An empty nest - now what?

Once the kids move out, couples start to ask themselves what they want in life, and how much space they need.

During all the years Nancy and Terry Sullivan were rearing six children - three of hers and three of his - they needed space. Lots of space.

But by the time Mrs. Sullivan's youngest daughter graduated from college, their four-bedroom suburban home had emptied out, and the couple wanted smaller quarters. They put up a For Sale sign, bought a cozy two-bedroom condominium in nearby Ashland, Mass., and started paring down.

"That was the right time to downsize," says Sullivan, who works in public relations at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

Deciding where to live when fledglings leave the nest can both energize and perplex newly free couples. Unlike earlier generations who launched their last child and simply converted a bedroom into a sewing room, today's parents are thinking expansively - and sometimes expensively. This is their time and their space, they say - a stage of life that signals independence and adventure.

Todd Lawson, a Seattle architect and coauthor (with Tom Connor) of "The House to Ourselves: Reinventing Home Once the Kids Are Grown" (Taunton Press, $35), sees the empty nest as an increasingly distinct stage of life, with more and more options for housing and activities. "People are asking, 'What are we going to do for the next 25 years?' " he says. "They're building and remodeling to suit those needs."

Those needs include home offices, space for entertaining and hobbies, and guest rooms. "Hotel Grandma" is the playful term Mr. Lawson uses to describe the houses of empty-nest parents who are eagerly "preparing for the troops to come home."

Even without grandchildren, empty nesters face important housing decisions. The first is location. "People today are less likely to pull up stakes and move to Arizona to play golf, and more likely to stay put," Lawson says. "They've lived their whole life in this neighborhood. Their friends are there. A lot of people aren't retired yet, or they're working at home."

Another housing decision involves size. Some people downsize so they can't have long-term visitors, Lawson says. "Others want to have family and friends stay with them all the time, so they create houses where they do have places to stay."

A third decision focuses on activities - how parents plan to use residential space. "In this time of life, people start spending more and more time away from work," Lawson says. "Are they going to spend it at home doing hobbies, or are they going to travel?"

For many couples, this may be the first time in their marriage that they have both been home together without the children. "That takes some adjusting," Lawson cautions. "They have to have spaces to be together and separate." A home office becomes even more important for those who are retired, because they have no office to go to.

Let the house spread its wings

One of Lawson's favorite architectural trends involves wings in a house. Family members and houseguests can go to the end of the hall and shut the door, then come back for dinner.

Empty nesters must also consider maintenance. Some want a huge yard, Lawson finds, while others prefer to spend their time in different ways.

Yardwork was one factor influencing the Sullivans' decision to buy a condo. "We'd sit on our deck in Holliston and look at the ample yard," Sullivan says. "When the kids were running around, it was a treasure. But it became a burden. The only time we set foot on it was to mow it or rake it. There's something wrong with that."

Moving to a suburban condo was the couple's second choice. "We always thought we would buy a place on a lake," Sullivan says. Then her mother needed help, so they stayed in the area. That emphasis on family has produced its own rewards.

"We're the classic sandwich generation," Sullivan says. "You want to spend every moment you can with your parents, and also spend time with your kids."

Do we stay close or move far away?

Proximity to grown children also shaped John and Cynthia Ruhaak's decisions. Seven years ago, after their younger daughter went off to college, the couple did "a lot of thinking and searching" about where to live in retirement.

"We love the outdoors," Mrs. Ruhaak says, explaining that they often backpacked in the West. They considered moving there, but changed their minds after asking themselves hard questions: "What about the commute from the place we love, which is the Midwest? And what about our children, who may or may not have the money or the time to come visit?"

They eventually bought 10 acres of farmland in northern Indiana, just 70 minutes from their small apartment in Chicago.

"We walked onto the property and knew," she says. They talked to eight architects and as many contractors, and looked at examples of their work. "With both the architect and builder, we knew almost immediately that these were the people we wanted to work with."

The resulting 2,500-square-foot house is a model of Shaker-style simplicity. "There is enormous privacy," Ruhaak says. The kitchen features two sinks so everyone can help with cooking and cleanup when the extended family gathers for holidays.

Mr. Ruhaak has space for woodworking near the garage, and Mrs. Ruhaak's weaving studio is in the basement. After decades as a city dweller, she is reveling in weekend gardening and bird-watching. They spend weekdays in Chicago, where she works as an interior designer.

For Jay and Ann Dickerson of Lakewood, Colo., becoming empty nesters nine years ago led to a radical change in their lives - one they had spent 10 years saving for. They sold the four-bedroom tri-level where their son had grown up and bought a 46-foot sailboat. They also quit their jobs.

"We just started getting rid of all our stuff, except for things we really wanted to keep, which we stored in friends' and relatives' houses," Mrs. Dickerson says. "It was very cleansing.

"We've always had a philosophy that it's better to do things than have things," she says.

For 3-1/2 years the couple island-hopped around the Caribbean, living on the sailboat. "I'm married to Mr. Outdoors," Dickerson says with a laugh. "He always said the time to do this was the time between children and grandchildren. He was so right, because we have our first grandchild now."

When they returned to Denver - and work - in 1999, the Dickersons bought a 2,100-square-foot house with two bedrooms, two baths and vaulted ceilings.

"We made a conscious decision to keep the house small and not to get a lot of stuff," Dickerson says. "It's a perfect empty-nester house. It has really big rooms, but not a lot of them." With a large kitchen and a great room, it lends itself to entertaining.

But sometimes the decision to keep a house small can have unexpected consequences, leading couples to wish they had made different choices. Having no space for entertaining counts as one reason the Sullivans regret going from a four-bedroom house to a two-bedroom condo.

With six grown children, 12 grandchildren, and three of their parents nearby, they long to host family gatherings.

For now, they cook Thanksgiving dinner in their church kitchen and eat it in the church parlor. They also invite church members who would otherwise be alone.

Yet their smaller quarters do offer advantages. The Sullivans have reduced their mortgage, an important consideration since he took a pay cut when he left a middle-management position to begin a new career as a chef.

"We knew we wanted the carefree lifestyle," Sullivan says. "We love where we are, on the one hand. On the other hand, if we could just add on to the condo."

Some empty nesters do what Lesslie Giacobbi, a real estate broker in Villa Park, Calif., calls "a massive remodel." They may not need as many bedrooms as they had, she says, so they create more living space. That often includes a great room adjoining the kitchen.

After Jim and Denny Hoelter's three children left home, the couple decided to stay in Piedmont, Calif. They were active in the community, had many friends there, and liked the proximity to San Francisco. But their English-style cottage, while long on charm, was short on light and space for entertaining.

They expanded the three- bedroom house from 2,400 square feet to about 4,000 square feet. That included quadrupling the size of the kitchen, which had been just 5 feet by 10 feet.

French doors in the living room allow them to open up space for a large group. They also converted a pantry into an understairs playroom for their seven grandchildren.

Describing the renovated house, Mrs. Hoelter says, "It's more convenient, more efficient, and brighter."

Some town houses and condominiums offer recreational facilities - such as a pool, tennis courts, and gym - which appeal to empty nesters.

"These are things that give you a sense of camaraderie," says Kathy Braddock, a real estate consultant in New York "There comes a time in people's lives when they like the convenience of being pampered a bit. It's not necessarily more expensive, it's just different."

Even small decorative details can give satisfaction. Lawson offers an example: "Before, the door handle was chosen to keep the kids out of the bathroom or the cupboards. Now it's chosen because they've always wanted to have stainless steel. It's about design and about adult-centric living as opposed to kid-centric."

Those who bought their house many years ago have watched its value soar. Now they must consider a question empty nesters did not face 20 years ago. "People are asking, 'Is it stupid not to sell?' " Ms. Braddock says. "They cannot ignore the value of their home as part of their portfolio. Some are capturing the profit they have made in their home and doing something different."

Whatever choices empty nesters make, some suggest that their plans - and their address - could change again.

"It's a great time of life," says Sullivan, who still harbors dreams of a lakeside home, complete with enough space to host Thanksgiving dinner.

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