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More Empty-Nesters Increasing Living Space

Fri., Sept. 5, 1997

Lynn Korda and Jules Kroll raised four children in a 5,900-square-foot home in Rye, N.Y. But now that their children are grown, they have decided to upsize, as builders say, and are planning a new house of at least 8,000 square feet.

While Charles and Elaine Evans’ three children were growing up, their country house in East Hampton, N.Y., had only one bathroom in its 980 square feet. Now that the youngest is 26 and on his own, the Evanses have more than doubled the house’s size - adding 1,000 square feet, including a second story and two bathrooms. “Our means finally caught up with our past desires,” Elaine Evans said.

The Krolls and the Evanses are joining the growing ranks of empty-nesters who are rejecting the traditional image of mature homeowners as people intent on cutting back and gearing down. With the last tuition check canceled and the pounding music just a ghostly echo, more couples past the breeding age are finally asking themselves how they really want to live. And surprisingly the answer often is: big.

The building industry is feeling the effects of these expansive feathered nesters. While it is a trend primarily affecting the high end, most of the more than 40 builders and developers interviewed across the country said that these clients had altered the complexion of their businesses.

Thomas Bowman, a builder in Huntington, N.Y., said that half of his business is from couples with adult or nearly adult children. “One might think that the older buyers would be thinking of consolidating and making life simpler, but no, they aren’t,” he said. “These are people who gave up a lot for a lot of years, and now they are looking for quality of life.”

The National Association of Home Builders estimates that in the year 2000, the average American house will have 2,500 square feet, up significantly from 1,900 square feet in 1977. “Everybody wants four bedrooms when they only use two for sleeping,” said Gopal Ahluwalia, the association’s director of research. “And in California, every house has to have three fireplaces that never get used.”

At the same time, the average number of occupants per house is dropping. “It is now at 2.6,” he said.

But increasingly, occupancy is a relative term, in more ways than one. Inspiration for these big houses frequently is the hope that the family - especially grandchildren - will like the new surroundings enough to want to visit. Often.

Evans said that even though her children had to make do with sharing the bathroom, she hoped that the new expanded house would “pay off with the grandchildren.”

Builders of custom houses speak of being asked frequently to design special features calculated to impress youngsters, including sunken ball courts, built-in bunk beds, small video arcades and pinball parlors.

“We tell people how they can design a house to be attractive to kids,” said Orren Pickell, a home builder in Chicago. “First, we suggest finishing the lower level and then putting in all the things the parents won’t let them do at their own home, like video games, pool and Ping-Pong tables. It’s a bribe, but so what? It works.”

Builders call the houses they are designing for this powerful new market “entertainment houses,” “homesteads,” “quarterly houses” or “transitional homes” - anything, it seems, but “empty nests.”

“I could easily plan the perfect house for the past 26 years,” said Kroll, 53, who is interviewing architects to build on a piece of land next door to their present home. “I can only begin to think about how to plan for the next 26 years.”

She is already dreaming of a larger kitchen with more counter space (“I used to need lots of floor when the kids were underfoot,” she said. “Now, I need counter space for all the helping hands I’ll have.”).

Kroll said she would also like a proper library for those books that she will now have the time to read, a private sitting room, a billiards room and perhaps quarters for a live-in housekeeper.

And the dining room will have to be very large for family get-togethers (“God willing, I hope there will be lots of people someday,” she said.).

David Schless, the executive director of the American Seniors Housing Association, a trade group in Washington, said: “It’s a trend affecting a thin segment of the population at the well-to-do end of the market. Most people stay in the same home for as long as they possibly can.”

Changes in capital-gains tax laws that took effect on July 28 (raising the exemption for selling a permanent residence to $500,000 for married homeowners and $250,000 for individual taxpayers) have meant that there should soon be more large houses on the market. Previously, older people who had bought their houses relatively cheaply decades ago were discouraged from selling at a profit because of the large tax bite.

“The tax change will definitely enable many seniors to be more inclined to move,” Schless said.

The current empty-nest generation is also the first one to have so many two-career, two-income families. Furthermore, it is not a foregone conclusion that earning stops with retirement, as many older people are starting second careers late in life.

“People are beginning to catch on to the possibility of a second adulthood,” said Gail Sheehy, the author of “New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time” (Random House, 1995). “They are retiring earlier and earlier and living longer. It used to be as life contracted, so did the living space. Now, life is opening up after 50, so why not open up your surroundings?”

Tags: lifestyle

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