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Baby boomers downsizing during the pandemic delay their plans and reassess

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Jonathan and Elisa Sweig at their home in Boston. The couple downsized during the pandemic from a five-bedroom Colonial in Franklin to a Back Bay condo. Other baby boomers are delaying their plans. Craig F. Walker/Globe staff

When Jonathan Sweig and his wife, Elisa, sold their family home of 25 years in Franklin and moved into a 1,400-square-foot condo in the Back Bay last July, it was part of a plan set in motion long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

Theirs was a fairly common migration: For years, empty-nesters in the suburbs have sold their longtime family homes and downsized to a downtown condo, where they could spend less time mowing the lawn and more time walking to theaters, restaurants, and Red Sox games, said Chestnut Hill realtor Mary Gillach.

Then the pandemic all but silenced the joyful noise of city life and hit the brakes on that inflow of suburban boomers.

“That’s so not happening now,’’ Gillach said.

Not only was it difficult to downsize during a pandemic, Sweig said, but the lockdown felt like an inopportune time to move from a spacious five-bedroom Colonial, with a yard and pool, to a two-bedroom condo in a dormant downtown. “We had to adjust because the lifestyle that we imagined didn’t really pan out right away,’’ he said.

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The Sweigs’ former home in Franklin. —Jonathan Sweig

Sweig, who works in Cambridge, also had been looking forward to a shorter commute after traveling two hours a day for work. He got his wish, of course, but not because of the move. “Ironically, now I’m 5 to 10 minutes away, and I’m not going to the office,’’ he said.

However, their first-floor unit still ticked a lot of boxes, Sweig said, with perks like an in-unit laundry setup and a patio for gardening and grilling. The couple have enjoyed strolling to favorite restaurants and walking their new puppy, a black Lab named Lilly, which has helped them make friends in the neighborhood. They’re now closer to Winthrop and its beaches, where Sweig grew up and likes to take the dog. And most important, one of their daughters lives downtown, too. “It was really hard to get her to come to our home in Franklin — now we see her once a week,’’ he said.

In fact, the top consideration for a lot of baby boomer buyers, Gillach said, has become proximity to adult kids and grandchildren. “They’re more and more interested in being near those they love, willing to give up that dream of what they were going to do in retirement to be near family,’’ Gillach said.

“Almost all the boomers I am working with seem to be moving to get closer to their adult children,’’ said Michelle Oates, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Realty in Andover. Some of her clients have even moved back from Florida to be near their kids. “COVID has afforded those who are still working with more of an opportunity to live where they want,’’ Oates added, “and I think it’s given all of us, boomers included, a new perspective on the importance of quality of life and spending time with our loved ones.’’

As Brian O’Connor and his wife planned to sell their family home in Reading, where they had raised three kids, they concluded that “Going south was out of the question.’’ The couple wanted to stay close to their children, all of whom have settled into good jobs in Boston, so they initially planned to buy something in or close to the city that would allow them to travel without worrying about maintenance. “I don’t want to be snowblowing anymore,’’ said O’Connor, 60.

Then, COVID hit, and the idea of urban living lost some of its luster. “We began to consider slightly more secluded locations away from the city that still had easy access to Boston,’’ O’Connor said. The couple purchased a new home at Millwood Preserve, a 55-plus community in Framingham across from 820-acre Callahan State Park. “With the large state park right next door for hiking and beautiful farms nearby, we felt like we were deep in the country,’’ O’Connor said, “[but] Boston is only 30 minutes away down the Pike.’’

Those preferences represent near-universal trends in 55-plus housing, said Jane Marie O’Connor, a 55-plus housing consultant — some of which started before the pandemic, but have been further reinforced by the realities of COVID.

Jane Marie O’Connor said buyers looking at 55-plus communities want to be more connected to nature, placing a premium on nearby walking trails, and have a new appreciation for outdoor relaxation and entertaining. “People are putting in fire pits, fireplaces, and outdoor kitchens in covered areas that bring the inside out,’’ she said.

Another highly valued amenity at 55-plus communities are dog parks. “Dogs are a big deal,’’ O’Connor said, and have been for a few years. “Where communities didn’t allow dogs before, now they’re putting in dog parks, they’re putting in pet grooming rooms.’’ With the MSPCA reporting a 20 percent increase in pet adoptions last year, that’s unlikely to change.

Naturally, the pandemic has led all buyers, including baby boomers, to conduct more of their home search online, at least in the early stages. That means buyers who show up to tour homes are farther along in their decision-making than in years past, she said — and represent the leading edge of what will likely be a wave of buyers who may have been waiting out the pandemic. “There’s a pent-up demand, and we’re seeing that across the country,’’ she said.

That’s perhaps good news for younger buyers, who face a stifling shortage of homes for sale. “Most of my clients are the young families who desperately want these boomer houses, which aren’t coming on the market,’’ Oates said.

Absent any urgent need, a baby boomer’s timeline for “right-sizing’’ typically takes more than a year from the decision to sell until move-in day, Jane Marie O’Connor said, so some of last year’s sales were likely based on decisions made long before the pandemic.

Indeed, Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home, and community at AARP, said it’s too soon to draw conclusions from last year.

“Housing decisions are big decisions, and typically take a while; unlike many consumer decisions, we can’t simply ‘return’ a home to the store and buy a new one,’’ Harrell said. “We do know that the desire to stay in one’s home has remained high over the years, and I don’t expect that to drop substantially as a result of COVID.’’

Compass realtor Kevin Caulfield has seen baby boomers reacting to the pandemic in a few ways.

“Some people stayed the course. They had a plan in terms of what they were doing, sold their house, and continued on with that plan and bought something and moved into Boston,’’ Caulfield said. Others have put that goal on hold until they can safely reap the benefits of an urban lifestyle, he added, and some have stayed put, with a renewed appreciation for their no-longer-empty nest. “[They’ve] enjoyed having their college-aged kids or young adult children at home through the pandemic, and they’ve put the space back to use,’’ he said.

But Caulfield, who is lead broker for The Archer, a new 62-unit luxury conversion in Beacon Hill, said he’s seeing renewed activity and interest in the city as case counts fall and more people are vaccinated.

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of Americans over 55 own their homes, which means many baby boomers have realized quite a bit of equity in the past eight years as prices have surged. Perhaps seeking escape from COVID contagion and claustrophobia, some have used that home equity to purchase a second property in a more serene setting, from the Berkshires to Cape Cod. “A lot of people downtown have bought other places. They have bought vacation homes that they’re living at permanently right now,’’ Gillach said, “so the Cape has gone off the charts.’’

Sales of single-family homes surged more than 20 percent in both Berkshire and Barnstable counties in 2020, with median prices jumping nearly 16 percent in both counties year over year, according to the Warren Group, a real estate analytics firm. Sales on Nantucket were up 71.2 percent, and the median price of a single-family sold on the island rose by 34.2 percent, to more than $2 million.

Bruce Jones, a writer and retired educator, beat the latest rush into Cape Cod real estate by about 37 years. Jones, 75, and his wife, Maggie, love their home — and its location, on a half acre in Barnstable Village overlooking woods and a kettle pond. “The yard kicks my ass in a way it didn’t used to,’’ Jones admitted — enough that he started looking at smaller condos in the area, where maintenance would be included in the homeowners association fee.

After all, Jones said, with most of their adult children and grandkids now living in the Pacific Northwest, there isn’t much stopping them from downsizing. So he casually asked a realtor friend about a condo that interested him, in a converted estate off Route 6A — and crashed into a churning real estate market at high tide.

“It had sold after being on the market just a few days,’’ Jones said, so he and his wife are likely to stay put, he said. “With COVID-19, we’ve re-embraced our house, renovated a first-floor bathroom for aging in place. We’re happy and thankful for what we have.’’

In the Back Bay, Sweig is similarly content and, perhaps typical of his generation, optimistic as he waits for Boston to return to its former vibrancy.

“I was always coming into Boston as a young kid, so this is like coming home for me,’’ he said. “It definitely took time to get used to living in a smaller space, but we’re really happy here.’’

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.