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Small talk

Empty nesters have downsizing options beyond condos or over-55 communities

Keith and Karen Percival went from a large house in Topsfield to this smaller home in Groveland. Keith and Karen Percival went from a large house in Topsfield to this smaller home in Groveland. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Mindy Pollack-Fusi
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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After the last of their two adult children moved out, Karen and Keith Percival contemplated selling their colonial on an acre of land in Topsfield and buying something smaller.

Like many other empty nesters, they found that the big home took lots of money and time to maintain, yet they only used three of eight rooms. While no one swam in the pool anymore, it still needed tending. For two years, the Percivals hashed out downsizing options while waiting for the housing market and economy to improve.

Then they went on vacation, renting a five-room ranch in Maine. Unexpectedly, the small vacation home solidified their plans. They wanted something just like that but back home — a smaller, single-family house on a smaller lot. Karen called her real estate agent. “That’s it, put the house on the market,’’ she said.

“Friends kept telling us, ‘Go condo,’ but, no, I like the outdoors. We are gardeners. I want to mow the lawn. I want to stick the bird feeder out. I want a place for the dog to be out in the yard,’’ she said. “I don’t want to be bound by any rules, anyone telling me I can’t have a clothesline in my backyard or can’t plant here because it’s not your property.’’ Nor did they want to pay condo fees.

While many homeowners downsize to condos or over-55 communities — often to lighten the amount of yard work or reside in communities with neighbors their age — others, like the Percivals (Karen is 54, Keith 59) prefer single-family living. Many are still-working baby boomers who consider a move to a smaller house to be more of a transition than a place to retire. But they are also finding that these homes are not always as easy to come by as condos, without a bit of compromise. For the Percivals, most new construction was too large, and older, smaller houses required too much updating or upkeep — exactly what they were avoiding.

Most folks who downsize to single-family homes primarily find older homes, said Laurie Cadigan, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

“Builders are not building to their requirements because of the cost of land in most communities,’’ she said. Developers thought the 55-and-older developments would capture the 55-to-65-year-old age group, she said, but a large percentage are not ready for such communities, preferring their own space while wanting to simplify.

To the Percivals’ surprise, their dream home surfaced when they broadened their search to surrounding towns. They found a new contemporary Cape on just under two-thirds of an acre in a well-established Groveland neighborhood. It has an open lower-floor plan, three upstairs bedrooms, two-car garage, basement, and close commute to work.

Karon and Bob Tombari of Hanover are also preparing for life in the empty nest. Their goal is to save money on house maintenance, yard expenses, and the high taxes on their 4,000-square-foot colonial with an in-ground pool.

“We’re trying to downsize and put some money in the bank to pay for tuition, travel more, and not be housebound with big mortgage payments,’’ said Bob, 57. “We want a simpler lifestyle.’’

“We can survive and live comfortably in 1,800 to 2,000 square feet,’’ said Karon, 51. “It will make the home cozier.’’

They’re in pursuit of a three-bedroom single-family home near the ocean, focusing on Scituate, Marshfield, and Plymouth. Bob, an attorney in Hanover, is open to a condo. Karon is not.

“They’re nice, but I still need my own outdoor space, and I don’t want to smell someone’s fried fish next to us,’’ she said.

They’ve looked at ranches, antique farmhouses, and Capes, but so far nothing has been quite right.

Bob said he hopes a home on the water will make it more valuable for resale, too, as this won’t be their last stop.

“At 65, we’ll see what the crystal ball has in store for us,’’ he said, contemplating a home someday in the South.

The Tombaris are prepared for personalizing the home with light cosmetic work and perhaps updating a kitchen, while limiting repairs to well under $100,000.

Joan Sullivan, however, was willing to refurbish when she downsized a few years ago following an empty nest that coincided with divorce. She and her ex-husband had fixed up their Georgian colonial in Waban to get top dollar, selling for $1.4 million. Then she moved to a smaller, $690,000 historic home in Dedham, and put another $150,000 into renovations.

“By coming in and doing that work, I feel like I have a little dollhouse for myself,’’ said Sullivan, 63. A real estate agent, she caught the listing the day it came on, but she knows finding the right home isn’t always easy.

Marybeth Mills Muldowney of TradeWinds Realty Group, the Tombaris’ real estate agent, said inventory is available but sometimes of a different caliber than the client’s existing home. People need to determine their true goals and begin to envision themselves in the new surroundings, she said. “It’s a matter of adjustment.’’

Mindy Pollack-Fusi can be reached at Mindy@theplaceforwords.com.