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Selling the Family Home

iStock_000000940971SmallOne of the big economic and emotional decisions baby boomers face is the question of when to sell the family home. We’ve all seen what happens when people wait too long only to be saddled with a house in their old age.  So when is the best time to move on?

Many of us decide to “downsize” when children go off to college, and that often sets off an emotional reaction from children, even if they are not living at home full time.  The New York Times Home section recently profiled a Connecticut couple who moved from their “theme park” luxury home to a small ranch where their adult children no longer had their own bedrooms, den and swimming pool.   The article generated about 150 comments, many lambasting the children for being spoiled by expecting their parents to provide “an eternal way station,” as one commenter called it.

The issue of this particular family aside, both parents and children face an emotional wrenching when the family home where they grew and flourished is sold.   Two college students told me wistfully that their family homes had been sold during the summer. Both will go home for the holidays to new houses.  “It will be very strange not going to the house where I grew up,” one said.

A friend is preparing to sell her home for financial reasons.  Her 24-year-old daughter tearfully reacted. “Where will I bring my children for holidays?”  Never mind that the daughter is not even in serious relationship!

Sometimes there is no choice for when to sell the home; it’s dictated by financial necessities like a lost job or a depleted 401k or mounting upkeep. Other times the house, perhaps with the mortgage finally paid off, is affordable but why do you need all those empty rooms? At what point—if any—do you sell and move on, and how much do you consider your children’s reaction?

Is there some unspoken assumption by our children that there will always be a safe haven for them? For a twentysomething with a low-paid starter job, living in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates, it’s indeed comforting to know that a comfy bed and clean shower await back home.  But what about when children become more established and move into their own homes, especially when they are married with children.

Even at that point, several parents I know are reluctant to sell their too-big-for-two homes. The house with a leafy backyard, a barbeque grill  and maybe pool keeps the “kids” coming, often with friends or their own children, on summer weekends.  What happens when Grandma is the one with the table that seats 12 for Thanksgiving dinner?  Where’s the holiday feast when mom and dad live in a one–bedroom condo? What’s your daughter going to do in that tiny apartment?  Thanksgiving on folding trays?

Perhaps the notion of not making any sudden moves apply here.  The conversation about what parents are planning, and why, needs to start way before the moving van pulls up.

If you keep the house what do you do with that spare room?

If you keep the family house after the last child  heads off to college what do you do with the extra bedrooms?  Do you keep them as a shrine to the kids, complete with baseball trophies and the Barbie collection or sell the stuff on eBay? Do you use the space to finally get your own home office, exercise room or den?

One of my students wrote an article about how his West Coast parents bought new dog when he went off to college on the East Coast. When he went home for the first Thanksgiving he was appalled to find that the dog has claimed his old bed and his mom had put up pictures of the dog and other puppy paraphernalia around his room.

To make the transition smoother from your child’s room to a multipurpose place try enlisting assistance in redecorating when you child comes home on holiday break.   Those stuffed animals don’t hold the same sentimental value for a hip college student.  Ask you child to help you sort through the stuff and toss, store in the attic or keep.  With any luck the “keep” pile will be manageable.  Ask for suggestion for decorating in a updated style. There’s no reason an office or TV room also can’t function as a bedroom. Your son may be happy to see those soccer sheets finally donated, especially if the room comes with a new flat screen TV.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Dorothy October 12, 2009, 4:28 pm

    This is just the tip of the iceberg of letting the home go. As boomers we want the freeedom of no mowing,plowing or pool up keep.At the same time , we enjoy when the kids do come home,even with lots of friends in tow. Each of us has to decide how much time and money we are willing to putting into keeping the “family home” . When the balance goes into the negative it is time to move on…..just do it before it is too late and your kids have to sell your home!!!!

  • Vivien Orbach-Smith October 14, 2009, 3:10 am

    Almost everyone – regardless of age – feels a sense of loss when their parents sell/dismantle the old nest. My students have also expressed strong feelings about this, especially when the move was part of a divorce the kids didn’t see coming. No disrespect meant to the well-intentioned parents who valiantly keep conflict and unhappiness under wraps for years, waiting for “the youngest to go to college” before dropping the bombshell. But then the kids, in the midst of negotiating life on their own for the first time, often don’t know what hit them; they no longer trust their own ability to judge the past, present or future – and can’t even take refuge in their old rooms. Not passing judgment – just think it’s best to bring the kids into the loop, when possible, so that they aren’t blindsided.

  • Yaffa October 15, 2009, 10:25 am

    Viv, I agrre with your statement on letting the kids know there is trouble ahead. I thought I was doing the right thing by making everything good for my children, and smoothing over all the problems. We never fought in front of them. In fact, if I really needed to voice my anger and frustration we would go to the wetlands, where I could actually scream at him!
    When we finally did get a divorce, 4 out of 5 children were in total shock! It took a very long time to heal. “If we had just had an inkling…” was their claim.

  • Walt October 19, 2009, 1:19 pm

    I think that adult children should not have anything to say about selling your home. As a boomer, we lived with our aging parents and nursed them through to their end. I’m sure that we are not alone in this experience. Can we expect our children to do the same? In this reality, our children are more successful as adults and relegate us to adult care homes. Our decisions to live a better life in the time we have left should not hinge on what the kids think. Let go have a great time.

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