture their own lives there.

“I always tell a story about I house I handled when staging just started,” recalls Sagan, who has handled home sales since the 1980s. “When the seller saw it, she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not moving – the house looks so great!’”

Don’t assume your children will take all your stuff.

“Ninety percent of the children don’t want anything,” advises Sagan. Accept that whatever doesn’t move with you will end up in three categories: “sell, donate and junk,” says Schneider.

House and estate sale experts, as well as consignment and second-hand stores, typically take a fee of 30-50% for items like furniture and jewelry. For things that are usable but not particularly salable – or that fail to sell – nonprofits like the Salvation Army can schedule pickups to haul off everything from clothing and mattresses to appliances and vehicles.

For everything else, junk removal services typically charge by how much room your stuff takes up in the truck – anywhere from a few hundred to $1,000 or more.

What about storage?

Hands down, this is the most divisive issue. For around $100 a month, you can indefinitely postpone sorting through boxes of ancient blenders, beloved books, VHS tapes and spare linens.
For some, storage is the crutch they need to get over the hurdle of moving on. But experts aren’t a fan. “I don’t recommend it,” says Sagan. “Because it stays in storage forever.” (The Schneiders’ basement detritus lingered for 10 years.)

Nothing is, ahem, forever

A last piece of advice for the nervous: You can always make a change if you don’t love your downsized life. “I know people who’ve gone to a particular independent living [facility] and decided after a year that it wasn’t for them,” says Sagan. “And they went somewhere else.”

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