When to Downsize Your Home: 7 Signs It’s Time to Put That Big Old House on the Market

“Downsizing is 30%-50% of my business, and with my clients I stress the importance of knowing when to downsize your home,” says Ben Swanson, a top 1% ranking real estate agent in Mesa, Arizona. “I work with people all the time who delayed, and now their home is too big to manage, there’s too much maintenance, and they cannot handle it.”

According to a recent Merrill Lynch survey of age 50+ retirees, 51% of those who have moved since retiring opted for a smaller home. Nevertheless, many retirees find it difficult to pull the trigger on downsizing. In fact, 64% of retirees plan to remain in their current home throughout retirement.

Infographic showing what kinds of homes retirees are moving in to.
Source: (Merrill Lynch)

The trouble is, the choice to delay downsizing by even a few years makes a big difference: it could translate to tens of thousands of dollars lost or the inability to move yourself independently due to health or mobility restrictions.

So once you answer the question of “if” you’re going to downsize, the “when” part of the equation is the next big decision you need to make. If any of these 7 clear signs that it’s time to downsize resonate with you, don’t let yourself hesitate in the land of indecision and sentimentality—get moving!

1. Your monthly housing expenses have risen above 30%

When it comes to how much of your monthly budget should be spent on housing expenses, 30% is the magic number.

No, we didn’t just pull that percentage out of a hat—the U.S. government has been using 30% as the standard for housing affordability since the United States National Housing Act of 1937. Since that time, any household paying above 30% of their income on housing is considered financially burdened.

While you’re still working, your housing costs may fit comfortably within your budget. But the simple act of retiring can unexpectedly push some retirees into the “burdened” bracket.

Housing cost burdens increase with age as expenses continue to rise and income is reduced in retirement. As this map shows, there are numerous areas where retirees are spending 30%-40% or more of their monthly budget on housing.

Map showing how home costs increase with age.
Source: (jchs.harvard.edu)

“Those who are just getting by because they haven’t figured out how to live on a fixed income, that’s a sign to downsize into a smaller place with a more reasonable monthly mortgage payment,” advises Swanson. “Seniors who want to avoid getting a part-time job say at a fast food restaurant just to make ends meet need to calculate how much house they can afford in retirement.”

The Merrill Lynch survey found that a whopping 64% of downsizing retirees are making the transition to a smaller home to cut down on their housing expenses.

Infographic showing why homeowners downsized in retirement
Source: (Merrill Lynch)

While downsizing will save you money in the long term, you do need to be prepared for the upfront expenses that come with moving.

“Living in a smaller space can reduce the mortgage payment, and cost less for utilities, property taxes and maintenance—but downsizing does come with substantial upfront costs,” advises Tim Kennedy, a mortgage loan originator and reverse mortgage specialist with US Mortgage Corp.

“There are repairs on the home before selling, moving expenses, closing costs, and upgrades on the new place—in the short term, those expenses may exceed that predetermined budget amount, but in the long term downsizing can reduce monthly debt and increase monthly cash flow.”

These expenses may make downsizing while you’re still working the wisest move, so you’ll still have a salary rolling in to help offset the costs.

2. Your current monthly budget leaves little leftover cash for saving…or fun

How do you plan to spend your days once you retire? Maybe you envision yourself as a globetrotting traveler exploring exotic locales. Or perhaps you’d like to head back to school to pursue a passion like painting or writing.

No matter what you have planned, chances are it’ll cost money. And if you’re already spending too much on housing expenses to afford your dreams while you’re working, you’ll have even less cash to spare when you retire.

Infographic showing how seniors spend their income.
Source: (betterpicf.pw)

However, if you downsize 5 or 10 years before you’re set to retire (say in your 50s, after the kids are raised and gone), you’ll save several thousand dollars each year—which adds up over time.

Infographic showing where savings can go when downsizing to a smaller home.
Source: (crr.bc.edu)

As the above example demonstrates, by moving into a home that costs $100,000 less than your existing home, you’d earn $3,000 in income from the proceeds and save $3,250 in housing costs annually.

In five years, your household will have an additional $31,250, and in ten years that doubles to $62,500 extra in savings by the time you’re ready to retire. That’ll buy you any number of amazing vacations and exhilarating classes, with plenty left to keep earning interest income for you.

3. You’re falling behind on your home maintenance

The garden patio where you learned of the impending arrival of your first grandchild, the wall where you charted the heights of your kids (and grandkids!), the driveway where your kid spent hours playing basketball.

It’s precious memories like these that lead retirees to linger longer in their family home than is wise for their health and their financial stability. If sentiment tempts you to hang on to your home too long, it’ll wind up doing more damage to your finances than you’d expect.

“There are negative consequences to not downsizing,” says Swanson.

“If you make the move too late, your home just starts deteriorating. Then you’re going to have to spend equity to repair your house before it goes on the market. You don’t know how much that delayed maintenance is going to cost you if you wait too long to replace the roof or air conditioner.”

Not only will you wind up spending more money to get your home ready to sell, you’ll have wasted years of cash on more expensive homeowners’ insurance, property taxes and more.

4. Your home has features that no longer fit your lifestyle

Back in the day when your kids were building blanket forts in all the bedrooms, the bathrooms had waiting lines, and your teens were tussling over the remote in the TV room, there were times when even your spacious home felt too small to contain the chaos.

These days though, most of those bedrooms are now rarely-opened storage, there’s a strange smell coming from your unused guest bathroom, and the TV room has become a dust-catcher.

Now that you’re only using a handful of rooms in your house (the master bath, bedroom, kitchen and the smaller, cozier den), it hardly makes sense to pay for heating, cooling and lighting rooms that you don’t even use.

Size is only one part of the no-longer-livable features that your home might have.

Unless you planned ahead for aging in place when you picked out your family home, chances are it has architectural features that may pose a mobility problem in retirement.

Infographic showing three upsides of downsizing your home.
Source: (health.harvard.edu)

Your home may have features that will take a physical toll as you grow older, like stairs, high-maintenance landscaping, or a steep driveway. Weather in your area is also a consideration as shoveling snow or mowing the lawn become more difficult with each passing year.

A survey conducted by Demand Institute found that aging-friendly accessibility was a key factor among baby boomers looking to move, with single-story, low maintenance and disability accessibility topping the list of most desired features.

Infographic showing aging-friendly features home sellers look for when downsizing.
Source: (demandinstitute.org)

If accessibility tops your list of must-haves in your smaller home, you need to start house hunting long before you’re ready to retire.

Why?

Because there is a shortage of accessible housing. As of 2011, only 3.5% of housing in the US had single-floor living, no-step entry, and wheelchair accessible extra-wide hallways and doors.

Of course, your physical well-being isn’t the only health-related reason to downsize.

Children playing on tire swing near home.
Source: (Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash)

5. You’re the oldest resident in your neighborhood

If you were starting or raising a family when you first purchased your current home, you probably moved into a family-friendly neighborhood. That area was ideal when you had kids, but now you no longer seem to fit in.

“Family neighborhoods tend to stay younger as families keep moving in, so seniors end isolated by aging in place in that neighborhood,” warns Swanson.

A community starts to feel lonely once your original neighbors have moved on or passed away—especially if you lose your own spouse, too. Depression is a growing mental health issue for retirees, stemming from the fact that loneliness affects 25%-60% of older Americans.

Downsizing to a smaller home in a retirement community means living among your peers—if it has a healthy, active homeowners association (HOA).

“When you downsize into a retirement community, you can actually raise your happiness by meeting more people from your generation,” notes Swanson. “A lot of the adult communities have amenities like tennis courts, billiards rooms, woodworking shops, classes that teach you how to knit, clubs that play cards and board games that your homeowners association fees pay for. That can end up saving you money in the long run.”

Association-provided activities are less expensive than finding similar entertainment on your own dime. Plus, the socializing they provide may also reduce medical expenses by preventing depression-related health problems and improving quality of life.

Of course, moving into a community that charges HOA fees means adding to your monthly housing expenses above and beyond any mortgage payment, home insurance, utilities, and property taxes that you’re already paying.

So how can you afford it? Perhaps by turning the excess proceeds from the sale of your more expensive home into income.

6. You want to convert your home equity into income

Are you confident that you’ve saved enough to fund the retirement lifestyle you desire?

A 2018 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that only 1 in 3 retirees are “very confident” that they have enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement.

Chart showing how confident retirees feel about living comfortably throughout retirement.
Source: (ebri.org)

If you’re not, you may be counting on your current home equity for retirement income. In fact, covering everyday expenses is the number one reason retirees give for wanting to tap into their equity according to the Urban Institute’s Seniors’ Access to Home Equity report.

Chart showing top reasons home owners would tap int to home equity in retirement.
Source: (urban.org)

The reason why is no mystery—it’s because for most homeowners, that equity is their most valuable asset. Unfortunately, that asset is expensive to maintain.

Infographic showing how a home is a value and expense.
Source: (crr.bc.edu)

It stands to reason then, if you’re accessing that income to pay your everyday expenses like housing costs, it’ll eventually become depleted—unless you’ve invested that equity in a low-risk retirement account that pays out monthly dividends.

“Downsizing your home is one of those things you can do to enhance your lifestyle during retirement. It’s all about converting the home equity into a stream of income that will last the remainder of your life,” says Kennedy.

“For example, let’s say you pay $4,200 a month on your mortgage, principal interest, taxes and insurance. If you sell and downsize 10 to 15 years before you retire, that’s $40,000 a year in housing costs that you could put towards your retirement instead.”

Infographic explaining compound interest when saving money.
Source: (safetynet.com)

This investment strategy only works if downsizing saves you money in the long run. You need to work with a top agent who has experience helping retirees downsize.

A great agent can help you sell your current home for the most money possible. They’ll also make sure your new home is both affordable in monthly housing costs and inexpensive enough to leave you with a sizable chunk of equity to invest.

7. Your career no longer ties you to your location

Finding that ideal downsized home that’s both affordable and accessible may seem like an impossible dream—especially if you’re attempting to buy in your existing neighborhood.

But the beauty of retirement is that you no longer need to let your career dictate where you live.

Graph that shows freedom of location of home based on age.
Source: (Merrill Lynch)

The Merrill Lynch survey found that age 61 was the sweet spot for retirees when they were able to take their pick of where to live—and this freedom can be a big help financially.

Without a workplace to worry about, you’re free to shop around for the states, cities and neighborhoods with the lowest property taxes, utilities, sales taxes and more.

You may even find that you don’t need to sacrifice square footage at all if you don’t want to, if you choose to move to a less expensive area.

While 51% of those retirement-aged home buyers surveyed by Merrill Lynch did downsize, 19% purchased the same-sized home and 30% purchased a larger home after retiring. Which proves that it is possible to upsize your home while still downsizing your actual monthly housing expenses.

Choosing to downsize is a difficult decision to make. Choosing the best time to downsize is even trickier. But if you play your cards right, your move into a less-expensive home has the potential to save you money, and make you money, too.

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