Wednesday 23 October 2019

How we moved on and made a new life for Dad

The process of helping a parent downsize from the family home doesn't have to be painful, writes Liadan Hynes

Interior designer Niamh MacGowan and her dad Dermot McGowan at his new home in Wicklow. Photo: Mark Condren
Interior designer Niamh MacGowan and her dad Dermot McGowan at his new home in Wicklow. Photo: Mark Condren

Liadan Hynes

It's a huge decision - but we're lucky, Dad's favourite phrase is why not?"

When designer Niamh MacGowan came to help her father downsize to a new home, her experience as an interior stylist was invaluable. Dermot MacGowan was still living in the family home, which he had bought off plans in 1972. He was widowed just over a decade ago, and at the age of 85 found the house was no longer suitable for his needs. A downstairs bathroom needed to be installed, as did vastly updated insulation

"It's a huge decision," Niamh says now, of the move to sell the house where her parents had reared the family. She and her two sisters took over much of the project for their father, the packing up of the old house, the sourcing and preparation of the new. "We were very lucky in that Dad is very easy-going. So he was very open to it."

Part of the aim was to have their father living near Niamh, which meant he moved counties from Dublin to Wicklow. A dramatic move isn't always a good idea when downsizing, but in the MacGowans' case, so much careful consideration had been given to what their father realistically needed for this new stage the move has proved a huge success. "It's a new lease of life for him," Niamh reflects. "He says he never has looked back since then; he's so much happier."

Niamh had such a precise idea of her father's requirements that the family looked only at houses within six streets. "We needed to think about his lifestyle," she explained. "I needed him to be in the town. He still drives, but the day will come when he doesn't drive. Everything needed to be in walking distance. I wanted him to have neighbours close to him. To be close to the shop. The bus is around the corner." The house also needed to be able to accommodate a downstairs wet room and bedroom.

The aspect was important too, says Niamh, as a retiree tends to spend much more time at home.

Be proactive in your property search, Niamh advises. She took to calling into local estate agents. Just before they found the home they would go on to purchase, she was preparing to do a mail drop on the streets she was looking at.

Next came the big clear-out. "Myself and my sister tried to take as much of the burden of the clearing up, the going through every thing, as possible. He gave us free rein to do that, which I think was a big thing. He couldn't have done it himself."

The family had done a certain amount of clearing out after their mother passed away. Niamh points out that it is a far more positive experience to do a declutter for someone who is still here, whom you are helping to embrace a new life.

"After the first skip had been filled, everyone felt lighter."

Much of their antique furniture was rehomed in her father's new house. Niamh found it harder to get rid of what they did not keep than expected. Charity shops need a fire label on anything which is upholstered, and many reported that their warehouses were full, or required pieces to be expensively couriered.

"We ended up giving a lot of stuff away, or selling it on Instagram or Facebook," Niamh says. "It took a bit of work but we didn't add to landfill, so it was gratifying in that way."

When it came to designing and decorating the interiors of her father's new home, Niamh applied her professional modus operandi, which is to mix contrasting pieces, new and old, various types of woods, contrasting textures.

"What you're trying to achieve is something which has evolved over time," she explains. "You're already winning if you have some choice pieces that have been collected over a lifetime. Especially if they're ones that have that sentiment."

In her own work, Niamh likes to design so that every corner of a house is used. A terrace was built in the back garden so that Dermot could enjoy the sunlight until as late as possible in the evening.

"He uses the garden so much, and he never did before," Niamh says. She created little spots to sit, both inside and out, she explains: "You're designing a lifestyle."

Niamh used a lot of colours that were reminiscent of those from the old house. "Our mum had our house quite colourful, so I kind of echoed some of those colours."

The good Laura Ashley curtains her mother had commissioned years before for the living room were repurposed for the guest room of the new house. "There are still echoes of the old house. All things that are familiar, but renewed and rejuvenated," Niamh explains.

The family's mindful approach to trading down is testament to their father, Dermot. And proof that downsizing can open an exciting new chapter.

Top tips for downsizers

1 If you're trading down, you're probably 55-plus. The typical age of our trade-down buyer is probably 65-plus. So convenience is one of the most important things to consider; having the ability to walk to the shops, parks, churches.

2 Look for a property that is low maintenance, with a small garden or even a balcony. We find that a lot of people who have downsized into recent new homes schemes might envisage themselves moving abroad for a few months of the winter.

3 Security is a huge factor, both in its own right for day to day, and if you plan on spending time abroad. Apartment blocks are hugely attractive from this point of view.

4 If you are moving to an apartment, consider a second bedroom, rather than a one bedroom unit. You might be used to having family coming to stay and will want to retain this option. A second bedroom can also serve as a home office, or a second living room if you and your partner want to watch different TV programmes each evening.

5 Examine the reality of how you live, and what is required from your new home. Imagine yourself in the space.

6 Bear in mind that you will be spending more time there in the day as you cut back on work. If it's a development, are houses owned only by young families, in which case will it be very quiet during the day?

7 Consider monthly service charges. They can be well worth paying for the peace of mind they provide.

8 Make sure, if you are viewing an apartment that sound transfer (this applies to older blocks, new building regulations should avoid this) is not an issue.

9 Discover how many inhabitants own rather than rent if you are buying in an apartment block. This can affect the nature of the community you are moving into.

  • Ronan O'Driscoll is the chairman of Sherry FitzGerald New Homes

Second-time buyer? Here's how to boost your mortgage chances

1 Under the Central Bank's macro-prudential rules, the maximum a second-time buyer can borrow is 80pc of the purchase price. It is important that you know that you will need a bigger deposit than a first-time buyer (FTB). Exemptions from the banks are still available - and these mean you can borrow up to 90pc of the purchase price, similar to an FTB. However, these exceptions only amount to 10pc of any bank's loans issued in that year, so you need to apply early in the year to boost your chances of succeeding. And remember, it is easier to get an exemption on Loan-to-Value (LTV) than on Loan-to-Income (LTI) as there is less demand for it.

2 Trader-uppers have an advantage over other buyers such as FTBs (or newly returned Irish or foreign buyers) as they have previously held a mortgage and consequently have a credit and a repayment history. That's very important to a lender and you should recognise that.

3 If you're aiming to borrow 80pc, you will attract better interest rates than an FTB, who is borrowing 90pc. All banks have three scales around the interest rate they charge. Buyers, who borrow up to 60pc of the purchase price, will get the best rates available. The next category runs from 60-80pc, and typically you'll get a rate about 0.25pc cheaper than those borrowing 80-90pc of the purchase price.

4 Manage your current accounts and your credit cards with great care. It is important that you have no issues on your bank record. No unpaid direct debits or referral fees, no excessive spending on your current account.

5 Are you in negative equity? You can still get a mortgage but you will be restricted - and remember, you can only take out the new mortgage with your existing bank, because you will be carrying forward the negative equity.

In theory, if you add new borrowing to your existing mortgage, you could be borrowing 175pc of the value of your new house. In real terms, it's only those on bigger incomes who will qualify. Typically, that works out as combined incomes of in excess or close to €100,000. With this in mind, it's not surprising that relatively few negative equity mortgages are transacted. Remember, too, that banks still expect you to have 10pc of the purchase price as a deposit.

6 Remember where you are on a vendor's list. If you're buying a second-hand property, top of the list is a cash buyer. Second is someone who is mortgage approved and has no house to sell. Last is a buyer in a chain. However, if you're buying a new home, you will have more flexibility, particularly if you're buying off plans. Once you've put down your deposit, you will have time to sell your own property.

  • Michael Dowling is the managing director of Michael Dowling Mortgage & Financial Services

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