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What to do with the empty nest

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Rory S. Coakley is founder and president of Rory S. Coakley Realty, Inc., a full-service residential and commercial real estate company operating in the Washington area since 1989.

Your oldest child graduated from college several years ago, has a job and owns a home. Your other two kids are almost out of school. You and your spouse are beginning to wonder why you need the suburban four-to-five bedroom home with the large lot.

You have two options: You can “re-feather” that empty nest, making renovations that would allow you to “age in place.” Or you could downsize by selling your home and moving to a smaller condominium or townhouse in a closer-in, walkable community.

[The Washington area is experiencing a boom in the construction of developments for people 55 and over, coming up in Saturday’s Real Estate section.]

Aging in place

An excellent source of aging in place guidance in the nonprofit sector is the D.C.-based National Aging in Place Council (NAIPC). NAIPC has published “Act III: Your Plan for Aging in Place,” a tool designed to help retirees and seniors assess their needs for successful and fulfilling aging.

Act III invites seniors, either alone or with family assistance, to answer a set of questions about each critical area of life: home, health and wellness, personal finance, transportation and community involvement/social interaction. The collected information, which remains private, is used  help them evaluate their needs for the kind of lifestyle they desire.

If they choose, users can enter their specific needs on a two-page template available on the Web site. If they submit the “Needs Assessment” to NAIPC, the national office or a local chapter will respond with recommendations for services.

Once the decision to “age in place” has been made, you can request financial assistance for renovations that will help you stay in your home.  The key is to make your home as safe, secure and easy to move around in as possible.

The State of Maryland last year introduced the Accessible Homes for Seniors (AHS) program, which provides seniors with financial assistance for aging in place renovations. The program offers low- and no-interest loan options for home renovations and has recently been expanded to include grant money for those who do not qualify for the loans.

The program helps to fund home improvements for Maryland residents age 55+, including installing grab bars, railings and ramps, and widening doorways and hallways.  These are the basic home improvements that are needed to help seniors stay in their homes and maintain their independence.

More ambitious — and costly — aging-in-place renovations that are not covered by this program include building a first-floor master suite and installing walk-in tubs.

Fairfax County has a similar program called Home Repair for the Elderly. D.C. has no program.


Downsizing usually begins with casual conversations between spouses. Typically, one wants to stay in the family home and one wants to go. Neither has the desire to get the house ready for sale after numerous years of living there. What usually occurs after those initial conversations is an eight-step process that goes something like this:

Step 1

  • The dialogue intensifies and the anchor spouse begrudgingly agrees to embark on a tour of possible new places to live.
  • One weekend, you and your spouse actually dedicate several hours to driving and observing prospective alternative neighborhoods.
  • One, or both, of you start reading the real estate section again in your local newspaper.

Step 2

  • All of the kids are gone.
  • From time to time, you wander around the mostly vacant house and wonder why you are paying for all of this unused space.
  • You especially wonder about expenses for landscaping, trash/snow removal, outside lighting, security, maintenance, real estate taxes, utilities and much more.

Step 3

  • Your expenses are less – a lot less! It’s like getting a raise; for the first time in decades, you are working for you and your spouse.
  • You ask your financial planner to recalibrate your financial plan in light of those child-related expenses that are no longer applicable.
  • You revisit your will.
  • You discuss long-term care insurance with your insurance agent.

Step 4

  • You’ve come to the realization that you have become a self-storage facility for your grown children.
  • You invite the kids back home for a family dinner as an enticement to pack and retrieve all of their sacred belongings and memorabilia.

Step 5

  • You and your spouse take a walking tour around an urban location near a Metro stop.
  • You both like the idea of walking to shops and restaurants and utilizing alternative car services such as Uber or Lyft.

Step 6

  • The time has come to prepare your house for sale.
  • Let the painting, carpet cleaning, floor refinishing, decluttering and junk removal, landscaping and so on begin!
  • The search for the new (smaller) empty nest intensifies.

Step 7

  • Alternative residential options — buy or rent; urban or suburban; condo, townhouse or single family home — are identified.
  • Your home goes on the market and sells.
  • Excess belongings head to the self storage facility.
  • You and your spouse move to your new residence.

Step 8

  • You are test-fitting your new domicile.
  • The downsizing process is not yet over; many more decisions remain to be made.
  • Only time will tell what you do next; some people will decide sooner rather than later.

Which ever route you choose concerning disposition of your empty nest – aging in place or downsizing – the sooner you get started the better because both processes can be time-consuming.

While most of us want to do this on our own terms, there is a natural tendency to put off making these kinds of late-in-life decisions until it’s absolutely necessary. But that approach can be risky because it might lead to other people making crucial decisions for you.

Previously from Rory S. Coakley:

How to appeal your tax assessment