As longtime owners of a nearly 4,000-square-foot house in southern California, Ciji Ware and her husband, Tony Cook, enjoyed spacious living. But when he received an unexpected job offer in northern California, they made an abrupt change. They put their possessions in storage and moved into a 395-square-foot apartment in San Francisco.
"Our son was grown and our dog had just died," Ms. Ware recalls. "We decided now was the moment to do this."
Later, when they bought a two-bedroom, two-bath home in Sausalito, Calif., they pared down drastically. "We had learned how little we needed our abundance," Ware says. As baby boomers, they also realized that they were in the vanguard of change.
Unlike many in their parents' generation, who often waited until their later years to move to smaller quarters, some baby boomers are pulling up stakes in their 50s, while they are still working. They are moving to condos, "active adult" communities, or city apartments. Although parting with belongings can be hard, a surprising number are finding new freedom.
"Boomers may have an adventurous spirit, following careers, following dreams," says Carol Orsborn, co-chair of FH Boom, a marketing group that studies this generation.
About 6 percent of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 move each year, according to the Over-50 Council of the National Association of Home Builders. Some change addresses when the nest empties or an early retirement beckons. Others are eager to reduce upkeep or spend time traveling. They want a "lock and leave" approach to housing.
Whatever the motive for moving, some experts see a shift under way. For an older generation, downsizing can be "a tough one," says Lisa LaCount, author of "1,001 Active Lifestyle Communities." "They have family heirlooms and large pieces of furniture. They have a lifetime around them." By contrast, baby boomers are a more transient generation.
"Baby boomers will have an easier time parting with things," says Margit Novack, president of Moving Solutions in Haverstown, Pa. "They're less invested in things because of their monetary value. Boomers grew up in an age of everything being disposable. Many are still working. They look for the most expedient way to get rid of stuff."
She and her husband, baby boomers themselves, recently went from a six- bedroom house to a home one-third that size. "We'd look at things we had collected. He'd say, 'Do you care about this anymore?' " The answer was often no.
"For our wedding 26 years ago, we received a cut glass tissue holder," Ms. Novack says. "I asked my husband, 'Do you think our tissue boxes need a house?' This is a new way of thinking." Noting that they parted with three truckloads of belongings, she adds, "It feels great not to have them."
For Ms. Orsborn, the hardest part of paring down was letting go of children's mementos.
"Boomers have been so close to their children," she explains. "We had to decide how much of their things we were going to carry through our lives." They gave both grown children plastic bins in which to store their school papers, artwork, and diaries.
Downsizing has its limits, of course. Many empty nesters still want 1,800 to 2,400 square feet when they move, says Bruce Nemovitz, a real estate broker in Milwaukee. Those in an older generation prefer 900 to 1,200 square feet.
Smaller quarters sometimes require a new approach to space. When Ray Betzner and his wife moved 30 miles to Thorndale, Pa., to give him a better commute to his job at Temple University, they lost a bedroom office. To compensate, they turned their dining room into an office.
"Giving up the dining room was probably harder for my wife than for me," says Mr. Betzner, even though they used it only six times a year. Last Thanksgiving they set up a long table in the living room. "It worked out just fine," he says.
There were other compromises. He had several thousand books. He packed up 13 boxes to sell or donate to the library. Several hundred titles fill shelves in the office and basement.
Three years ago, Michael and Kathleen Babini reduced their space by one-third when they moved from a house in Plymouth, Mass., to the Pinehills, a planned community in the same town. "You want to take everything with you," Mr. Babini says. They had to part with antiques from their formal dining room and store artwork that no longer fits. Still, he describes their new space as "much more user-friendly."
Like many baby boomers, the Babinis find that their grown children prefer more functional things. Although they took some items, their own space is limited.
Sometimes divesting brings disappointment. Prices for certain styles of furniture and collectibles have dropped as demand has declined, says Bert Rosengarten, co-owner of Antiques on Cambridge Street in Cambridge, Mass.
"Young people under the age of 40 prefer things that are more modern and contemporary," he says. "They don't see the value of old things. If the kids don't want it, try to sell it to friends. If that doesn't work, consider other options. Sell it to a dealer. Hold a garage sale – although unless you know what you have, you're not optimizing what it's worth. Or consider auction or consignment." Sometimes it pays to hire an appraiser first.
In deciding what to keep, Ware devised a three-question test: What do we need? What do we love? What do we use? "That became my mantra," she says. "We had croquet sets, Weed Whackers, and stuff we no longer needed." They gave many things to relatives. They also held a tag sale. She turned her experiences into a book, "Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Possessions While Keeping What Matters Most."
Some baby boomers are determined not to burden their children with the kind of overflow that their parents bequeathed to them. When Orsborn and her husband inherited his mother's house in Napa, Calif., she says, "We had no idea there was so much stuff stashed away. It's been astonishing for people in the boomer generation to see the quantities of accumulation – the wrapping paper collections, the Christmas cards they never threw away."
Kim Hanna, who is moving from Destin, Fla., to Plymouth, Mass., will cut her space in half. "I've come to the realization that material things really do weigh you down," she says. "I'm thrilled about moving. It simplifies my life."
Novack views it this way: "Downsizing is like working out. You don't enjoy it while you're working out, but when you finish you're glad you've done it."