Rightsize to Downsize

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Since we have made the decision that we want to free up time and resources for a better retirement, a new question needs to be addressed: What is the “right size” home for us going forward? Do we go for a home about the same size as we have now, just less maintenance, or do we take an extremely minimalist approach, planning to spend most of our time elsewhere, like traveling? Or is there an intermediate approach that balances our need for less maintenance with other needs and desires, like entertaining family and friends? The next phase of our life might last 10 to 20 years before we are unable to live independently, so we need to plan carefully to maximize this special time.

As I write this, I realize we also need to address the fundamental question of what lifestyle we want to live as we transition from full-time employment to retirement. Do we plan to travel much of our time? If so, we probably don’t want to be burdened with too much home to maintain. I remember when all I owned would fit in my car. Such freedom is long gone, but there is still a part of me that wants to sell everything that won’t fit in a few suitcases and just hit the road!

Rightsizing is not necessarily downsizing. It refers to a process whereby you reorganize and maximize your space to better suit your current and anticipated needs. In our case, we expect it will lead to less space, but for some folks, like those with several out of town kids who come home with the families for the holidays, it might mean the opposite!

Standards of the amount of space the typical family needs have changed over the last century. I grew up with four brothers in a typical nuclear family in a house with four bedrooms and two baths, of about 1800 square feet, which was pretty average for the time. We used one of the bedrooms as a den so the living and dining rooms could remain clean and pristine for my parent’s many small parties with friends. These rooms were pretty much off limits to the kids. Walk-in closets were unheard of, but we also did not have as much stuff as kids growing up today have, so we didn’t need them.

When my wife and I looked for a house for our small family of three twenty-five years ago, we also settled on a home with three bedrooms, but this time with two and a half baths, and about 2500 SF, not including the unfinished basement. With a separate small living room for guests, a larger family room, and a spare bedroom for guests, it was the right size for us. It also came with a large yard to maintain, that provided space for outdoor play. Later, I finished out the basement to make some office space for Angela, who became self-employed, and a media room so my teenage daughter would have someplace to entertain her friends. Other couples we knew who had two or more kids usually bought four or five-bedroom houses if they could.

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Now, as we approach retirement, we find ourselves with three sets of living room furniture, four dining sets, (if you include the deck table), three beds, two refrigerators, (for those times we have family gatherings and need to store lots of food), a deep freeze, several walk-in closets full of extra stuff, a basement full of a lifetime’s worth of yard and recreational gear (much of which we no longer use), and two attic spaces with enough surplus Christmas decorations to decorate a small shopping mall. Some of our furniture is in the antique category, while other pieces are close to being junk. And what about all the fine china we just had to have in our wedding registry, that no one wants anymore?

But before we can decide what to keep, what to sell and what to give away, we need to decide what we will really need and just how much space that will take.

So, here are some factors to consider:

  • Will we need to accommodate out of town guests (or even have an extra room to rent via Airbnb)?
  • How much time do we plan to spend at home? Will we be doing a lot of traveling
  • Do we have a hobby that needs space?
  • Do we have a vacation home somewhere we plan to spend a lot of time at? Do we plan to spend more than half our time traveling? If so, we may need less space if all we are going to do is touch down occasionally.
  • How often do we plan to entertain, and how many folks do we need to accommodate for conversation and/or dining? (Do we still need two refrigerators and a deep freeze)?
  • Might we ever need live-in help, or is Assisted Living going to be our best option? (This may depend more on how much money you have than what you want, as my mother-in-law found).
  • How much outdoor living space do we need and how will we use it?
  • How many cars will we need to store? Can we get by with just one? None?
  • What other storage needs will we have, for things we don’t use every day, such as camping equipment, seasonal items, etc? For example, do we need yard tools (assuming we have a yard)? I like to cycle and have more than one bike. I need space for that and my bike equipment. You also might have a hobby that takes extra space, like sewing or woodworking.
  • Will we need full-size laundry equipment, or can we do with a smaller stacked system, since it’s only the two of us?

It is also helpful to think in terms of function rather than room types, and private versus more public uses. This frees up your mind to be creative with spaces that a realtor might label with a specific use. For example, that extra bedroom might work better as a hobby room or home office.

Fewer, but larger rooms and multipurpose spaces might be better than too many small rooms. Large combined spaces feel larger than lots of smaller chopped up spaces. Also, consider if some functions can be combined. For example, if you only use a large dining room once or twice a year, can you also use it as a home office or hobby space the rest of the time? Single use rooms may be a luxury you may no longer want to heat and cool.

After assessing your needs and wants, you can write down a wish list of needed spaces by function. Since our goal is to reduce our maintenance expenses but still be able to do some food centered entertaining, here is what our list might look like:

  • Two Bedroom and dressing areas, one for ourselves, and one for a guest or couple
  • Two full baths, (Master designed for aging in place perhaps)
  • Dining for 6 to 10 (for entertaining and family holidays)
  • Conversation area for six to ten folks (maybe plan on folding chairs for larger gatherings)
  • Small office work area with desk for writing and bill paying (minimal filing area needed as all can be on the cloud now)!
  • Video/ TV viewing area (may be combined with main conversation area or office area)
  • Clothes storage for two wardrobes
  • Seasonal wardrobe storage
  • Storage for at least one car, visitor parking
  • Storage area for holiday items and items used less often like luggage, our huge gumbo pot, and those folding chairs!
  • Laundry area with washer and dryer
  • Kitchen with dual full-size refrigerator and freezer (again, for entertaining and bulk storage), Pantry, four or five burner stove, (I like to cook), food prep and cleanup area with sink.
  • Storage for our favorite cooking tools and utensils, flatware, linens, and dinnerware
  • Outdoor deck or patio partially covered and screened in, for dining, outdoor cooking, and conversation
  • Small garden area for herbs, and seasonal flowers

Once satisfied with your list, you can start to assess how much space you will need for each function. To do that, start by measuring the spaces you have now that provide that function, calculate the area for each. Don’t just measure room sizes. Be sure to calculate how much space you need for storing things you need to keep and don’t include space for things you plan to get rid of. When done, add it all up. This will give you a rough idea of how much square footage we really really need and a way to judge the room sizes in any property you look at. It will also help keep you from buying more home than needed.

Once you have your needs defined, you can work with a realtor to start looking for the ideal place, (rent or buy) or a builder to build a custom home!

That brings us to the next big question: Rent, Build or Buy? I will discuss that in my next installment. Stay tuned!

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