Parenting

Empty-Nest Conundrum: To Stay Put or Downsize When Kids Fly?

My parents are thrilled to live in the house where my sisters and I grew up. I enjoy visiting them and look forward to a time when my kids, as grownups, will come home to enjoy a place that's familiar and inviting. But where will that be? I've started to wonder.
05/11/2016 12:15pm ET | Updated May 12, 2017

My parents are thrilled to live in the house where my sisters and I grew up. I enjoy visiting them and look forward to a time when my kids, as grownups, will come home to enjoy a place that's familiar and inviting. But where will that be? I've started to wonder.

Here's why: Not long ago, I spotted a suburbanite friend strolling happily with his wife and dog in town. This struck me as odd. "That's a long walk from home for the dog!" I thought. When I next saw him, I learned that this fellow and his wife had downsized in a big way, moving from a large house a few miles outside of town to smaller digs right in the center of town after their youngest kid took off for college.

This couple, still in their 50s and enjoying their newfound freedom, wanted the convenience of being able to walk to shops, restaurants and other community hubs. Flexibility, fewer homeowner responsibilities and expenses and the idea of simplifying their next move -- perhaps to be closer to children and grandchildren, or live in a warmer place -- also figured into their decision.

I was struck by how happy my friend seemed despite what he had given up. He had moved away from friends in a tight-knit neighborhood. His kids won't be able to return to their childhood home for holiday homecomings. He and his family will need to build new memories and affinities away from their longtime center of gravity.

Sad or savvy? I guess I've assumed my wife and I would stay in our family home and age in place as my parents have done. But noting a peer's proactive approach to early downsizing made me consider the choices we'll have 10 years down the road when our youngest is in college. Right now the kids may grumble but they help with upkeep at home. They do chores -- mowing the lawn, shoveling the driveway, and walking the dog. We enjoy big, lively gatherings with friends and family. Will the family-sized house become a little lonely -- and a headache to maintain -- when they're on their own?

While some people like the idea of staying put as empty nesters and seniors, a growing number of boomers are choosing to move to cities or bustling suburbs, according to the Urban Land Institute. In fact, about 72% of the Boomers surveyed in 2013 said they would rather live in a smaller house but have a shorter commute than live in a larger home and make a lengthy trek to the office. Plus, being in an urban area likely means easier access to stores and public transportation.

Retirement can last years and offers time to enjoy interests we've been too busy to indulge. It may very well be that my wife and I will want to move to a smaller place where maintenance is covered and we're closer to restaurants and cultural activities. And then there are practical considerations: Moving can be easier when we're younger. Selling an empty nest might boost the nest egg. And it can mean that our kids, when they are adults, don't get stuck figuring out how to help care for us -- and a creaky house. Of course, the cost of a move -- closing costs, realtor commissions, moving fees, property taxes, insurance -- are considerations too.

It's hard for most people to know what they'll want in 10 years. But here's what we need: the freedom to choose where we'll call home when we're ready to live differently. Saving money during our hard-work years will help us do that. And we should have honest conversations with our loved ones about important decisions when it's time to "right size" home sweet home.

I, for one, am a fan of downtown living. I'm starting to envision myself in my friend's shoes, walking our pooch along Main Street.

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About the author: John Sweeney is executive vice president, Retirement and Investing Strategies for Personal Investing, a unit of Fidelity Investments, in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @SweeneyFidelity.

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