by Tom Robinson
Selling the family home is one thing, but boomers also face the challenge of what to do with all that stuff.
Don Davis once was woodworker to Atlanta’s all-stars.
A commercial photographer, he turned to cabinetry when work slowed down. He was so good, baseball’s Atlanta Braves made him their unofficial team cabinet guy. Braves legends Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones were among his clients.
But a few years ago, Davis knew something had to give. He and his wife, Kitty, wanted to return to Tidewater, where they had grown up. Downsizing from an Atlanta farmhouse to a Norfolk condo meant saying goodbye to his chisel and saw.
“I got rid of almost everything pertaining to woodworking,” says Davis, now 68. “It broke my heart.”
What to toss and what to take can be a wrenching dilemma for baby boomers seeking to declutter after decades of accumulation. Realtor Magazine reports one in five boomers want to retire to less than 1,000 square feet of living space. That’s not a lot of built-in storage.
Trends also indicate millennials, strapped with college debt and inclined to marry later, aren’t racing to buy sprawling houses in the ’burbs or take in stuff their parents want to offload. For homeowners trying to transition to a leaner life, that can mean frustrating markets and dramatic price drops.
The Davises had no trouble selling their 100-year-old Georgia farmhouse on two acres. It was snapped up in the hot Atlanta market. They bought an upper-floor condominium overlooking the Elizabeth River – and only then felt the real estate pinch. They didn’t like condo life and moved to an apartment, figuring they’d sell the condo. But when the unit languished on the market more than a year, they moved back into it.
“The burden of downsizing and relocating has been tremendous for both of us,” Don says
Still, Kitty, a 71-year-old retired paralegal, says life overall is great. They both work part-time and love being able to walk to sample art, food and entertainment. It was predictably difficult for Don to give up woodworking, she says. But to fulfill his need to create, he’s putting together a photography show to exhibit this fall.
“There are phases in your life,” Kitty says. “This is just another chapter.”
Sometimes, however, life forces people into those phases.
Split from his wife, and with his two daughters away at college, Vincent Tophoff left suburban New York City for a job in Chesapeake and a one-bedroom apartment last year.
“I have one table, one couch, two chairs and a bed,” says Tophoff, 54, general manager of a manufacturing facility. “And one thing with shelves.”
A native of the Netherlands, he still owns his rancher outside New York. Whenever
he’s ready to sell, he is sure the house will go fast for its school district and nearness to the commuter train.
Tophoff says he’s embraced minimalism. He spends his time and money much more on experiences than belongings. An avid sailor, he used to own four catamarans. He has none now, but he still rides the water often through Sail Nauticus, a community sailing center, where he teaches children to sail. He also volunteers on the schooner Virginia.
“I purchase almost nothing,” he says. “At this moment, there’s nothing I would want to buy other than experience.”
Unsurprisingly, Tophoff says the more new people he meets through sailing, the more new experiences come his way. “If you’re social and willing to collaborate with people,” he says, “the world has a lot of opportunities.”
Mary Thomas found her opportunity last year when she moved away from Newport News. Gazing across the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth from the top floor of her building gives her peace in her battle with lung cancer.
“They told me I had three years to live eight years ago,” she says with a chuckle.
Thomas, 61, divorced five years ago but continued to live in a 100-year-old home in Newport News. Maintenance costs and the stress on her caregiver – her son – persuaded her to move out. She gifted her share of the home’s equity to him and returned to Norfolk, where she had lived in the mid-1990s.
She brought along only meaningful things from her life and naval career, she says: “I think you can think things have more sentimental value than they really do.”
She solved the common downsizing dilemma of what to do with heirloom china by unboxing it and using it daily. “I said, ‘That’s going to be my everyday dish,’” she says. “It made sense.”
She gets lonely, but she says kind neighbors and serene vistas help her through the harder times. It’s the simple beauty of life in its later stage.
“On a bad day, I can lay in bed all day, look out and it’s beautiful,” she says. “I don’t have to do anything. Or I can do anything I want.”