Three years ago, when their youngest child was 15, Paula and Paul Loftus ran the numbers, and, after a brief analysis, foresaw that this child, too, would very likely finish high school, and go away to college, just like his older brother and sister.
And that meant one thing: They would be left with too much house. “Once the last kid was launched, the house would be more than we needed, and certainly more than we wanted to take care of,” Paula said.
Now, we all know that crossing the gap between knowing and doing is like Evil Knievel jumping the Snake River canyon on skateboard. Thus, most empty nesters default into staying in the family home for one of three reasons, or all of them:
Denial (The kids love this home, moving would break their hearts, and anyway, we’re not really getting older.)
Complacency (Moving is too much effort. This house is so full of everyone’s stuff it would take dynamite and a backhoe to get us out.)
Fear (Where would we go? What would we do with the leftover furniture? How would we ever fill out all those change of address forms?)
But Paul and Paula, both in their 50s, defied gravity and made an exit plan. They bought a lot near their family house with an old structure on it that they would need to tear down, and spent the last few years envisioning, designing and building their downsized dreamhouse.
Last month they traded their 6,000 square-foot, six-bedroom home of 17 years for a 3,200 square-foot, four-bedroom, with a 1,000 square-foot basement. They sold, donated or tossed more than half of their household contents, and are enjoying the unbearable lightness of their new right-sized life.
Two weeks ago, my husband and I had the honor of being their first dinner guests.
“As long as I can bring my laptop and ask questions,” I said, only half-joking, when Paula, a friend for years, invited us. (Woe be to those who befriend a columnist.)
After the home tour, I settled in the seating area next to the big open kitchen, popped open my laptop and popped off some questions.
“We had a great house. We had a lot of fun there. We hosted a lot of school and work functions, but it served its purpose,” said Paula, adding that she’s had no problem walking away.
Paul, a business consultant, sees nothing but upside. “We got rid of our microeconomy and all that went with it,” he said referring to the former home, which sat on over an acre. The new home is on a quarter acre. He estimates their monthly household expenses will be a third of what they were.
Less home and less responsibility mean more freedom to enjoy all the plans they have for the next phase of life, they said.
But such a lifestyle change stage doesn’t just happen. It takes foresight, intention and effort.
Here’s what Paula and Paul considered as they dreamed, planned and built their downsized dreamhouse:
Respectful architecture. Because the street they built on had houses dating back to the late 1800s, the Loftuses built an American four-square house, a style popular at the turn of the century. “A modern home would have just been inconsiderate,” said Paula. The home features a deep front porch and second-story dormer windows. Inside details like antique vent plates, floors of reclaimed heart pine, and repurposed parts of the original structure (doors, counters, sections of wrought iron and a fountain) make the home look decades older than it is.
A chef’s kitchen. “The kitchen is where everyone in our family loves to cook and hangout,” Paula said, so they made a big French-inspired kitchen the heart of the home.
No dining room. The Loftuses are known for hosting great dinner parties, but they didn’t want a dining room that would often go unused. “Most of the time it’s Paul and I and maybe one kid,” said Paula. The new home has an eat-in kitchen with a table that can extend to accommodate many guests.
Multipurpose areas. Rather than one big room to gather in, the home has several areas for seating or other uses. “A great room backfires,” Paula has discovered. “Having more small seating areas means multiple generations don’t have to be all fenced in. Older folks can get away from the din of the kids. Others can find discreet areas to work, relax, or talk, but not all in one space.”
Smaller bedrooms. While each of their three grown children still has a bedroom in the new house, “they are coming to visit, not to live,” said Paula. So bedrooms are much smaller.
One-level living. “We wanted a house where we could live entirely on one floor, so we can age here,” said Paula. The new home has a downstairs master, and level thresholds even into the shower.
Less stuff. “I gave myself permission to give away all the stuff I had hung onto simply because I had the room,” said Paula. (Huge silent cheer!) Did her kids mind that she’d cleared out the stuff they didn’t take with them? “Actually, they were thankful that we took that burden away.”
Great technology. “Any sentimental longings our kids had about the move were quickly forgotten when they discovered that we’re wired,” said Paul, who invested in the latest, up-to-speed technology.
And the memories? “I don’t think memories are in a house,” said Paula. “They are in the special items you collect that are part of your life.” They brought along antique pieces from Paul’s mother, and the art and rugs they’ve collected together. “Every piece we chose to carry forward means a lot to our family. Getting rid of the rest wasn’t hard for me.”
Welcome home – Paula and Paul Loftus, and their field-bred English cocker spaniel Bracken, on the porch of their new right-sized home. Their advice to those attached to their big house: “Move on. We love our rightsized life. It’s liberating.” Photo courtesy of Marni Jameson
Your table is ready -- The table in the home’s eat-in kitchen can extend to accommodate many guests, eliminating the need for a formal dining room. Photo courtesy of Marni Jameson