Karen Kennedy, a realtor with the Boston-based Hammond Residential Real Estate, says that a large percentage of her clients are empty nesters. Kennedy works primarily in Newton, an affluent suburb, and says that homeowners there tend to be looking to sell their houses to free themselves from the burden of maintaining large residences.
“It’s basically people that have had their last child leave the house and go into college, and they’re in a big house,” Kennedy says. “They feel that the house is too much for them to keep up—all of it, the property and the house.”
According to the Census Bureau, 7.1 percent of Americans between the ages of 55 and 74 moved last year, a rate that has remained virtually unchanged over the past decade, even as domestic migration rates have cratered in other age brackets. These movers, like Kennedy’s clients, tend to skew affluent, since wealthier people are more likely to be both homeowners and home sellers. And yet, despite the financial ties that may bind some empty nesters, the underlying reason for their moves isn’t always about money.
“The way a lot of people talk about moving in terms of jobs and taxes and things like that, that’s really not the immediate cause,” says Thomas Cooke, a demographer at the University of Connecticut. “The way demographers … look at it is in terms of a life course. The basic idea is that at different stages in the life course, different places have different values to you.”
For empty nesters who are approaching retirement, a leafy suburb with well-regarded public schools may have seemed like the perfect zip code for raising children, but it can be less appealing once a family’s youngest child collects a high-school diploma.
According to the Census Bureau, a majority of the 4.8 million 55- to 74-year-old movers in 2017 stayed within the same county, but about a fifth of them left for a different state. Where empty nesters decide to move depends on several factors, such as proximity to their workplace, where their adult children live, and—if they’re already retired—the weather and community amenities that can make aging as comfortable as possible. Portner and her husband, for instance, decided to move less than a mile away from their own parents.
“Our move reflects changing priorities and a shift in caretaking from our kids to our parents,” Portner says. “Whereas our lives were focused around our children, and our house in Elkins Park was just a few blocks away from our day school and our synagogue, now we are very close to our parents, who are getting older.”
For Patricia Lara Garza—a 63-year-old corporate-relations director who moved from Wilmette, Illinois, to Chicago in 2017—shedding the family home not only saves her roughly $1,000 a month, but it has also improved her quality of life. Since she works in Chicago and both of her children live there, too, she says there was nothing keeping her in the suburbs. She can now “be part of the city and do the cultural things” without the hassle of commuting back and forth. Garza wasn’t just looking to save—she was looking to get something fundamentally different from the community in which she lived.
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