Downsizing the house sounds idyllic when you’re flying solo or about to embark on the Tommy Bahama lifestyle of your retirement dreams (less space, more freedom and all that jazz.)
When you’ve got 3 kids and a pet or two in tow….well, downsizing feels like a stressful game of Tetris, but that’s not to say it isn’t worth it.
Are you strapped by steep housing costs that exceed 30% of your income, writing checks to the plumber every other week, and spending the majority of your spare time scrubbing down the bathrooms? Then a smaller, more manageable space could be just the ticket for a happier life and family.
In fact, many families found that they became stronger and more tight-knit after downsizing and average square footage for single-family homes is on the decline.
“People downsize to save money, reduce clutter and minimize stress,” says 17-year veteran agent Peggy Alger, who achieved a Best of HomeLight Award in 2018 for being in the Top 1% of agents in Corpus Christi, Texas.
But there’s no getting around it: the actual business of downsizing your home with family is painful especially if you’re not prepared. So get your game plan ready with these 10 tips to make the transition go smoothly, sell the big old family house, and find a smaller place for your crew you’re thrilled to call home.
1. Figure out how just how small you want to go
Downsizing doesn’t mean you need to fully embrace the tiny house movement. Before you pack your family into a 500-square-foot home like you’re trying to outdo sardines, take the time to figure out just how small your family can stand.
Years ago, you just had to roll the dice and hope your family could handle whatever minimal square-footage home you purchased.
But these are the days of Airbnb, HomeAway, and dozens of other vacation rental websites that let you rent typical suburban homes right in your own backyard.
Just pack your bags and spend a few days living with your whole family in a fully-furnished home in your desired neighborhood and in the size you’re considering buying into. It won’t take long to figure out if your family can cope with those closer quarters.
Downsizing for your family might mean going from 2,500 square-feet to a 1,200 or even an 1,800 square-foot home, but there’s so much more to a home than just square footage. So instead of picking a random square-footage number out of a hat, first make a list of exactly the kind of space you’re looking for.
How many bedrooms and bathrooms are absolutely necessary? Do you need a formal dining room or space for a home office? Are you set on a specific lot size?
Listing each feature you want in your next home ranked by order of importance will help you narrow down which ones you absolutely need to remain comfortable while you’re living cozy.
2. Partner with a top real estate agent in your area to find the right home
Knowing your family’s space requirements doesn’t mean that you’ll find a house that matches every item on your list.
Unless you have one custom built, you’re going to have to compromise on some points.
For example, you may be willing to have two kids share a bedroom if it means buying a house with an extra bathroom. Or perhaps you’ll find the perfect layout in a home that has less square footage than you thought you needed.
Figuring out which home features you can give up and which are deal breakers, requires the help of a real estate agent who knows the lay of the land.
“Everybody’s story is different, so you need an agent willing to listen to your downsizing story,” recommends Agler.
“You need one who’s supportive and has the knowledge to give good suggestions and provide the best downsizing resources.”
Top real estate agents stay on top of housing inventory like glue, so once they know your list of wants and needs, they’ll send you links to houses that would be a good fit as soon as they hit the market and contact the listing agent to get you in for a showing right away.
3. Downsize your stuff so you have less to move into your smaller home
Downsizing to a smaller house requires downsizing the amount of stuff you own, too—or you won’t have room to move in your little house.
The internet is overflowing with decluttering gurus, downsizing experts, and minimalist living advice to help you figure out how to pare your belongings down to just the essentials. Plus, there are plenty of tips telling you how to turn that stuff into cash.
“Downsizers need to get rid of stuff they don’t need, the things they wouldn’t replace if destroyed. Sell it at a garage sale or online. There are even apps on your phone that let you sell stuff,” advises Alger.
But this process isn’t always easy for your little ones. Moving is tough enough on kids, especially if the new house means a new school and new friends, too.
When downsizing requires youngsters to give up toys and other stuff that won’t fit in the new house, that can push kids into total meltdown mode.
However, you can save yourself from those tantrums if you change their perspective, like explaining how their things will benefit a needy child, or making the giveaway process entertaining.
“Help little ones let things go by making a game out of it, or making a little savings account for them,” says Alger. “For every one of their toys or belongings they sell, put the profits in the account as an incentive. Every child loves to put pennies in a piggy bank.”
4. Figure out where everything will fit in advance
The last thing you need on moving day is finding out that your furniture won’t fit where you thought it would.
Maybe the closet door won’t clear the bunk beds you bought for the bedroom your girls are sharing. Or perhaps you traded in your bulky living room set for a sleek sofa sectional—only to discover that the chaise lounge section is too long for the wall you wanted to put it on.
“Planning ahead is important,” says Alger. “Once you find your smaller location, measure it. Then use a virtual room design tool online, like Planner 5D or HomeByMe to see what you have room to keep, what you need to give away.”
Once you’ve found your perfect home, use one of these online tools to create a layout of its floor plan so you can play around with how your existing furniture will work. They can also show you where you’ll need new pieces that are a better fit for the space.
These are also great tools to help prepare kids for what life will look like in the new place. However, your kids may already have a way to play with the layout of the new home themselves.
If your kids own a version of The Sims, they can mockup a (not-to-scale) version of the new home and experiment with decorating their new space. They can even create virtual versions of the whole family to experience what’s it’ll be like to have a family living in a house with only one bathroom.
5. Store memories in bytes instead of boxes
“You Can’t Take it With You,” isn’t just the title of the fabulous 1938 Frank Capra film, it’s an age-old proverb that reminds us that possessions won’t mean much once we’re gone.
That’s comforting advice when you’re faced with the reality that all of those albums of precious photos, files of favored art projects for each kid, and boxes of treasured memorabilia simply won’t fit in the new place.
Fortunately, digital files, external hard drives, and USB flash drives hardly take up any space. Since you can’t take it all along to the new house, simply snap a photo of every item that holds a precious memory and upload it to your computer so you can go strolling down a virtual memory lane any time you choose.
Upload a second set of those precious digital images on a hard drive or flash drive and store it in a fire-proof safe to ensure those memories are preserved no matter what happens to your phone, camera, or computer.
6. Repurpose keepsakes to serve a new purpose
If a few boxes of paper artwork won’t fit into your downsized house, chances are there’s no room for family heirloom furniture, either. So what are your options?
You could give it away to extended family members who have more space, or donate it to a charity that can auction it off if it’s valuable.
If the heirlooms aren’t valuable, you may be able to repurpose the pieces so that they’re functional enough to keep them in the family.
Repurposing is not only practical, it’s a fun project that can bring your family together with teamwork. So roll up your sleeves and transform that grandfather clock into a storage cabinet, turn grandpa’s ladder into a bookshelf, and great-grandma’s worn-out silverware into cabinet pulls for the kitchen.
You can even make artwork out of smaller heirlooms with a wall-mounted shadowbox.
7. Don’t waste any space in the new place
Downsizing puts space at a premium, so don’t let any inch go to waste.
How you plan to store things is important,” advises Alger. “There are all kinds of multipurpose furniture out there to maximize storage, like beds and ottomans with hidden storage inside.”
All of those wasted-space nooks and crannies that you didn’t think twice about in your big house become storage when you don’t have space to spare. Even the unlikeliest of areas—such as those extra inches alongside the refrigerator—can be put to use if you find the right storage furniture.
Think outside the box, and you can find a ton of creative ways to use containers, racks and other storage equipment in original ways.
Take the standard shoe organizer. Hang one on every door in the house, and in the kitchen, it’s a place for pantry items, canned goods, and small cooking utensils. The same organizer in the bathroom can free up precious vanity space by organizing the preferred toiletries for everyone in the house.
8. Designate exclusive space for every person
Shoes by the door, toys on the floor—no matter hard you try to live with less, there’s still going to be tripping over stuff everywhere.
While there’s no real solution short of limiting your family to the clothes on their backs, you can minimize the chaos with clever organizing strategies that put each family member in charge of their own property.
You can do more than just write your kids’ names in their underwear. (Although that’s a good idea, too!) Assign each child their own dresser drawers, closet space, storage bins, and pockets in the bathroom door organizer, and make them responsible for keeping things where they belong.
Kids aren’t the only one who can benefit from labels. Whether it’s kitchen shelves, storage jars, or clothes closet bins, it’ll be much easier to keep things where they belong if everyone knows where everything goes.
How you store your stuff is just as important as where you store it. For example, keep your tight quarters tidy by using space-saving folding techniques for clothes.
9. Make chores the norm
Speaking of responsibility, those organization tools you’ve spent hours putting in place only work if your kids follow through and use them.
Unfortunately, you can go crazy in the mess of small-house living if your kids aren’t in the habit of picking up after themselves. Once the mountains of junk left around the house gets to be too much, too many parents give in and just pick it all up themselves.
Luckily, there’s a creative way to keep your kids’ clutter out of your way while still putting the responsibility of picking up on them. Just create a “stuff bucket” for every kid, set them in an out-of-the-way spot (like unused stair space), and revoke privileges whenever they start to overflow.
Of course, picking up after themselves is just the tip of the iceberg. Kids as young as two can help out around the house to make downsize living pleasant for everyone.
Giving your kids chores isn’t about taking work off of your plate (face it, you could probably do them faster and better yourself), it’s about teaching them discipline, responsibility, and it gives them a way to contribute to the family.
10. Refocus family goals toward experiences instead of ownership
Downsizing isn’t just about economizing space, it’s about using your monthly income economically. Living with less space (and stuff) provides oodles of financial freedom.
When you’re willing to live in a budget-sized house, you ’ll have the budget to buy a smaller home in a better school district (where high demand makes homes more expensive). Plus, you’ll be able to put away more cash monthly for things like the kids’ college funds, family vacations, and your own retirement plans.
Having less stuff also provides time and money to do more together as a family, too.
No longer will you have to use vacation days on stay-cations because your house is demanding too much attention. And your housing costs will no longer leave you with just enough for a weekend at the local 3-star hotel.
When you’re spending less on your little house’s monthly utilities and annual maintenance expenses, you can afford to take your family on life-altering trips, like a cruise to Alaska or a 10-day train tour of Europe.
And according to the experts, this less stuff, more experiences lifestyle will make for a happier family. It’ll improve everybody’s mental health as well.
Downsizing your home with your tribe: Worth it in the end!
Completely transforming your family dynamics to a less-is-more lifestyle may not be easy. But if you tackle downsizing with a clever strategy, you’ll have a happier, healthier, more organized home.
When the going gets tough…remember more bathrooms means more plumbing problems. More rooms mean more dusting and vacuuming. More windows mean losing more heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. More yard means more trees to trim and grass to mow.
Pretty soon it starts to feel like you’re living for your house, rather than in it. And while you’re wasting all that time taking care of your house, you’re missing out on spending quality time with your spouse and kids.
Unfortunately—unless you’re Doc Brown, Dr. Who, or Hermione Granger—once that time is lost, you can never get it back.
When you pictured living in a big family house with your significant other and a couple of adorable kids, you didn’t realize how much work it would require. Now you do, so don’t be afraid of the opportunity to make a change. Embrace it!
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