Downsizing for the perfect fit . . . and a fuller life
But finding the right smaller home can be a challenge
It’s not as extreme as the tiny-home movement, but moving toward a simpler lifestyle with less stuff is one reason for downsizing. Other reasons include wanting a smaller space as children grow up and move out, seeking to minimize time spent on yard work and maintenance, and desiring amenities that support aging in place.
There are a variety of options in the western suburbs, including condominiums, townhomes and ranch-style single-family homes, that work for those seeking to downsize, either within the same community or to a nearby town.
Making a Move
Many of those looking to downsize to a smaller home in the suburbs are finding it a challenge, as there are not many on the market.
Dudley and Judy Burgess of Geneva decided to sell their 5,000-sq-ft, four-bedroom house in St. Charles once the last of their three sons moved out. After a year of searching, they found a 1,800-square foot home in Geneva’s Mill Creek subdivision. Because the market is so competitive, they had to act fast, making an offer the first day the home was up for sale. That was last July. They didn’t move into the home until December, after remodeling it to suit their style and needs.
After 24 years in her 3,000-sq-ft Bolingbrook home, Karen Medina had an empty nest and was ready for a change, so five years ago, she moved to a 1,200-square-foot condominium in Plainfield. She recalls an extensive home search: “I looked at a good 50 to 60 places.”
For Karen, finding the just-right space and sticking to a budget were both important. She notes that some downsizers, having made a tidy profit on their home sale, invest in a home that’s beyond their price range, which can endanger their retirement or leave them without a safety net in the event of job loss.
While some downsizers find a home and then sell, John and Freddie Melone sold their five-bedroom West Chicago home before finding a new one in Geneva. They started by looking at all manner of smaller homes in their desired communities, even older structures, ruling out condos because of fees and lack of outdoor space for their three little dogs. The single-family ranch they eventually settled on required some cosmetic updates, but the interior and exterior fit their needs.
The Melones recommend hashing out some details of what you would like ahead of time and then being prepared to be quick and decisive when you find the right home. “Our experience was that it’s very competitive out there. If you are going to put your house on the market today, you have to be ready to roll.”
Sticking Close to Home
When Vicki and Ted Slavik of Elmhurst decided to downsize, they didn’t have to look far — just across the street. Their neighbors, a family with three young children, lived in a small and charming Sears catalog home they were outgrowing. The Slaviks had raised two children in their two-story home and the youngest was just finishing college. The two families decided to make a trade. “They were looking for a bigger house and wanted to stay in the neighborhood,” said Vicki. “Years ago, we told them if they were looking to sell, we would be interested. We negotiated a price and it worked out well for both of us.”
Joan and Don Hoff also enjoy Elmhurst. A little more than four years ago, they purchased their fourth home in the city and downsized for the second time, moving from a single-family home in a zero-lot-line, maintenance-free community to a home they designed and built themselves in an established neighborhood, after tearing down a small older home that was in a state of disrepair. “We missed seeing younger kids (in the neighborhood) and missed the yard and gardening,” says Joan.
These couples were able to stay in the same city while downsizing, but others may need to widen their scope and end up buying in a different suburb, like Karen Medina. Moving to a new town was an adjustment, but Karen says it didn’t take her long to feel at home. She signed up for some local classes and activities, including the citizen police and fire academy, which helped her meet people. “Get established in your community so you have connections,” she advises.
Personalizing New Spaces
Wherever you move, you’ll want to put your personal stamp on your new digs. With 11 moves under their belts, the Burgesses are expert packers and movers and are equally adept at setting up and personalizing new spaces. “We worked hard to make it our house,” says Judy. “We wanted it to feel like home and use many of the antiques we’ve collected over our 53 years of marriage.” Though they selected a ranch for accessibility, they wanted two floors for space and family time, so they finished the large basement. A friend who is an interior designer, Bobbi Alderfer of Lifestyle Design in Geneva, helped them through the process.
The Slaviks also retooled their new home a bit. Vicki says they were attracted to the character of the 1919 home and didn’t mind reworking it to suit their needs. Since moving in, they have done extensive remodeling, including enlarging and updating the kitchen and reconfiguring the stairs to provide better access to the basement, which they also finished. Though it has fewer and smaller bedrooms, the new home has more “public” space, which makes it great for entertaining.
Their former home had extensive landscaping and had been featured on a local garden walk, and now that the interior work is complete, they are looking forward to updating their new yard. “It’s fun to have another project,” says Vicki.
For the Hoffs, designing their own home allowed them to tailor it to their needs, including lots of custom details, such as a built-in china cupboard modeled after one in Joan’s grandmother’s home. Joan’s favorite room is her project room, located off the kitchen, because it has space for crafting and sewing.
The one-level living space also features a second story with roughed-in plumbing that could be completed at a later date for resale. Currently, the main level features one large master suite as well as two small bedrooms with a shared bath. The bedrooms are located on the opposite side of the home from the master and could be turned into a living space for a guest or caregiver, if needed.
“Though we could have grown old in our previous home, there was a lot of unused space — extra bedrooms, a loft area and a dining room and parlor,” says Joan. “In this home, everything is on one floor, and we eliminated spaces we didn’t use.”
For many homeowners, not just those who are downsizing, eliminating unneeded items can be time-consuming and emotionally draining.
Judy Burgess says watching her mother downsize repeatedly helped put that in perspective. “There’s a time for collecting and a time for getting rid of things,” she says.
She and Dudley enjoyed giving items to their children and nephews. For example, they had a large stained-glass window above the fireplace in their old home. Salvaged from the church where they were married, it was a gift from Judy’s parents. One of their sons was married at home, in front of the fireplace, so they gave the stained glass to him and his wife. “We tried to keep things in the family, and we feel good that we were able to share and that they are putting things to good use,” says Judy.
Each time the Hoffs moved, they shed more possessions, utilizing online sales sites like OfferUp and Craigslist as well as local resale and consignment shops. When it comes to reducing excess before making a move, Joan recommends making sure you have the space for things and that you use that space well. “Choose your favorite possessions and make sure you can keep things most special to you,” she says, noting a piano and some family heirlooms were important for her to keep.
Getting rid of unneeded items before the move was difficult for Freddie, whereas John had no qualms about arranging for a dumpster. Selling, giving away and donating took some time, and though they eliminated a lot, they still moved two truckloads to their new home. “Even as we are here, more things are going,” says Freddie. “It is a process, mental and emotional, but, at the end of the day, don’t we all want to live simpler lives and be happy and not worry about all this stuff?”
Vicki also says paring down belongings was her biggest challenge. “We were in the old house for 23 years, so we had five carloads to get rid of.” She suggests letting go of things over time so it’s not too overwhelming.
Though most people like to keep a lot of their things, Karen decided to make a fresh start in her new place and sold most of her possessions before moving. “I got rid of everything but the mattresses and TV — every piece of furniture and decoration, even my houseplants and Christmas decorations,” she says.
While it wasn’t easy, letting go of old things was freeing, and Karen had fun changing up her decorating style.
“Everything I had was outdated,” she recalls. However, she cautions, making such a drastic change requires careful consideration. “Really be sure that’s what you want to do. You want to be somewhere that makes you happy — not just the place, but what’s around you.”
As many downsizers have discovered, moving to a smaller home can provide more space for the activities that matter to you. Though Karen misses certain things about her old home, namely the privacy of a single-family home on a large, wooded lot, she enjoys the quiet cul-de-sac where her new home is located as well as the extra free time. “It was getting hard to afford and maintain (the larger home). Now I have more time to myself,” she says.
“Having fewer things and a simpler lifestyle was part of it for me,” says Vicki Slavik of her downsizing experience. “We also plan on retiring within the next 10 years and traveling. We want to be able to leave the house for a while without worrying about the upkeep.”
The Melones were once overwhelmed by work at their former home. “There was all this stuff to maintain,” Freddie explains. “Mowing, trimming trees, mulching, maintaining gardens — it seemed like that was all we were doing on the weekends.”
The couple, with a daughter in the area, as well as two sons and grandchildren who live out of state, hoped a move would afford them more time to travel and enjoy their RV. Their new home, which includes a maintenance package that covers chores like mowing and shoveling snow, was the perfect choice for them.
“I just love it,” says Freddie. “I have to pinch myself, I am so happy. I can’t tell you how relieved I am we’ve sold and moved on to the next chapter of our lives.”
As Judy Burgess observes, “I was having a discussion with friends and one said, ‘We aren’t really downsizing, we’re rightsizing.’”Edit Module