Movin’ on down – the joys and challenges of downsizing
It’s usually later in life that our thoughts turn to finding a more manageable abode to hang our hat, which is why I remember the day my best friend announced she was buying her first home.
I was impressed. Belinda was barely 40 at the time of her epiphany and not one to plan ahead, yet, she’d deliberately chosen a modest two-bedroom home she could age in while staving off future downsizing moves for quite some time.
More than 10 years later, buying into a complex of single-storey villas that back on to a nature reserve and has the breathing space of acreage sits well with her.
“This place has been excellent for me,” she says. “I found a lovely townhouse with a semi-rural outlook and a large courtyard for my dog.
“I tended to think that I would gallivant around the world while renting this place out, then come back to it when old and doddery and grateful for single-level living. I seem to have completely bypassed the gallivanting thing.”
Her family also plugged the convenience of buying a home with very little upkeep, while Belinda weighed up conditions of ownership, building design and proximity to transport.
“My brother and his wife came and sat me down and said, ‘You don’t want to mow lawns. Get a townhouse’,” she says.
“We all own our own homes and we can also rent them out or sell them, same as a normal house. Our units are really well designed, with easy garage access when bringing in the shopping, and the wall I share with the neighbour’s is kitchen and garage, so that we don’t disturb each other’s sleep with any noise.
And there’s a bus stop not far away for when I’m no longer driving.”
The first seed of my own downsizing light bulb moment was planted 12 years ago. My husband and I had bought a dual-living, two-storey Queenslander-style home with the needs of my ageing mother, Natalie, in mind.
She’d downsized a few years earlier from her family home to a small unit after a fall in the garden wrecked one of her knees.
My husband and I don’t have children so combining households seemed a good solution to her declining mobility.
From the start, the arrangement left my mother in need of companionship during the day as we both worked.
After less than a year, she wanted to be with “people of my own ilk” and bought into a retirement village leaving half of our house unused.
Although we made Mum’s old quarters our home office, I felt I was forever cleaning an oversized house that didn’t feel like a home.
As hubby and I mulled over our future, our suburb morphed before our eyes from unremarkable post-war homes into remodelled, two-storey McMansions. All bore an uncanny resemblance to our own home.
And it wasn’t just our suburb. A cursory browse of realestate.com.au revealed that finding a modern, low-set home close to town that wasn’t in a retirement village, or super-sized, was going to be our greatest challenge. We temporarily abandoned our search.
Brisbane real estate agent Gabrielle Trickey says clients in the 55-plus age group look for housing options that involve less land – and are notorious for clinging to their possessions.
In any one year, the proportion of older clients seeking to downsize makes up 30 per cent of her sales.
If 80-plus, they move for health or mobility reasons, or because their block is too large.
In her opinion, homeowners reduced to a single person or a couple without a strong family network, should have moved earlier.
“Nothing worse than lovely old people living in a house that they use two or three rooms of and don’t have the opportunity for a social chat with someone at least once a day,” Gabrielle says.
“These are very often vibrant, very alert folk in dark old houses.”
For older clients wanting to downsize at an affordable price, Gabrielle has little suitable housing stock because of the hills that dominate her real estate patch.
In a Federal Government push to release more property to the market and tackle housing affordability for younger families, from July 1, 2018, those over the age of 65 who downsize their home can pour up to $300,000 of the proceeds into their superannuation fund.
They must have owned their principal place of residence for 10 years.
The government is hoping this incentive will encourage some people to downsize into housing that is more suited to their needs; presumably in retirement villages not far from their suburb or town.
It’s unlikely many older Australians will take up the offer, as any change in a person’s super balance as a result of this measure will count towards the Age Pension assets test.
Of those who have made the decision to move into a retirement village outside their locality, Gabrielle Trickey says they are very happy.
“I visit my clients who we have acted for in the sale of their homes,” she says.
“Once they move to a retirement home they are healthier, put on weight, and are able to chat and become more active. It’s even better if there’s a high care part to the village so that a couple can still see each other if one has a fall.”
According to the Retirement Living Council, the peak body for retirement villages, more than 184,000 Australians over 65 call a retirement village home. More than 90 per cent of those residents indicate that village life meets or exceeds their expectations.
Additional figures suggest that improved wellbeing leads to significantly fewer government funded home-care packages than received by those who live at home in a private residence.
In their mid-60s, and on the cusp of retirement, Jan and Graham intentionally bypassed retirement villages when they downsized earlier this year from a large house in a Gold Coast eco village to an inner-city, two-bedroom apartment.
As Jan talks, the Wheel of Brisbane turns slowly behind her in the immediate distance and she agrees their 13th floor balcony view of the city skyline is nothing short of spectacular.
“When we decided to move it shocked everybody in the village because lots of those people said, ‘You’ll carry me out of here in a box!’,” she says.
“In the eco village there were lots of babies born and there were children of all ages. However, my mum was in a retirement village. I didn’t like it that her neighbours were her age. They love these bus trips and things. I don’t think I’m a groupie.”
Visitors to the eco village found it idyllic, and although Jan and Graham say they enjoyed the community’s social side, after seven years both needed more intellectual stimulation.
The seed to move took root when Jan realised she was driving everywhere from the village, even just to buy a loaf of bread.
“When we came up for opera we’d stay in a hotel in Brisbane and have our little holiday weekend,” she says. “All of a sudden it was like, what about if we lived here?”
Jan “obsessively” followed the Japanese-inspired KonMari method of decluttering and organising to downsize their possessions, but couldn’t part with their 1920s pianola or her classic 1961 Volkswagon Karmann Ghia.
These days there’s little need for her to drive. Supermarkets, churches, the performing arts, libraries and a park large enough for her grandchildren to kick a ball around are just a short walk from their apartment block.
Lee Janssen, Sunshine Coast-based managing director of Avalon Granny Flats, says more people are enquiring about his custom-built and kit granny flat homes as the industry evolves and responds to the rising cost of living and housing affordability.
“More people are open to moving into a granny flat than they were 10 years ago,” he says. “Normally we deal with homeowners in the 40 to 60-years age bracket, either building for their parents or for an investment for the kids.”
The majority of residential homes are legally allowed to put a secondary dwelling on their property. However, the rules governing occupancy vary from state to state and from council to council. The site itself, Lee says, is the biggest variable in terms of how the dwelling is built.
Eight years ago, retired aged care nurse, Patricia, 63, received a shock diagnosis of breast cancer that changed the direction of her life.
When her daughter and son-in-law were offered work in Brisbane three years ago, Patricia sold her unit and moved with them from Victoria.
Her family bought a large house block in the north-western outskirts of Brisbane where they built a principal residence and an adjoining granny flat.
Parting with her independence and moving in with family on a life tenancy basis hasn’t been easy, Patricia says.
Decisions have to be conferred, as both homes share a spare bedroom and laundry, and privacy respected, even though her flat can function separately from the main residence.
She says buying into a retirement village was considered but wasn’t an option as it would have drained her financially.
“We worked out this is the cheapest way to go really,” Patricia says. “It’s nice to be around family. I know that they’re there if I ever need them and having my grandkids around also keeps me young. What I’ve got is very manageable. I really didn’t have to go without.”
Now in her 90s, my mother is testament to the fact that if we live long enough a number of downsizes will probably be on the cards.
After 10 years happily ensconced in her first retirement village, she seized the redevelopment of her complex as an opportunity to transfer to a one-bedroom villa in an equivalent village with good proximity to family and local amenities.
Our own revived downsizing search ended recently and unexpectedly when we found a freehold, low maintenance, low-set home with a small garden within 10km of the city – a rare find indeed.
It may not be our last move, but I’m content for now, relaxing on our back patio catching distant glimpses of the sand dunes on Stradbroke Island, a gin and tonic in hand, which is much better than a cleaning cloth.