THE UPSIDE OF DOWNSIZING
Carol Sarler on making the big move
What to do when your home is too big for the remaining family, and the money tied up in bricks and mortar starts to look appealing? With three generations under one roof, Carol Sarler always thought she would stay put – so she’s more surprised than anyone to discover how liberating it can be to move on...
Pity the poor friend who, only three years ago, dared to describe my house as an asset – and had his head chewed off. Had he no heart, I thundered. This is not just bricks and mortar: this is my home. This is the sum of decades of memories and milestones; it is my family’s roots, refuge and shelter. My grandmother and my mother both died in the first and only homes they bought, and for sentimental – almost spiritual – reasons, I planned to do likewise. With the mortgage paid off, it would soon be time to hunker down for an old age soothed by the familiar. So let that be an end to talk of assets. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
Like one of those earworm songs that loop inside your head, my friend’s words invaded. For the first time, I actually read the property pages. I learnt that nearly half of all movers are downsizers; that the
average windfall for moving from, say, a detached to a semi-detached is £117,000; and that if you live in London, as I do, that rises to an average of £200,000. Tax free. Blimey.
I also learnt that, although the average age of a downsizer is 53, surveys say the best age to do it is 64: you’re mentally agile enough for the wheeling and dealing, and young enough to enjoy the fresh and the new. And I was, at the time, 64.
So I started casually popping into local estate agents where, to a man and to the penny, they all told me the same value for my house – it was 26 times (let me say that again: 26 times) what I paid for it 33 years ago. Funny thing, the lure of lucre.
With newly greedy eyes, I looked around our huge, rambling, early Victorian terraced house – the kind that dominates our cities across the country. Lovely high ceilings, but the heating bankrupts you. Gorgeous cornices, but hellish dusting. Nice garden, but backbreaking. Heaps of space, but who, precisely, for?
I live with my daughter, Flynn, who is at work all day, and her seven-year-old daughter, Milly, who is at school all day. Neither of their fathers is still part of our dotty ménage. So why was I rattling around the vast creaking floorboards, playing who-blinks-first with impertinent mice to whom we gave free lodging?
I talked to Flynn. We thought. We talked some more. But, really, it was a no-brainer. The Sarlers were going to pack up, downsize and move.
It would turn out to be the best thing we’d done in years; so much so that I am now an evangelist for the later-life new start. Precisely because you’re NOT growing old by hunkering down with the familiar, you actually feel less… old.
But if the first hurdle is deciding to sell, the second is harder: what and where to buy. If we were to downsize, how would we avoid a settled-for compromise?
For one couple we know, this meant cutting their house space in half but gaining twice the garden space – their kind of heaven. For us, it was about making less profit but moving to a nicer area, fulfilling my long-held hankering for Crouch End in North London. Crouch End is correctly teased for aspiring to Bohemia – as long as it doesn’t lose its Waitrose – and for sporting more luvvies on the high street than a BAFTA red carpet. Still, for an inner-city-village feel, it’s hard to beat. We did not want to feel either loss or less. So to move from a large Victorian to a small Victorian would hurt. The solution, which I would recommend to anybody, is to go for Something Completely Different. It might be cottage to
OVER-60S HAVE seven million SPARE BEDROOMS IN THEIR HOMES MOST downsizers WANT TO STAY WITHIN five miles OF THEIR PREVIOUS HOME AND friends
[continued from previous page] warehouse. House to houseboat. Duplex to bungalow. Anything that does not invite comparison. Our contrast? Ancient Victorian to very, very modern.
I thought we’d need persuasion to leave what everyone calls the character of the old. Truth was, one paw on a porcelain tiled floor with heating underneath and Flynn and I were hooked.
Yes, the rooms were smaller. But there were enough of them: four bedrooms meant one each and one for Flynn and Milly to turn into a Nan-off-limits study-kitchen of their own, for TV time and breakfast together. (We are fond and close, not stupid.)
A singular delight is realising that you are allowed – no, meant – to splurge. Your circumstances are the direct opposite of young people buying their first home: they spend every penny they have on the best basic property they can afford, then do it up as the years go by.
The downsizer, by contrast, doesn’t expect as many of those years. On the other hand, she does have a few bob to spare – she’s making a profit, remember? So rather than throwing it all in the bank, you can keep a bit back to make it exactly what you want from day one. In our case, that meant spending £10,000 to knock out two walls and install a kitchen on the roof garden. No, not everybody’s priority. But that is another benefit for the downsizer: the younger buyer’s taste and personal style is still evolving; by my age, you know exactly what you want.
Less space demanded that we chuck out half of all our possessions. But we did it, surprisingly, with relative ease. We let it come from the heart: if we’d never liked it, then it went, regardless of worth. Some might say you can’t take a huge 1920s walnut dining table to a modern house; we decided that if you love it enough you can. So we did. Milly, however, was an immense concern. Milly, who four years ago was diagnosed with incurable brain damage inflicted in the womb. Milly, who finds any change a force for fear. So we told our sellers of her problems. And, though not a contract had been signed or a penny exchanged, they said they were off on their travels, here’s a key, bring Milly over every weekend to get used to it. It was their trusting kindness, not the impending loss of our home, that brought the one and only tear to my eye.
The loss of our home, slowly and surely, just stopped being that. Each room cleared out looked more like any other empty box; why had I been thinking that they held decades of memories and milestones? They didn’t. We did.
Every good thing we had we could take with us: family, pets, prized possessions and, yes, memories and milestones. Yet, by the same token, there were things we were freed to leave behind.
The move, in fact, actually helped us to deal with our recent tragedy. Milly – and her disability – obviously would come with us. But our very worst of times, the shock, the grief, the terror of the initial diagnosis… well, curiously, we found that we were able to leave those within the silent old walls that had witnessed them.
And so it was that we took the good, left the bad and walked away with nary a backward look.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to pass the old house, glimpsed the young doctor who bought it, with his growing family – and I felt not a twinge. It’s their turn with the big space now. I smiled at the huge lilac tree, once a twig I planted in the front garden, and at the sturdy bay window behind it. Very nice bricks and mortar, I thought. But, still, just bricks and mortar after all.
‘We did not want to go for loss or less,’ say Carol Sarler. ‘The solution? Something Completely Different’
‘Every good thing we had we could take with us… and there were things we were freed to leave behind,’ says Carol