Written by Kaya Laterman
After the hectic years of child-rearing end and grown children move out, many empty nesters find themselves in a state of adjustment.
While some rejoice in their leaner schedules and newfound quiet, others deal with loneliness and depression, often referred to as empty-nest syndrome. In either case, most empty nesters eventually reach a point where they ask themselves: Is it time to downsize, upsize or just renovate and configure their current home?
A recent report from Freddie Mac found that baby boomers have stayed in their homes much longer than previous generations. A 2019 report from Houzz, a home-remodelling website, found that 60% of baby boomers — defined as people ages 55 to 74 — planned to stay in their homes for the next 11 or more years. Older Americans tend to move into residential care communities in their mid-80s, according to data available from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For those who opt to stay in their empty nests, many decide it is a good time to finally do the renovations they might have put off in previous years. These home makeovers tend to fall into three broad categories: fixing a space to make room for a new lifestyle or hobby; sprucing up a now unused space so it can be rented out to create a new revenue stream, or renovating to make a home more comfortable for visits from adult children and their expanding families.
Taking the time to figure out how you want your empty nest to affect your lifestyle will help you figure out how to reconfigure a home, said Robin Baron, an interior designer with her own firm in Manhattan. Many of her empty-nest clients have approached her after deciding they want to “entertain more,” but she’s had to pick apart what that means.
Do you want to have more dinner or cocktail parties? Do you want to host fundraisers or just have several friends over for a movie night? Will you do the cooking or hire caterers? “The word ‘entertain’ is too broad, so you must narrow that down, then come up with the design,” she said.
Mary Ann Gioeli, a publishing executive, said she knew immediately what she wanted to do when her son moved out. About two weeks after Ryan, now 30, left their Upper West Side apartment for the Air Force in 2014, she threw out the “gross” black leather couch that was in his room and repainted the formerly bright blue space a neutral white. To turn the room into a den, she bought new furniture, including a pullout couch, and moved the television from the living room.
For Gioeli, 67, this was the first step in transforming her three-bedroom apartment into a more adult space. Although she was thrilled her home had been the go-to hangout for her son and daughter, Francesca, now 32, and their friends during their adolescence, she longed to turn the large, bright apartment into a quieter space. “Somewhere you can have a conversation,” she said.
When her daughter left to rent her own apartment in 2016, Gioeli turned her bedroom into a proper guest room. Out went the dated furniture, in came a queen-size bed. These renovations cost a few thousand dollars and were paid for from savings, said Gioeli, who is separated from her husband.
In late 2016, she finally tackled what the family had longed to do: a complete revamp of the dated bathrooms. A tub in the master bath was removed, and a walk-in shower was installed. Double sinks and new storage spaces were added, as well as a new marble floor. The guest bathroom was also thoroughly updated, with a glass-encased shower replacing a former closet space. A home-equity loan covered the $65,000 price tag to renovate both bathrooms.
“I told my kids they will always have a home to return to,” said Gioeli, whose daughter boomeranged back home this year. “But it’s been great to be able to open up my home and have friends stay over.”
Brad and Karen Hacker of Cooper City, Florida, who live about 15 miles southwest of Fort Lauderdale, slowly transformed their home after their two sons, Lane and Drew, now 29 and 25, moved out for good in 2014 and 2018.
Karen Hacker said their four-bedroom home needed a lot of upgrades, as renovations to their home of 26 years had largely been held off to save money for their children’s college education. But as different parts of the home started to wear down, the couple saw it as their chance to revamp it for themselves.
A citation from their homeowners’ association requiring them to pressure clean the outside of the house prompted them to repaint both the exterior and interior. A broken washing machine resulted in the decluttering and reorganization of the laundry room. In 2017, when the pavers in the backyard started to sink and needed repair, the couple took a moment to reflect whether they should tackle yet another home improvement project or just sell the house. But with most of their friends still nearby (only one close couple had moved away), they decided to stay.
Their most fun upgrade, they said, was to turn a child’s bedroom into an exercise space. They first repainted the room and brought in a TV, treadmill and free weights. Karen Hacker, 54, who formerly worked in human resources, carved out a space for her yoga mat.
Last year, the Hackers, who blog about their empty-nest life, bought a Peloton bike to replace the treadmill. Professing his competitiveness, Brad Hacker, 60, an accountant, said that he exerted himself more because he likes seeing how his performance ranks with others during his workouts but that he enjoys competing against his sons the most. The couple also installed a small infrared sauna in the room this year, so far spending about $5,000 of their savings.
“Building the exercise room also turned out to be a real time-saver for us,” Karen Hacker said, as it eliminated having to drive to and from the gym.
Some empty nesters decide to turn their now unused space into extra income. Hollis Giammatteo, a writer, used about $180,000 from savings to gut-renovate her daughter’s old basement bedroom and turn it into an Airbnb rental. Inspired by a friend who had done something similar, Giammatteo, who lives in the Queen Anne neighbourhood of Seattle, said she preferred to lease the space short term because the city is a high-demand tourist and business destination and she is able to keep the unit regularly booked. She said that using an online portal had made it easy to block out specific days when friends and family planned to stay with her. She estimated she had grossed around $125,000 since her first rental in 2015.
That said, she advises those interested in turning unused space into a short-term rental to investigate local laws. “You have to be willing to take on bureaucracy,” Giammatteo, 71, said. Depending on the area, you may need insurance, a business license and to pay taxes on income, she said.
Others, like Peggy Griffin of Wellesley, Massachusetts, prefer renting out an unused bedroom to long-term boarders. Griffin, an employee of the Federal Transit Administration, said she didn’t want to be a hotelier and liked that she could help keep rents more affordable in the Boston area.
After two of her triplets permanently moved out in 2013, she found tenants through Nesterly, an online home-share service that vets potential renters. Griffin, 61, said she simply cleaned out the bedroom before her first boarder moved in. She charges $1,100 a month for a bedroom with a private bath, and she plans to use the extra income to fix the roof on her 1868 four-bedroom home.
“I already know repairing the roof will lead to fixing the siding and the windows,” she said.
Updating a home’s look, not preparing it for sale, was the goal of 71% of consumers age 50 and older who either had completed a home renovation in the past two years or were in the middle of or planning to begin a remodel in the next six months, according to a survey taken by the Schlesinger Group for Sweeten, an online renovation platform.
“We see renovations ranging from updating a bathroom to include a two-person soaking tub to gut remodels that convert bedrooms into hobby rooms — from art to yoga,” said Jean Brownhill, Sweeten’s founder.
That said, experts suggest that homeowners check with a local broker before starting a large-scale renovation to see if their design will have resale value.
“Even if you have no plans to sell the home for another 10 years, it’s a wise thing to do,” said Dave Goscinski, the owner of JJED Remodeling in Dumont, New Jersey. “You’re doing the renovation for yourselves, but can you recoup the investment later?”
Goscinski finished working on a kitchen renovation for Maria and Edward Matera of Hackensack, New Jersey, at the beginning of 2017. The couple wanted an updated kitchen and a larger space to host their immediate family, which includes two grown children and their spouses and four grandchildren, as well as relatives from Italy and California, and friends and neighbors.
They reconfigured and rebuilt the addition to the back of the house, providing them with a spacious new dining area and a new deck that allows them to grill year-round. And a pass-through window that was installed between the kitchen and living room has come in handy during her book club gatherings, said Maria Matera, 71.
To pay for the $125,000 job, the Materas refinanced their mortgage.
In previous years, they also turned an unfinished basement into a den and guest room, while an unused bedroom was turned into a guest room and office. “I feel like I have so much more space,” said Maria Matera, a retired teacher.
Her children say they are happy with the spruced-up house. “Our family has always loved food and gatherings around the table,” said Damian Matera, 44. “My sister, Adriana, and I are thrilled that our parents’ dream kitchen has become a reality and that the new addition will further our love for good food and time together.”
Mary Dell Harrington, a homeowner in Mamaroneck, New York, and the co-founder of the parenting website Grown & Flown is working with an architect to update her kitchen so it can accommodate her grown children, who visit often and love to cook. Her two children, Walker Berning, 29, and Annie Berning, 24, both live in Manhattan but often come home on the weekends, cooking “elaborate meals with lots of ingredients I typically don’t keep on hand,” she said.
But the old kitchen is too cramped. Harrington wants to knock down a wall between the kitchen and dining room and install a larger kitchen island to accommodate the crowd, which also includes her husband, Melvin Berning, 65, their two large Labrador retrievers and a nephew who attends a nearby college. Although plans are not final, she’s hoping there’s room for a proper pantry.
Mary Harrington, 64, a former television marketing executive and the co-author of the book “Grown & Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults,” said previous renovations were “stressful and daunting” when she worked full time and the children were younger and still living at home.
“Now I’m home to deal with contractors or any emergency, so it should be easier,” she said. “What we aspire to is not to push our kids away as they grow older but to enter the next phase and be able to hang out with them as they become more independent.”
For some empty nesters, however, this is not an easy transition to make. Some parents have complicated emotions about watching their children move on, according to Jane Benjamin, a psychologist and clinical director at the Counseling Center in Bronxville, New York. “Pride and joy can be also mixed with envy or regret,” Benjamin said. “It can also be a reckoning of ageing, that things are beyond them, and that can be a vulnerable feeling.”
For empty nesters who have kept their kid’s bedroom as a shrine to their past (read: trophies, primary- or bright-coloured walls), Benjamin suggests working in stages. Make your children take what they’d like to keep, retain a few mementoes for yourself and get rid of the rest.
Replacing the single bed with a larger bed would be ideal for returning adult children with partners. Personalizing the newfound space might be a fun project and help you accept that you’re in the next stage in life, she said.