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A guide to successful downsizing

Is 'right sizing' for you? Fran Power weighs up the pros and cons

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If you've been dreaming of downsizing, but can't find a place that ticks all the boxes, then here's some good news. Finally, the property market is beginning to deliver what you want. (stock image)

If you've been dreaming of downsizing, but can't find a place that ticks all the boxes, then here's some good news. Finally, the property market is beginning to deliver what you want. (stock image)

If you've been dreaming of downsizing, but can't find a place that ticks all the boxes, then here's some good news. Finally, the property market is beginning to deliver what you want. (stock image)

If you've been dreaming of downsizing, but can't find a place that ticks all the boxes, then here's some good news. Finally, the property market is beginning to deliver what you want.

The number of apartments coming to market has skyrocketed.

The latest CSO figures for the last quarter of 2019 show that the number of apartments completed jumped by 81pc over the same period the previous year, from 598 to 1,083 apartments, 19pc of all dwelling completions. Nor is that just a blip - planning permissions also leapt by 80pc so there will be a steady stream of new schemes for sale over the next 18 months.

John McCartney of Savills says: "In the past, the stock wasn't there for the trade down market because we weren't building suitable properties in the right locations. That has changed a bit. There are now some high-end apartments and in well-established residential areas."

He points to schemes in south county Dublin, north Dublin and along the coast, including Greystones and Malahide. Many of these developments also offer smaller houses that would suit downsizers. "Critically, it allows people to stay within their own neighbourhoods because that is fundamental. Downsizers don't want to relocate, they want to stay close to everything they know, they just don't want to have the commitments and costs of a bigger property," says McCartney.

What do downsizers choose?

The last Census showed that apartments had become the main household type in Dublin. And according to Junior Minister Damien English, by 2024 half of new apartments and one-third of all new housing must be suitable for older people.

At the moment, though, what's currently on offer is still a challenge to those wanting a future-proofed home. Many of those trading down prefer a smaller house or a bungalow over an apartment, according to estate agent Paul Tobin who deals with many downsizers, both in the north Dublin suburb of Castleknock and the surrounding commuter counties.

"Most often downsizers look for contemporary-style homes that are A-rated, often in newer developments but, because of the shortage of bungalows being built, they are opting for two-storey houses with an additional ground floor reception room as a potential bedroom if needed." Another popular option is to adapt a house with an existing ground-floor extension or garage to make it fit for purpose

Why we choose to stay at home

According to Sherry FitzGerald's data, 9pc of their sellers last year were downsizers, That figure rises to 11pc in Dublin, and has remained steady over the last few years. This tallies with figures from a survey by the Housing Agency in 2018, which showed that 92pc of adults aged 65 and older reported being unlikely or very unlikely to move from their homes.

Yet 15pc of those aged over 65 agreed that it was 'somewhat' or 'a big problem' that their home was too big for their needs.

Why then do so few of us downsize? "It's an emotional wrench for people so that is a barrier," says McCartney. It's hard to leave the place where you've perhaps reared a family or built up a community.

Nor is it easy to accept that life has caught up with you and that you are moving into a new and final phase. Paul Tobin agrees, "I've yet to meet a happy downsizer."

There are a few reasons for that. Dr Sabina Brennan is a pyschologist and neurologist involved in research on older people. The biggest issue she sees is social isolation and loneliness. "Any plan to downsize has to weigh that risk up against the positive. But I think that that responsibility shouldn't rest solely on the shoulders of the individual making the decision. It should be a societal, cultural, governmental issue."

Trading down needs to be thought through more fully, she believes. "A lot of downsizers are literally just looking at the number of rooms in a house and whether it is too big for them. But a house is more than that. It's a home and it's a collection of your memories."

She points out that there are advantages to staying put. "If, for example, your sight fails, as it can do later in life with macular degeneration, your brain will still be able to navigate a house that you have lived in for 40 years. That will change dramatically if you're only in the house a year or two because your brain hasn't built up all those mental maps across your lifespan.

The same rule applies to degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia. "You're surrounded by memories and that can trigger and support your memory."

There is another intangible that we run the risk of losing by downsizing - our sense of belonging, or the connections that we make over decades living in a place.

"Just being neighbours for 40 years makes a bond. There's a sense of looking out for each other, there's a sense of responsibility," says Dr Brennan.

"All the research suggests that you will do far better in your own home in terms of dealing with and coping with these issues."

Nonetheless, she is a firm believer that change can be good as you age - with a few provisos. "Moving somewhere else is a new challenge. But make sure that you do the best to keep yourself in as good health as possible and bear in mind all those things that you need to do to keep your brain healthy - stay socially connected, be physically active, be socially engaged and part of your community, look after your heart health, challenge yourself, learn new things, and keep a positive attitude to ageing."

Why sell?

Many people decide to trade down for financial reasons, says Tobin. "Downsizing is always about finding something that is cheaper, but not necessarily always much smaller. A lot of the factors are around clearing a mortgage or loans earlier."

John McCartney believes that the drawdown on the Bank of Mum and Dad is a factor these days. "With pretty high rents and high house prices and a lot of young people not having the deposit together, parents are heavily motivated to assist them in any way they can. That might encourage some who are sitting on significant real estate equity to try and crystallise those assets and sell the property and downsize."

However, he points out, "that really only works in posh neighbourhoods because the housing equity is there. If the parents' house is worth €350,000, moving to an apartment that costs €200,000, after fees and transaction costs, is probably not going to leave enough equity to make the move useful for them and their children".

There are other pressing reasons for making the move. A smaller and more energy efficient house is cheaper to run, while an apartment has no lawn to mow, no flowerbeds to weed, and is more secure if, for example, you decide to travel or buy a place abroad. It may also be easier to adapt a new home or apartment to any changing health or mobility needs.

For those who do make the move, it can be the beginning of an adventure, as downsizer Ger Kelleher points out (see opposite page). "It's easy once you make the decision.

The focus is that you're starting a new phase of your life, and once you come to terms with that, it becomes exciting."

What you need to know 

1. If you're going to trade down, sooner is better than later. The typical age, according to agents, is around 65, or retirement age. Most downsizers think of moving when they become empty nesters and are hale and hearty. This allows time to build a new community and make friends if moving to a new area.

2. Being connected is important, that means buying close to good transport links if you're in a city. If you're living in the country, consider moving closer to your local village. It will also increase your chances of a good broadband connection. Think about how far you are happy to walk to have a pint in the local pub.

3. Buy in your home patch, if at all possible. It is so much easier to have your GP, dentist, hairdresser, church, local shops and favourite restaurants nearby. While the support of neighbours you have known for decades is a huge benefit as you age.

4. If you're moving to a new development, whether it is an apartment block or housing scheme, ask the agents about the profile of other residents. Ideally they should be mainly owner-occupiers so you can build up a community. In an estate, check that there are other older owners, as well as families. Dormitory schemes are bleak during the day.

5. Check the BER of the house or apartment you're moving to. Ideally, it will have an A-rating which means it will be draught-free, energy efficient and cheaper to run. Those moving from older houses will especially appreciate the benefits.

6. Do most of your research before you even put up a 'For Sale' sign. Know what you want, how far you are prepared to travel from your neighbourhood, and what you can afford to spend (see Sinead Ryan, opposite).

7. If you're viewing apartments, think about storage. It's often skimped on. Check out the sound proofing - if your upstairs neighbour has wooden floors will you be tracing their footsteps? And look into management fees and what exactly they cover.

8. Decide whether you are going to sell or buy first. In the current market, larger properties are typically taking longer to sell, particularly if they need work done, so it may make sense to sell first. It also makes you a cash buyer and so strengthens your bargaining power in a tight market. However, it will have an impact on finances, as you may have to rent or pay for storage while you find the perfect house.

9. If your dream has been to retire to the country and keep bees, do that. But remember that if you become bereaved, your mobility is affected, or you develop a health condition, rural areas have less supports than urban areas to get you treatment or the support you might need.

10. If, in the end, you decide to stay put, future proof your home so that if anything was to happen, your living space is already adapted to help you cope.

Sunday Independent