Over-50s reluctant to leave their big houses, downsizing study shows

December 2, 2013
Painting: Peter O'Doherty
Painting: Peter O'Doherty

Downsizing into a smaller place seems both the sensible and ethical thing to do if you’re an empty-nester rattling around in a big house. So why are so few older Australians making the rational decision?

A new study – the first into the downsizing phenomenon – has come up with the unexpected finding that older Australians are generally staying put. If they do move it’s often to a place just as big as, or even bigger than, the one they’ve sold. “We were a little surprised that the percentage downsizing was so small since there’s a popular view that downsizing is very common amongst older people,” said Professor Bruce Judd, of the City Futures Research Centre, at the University of New South Wales.

The study looked at Australians aged 50 and over across a five-year period from 2006 to 2011. It found only nine percent moved into a smaller place with fewer bedrooms. Another nine percent moved but didn’t downsize. Recently there’s been talk – especially in Sydney with its skyrocketing housing prices – about baby boomers crowding out first-home buyers. Cashed up baby boomers may be buying up neat little houses close to the city and cool, new apartments as investment properties to rent out. But most of them continue to live in three and four bedroom family homes with gardens and garages.

The low incidence of downsizing is not the study’s only surprising revelation. The findings also undermine the assumption that the removal of financial disincentives to downsizing (such as stamp duty) would make a significant difference. Apart from using Census and other data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Professor Judd and his team conducted a national survey of 2,767 older Australians who had made the big move. “Downsizing” was not a term they favoured. They thought of it as “right-sizing.” The study’s aim was to find out what prompted the move and what impediments stood in their way. If it’s considered desirable to free up big houses for young families by making it easier for older people to scale down, then we need this sort of research to help design better social policies.

A lot of the downsizers moved into retirement villages, the survey found, and they moved into something smaller, but not too small. Before moving almost two-thirds had lived in a house with four or more bedrooms. After moving, two and three-bedroom places were favoured. Older people wanted more than one bedroom: “Some of our children live interstate so we need accommodations when they come to visit,” was a typical response. “We wouldn’t exist in too small a place I don’t think. Not happily anyway.”

A desire for a different lifestyle was the single most important reason for the move, the study found. Almost 38 per cent of the downsizers cited “lifestyle preference.” The next main reason was an inability to maintain house/garden, followed by children leaving home, retirement, relationship breakdown, and death of a partner. Very small numbers cited other prompts such as financial difficulties or locational dissatisfaction.

Though it could be an emotional wrench to move, 90 per cent of the downsizers were either “very satisfied” or “mostly satisfied” with their new home. Reduced maintenance was key. But in group discussions with the researchers, the downsizers pointed to problems that needed to be addressed to make it easier for more people to follow their lead. The main barrier was the lack of suitable and affordable alternatives – of housing that is small but not too small in areas close to shops and transport. Older Australians favoured detached, single-level houses over retirement villages or apartments, a point that has escaped governments hell-bent on increasing density. There’s a need for the housing industry to be more innovative, and for more flexible planning regulations.

Many cited the need to remove financial disincentives such as stamp duty, and the possible negative impact on Aged Pension eligibility; some suggested subsidising removalists’ costs. But preferential treatment of relatively well- off older home-owners might need to proceed with caution. “Given financial reasons are fairly low in the order of why older people downsize it would suggest that financial disincentives are not all that important,” Professor Judd said. “Most people downsize for lifestyle change or to reduce maintenance of a large house. However, we only surveyed people who had moved since having turned 50. We don’t know how important financial reasons were for people who wanted to move but couldn’t.”

The downsizers I’ve known have had diverse experiences. One couple couldn’t be happier having sold up the big family home in the suburbs to move to an inner city townhouse. “The trigger was retirement,” my 62-year-old friend said. “I didn’t want to be retired in the suburbs. I wanted street life around me. I wanted to be able to walk to things.” She’s back with her tribe where she always felt she belonged. Another woman who’s 69 has downsized twice since her husband died. Culling their life’s precious possessions to fit into a two-bedroom unit in a retirement village was distressing. But worse was to come with major fights with the retirement village management over money (which she won). Now living in a one-bedroom strata apartment in a big complex, she told me, “What I want doesn’t exist: a granny flat in someone’s backyard; my own little bolt hole.”

The study, Downsizing Amongst Older Australians, funded by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), will be released soon.

Have you thought about downsizing? Have you done it? Please leave a Comment.

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