When Philip and Paulette Pyle decided to downsize, Philip was just coming off of a successful surgery to remove a brain tumor. The couple began looking for a place that had medical care and rehabilitation services—just in case. That led them to a retirement home at Jenner’s Pond in Jennersville.
A few years ago, Rick and Betsy Clark, both employed in the banking industry, lived in a large home outside Washington, D.C. With no children or grandchildren, they bought a smaller but still fairly large house in Milltown Village, a 55-plus hillside community in Delaware midway between Newark and Wilmington. The location made sense. They had relatives nearby in Pennsylvania, where they once lived, the Delaware tax situation was great, and they could see Christiana Hospital in the distance from their rear deck.
Philip and Paulette Pyle at their
new Jenner’s Pond home.
A few decades ago, “downsizing” was a seldom-heard word. Now, it’s one of the fastest-growing sectors of the housing market. For our parents, downsizing was rarely a question. The family home was an almost sacred place where you raised a family and lived out your life.
“About two years ago and five years from retirement, we got serious about looking for a smaller house or property,” says Jay Liska, a pharmaceuticals exec then living in a 5,500-square-foot home in Unionville with his wife, Karen.
After a couple of “boomerangs,” their three grown children had all moved elsewhere. “More than Karen, I like my space,” Jay says. “We briefly considered in-town living and even discussed a senior community residence. Neither of these options appealed to me, so we spent the last few years keeping our eyes and ears open for a smaller house with character.”
Last fall, the Liskas found one. It’s just a few of miles from their old home and about half the size, with three acres and lots of privacy. They moved in a few months ago.
Today, downsizing seems to be on every-one’s mind. If you’re a millennial, your parents may already be talking about it. If you’re in your 50s and are married or have a companion, most likely you’ve had discussions about where and when. If you’re in your 70s, you probably are enjoying having all the necessities—kitchen, dining room, master bath and bedroom—on one floor and watching someone else cut your grass and shovel your driveway.
According to www.55places.com, there are 91 active adult communities in the Pennsylvania arc that surrounds greater Philadelphia. All of them are almost totally devoted to downsized housing, and about 17 of those are in Chester County. Add in the additional 13 located in New Castle County in northern Delaware, and that amounts to 30 such communities in the region.
At Jenner’s Pond and Stonegates, residents can transition from no care to around-the-clock care. Smaller, independent-living neighborhoods like Milltown Village are for those over 55. Most have a mix of single-family dwellings and shared units, including townhouses, apartments and condos. Generally, there are strict limits on age and number of adults per residence. Most have contracted work crews to care for the grounds and remove snow.
For those considering downsizing, there are a number of factors to weigh, but let’s start with two universals: Downsizing by definition means you’ll be moving into a smaller place, and almost everyone wants to be able to live solely on one floor. Beyond that, here are some other things to consider.
Jay Liska at his Unionville home just before moving day.
- Who do you love being with? It’s hardly unusual for retired parents to buy a place closer to where their children and grandchildren live. Understandable … But what if the kids have to relocate for their jobs? Or if they divorce? Instead, many couples stay in the area, buying a house or condo with an extra bedroom for visits. Staying put also means staying close to lifelong friends.
- Are you in the right climate? The Delaware Valley is great if you enjoy changes in the seasons and proximity to big cities. But for some, living in a warmer climate trumps everything else—and sometimes they lure like-minded friends to do the same thing. At the huge age-restricted communities in Florida, it’s common to see clusters of friends who jointly migrated there from somewhere else.
- How social are you? A simple rule of thumb: The more residents there are in a community, the more organized activities and facilities you’ll find—restaurants, clubhouses, even sports facilities. “We seldom saw neighbors where we used to live,” says Betsy Clark. “But here, it’s more sociable. We see people all the time.” Among other activities, Clark enjoys her twice-a-week Mahjong afternoons, and Rick tours the neighborhood while walking their dog, Rocco, along with other pet owners. The Pyles saw things differently. “Since we’d lived in the area all our lives, we already had lots of friends,” says Philip. “We weren’t looking for clubhouse activities.”
- How much privacy do you need? For the Liskas, a smaller house was fine, but the need for more exterior space convinced them not to live in a retirement community. But even within communities, there are privacy choices. “One of the things that attracted us to Milltown Village was that we could have a single-family home,” Betsy Clark says. “We didn’t want to be attached.”
- What do you like to do? Many Main Line couples have downsized from large houses in more rural areas to condos near rail stations so they can easily access cultural activities in Philadelphia. Having a supermarket, pharmacy, post office, bank and hardware store nearby is usually important. And many seniors want to rid themselves of daily cooking duties, so restaurants are a plus.
- How big an issue is your health? Having a nearby medical center with an array of specialists is a security blanket many people want. The Pyles, for example, had lived in a standard 55-plus community before health became an issue.
- Is this your last move? Many people—especially singles—know that downsizing once is hard enough. For them, a large continuous-care community allows them to easily transfer from independent living to assisted living to nursing-home facilities. Plus, some communities oversee the resale of their properties.
- What kind of floor plan do you need? “One of our criteria for our ‘old age home’ was that we could, if necessary, live on one floor,” says Liska. “That’s the layout of our new home—master bedroom, bath, kitchen and sitting rooms all on one floor.” Most homes in retirement villages also have open floor plans, instead of multiple small rooms. “Open space makes the flow easier,” Betsy Clark says. “But even though it’s a smaller house, it doesn’t feel as cozy as our last place.” “Most homes in new communities are universal design,” says Rita Wilkins, owner of Design Services Ltd. in Greenville. “That means wider hallways [for wheelchairs], better lighting, fewer transition areas, lots of storage, higher vanities.”
In addition to the “everything floor,” downsizers often want basements for storage or studios, a two-car garages with room for tools, a deck or a patio for outside living, and an upstairs bedroom for guests. There’s also the question of whether you want to remotely monitor and control some home functions from a smart phone.
- What do the kids say? “Rationally, our children understood the decision and support it,” says Liska. “But emotionally, it is difficult for them [to lose] the home they grew up in over 27 years.” At the same time, grown children know that having their parents live in a smaller house with safer floor plans and fewer upkeep demands means less worry for them. “My parents refused to leave our home,” Liska says. “But they also had four sons who [helped] on a four- to-six-week cycle.”
- What can you afford? Smaller new homes aren’t necessarily cheaper—especially once you factor in fees, utilities and possibly higher taxes.
- How do you separate treasures from junk? Designer Wilkins suggests an “ABC” list: “A means ‘must keep,’ B is ‘would like to keep if it fits,’ and C means ‘haven’t used this in years.’” A final word: Don’t be surprised if your grown kids don’t want your furniture and accessories. Remember, downsizing done correctly is supposed to make life easier for everyone.