There’s no stopping the clock. Despite the rocky economy, war, global warming, and a host of other dire situations, our children still grow up and leave home. Suddenly there’s no competition for the car, the basketball hoop in the driveway is wide open, and the messy bedroom, once tidied, stays neat. The parents left behind find that their once action-packed homes feel big…and empty. Eventually someone asks: “Now what?”
The answer for a lot of us in Westchester is to pack up and move. Some downsize within the same community—by buying a smaller house or moving into an apartment locally. But many realtors say fewer do that today. “Previously, people stayed in their houses until it was time to retire,” says Harmony Stern, a realtor at Prudential Holmes & Kennedy in Chappaqua. “These days, taxes will drive people into an earlier exit.”
That is precisely why Leigh and Jon Gage put their Larchmont home on the market this past spring. The Gages moved into their stately 1910 Colonial house in August, 1999. They were moving from France, where they had lived for 18 years, and chose Larchmont for its French-American school. Their children were in the fourth and seventh grades. The 3,000-square-foot house, with a large, welcoming front porch, has annual property taxes of about $25,000.
Last fall, their second child started college. They hired house painters in preparation for putting the house on the market. “We had a long-term plan to move when our youngest child went to college, mainly because of the property taxes,” Leigh says. They planned to look for a house with a lower tax assessment. “A lot of our retirement money is in our house.” They don’t expect to be able to downsize in Larchmont, and will take a look in New Rochelle. But they are aware that its property taxes have been creeping up, too. Chances are, they will settle in Connecticut, where they figure their tax bill will be cut in half. “I have mixed feelings about leaving this house, but we don’t really feel like we have the financial resources to stay much longer.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 59,536 children enrolled in grades 9 through 12 in Westchester County in 2007. That’s a fair number of empty nests in the pipeline. “We have a higher median-age population here than in many surrounding counties, reflecting a higher proportion of empty nesters,” says P. Gilbert Mercurio, chief executive of the Westchester Board of Realtors. The Census Bureau also reports that, in 2007, 24 percent of Westchester homeowners had monthly home-related costs that totaled 35 percent or more of their income. A hefty portion of those costs would be property tax and mortgage payments. “School tax is a good two-thirds of the average property tax bill,” Mercurio says.
The tax burden is definitely the 500-pound gorilla in the room, pushing much of this suburban diaspora. But it is not the only thing causing people to make the monumental decision to move. Once the children leave, the amount of work and expense that goes into caring for a house comes into focus. The stairs start to get a little harder to climb and, as more and more people your age move away, there is less of a familiar community to hold onto. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), people move to a new home every seven years, on average. According to Melissa Data, a developer of data quality, integration, and enrichment solutions, around 4 percent of those over the age of 65 will move to a new county, likely due to retirment. In 2008, Coldwell Banker, a nationwide real-estate company, surveyed its brokers on the subject of empty nesters. They reported an increase in home purchases by that group in the previous three years, and said that most did it to downsize. The study showed that of the company’s empty-nester clients, 50 percent moved to another single-family home, while 49 percent chose a condominium or townhouse. Only 18 percent of the brokers said their clients moved to be near children or grandchildren, but 51 percent said clients selected their new residences based on proximity to cultural and recreational opportunities.
The reason most people move to Westchester in the first place is for the benefits it provides their kids: good schools, backyards, space. But the choices people make at the next juncture of their lives are surprisingly different. Susan Strawgate Code, a realtor with Houlihan Lawrence in Briarcliff Manor, says that, in general, those who want to leave have two choices of when to leave. “One is to go as soon as the kids graduate from high school, and the other is to leave when they are out of college.”
“Everyone has a different personal goal,” says Lisa Weissman, a Houlihan Lawrence realtor in Scarsdale where, she notes, very few customers are staying or downsizing. “Look, they’ve done this for fifteen years and they don’t want this anymore. Houses are designed for families.” According to Eric Tyson, author of Home Buying for Dummies, homeowners should plan on annual maintenance and repairs costing at least 1 percent of the home’s purchase price.
Harmony Stern chuckles at the mention of the subject: “I just did this myself. My kids grew up, and my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘What do we do now?’” The Sterns had lived in their Chappaqua house for 25 years. “We loved our house. We built a lot of memories there, and I couldn’t think of looking at another house in our town. And I thought my husband would never leave his barbeque and his koi pond.” Stern says she proposed buying a unit in the new Ritz-Carlton Towers, in White Plains, as an investment. When she took her husband to look at the place, “He asked, ‘Why aren’t we going to live here?’” she recalls.
The Sterns recently unpacked their moving boxes. Both in their mid-50s, they are relieved to have less in the way of home-maintenance work and expenses. The taxes are significantly lower (in terms of affordability, Harmony Stern thinks White Plains and Mount Kisco are two of Westchester’s best-kept secrets). And, she says, she loves the fact that, in White Plains, she can walk everywhere. The move accomplished another good thing: it forced the couple to shed the detritus they’d accumulated over the years. “When you have a house, you end up saving all this stuff,” Stern says. “We needed a total lifestyle change. I think it’s really important to choose change before it chooses you.”
Judy Benkov couldn’t agree more. She and her husband, Keith, both in their 50s, have come full circle—they recently moved back to Manhattan. They had come to Westchester from the city in January, 1985. “We had young children and were looking for a good school system,” she says. But their daughter and son, now 25 and 22, respectively, are both out of college. So last October, the Benkovs sold their four-bedroom, contemporary Colonial house in Briarcliff Manor, and bought a co-op on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The move back to New York City made sense for a number of reasons. On the practical side, both Judy and Keith work in the city; she is a lawyer and he is a doctor. In addition, Judy says, “I think it’s easier to age when you’re in the city. It’s easier to get around and access the resources that you need. I think it’s very hard to age in the suburbs, especially if you are alone.”
She adds that, though their three-bedroom apartment is about half the size of their house in Briarcliff Manor, she doesn’t miss the house or the yard. “Sometimes I miss that happy part of my life, when the kids were young. But life moves on. The kids love that we live here now. The city offers so much.”
Still, not everyone downsizes. Meet the Thatchers. Ann and Charlie Thatcher bought their 3,000-square-foot home in the Seven Bridges area of Chappaqua in 1978. They were moving from Manhattan, and the four-level house on 1.25 acres was perfect for raising their two kids. The Thatchers are now both retired—she was a middle-school math teacher, he a pension consultant—and in their 60s.
“We talked for a long time about leaving Chappaqua,” Ann recalls. “There wasn’t a place we really wanted to be.” Nine years ago, they put a toe in the water: they bought an apartment in Manhattan but still kept the house. “We had the best of both worlds,” she says. Increasingly, however, when their kids came to visit, they’d want to be in the city. “I said, ‘This is crazy. We’re paying these taxes, and the kids don’t really have any friends in Chappaqua anymore. And so many of our friends had left town, too.” Meanwhile, their son moved to California, and their daughter settled in Virginia.
Late last year, the Thatchers bought a house near their daughter, son-in-law, and grandson in Virginia. In January, they moved to the Keswick area near Charlottesville, to a house about the same size as their Westchester home, on 20 acres (with a pond), in horse country. “According to the experts on elderly living, we did everything wrong,” Ann says. “Our bedroom is not on the first floor, this is not a retirement community, and we definitely did not downsize.” She and her husband are looking forward to fly-fishing, touring local vineyards, and entertaining. “We felt we had one more spurt left in us,” she declares. Oh, and they’re keeping the Manhattan apartment.
The Taxman No Longer Cometh
So just what bills will empty nesters selling their family homes no longer have to worry about paying? See below for a sampling of average annual property taxes (2005):
Briarcliff Manor: $11,879
Yorktown Heights: $11,459
Pelham freelance writer Carol Hall has written a variety of articles for Westchester Magazine on subjects ranging from green housing to animal shelters.