Recently Money Beagle ran a guest post whose author suggested that moving to smaller digs may not be the best choice for all of us as we fade into our dotage. It touches on a thought I’ve been ruminating on: the question of whether I should downsize now, while a) I can afford the costs and b) I still have the health and physical strength to engineer moving to another house. Actually, the question is whether downsizing is a good idea at all.
My house has four bedrooms. It sits on a large lot, almost a quarter of an acre. It has a large pool and a forest of trees. How much does one little old lady need to air-condition, heat, clean, water, trim, and maintain? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to move to, say, an apartment in Scottsdale? Or one of those trendy lofts downtown? Or a nice single-story patio home with no yard to take care of?
Or maybe at my age, with about 15 years of tolerable life remaining — at the outside — maybe it’s time to move into a life-care community?
Well. I wonder. Let’s consider the costs.
First, to sell this house:
6% off the top to the Realtor (the better ones in these parts get 8%): $16,500, on my $275,000 shack
Recording fees: $150
Escrow fees & title insurance: $2,500
Prorated tax: up to $2,500
Termite inspection: $300
Home inspection: $300
That doesn’t include a home warranty for the buyer or any blandishments you offer, such as a flooring allowance or a home warranty. Nor does it count the costs of repairs and upgrades at the new digs — how many of us have had to replace a water heater or a garage door within six months of a move? And do you really want to live with that harvest gold Formica countertop for the rest of your life?
If you’re at the age where downsizing makes sense, you’re past the time of life when you can pack up all your possessions and bribe your friends with beer to help you stuff your furniture and boxes into a U-Haul and then drag the stuff into a new house. That means you’ll need to hire a professional moving company, an expensive transaction: $2,000 for a local move; cross-country, $8,000. You could, of course, hire an estate sale company to yard-sale all your earthly possessions and then buy new furniture when you get to wherever you’re going: it costs about $10,000 to furnish an entire house. Probably less if you buy Ikea junque, but again: at “downsizing” age, who wants to live with Ikea’s kid-engineered throw-away gear?
Let’s see what we have here… Total cost of selling and moving: $22,250 (a conservative estimate). That’s 9% of the property’s likely sale value.
My house is paid for. To avoid a mortgage, I’d have to use the net on the house sale to buy the new place. But that place will have to cost about $25,000 less than I can get for this one. Let’s imagine that for $250,000 I could find something I’d want to live in, located in a safe, middle-class area that is NOT a retirement tract like Sun City. I’ve but begun to pay…
Buyer’s closing costs and moving cost for a house purchased in cash go like this:
Close of escrow: $250
Title insurance: $1350
House inspection fees: $200 to $400
Recording fees for deed: $50
Title company closing fee: $400
Property transfer tax: up to $1,000
Attorney fee: $500
HOA transfer fee: $300 to $400 (n/a in my part of town, thank goodness)
Moving fee: $2,000
Total cost of buying the smaller house: $3,550.
Most places I’d want to live in cost upwards of $300,000 these days. That would require me to take out a mortgage. So to the ~$3550 in buyer’s closing costs, we can add the exorbitant cost of taking out a mortgage. To get into a $300,000 patio home I’d have to come up with at least $50,000, assuming I put down everything I net from my home’s sale. It’s unlikely that I could get a mortgage for a sum that small, but let’s pretend…
Lender discount points, about 1%: $500
Loan application fee: $500
Credit report fee: $85
Loan processing fee: $75 to $400
Document preparation fee: $50 to $250
Property appraisal: $400
Prepaid loan interest: Heaven only knows!
Insurance escrow: about $150
Tax escrow: about $1500
I’m not including flood insurance or a flood certification fee because you couldn’t pay me to buy in a flood zone. So the upfront cost of taking out a small mortgage would come to $3,785 — and that doesn’t count the cost of 15 to 30 years of interest payments. So… Cost of buying a smaller house in a more desirable part of the Valley, with loan: $3,550 + $3,785 = $7,335.
Cost of selling present home + moving van and workmen + buying a lesser house in cash: $27,800 – 28,150.
Cost of selling present home + moving van and workmen + buying a smaller house in a safer part of town: $35135 – 35,485.
Y’know… You could pay for a lot of lawn service and cleaning-lady visits for $35,485.
So let’s say you hire a cleaning lady because you’re feeling too frail to scrub, scour, vacuum, mop, and dust — I believe La Maya pays her housecleaner about $80 to $100 per visit (though her house is a thousand square feet bigger than mine). Xeric landscaping costs just $85 or $100 for monthly clean-up & grooming. Cleaning lady comes in a couple of times a month; that makes her cost $160 to $200. So routine maintenance of the existing manse would come to $300/month. The $35,485 it would cost you to downsize from a midsize tract house into a cottage would cover 118 months of routine house and yard maintenance, during which you would never have to raise a finger to clean or do yardwork. That’s almost ten years!
From one point of view, then, it would take around ten years to recover the cost of downsizing from a four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre lot with no neighbors sitting on top of me to a two- or three-bedroom apartment or townhouse in a rabbit warren, complete with HOA fees and politics.
Because I’m in the Salt River Project, my utility bills are low. Because I live in an old neighborhood, I have no HOA fees. Probably on average my total utility bills for electric, water, and gas run about $425 a month — less than that, really, because winter power and water bills are very low and in the summer, the cost of natural gas is nil. In a “better” neighborhood, I’d be in the Arizona Public Service district, where power bills are much higher. And many parts of Scottsdale and North Phoenix have no gas service, so the stove, water heater, and central heating run on expensive electricity. Utility bills in a smaller house could easily exceed what I’m paying here.
The pool costs about $40/month to run and maintain (exclusive of repairs). The yard guy: $85/month.
In a patio home, yard and pool maintenance costs would disappear, only to be replaced by a monthly HOA fee. From what I’ve seen at places I’ve looked at, $125 a month is not an unusual HOA charge. At Pebble Creek, for example, the HOA fee is $250 a month. For an
apartment…uh, condo…about $100 to $125 is probably average. So costs to live in the smaller place would probably be about the same as I pay here. The only real advantage would be fewer rooms to clean and less outdoor space to have to maintain.
So, if there’s no advantage in utility and maintenance savings, why spend $28,000 to $35,500 to move?
• It would be worth it if your neighborhood were deteriorating.
The opposite is happening here: this neighborhood, like the entire central city, is gentrifying apace. My neighbor sold her house — only 340 square feet larger than mine, on the same size lot — for $285,000. It hadn’t had a serious upgrade since it was built in 1971. The kids who bought it have spent months in renovation.
And, we might add, every other young couple and every other fix-and-flipper flocking to the ‘hood have done the same. If the slumlords to the west of Conduit of Blight get some help from the government, they could make a handy profit by condo-izing the deteriorating apartments that now front on the urbanite-friendly lightrail line, thereby getting rid of a major source of crime and rescuing the school that was overwhelmed and ruined when the city allowed the people warrens to go in. It’ll take some time before any such thing happens…but if it does, the property value increases we’re seeing now will look modest by comparison.
• It would be worth it if you wanted a zero-maintenance place where you can lock the door and take off for weeks and even months.
In Arizona, many ordinary houses meet that description. An intelligently designed xeriscape can look very nice and need almost no regular maintenance.
• It would be worth it if you lived in a place with a harsh climate.
Arizona’s summers are pretty fierce. On the other hand, for $40 a month plus occasional repairs, the pool makes the summer heat tolerable. Electric bills to power air-conditioning run about $230 a month, hardly enough to break you up in business. And again: at $40 + $230, the $35,485 would pay those bills for 10 years. How much are winter bills where it snows? Or where it’s foggy and chilly year-round?
• It would be worth it if your kids moved out of town and you wanted to live near them.
Maybe. Following the adult kids to some new locale can be a recipe for depression. Your grown children may not feel very invested in spending large amounts of time with you — except insofar as needed to obtain free babysitting services. Meanwhile, you’ve left behind friends who want to hang out with you, to say nothing of your favorite shopping, your church, your clubs, your cultural life, your beloved doctor, your competent dentist, the only hair stylist on the planet who can cut your hair the way you like it…
Overall, then, if your present home is in good repair and in a reasonably safe neighborhood with nearby shopping and lifestyle infrastructure, downsizing to a smaller place could represent not a savings in maintenance but a net loss, one that could extend over quite a few years…possibly to the end of your lifetime.
So: think twice before jumping into the downsizing pond.