Jan Nast knew her children would eventually leave home for school, work, marriage, grown-up life. But she didn't realize how hard it would be — or the sacrifices she would continue making to stay close to her daughter and son — after becoming an empty nester.
"You try to be happy for the kids and you see that they're happy and they're growing, and that's what every parent wants. But then when they actually do it, you're just not prepared," said Nast, the author of two books her children inspired her to write.
No matter how ready a couple is to have kids out of the house, there are questions to consider, like what they will do with that house.
According to data gathered by stageoflife.com, 36 percent of baby boomers will move or plan to move when they become empty nesters. Data also found that 44 percent of those who have moved or will consider moving from their "old empty nest" want a smaller house that requires less maintenance.
Making those decisions entails a combination of emotional and financial factors that financial experts often deal with when couples face a myriad of decisions that come when planning for retirement.
Selling or staying
Kids leaving the house can create an opportunity to save extra money for retirement. Those savings can give retirees more confidence in making decisions about whether to stay and sell the home, said Brad Thurber, a financial advisor and co-branch manager for D.A. Davidson & Co. in Salt Lake City, Utah.
When it comes to the house, a common choice empty nesters have is staying put so that the kids have a place to come home to, or downsizing to save money and time on maintenance.
An emotion that often trumps the financial practicality of downsizing is the difficulty of leaving behind the place where the children were raised and the familiar surroundings for the grandchildren to enjoy, Thurber said.
"I get clients all the time that say, 'Once my kids are grown up and gone, we're gonna downsize. We'll buy a smaller home or move to a condo or townhome," Thurber said. "My experience has been that most of the time that doesn't end up happening. By the time people become empty nesters their older children have grandchildren and they are bringing them home. Most of my clients keep their larger home to keep kids and spouses and grandkids there."
However, choosing to stay in a home full of seldom-used rooms can be expensive, and those costs are something empty nesters need to consider, said Niv Persaud, a certified financial planner with Transition Planning & Guidance.
Calculating the cost of empty rooms in a home (divide total home expenses by total square footage of the home, then multiply the difference by square footage of empty rooms) can give empty nesters an idea of how much more they are spending if they stay in the home, Persaud said.
"You do have people that say that they want to stay in their home, all the way until they need to go into a nursing home," Persaud said. For those who do so, the potential costs of in-home care, which include any medical and non-medical costs, are also something to be considered.
Costs don't go away even if the home is paid off. Empty nesters need to consider ongoing home expenses like property insurance, real estate taxes, repairs and maintenance, utilities and a possible home equity line of credit, she said.
Things like proximity to family and certain amenities, the desired size of a home for entertaining or housing guests, desired climate and overall affordability are all factors empty nesters need to take into account when deciding whether to downsize or not, Persaud said.
The options available for those who may want to downsize but may not want to be in a community or group home are becoming more diverse. There are townhomes or condos, and active upscale living communities, Persaud said.
"The retirement industry has changed quite a bit," she said. "We have developers now that have gotten in touch with realizing there's this active community that's not really retirement-stage yet, but they want a nicer home, but smaller square footage."
For others, choosing to downsize and move depends on where their children are.
For Nast, when her son moved to Nebraska and her daughter's family to Seattle, she knew something had to change in her living situation in California.
"Even though they moved out years ago, it feels more raw right now that they're not next-door," Nast said.
Nast and her husband moved to Seattle at the beginning of July to be close to her grandchildren, even though the move meant quitting her job and relying on an income from selling her books.
"I love my job but I love my kids more. So it took us about a minute to decide to go and we put the house on the market pretty quick, and we just made the decision. And then I came into work and they told me I wouldn't be allowed to keep my job and work remotely," Nast said.
Though letting go of the home the children were raised in has been difficult for Nast and her kids, going where her family lives was more important.
Less orthodox empty nests
There are others who choose to sell it all for the freedom and flexibility of renting and travel.
Veronica and David James were already thinking about moving back to the states after their last child left for college when they Googled "Empty Nest." The top result was an advertisement for Alzheimer's patches that shocked them into realizing they were too young not to start up a new adventure as empty nesters.
The couple, who had lived on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands for nearly a decade, also wanted to be closer to their three children and decided quickly to sell their home.
"It was extremely spontaneous," Veronica said. "We sold the house and everything in it and hit the road." They purchased an RV on eBay and took their essentials with them on the road.
"We wanted to come back up here to be able to kind of reconnect with everybody, to see all of the people in the states we hadn't seen much of," David said.
With a son who is a pilot and is able to fly and see them often, as well as two daughters who can both be visited by traveling to the same city, the family is reunited often.
"I'm fairly certain we see our kids more traveling a lot than if we were in one place," Veronica said.
The Jameses have also chosen to continue working, mostly sharing their experiences through their book "Going Gypsy: One Couple's Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All." They now identify as "gypsy nesters" and have a website with advice and insights for those considering the same lifestyle.
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