When It’s Time to Sell the Family Home

Putting up a for-sale sign can mark a new stage in life for empty-nesters and their children alike.

David Zalubowski / Reuters

The house in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, that Denise Portner and her husband raised their two children in was the site of dozens of celebrations—from birthday parties to Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners. It was where she beat cancer. It was where her children were potty trained and where they returned to during their breaks from college.

But after 15 years, it was time to go.

“It was a big house, an old house,” Portner, a 56-year-old marketing-communications professional, told me. “The taxes were really high.” So, they moved to nearby Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, cutting their tax bill to a third of what it once was. “We are able to save money that we can use for travel and for saving for our kids’ needs.”

Portner and her husband moved after her youngest child left for college and their large Tudor-style home was no longer the hangout hot spot it was when her kids were younger. Leaving the neighborhood was difficult, but ultimately, as is the case for many parents who have sold their home, as empty-nester syndrome set in, putting up the for-sale sign seemed like the natural next step. Though these moves can signal an important transition in life for both parents and children, selling the family home becomes an emotionally fraught manifestation of that change.

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.

Kennedy, the realtor, says that access to the heart of a city is also important to some of her suburban clients, who are thinking about mobility as they get older.

“Sometimes they want to be in downtown Boston, so they have walkability,” she says, “and sometimes they want to be in the same community but have a first-floor master [bedroom]. It’s not necessarily that they can’t do the stairs now, but they’re looking down the road to when they might not be able to.”

Regardless of where empty-nesters move, selling a family home can be a weighty endeavor. When a family inhabits the same house for decades, its sale can conjure a flood of memories, separation anxiety, and grief; it’s not just that people mourn the sale of their home, but that they mourn their former selves who grew and evolved there.

It can be especially difficult for kids who are in college or just starting off their careers, when a sense of rootlessness is pervasive. The transition from high-school student to working adult can involve a lot of boxes and packing tape, whether it’s moving from the parents’ house to a dorm or from one apartment to another. Through it all, having the chance to return to a family home can provide a sense of stability, but if their parents move, visits “home” mean traveling to an unfamiliar place.

Alene Bouranova, a 24-year-old resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, who grew up in Kirkland, Washington, was sitting in a dining hall at Boston University during the fall of her junior year when she she found out that her parents had sold her childhood home. Bouranova had not even realized the house was on the market.

“I started crying in the dining hall, just crying all over my plate of pasta,” Bouranova says. “I was not pleased at all. That was my home.”

But, as Robin Gordon, a 57-year-old who moved from Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, to Pompano Beach, Florida, told me, when you live in a home for several decades, it becomes the backdrop for not just the climaxes of life, but also the mundane. It’s where the kids haphazardly tossed their soccer cleats, where the family ate leftovers, and where everyone battled over access to dial-up internet and landline phone service.

“It sounds so dark, but [I remember] all the bad things, the crazy things that happened,” Gordon says. “All the injuries that the kids had in the old house … the parties that went wrong when they were teenagers, the birthday parties that we had, and the family dinners.”

Although her three children understood why she was moving, Gordon says they were still upset that she was selling the house: They had assumed that it would remain a steady constant in their lives, and had looked forward to bringing their own kids there one day. In this way, not only can the sale of the family home serve as a life marker for empty-nesters, but it can also bookend a stage for their adult children who haven’t actually lived there for years.

Bouranova told me that even though she was initially upset by the idea of leaving her home and neighborhood in Washington State behind, she was able to put the move in perspective and fly back from college to help pack up her things and give the house a final goodbye.

“It’s my parents, and as sad as I was originally, it’s their lives and they can do what they want,” Bouranova says. “I just want them to be happy.”

And that’s the rub, of course: At the end of the day, it’s not the banisters, cabinets, and backyards that give a house meaning and that make selling it so difficult. It’s the lives lived inside the walls.

“I never loved the house,” Gordon says. “I loved the home.”