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Are empty-nesters really downsizing?

Call it “right-sizing” or whatever you want, baby boomers are facing a housing market that can present opportunities for a fun second chapter — or a cold dose of financial reality.

Finding another home could even cost more than the longtime family home that just sold.Adobe Stock

The final tuition payment has been sent. The kids are finally out on their own and — after opening the well-deserved bottle of champagne you’ve been holding onto for decades for this exact moment — it’s time to figure out your next step.

For many empty-nesters in Greater Boston, that means downsizing from the large family home in the suburbs and moving into a chic condo in the city that can rival a Weston mansion in terms of cost. For some, it’s their first time dealing with the high-cost Boston housing market in decades. It’s a splash of cold water instead of champagne.


That chic condo may be smaller, but it might be an insult to consider this kind of move a downsize; it could even cost more than the longtime family home that just sold. Consider some of these empty-nester shifts upgrading, or “right-sizing.”

“Great cities that offer a dynamic life and lifestyle do come back. Boston is one of those cities,” said Maggie Gold Seelig, founder of the luxury boutique firm MGS Group Real Estate. “I have so many people who have asked me about the ‘death of city living,’ and I find this question so interesting because I have my finger on the pulse of Boston and the surrounding suburbs. We have the same excitement seen in moving to Boston as we did years ago. The only difference in the conversations I’m having is about how to find the right lifestyle and program in the city. Conversations about layout, amenities, ease of parking are all top of mind with many empty-nesters, especially where they might have a summer and winter home as well.”

Several of Seelig’s clients want to trade life in the suburbs for city living in a new condo downtown. Buildings with features like a doorman, a luxurious fitness center, and a connection to the neighborhood are hot commodities. Keep in mind: Right-sizing for some of Seelig’s clients means moving from a 12,000-square-foot single-family home to a 5,000-square-foot condo.


“When people are looking at leaving a large home, it’s not to leave a large kitchen. It’s not to leave large living spaces,” Seelig said. “It’s that they don’t need four extra bedrooms anymore.”

Tracy Campion, owner and principal of real estate firm Campion and Company, noted that the empty-nester spectrum of her client list remains bullish on downtown but are drawn more to new condo developments. Today’s high construction costs make renovating something like a South End brownstone or Back Bay town house more expensive and time-consuming, she said.

“They like new construction or homes in very good condition,” Campion said. “I find that if something’s new and done, buyers will pay for it. People don’t want to do construction work after going through COVID.”

Leaders at real estate development firm Procopio Cos. said empty-nesters are older than they were two decades ago.

“People started families a little bit later, so now you become an empty-nester a little bit later, and it’s changed the way people think,” said Bryan Vitale, senior vice president of strategy and investments at Procopio Cos. “Convenience and community are at the top of the list for everyone.”

In Boston, glitzy right-sizing, downsizing, or whatever you’d like to call the shift appears to buck national trends.


The National Association of Realtors’ 2022 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report indicates that home buyers age 57 to 66 typically downsize in terms of square footage and price. Nearly 50 percent of them purchased a home in the suburbs, while only 8 percent chose to live in the city, according to the study.

But don’t completely discount them from wanting to upsize.

Buyers over the age of 57 still accounted for nearly half (49 percent) of US home sales over $500,000, per the report, and were more likely to purchase a new home “for the ability to choose and customize design features.”

That doesn’t mean all is well for every empty-nester buyer.

‘When people are looking at leaving a large home, it’s not to leave a large kitchen. .... It’s that they don’t need four extra bedrooms anymore.’

Given the high cost of housing in Greater Boston, older buyers will probably find that buying their next home, although smaller, may eat up most of the profit from selling their longtime home. This may prompt them to renovate instead.

“The number one thing that I’m seeing through my position as a researcher but also through my residence in the Boston area is that people seeking to downsize often have a hard time doing it if they want to stay in their community,” said Jennifer Molinsky, project director of the Housing an Aging Society Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. “People are perhaps considering modifications to their existing homes or sometimes having to move farther away than they might like.”

Luxury buyers may seem to be more recession-proof and less encumbered by rising interest rates. But even this pool of empty-nester buyers has hesitations about making the next step in the current environment.


“The worry from my market isn’t so much interest rates or any of that,” Campion said. “It’s uncertainty. Uncertainty in the world, uncertainty in the economy. That is affecting my market more than anything else.”

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