The big squeeze: A survival guide for downsizing your home

Amanda Cropp is a business journalist for Stuff.

OPINION: Downsizing your home is equal parts terrifying and exciting.

The terror strikes when you look around and wonder what the hell you are going to do with all the stuff you have accumulated over the years.

The excitement kicks in when you realise this is the opportunity to try a whole new lifestyle, minus the work involved in a larger property.

Friends were gobsmacked to learn we had sold our sprawling 120-year-old beachside villa, lovingly renovated over more than 30 years, and bought a new inner city townhouse about half the size.

We were in our late fifties, and had always planned to swap the sprawling home and garden for compact easy-care inner city living when the kids left home. Eight months after embarking on a property search, the deed was done.

Once their two sons had left home, Amanda Cropp reckoned they would probably regularly use only three of the 10 rooms in their spacious villa.

Amanda Cropp/Stuff

Once their two sons had left home, Amanda Cropp reckoned they would probably regularly use only three of the 10 rooms in their spacious villa.

The Christchurch earthquakes forced our family of four to shift into a small townhouse while our home underwent extensive repairs, and it proved a useful practise run. At the time, I commented to my husband that if it was just two of us, I’d happily downsize when the time was right.

I won’t pretend it was easy, but I was spurred on in part by the knowledge I’d be in dire straits if my handyman wizard other half was not around to keep on top of the massive maintenance required to keep our weatherboard pile looking good.

Leaving a family home you have lived in for decades is a wrench, says Amanda Cropp, and it is much easier if it is a well planned exercise.

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Leaving a family home you have lived in for decades is a wrench, says Amanda Cropp, and it is much easier if it is a well planned exercise.

Planning ahead

Shifting is always stressful, but much better to do it when you choose to, rather than having it forced on you by a health or financial crisis.

Depending on your age and stage of life, proximity to public transport and access hospital level care are worth considering. Shifting to a new town and establishing a new social circle can be much more challenging if you have hearing loss or mobility issues.

A couple of years out from the move, we got a real estate agent familiar with the area to advise us on what we should do to maximise the return on our house, without over capitalising.

She endorsed our plans to replace the outdated kitchen and bathroom, and to landscape the front garden.

Landscaping the front garden was done with a view to selling. When the couple downsized to no grass, Amanda Cropp jokingly offered to buy her husband a square of astro turf in case he missed mowing lawns. He never did.

Amanda Cropp/Stuff

Landscaping the front garden was done with a view to selling. When the couple downsized to no grass, Amanda Cropp jokingly offered to buy her husband a square of astro turf in case he missed mowing lawns. He never did.

Making a wish list

In the case of couples, it pays to be on the same page about when and where you want to go, and the future lifestyle you are seeking.

Remaining in Christchurch was a no-brainer for us because at that stage we both had jobs in the city (my husband his since retired), and the aim was to be within 15 minutes walking distance of the CBD and Hagley Park.

Having experienced the personal hell of a protracted insurance battle following the earthquakes, our original idea of buying an apartment quickly went out the window, to avoid the complexities of dealing with a body corporate, plus we were wary of being stuck with rising body corp fees on a fixed retirement income.

Quitting a large garden meant a move to growing microgreens, citrus and herbs grow in planter troughs. Closeness to work, and the city cut the owners’ petrol bill by three quarters.

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Quitting a large garden meant a move to growing microgreens, citrus and herbs grow in planter troughs. Closeness to work, and the city cut the owners’ petrol bill by three quarters.

About 20 open homes later we found a new three-bedroom, two-bathroom, double-garage townhouse on a separate title, one of four with a shared driveway down the middle.

The third bedroom doubles as a study, with a fold-up workstation and a couch that converts to a comfortable bed, so we can accommodate both sons if they happen to visit at the same time.

Growing limes, lemons, herbs and microgreens in planter troughs satisfies my gardening urges, and my husband is stunned when people ask if he misses mowing lawns. In a word: “No.”

Downsizing the house can mean house meant downsizing furniture too. Things that were perfect for an old villa, simply did not fit, or looked out of place in a modern townhouse.

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Downsizing the house can mean house meant downsizing furniture too. Things that were perfect for an old villa, simply did not fit, or looked out of place in a modern townhouse.

Be ruthless

Despite starting to dispose of furniture well in advance, we parked our cars on the street for a couple of months while we emptied the garage of superfluous couches, bookcases and side tables.

Attempting to sell furniture on Trade Me was a reality check, and when good quality pieces did not get takers, they were donated to local charities.

National Mini Storage has more than 11,000 units in Auckland and chief executive Caroline Plowman estimates about 20 per cent of their customers are downsizers who spend between $100 and $200 a month on renting smaller storage units (2 x 1 metre or 3 x 2 metre).

Power bills are much lower in the sunny townhouse which has one heat pump, compared with the family’s old villa which needed two heat pumps, a gas fire and a pellet fire to keep it cosy.

Peter Meecham/Stuff

Power bills are much lower in the sunny townhouse which has one heat pump, compared with the family’s old villa which needed two heat pumps, a gas fire and a pellet fire to keep it cosy.

For some people, buying a two-bedroom apartment and leasing storage space is more financially viable than buying a three-bedroom unit to fit all their excess stuff.

In Plowman’s experience, that often includes gear belonging to children who have left home, and memorabilia people cannot bear to part with. “Often it’s not the dollar value, it’s the emotional value.”

We gave our sons a box each and asked them choose special items they really wanted to keep, but I know parents who issue their offspring with an ultimatum, and anything not removed by a specific date goes to the tip. It may sound harsh, but being an adult means taking responsibility for your stuff.

Six years on, there are still things I miss about our old home – the sound of the sea, ready access to the Port Hills, and the sense of community – but don’t regret downsizing for a minute.

The former 45-minute bus ride to work is now a 15-minute walk or an even shorter cycle ride. I love being within strolling distance of cafes, art galleries, movie theatres, the central library and the Botanic Gardens.

When I hear friends talking about downsizing but never quite getting around to it, I am forever grateful that my husband nudged me into taking the plunge.



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