By Karen Telleen-Lawton
Senior Wire 

Is the time right to say goodbye to the house?


September 1, 2021 | View PDF

My book club has been reading and nattering together for over 30 years, since most of us had kids in the same neighborhood grade school. A generation later, almost all of us still live in the same general area, but many of have downsized. Our needs have changed through responding to various life circumstances. A few of us are eying the leap to retirement communities. What considerations enter the decision to move from a long-term house?

Your unique situation may offer compelling financial reasons to stay, to downsize, or to move into senior living. Sometimes the financial “best choice” aligns with your emotional inclination, while other times they are at cross-purposes. Identifying the underlying issues can help you to sort out and discern what might be called a “smart heart” decision.

Will selling the family home save you money? The differences in cash flow can be evaluated by measuring maintenance, cleaning, and gardening expenses against a monthly condominium or residential fee. Property tax and insurance are other cash flow costs that generally will be lower or zeroed out if you downsize. Be sure to compare apples to apples, account for amenities the group situation includes such as dining, medical or athletic fees.

Cash flow is only part of the picture, of course. Your home is an investment. When that investment is cashed out and any mortgage paid off, you will be investing the proceeds in something else with a different potential return. Real estate generally performs well over the long term, but it is absolutely possible to lose money even in the short term as long as a decade or more.

If your idea is to sell your home and gradually spend down the equity for living expenses, consider reviewing your financials with an expert. Your banker or a financial advisor can help you determine a sustainable level of withdrawal. A financial advisor can also help evaluate choices with major life implications.

Even if the financial factors seem to point to an obvious decision one way or the other, it’s important to consider the factors that can’t be quantified. Your life and priorities have changed since you moved into your current house. You may relish the empty-nester space to spread out projects. You have more time now to dig in the garden or tinker in the garage.

On the other hand, maybe you feel like you’re rattling around in a too-big space. Perhaps you want a “turn-key” condominium to leave easily when travel is safe again. Maybe the kids have ended up clustered in another area and you want to relocate. I’ve had friends who have moved to a lower-tax state for tax purposes.

Another factor to consider is repurposing the value in your home. Having a house to exchange or rent out is a great way to make traveling more affordable. We have used Home Exchange for years and really enjoy dropping into neighborhoods as “locals” all over the world.

Whether or not you consider yourself sentimental, leaving a long-time home can be emotionally fraught. You’ve celebrated birthdays, graduations and perhaps engagements here. You planted and nurtured the trees that are now mature friends in your yard. The kids’ heights are marked on the door jam in the closet.

Besides sentimental reasons, there’s the stuff. Are you prepared to face decisions regarding your kids’ childhood art, books and other mementos? You can give your kids the ultimatum to come get their stuff. If they’re not ready, will you clean out or haul them with you? Downsizing sounds refreshing until you’re faced with the detailed choices.

My husband and I have been considering these factors for several years now. We joined the ranks of the over-65 only recently but have visited and expressed interest in retirement places in town. Many of them are more like active college campuses than the low-security prisons that some imagine. The allure for us is that, while we love our home of almost 20 years, the garden becomes more of a burden when we travel.

Before the pandemic, we were convinced that the next time the real estate market is hot, we’d be ready to put up our house for sale. If we weren’t ready to move into our favorite retirement living facility, we’d rent a place in a different area of town for a penultimate adventure.

Now we were grateful not to have followed up our impulse with a move. We have no doubt we have been better off at home in the pandemic than if we’d chosen to move to an independent living facility. Yet our friends in retirement facilities are grateful to have been cocooned in retirement living. Their lives have been more curtailed than ours, but their meals have been delivered, frequent COVID testing facilitated, and outdoor entertainment provided where possible.

There’s no right decision. As seniors, however, we have the experience to enter this next phase with our eyes open. Test drive your preferred solutions by visiting and listening to your trusted friends. Do the math with an advisor. And take the long view with a smart heart, so your kids don’t take the matter into their own hands.

Karen Telleen-Lawton is a Certified Financial Planner in Santa Barbara, California.


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