03 July 2008

Downsizing: the Dream

Boomers talk a lot about downsizing. That doesn't mean houses are getting smaller or living spaces are contracting (aside from Manhattan and New York environs). In fact, compared to a generation ago, we're mainly choosing houses of 2000+ square feet instead of the formerly big 1500-1700 square feet. And in some communities today, the mini-mansion of 4000+ square feet is still being built. (This, in spite of a mortgage crisis and a stagnating economy.)

For many baby boomers, generous square footage represents gracious living. Or maybe we're still reacting to our childhood condition: many siblings sharing a single bathroom and trading out bunk-bed spaces once a year. Baby boomers continue to be impressed by 2.5 baths, a guest room, a bonus room, and as many other extra spaces as they can afford until they remember that they will have to dust and vacuum these expanses.

Downsizing—or the dream of it—promises lower housing costs, more energy efficiency, less yard maintenance and therefore more free time, and possibly even a maintenance-free existence. Smaller living spaces are not always less expensive, of course, depending on your metric. The cost per square foot may be higher for the small house, for example. And neighborhood dictates prices, certainly, so a "move to small" may actually be a "move to urban" at higher land prices.

Energy efficiency and lowered maintenance are more sure consequences. Heating 1500 square feet costs less than heating 3000 square feet, insulation and window count being equal. A patch of garden space requires less mowing, weeding, and watering than a standard lawn. Reducing spaces that need heating/cooling and maintenance cannot be confused with "buying green," however. A building or remodeling project that strictly follows principles of recycling and renewable resources continues to cost more than standard practices. Compromises can be made to bring a project into line with conventional costs, but designing a sustainable space is in a different category from our issue today. Today, we're looking at just the "less space = less energy" equation.

Downsizing to less space represents that other dream of maintenance-free housing. Small means keeping everything in its place. Small means fewer appliances that will need repair/replacement. Small means fewer deep cleanings and maybe even affordable cleaning services (price a 1-bedroom apartment against a 5-bedroom house). Small means leaving for a month-long travel and not having to arrange for any service other than mail-hold.

Boomer retirement is marked by huge numbers of people dreaming of downsizing. How they fare in the housing market (both as sellers and buyers) depends far more on national numbers than on personal desires, though.

On a personal note: I used to be judgmental about people who approached retirement and built their "dream house" at long last. I knew what they were operating on: old images of success and the great desire to have many bedrooms and bathrooms as possible for adult offspring and their families visiting once a year at Thanksgiving. I knew they needed to downsize, not upgrade. And, so, as an empty nester in my late 40s (and Tom in his mid 50s), when we needed to move to a new area to equalize our commutes, I knew we had the perfect opportunity to downsize. We could even go condo and be done with lawn maintenance that neither of us enjoyed. With a short list of requirements (well, knowing that 2 bathrooms would be a minimum, for example), we began home-hunting. We had every intention of downsizing. And then I came across a geodesic dome amid 300 trees (small diameter, but impressive nonetheless). And we didn't downsize. We went from 2400 square feet to 3600. From 3 bathrooms to, well, we stayed at 3 bathrooms. From a modest city plot to nearly an acre. From full city services to a septic tank. From a 2-car garage to a 3-car garage. I am no longer judgmental about what boomers do....

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold is not under any circumstances to be regarded as professional, legal, or medical advice. Or education advice. Or marital advice. Or even a tip.

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