Downsizing invites simplicity, savings

Gene and Cheryl Decheff enjoy living so close to downtown, which offers more opportunities to ride their bikes. (Dan Pelle)

Everything about the baby boom generation has been big: their numbers, their ambitions, their impact on society.

But there’s one thing about the boomers that’s starting to get smaller: their homes.

Their parents may have waited until retirement or beyond to move out of the larger houses where they raised their families. But more people today are doing so in their 50s and early 60s, in search of a simpler lifestyle.

And instead of traditional, age-restricted retirement communities, they’re turning more toward townhouses and condos in urban, mixed-use developments like Kendall Yards in Spokane and Riverstone in Coeur d’Alene.

“That’s probably our primary demographic – people in their 50s and 60s who are interested in living closer to downtown,” said Jim Campasino, Kendall Yards sales manager for developer Greenstone Homes.

“We thought we would attract younger buyers, up-and-coming professionals who don’t want to worry about the maintenance,” he said. “We’re seeing some of them, too, but not like we expected.”

More than 40 percent of people ages 50 to 64 plan to move within the next six years, according to a recent study by The Demand Institute, a nonprofit research agency. Half of them are looking for a smaller home.

Downsizers can save money, depending on how much they can get for their old houses, and the price and living expenses of their new residences.

But that doesn’t appear to be the main motivation. In a nationwide survey of Coldwell Banker real estate agents, only 1 in 4 said their boomer clients were downsizing to cut costs, while half said the goal was to simplify.

Gene Decheff and his wife, Cheryl, were among the first residents at Kendall Yards, on the north bank of the Spokane River west of the Monroe Street Bridge. They moved to their townhouse in November 2010 from a 10-acre spread on the West Plains.

“We found ourselves spending most of our nonworking time taking care of the place,” said Gene Decheff, 56, who’s employed part-time by a paint company. Cheryl, 58, is district sales manager for a women’s accessories chain.

At Kendall Yards, as part of their $160 monthly homeowners association dues, someone else shovels the snow in the winter and takes care of the lawn in the summer.

“It’s convenient not having to deal with that,” Decheff said. “There’s no yard equipment to buy and maintain.”

Michelle Nelson and her husband, Barry, came to Coeur d’Alene from Colorado two years ago when he was transferred by his employer, Hecla Mining.

When they arrived to start their housing search, recalls Michelle Nelson, 60, “It was snowy and icy. My husband said, ‘Have we looked at condos?’ ”

They found what they wanted at Riverstone, which sits along the Spokane River, just a few blocks from the Northwest Boulevard exit off Interstate 90.

Right after they moved, back at their home in the Denver area, the sprinkler system broke and the furnace went out.

“We thought, ‘OK, this a sign,’ ” Nelson said.

When it’s time to travel now, she said, “You just lock your door and leave. Everything is taken care of.”

And while their living quarters have been trimmed by two-thirds – from around 3,500 square feet to 1,200 – she doesn’t miss the extra space.

“How many rooms did we ever go into and actually use?” said Nelson, a former teacher who works for Laura Little Theatrical Productions. “The main rooms, we still have those.”

Being forced to get rid of clutter has been liberating, she and Gene Decheff agree.

“It’s like a light goes on: ‘Why do I have all this stuff?’ ” said Decheff, whose West Plains outbuildings and garage were crammed full.

“I can’t think of anything that we got rid of that we miss. It feels good, and we’re still doing it. … It’s simpler, better. There’s less stress.”

Nelson, who spent two years going through her parents’ possessions after they died, knows that she’s saving her children from that sort of stress someday.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to do it while you’re still active,” she said.

Riverstone’s recreational trails are helping to keep the Nelsons active. Michelle loves riding her bicycle along the river, to the library or the lake, while Barry, 62, is an avid runner.

The Decheffs also bought bicycles after their move. “We can ride downtown and be at the park in a few minutes,” Gene Decheff said.

And along with proximity to downtown attractions, Kendall Yards and Riverstone residents can take advantage of the opportunities within their developments. Riverstone offers an array of restaurants, shops and a Regal Cinemas multiplex.

“You can walk across the street to exercise, walk across the street to get your hair done, walk up the block to go to the movies,” said Mary Ann Brown, one of the earliest Riverstone condo buyers. “Life is easy.”

Commercial development is in its beginning stages at Kendall Yards. The first restaurant, Central Food, opened in November. Chef/owner David Blaine lives across the street from the Decheffs.

Knowing your neighbors is another benefit of the Kendall Yards lifestyle, Decheff said: “This has the most sense of community of anyplace we’ve ever lived. We all talk to each other, we get together.”

As attractive as a downsized existence might sound, it’s not something everyone can accomplish.

“Some people who might want to downsize are trapped in their houses in this market. They’ve lost some equity, and they’re going to have to wait a few years to build that back up,” said Rob Higgins, executive officer of the Spokane Association of Realtors.

On the other hand, he said, “The flip side of that is the houses they want to buy are cheaper now than they will be when their homes start to appreciate.”

Indeed, sooner may be better. As more and more baby boomers look to downsize, according to a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the younger generation may not be interested in buying those bigger houses, or able to afford them.

Now that they’ve started, the Decheffs aren’t done downsizing. In a few years, they plan to retire and spend winters in the vacation home they bought in Ecuador.

They’ll sell their Kendall Yards place, and when they return for the summer, their residence will be smaller still: an RV.

By the numbers

In 2011, Coldwell Banker Real Estate surveyed its agents nationwide regarding their dealings with baby boomer clients. Among the findings:

80 percent of the agents surveyed said older boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) were looking to downsize, compared to 6 percent who said they wanted larger homes.

52 percent said younger boomers (born between 1956 and 1964) wanted to downsize, while 31 percent said they were seeking more space.

• While 82 percent of the agents said younger boomers were looking for single-family dwellings, that dropped to 47 percent for older boomers – with another 47 percent saying older boomers preferred townhouses or condos.

49 percent said boomers of all ages who wanted to downsize were seeking a simpler lifestyle, while 28 percent said they were trying to save money.

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