For seniors, making the decision to sell is only part of the downsizing process

Seniors are waiting longer to downsize, preferring to age in their own home instead. (TNS)
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Seniors are waiting longer to downsize, preferring to age in their own home instead. (TNS)

It seems like a simple concept: moving from a home that feels too big to something smaller that better fits your needs as you age. But now imagine you’ve been in that home for 30 years, and every wall and shelf is filled with photos of kids and pets and vacations, and every drawer and closet is full of memories. Then imagine you haven’t conducted a real estate transaction in decades, and you’re not sure where you would go.

Suddenly, it’s not so simple anymore. In reality, the downsizing process can be anything but simple.

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“It’s gut-wrenching,” says Dan Forsman, chairman and president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Georgia. “You’ve lived in this neighborhood where you’ve raised your family. You’ve gotten involved in the schools, you know the churches. And now you have 3,000 or 4,000 square feet of house for two people. And if you’re 65, the demographics of the city are very different than they were when you were 30 and having your kids. So I think it’s really hard.”

And yet, it’s also natural for seniors to look at the Atlanta housing market right now and wonder if it’s time to act. According to the most recent report available from Atlanta Realtors, the average sales price of a home in the region is $441,500, a 20% increase from just a year ago. With inventory near record lows, sellers are commanding premium prices, and sales of $1 million or more aren’t uncommon even for older homes in the northern suburbs.

“There is this compelling feeling that I can get the most for my home at this moment, so I should sell,” says Lori Lane, senior vice president and managing broker at BHHS Georgia. “And it is a great time to sell if you can find where you want to move to. The nice part for a senior is, they’re probably downsizing, so they’re not going into a more expensive home. That helps, even if prices are a little inflated. They should be getting a decent amount of equity, and with mortgages still super low, they should be able to get into that new home with a low-interest rate and save some of that cash.”

But the finances of downsizing are one thing — emotions are another. Selling the home where you raised your family can bring feelings of stress, anxiety and even grief, according to the Elder Care Alliance. And then there’s the apprehension over the process.

“The whole idea is overwhelming for people,” says Jennifer Davis, a senior real estate specialist and owner of J. Davis Properties, a division of BHHS Georgia. “Typically they have 30 or 40 years of memories in that house, and they think, ‘I just don’t know where to start with this.’ And if someone has not had a real estate transaction in decades, the whole idea can be pretty intimidating. They think, ‘I don’t know anybody I can trust to guide me through this and not get ripped off in the process.’ People in the older generation, they are very susceptible to scams, and they know it. And that makes them incredibly cautious.”

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When a home becomes a burden

As difficult as downsizing can be, there are signs that it’s time to consider it. There may be rooms that you pay to heat and cool but are never used. Perhaps yard work and gardening have changed from a once-enjoyable hobby to something that’s just too physically taxing. Maybe there are needed repairs that you’ve just let go for too long. The bottom line: if the home is becoming a burden, it’s time to think about selling it.

“If you have that extra space and you’re at a time in your life where you’re not enjoying the home that you thought you wanted to be in, it’s an incredible opportunity to give it to somebody who needs all that space and is willing to pay for it,” Lane says. “If you’re paying house cleaners to clean rooms that nobody goes in, and landscapers to maintain outdoor areas you don’t use anymore, maybe it’s time to find something where you can have a more desirable lifestyle.”

In many cases, the family home will be paid off by the time occupants think about downsizing. But even if there are payments left, Lane says current market conditions should net sellers enough to pay off the remainder of the mortgage and put equity toward a less expensive new home. And with Atlanta facing such an inventory shortage, current market conditions should continue for a while longer.

But finances typically aren’t the biggest factor when it comes to downsizing, Forsman says. “I don’t think the economics of it drives people as much as where they are in their life journey, what their health is, access to their doctors,” he adds. “The longer you stay in that house, the older you get, and the less you’re inclined to move.”

There can also be outside pressures. Davis says some seniors are motivated to downsize because their children and grandchildren live in a different city, and they want to move so they can see them more often. And then there are adult children who are well aware of market conditions and urging parents to take advantage. “They’re putting the bug in their ear, telling them it’s probably time to put this thing on the market and get a smaller house,” Davis adds.

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But where to move next?

Then there’s the question that prompts so much hand wringing in the downsizing process: where to go? Although Atlanta has a wealth of options in condos, townhomes, active adult developments and continuum-of-care communities, they’re all subject to the same market conditions. Sellers will surely get a premium for that big house in the suburbs, but they’ll also pay a premium for whatever they buy next.

Even inventory in 55-plus communities is very tight, Davis says. She mentions The Orchards, an active adult community near Gainesville, where — as of late September — every completed home was sold except for two. “We have such a limited number of homes to choose from with the market like it is now,” she adds. “I can sell their home in a heartbeat, but before we do that, we have to know where they’re going.”

Where seniors downsize depends on whether they’re still working, want to be within walking distance to restaurants and theaters or want to stay close to their doctor. “It has more to do with their lifestyle preference and health,” Davis says. “The baby boomers are a different group than their parents. They’re working longer, and they don’t consider themselves old. So they have to figure out what they want.”

Some seniors may rent apartments as a short-term solution, Davis adds, allowing them to take advantage of lower rental rates while they figure out where to buy next. And couples who have gone through the downsizing process tend to be happier in the end. “There’s such a feeling of satisfaction,” Davis says. “They feel like they’ve accomplished a great deal.”

There are ways to make it easier: by starting small, getting rid of duplicate items and being judicious in what you keep, according to MyMove.com. And starting early allows couples to speak frankly about what they really want — not just in a home, but in the rest of their lives.

“Couples are having the conversation of, ‘How do we want to end our journey?’” Forsman says. “A continuing care setup is a good investment, an active adult community is a good investment. There are towns that have gotten a lot of publicity like Blairsville, Ellijay, Clarksville, Hiawassee. There are a lot of properties you can look at, but it comes down to money and how you want to finish your journey.”

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