Empty nesters Lori Cohen, shown, and her husband, Jeff Cohen, plans to leave their Bethesda home for a smaller condo in D.C. (Teddy Wolff/For Express) Empty nesters Lori Cohen, shown, and her husband, Jeff Cohen, plans to leave their Bethesda home for a smaller condo in D.C. (Teddy Wolff/For Express)

When Lori Cohen, 60, and her husband, Jeff Cohen, move back into the Dupont Circle area of D.C. this fall, it’ll be a homecoming decades in the making. When the couple’s two children were young, they moved from the neighborhood to make a home in the Bethesda suburbs.

“We always knew we’d be back,” Cohen says.

Cohen says she’s been contemplating the move since her son left for college in 2011, but it took a while to find an urban condo that was the right fit.

Realtor Jason Koitz says he sees a lot of parents who are ready to downsize and move into a more urban area when kids move away to (or graduate from) college. “Probably 50 to 60 percent of my business in the last couple years has been these empty nesters,” says Koitz, of The Koitz Group (301-892-1666).

When an empty nester ditches a home in the suburbs for the walkability and other conveniences of a condo in the city, the move is ripe with possibility, but not without compromise. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Size shift
For some, the idea of squeezing a 5,000-square-foot household full of stuff into an 1,800-square-foot condo sounds like a circus trick.
That’s often the biggest hurdle in getting empty nesters to imagine themselves in a condo, says Realtor Jane Fairweather (301-530-4663).

“They have a hard time visualizing how they’re going to live in a smaller space,” Fairweather says.

To help change their mindset, she reminds them that they spend most of their time in a fraction of the space they have: the bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and living room, usually. Downsizing also requires some tough decisions about what to keep and what to part ways with.

“You can’t take it all with you,” Fairweather says. “There’s a lot of separation anxiety about that.”

Condos that offer storage units are a good option — though not always easy to find.

Koitz notes that most of his clients are moving into two-bedroom condos because there aren’t a lot of three-bedroom options in the city that are reasonably priced — something Koitz says he wishes developers would take note of.
“Give us larger properties for these downsizing sets,” he suggests.

Some developers are doing so. Evolve DC (evolvedc.com) is interested in redeveloping the old New Union Garage in Northeast D.C. into three-bedroom homes well-suited for families and empty nesters who need more space.

Sticker shock
Unfortunately, when migrating to condos in the city or urban town centers, the money doesn’t go as far as in the ’burbs.

“Finding out what your home buys you in a condo in D.C. is a bit of culture shock,” Koitz says.

Cohen says the realization can be a letdown. “You get much less for a lot more money,” she says.

A homeowner may sell a 5,000-square-foot home in the suburbs for $1.2 million, then pay $1.8 million for 1,800 square feet in a more urban area, Fairweather says.

She says she always tells clients: “You’re gaining a lifestyle. Part of the increase you’re paying is the walkability … the decrease in stress.”

All about compromise
Some of the extras that suburban residents take for granted — plenty of space for friends to park, or the quiet — are harder to come by in the city, so be prepared to compromise.

Cohen and her husband were looking for three bedrooms, storage and extra parking, but couldn’t find anything that completely fulfilled their wish list.

Ultimately, they purchased a 1,700-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and a den in The Somerset House Condominium (1801 16th St. NW), a pre-war building transitioning from apartments. Their condo will be created by combining three smaller units, and construction is expected to take about seven or eight months.

The trade-offs (less  space and storage, and costs like condo fees) were worth it, Cohen says. “We’re sacrificing a lot, but we’re getting the lifestyle that we want,” she says.

An empty nest trend — or just unique to D.C.?

Baby boomers and empty nesters are one of the biggest home buying segments, usually downsizing when they no longer want all those extra bedrooms or maintenance hassles. But are they really taking over the cities? Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, has been following the trend. While it’s hard to quantify, Williams says, the majority of baby boomers aren’t flocking to downtown city centers. It is happening in a handful of cities, like D.C., and usually among higher-income boomers. The Urban Land Institute has found that these buyers are willing to give up their larger home to move somewhere that was closer to work, as many are working well past the retirement age.

Realtor Jane Fairweather says a large portion of empty nesters will downsize to suburban city centers like Rockville Town Center, as they don’t need to go all the way into the city for the walkability and conveniences they seek.

“They will go to the neighborhoods they’ve spent most of their time in,” she says.