Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×
Search
Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Should You Downsize or Renovate as You Age?

What to consider when deciding whether to sell the family home or make improvements instead

woman sitting on a couch with her dog
Tony Anderson/Getty Images

​Getting older involves lots of decisions — including whether you have the time and inclination to take care of a house that’s been aging right alongside you. The question becomes: Do you downsize or renovate and age in place?

Kathy Wolf and her husband, Stephen, have yet to reach an answer.

“We talk about it all the time,” says Wolf, 68, a library manager in Irondequoit, New York. “Should we stay or should we go? We keep going around and around.”

member card

AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

They both love the two-story, 2,400-square-foot house they’ve shared for 30 years, as well as their walkable, close-knit neighborhood. But they recognize that neither one could manage the home alone.

National downsizing expert Matt Paxton has been witness to this decision loop for two decades. He sees firsthand how difficult it can be to make changes to familiar abodes, whether that means modifying or moving out.

At the same time, he has noticed the trend of aging adults taking greater control over their situation than their parents did.

“I’m seeing a different vibe of empowerment,” says Paxton, host of the Daytime Emmy–nominated Legacy List With Matt Paxton, a PBS series about the heirlooms and memories attached to our homes. Homeowners are “saying, ‘No, I’m not going to leave this to my kids. I’m going to make decisions now.’ It’s a cool, positive switch,” Paxton says. ​

The upsides of downsizing

Before you can make the choice to sell and move out of your house, you need to focus on one question: “What do you really want?” Paxton asks. “To be closer to your grandkids, better health care, a new girlfriend at age 75? You need to have a plan. I cannot stress this enough.”

Only after you’ve answered this question should you turn to the finances. If saving money is a priority, downsizing can help meet that objective if you move into a smaller house, one that already features friendly accommodations for older adults or includes lawn service, for example, in the homeowner association dues. You also stand to save time on upkeep and maintenance.

Let the numbers help take emotion out of the equation by making a spreadsheet. Include information about where you might want to move and how much that move will cost. “Then go on site visits, just like people do when choosing a college,” Paxton suggests.

But the process is bound to trigger some emotions when you’re contemplating such a major change.

“We blame them on the fear of forgetting the memories we have,” Paxton says, “but what I’ve narrowed in on is that we’re afraid we won’t create new memories.”

Entertainment

Ancestry

30% off a 1-year subscription

See more Entertainment offers >

Choosing renovations over resale

2021 AARP survey found that more than three-quarters of adults over 50 wanted to age in place in their existing community. That supports data from the National Association of Home Builders showing that of its members’ total projects, those that supported aging in place climbed from about 60 percent in 2004 to 77 percent in 2019.

For older adults whose preference is to renovate the home they live in, the same question applies.

“‘What I want’ is driving huge remodels,” says Kurt Clason, owner of Clason Remodeling Co. in Ossipee, New Hampshire, and a certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS) — a designation developed by the home builders association in collaboration with AARP and other experts. “What we’re hearing is that people aren’t so concerned about resale anymore. They want what they want.”

Single-floor living is ideal, of course. An aging-in-place specialist can help determine whether this is feasible for an original multilevel home.

A specialist can also guide homeowners to make style and structural changes that are designed to accommodate older adults while at the same time look universal.

“For example, they make the house fully accessible,” says Clason, “but they don’t put that big aluminum ramp out front so that everybody in the neighborhood knows you have a wheelchair.”

Most people can make renovations work for them with only a few modifications, such as bathroom grab bars, according to Mike Robinson, a real estate agent in Peachtree City, Georgia, just south of Atlanta.

Another easy accommodation is to replace doorknobs with levers, which are easier to operate for people with osteoarthritis.

membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

LEARN MORE ABOUT AARP MEMBERSHIP.

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

For those in wheelchairs, doorways can be widened, sinks lowered, and rugs or carpet replaced with hardwood, laminate or another type of low-maintenance flooring.

Luxury vinyl plank flooring “is really popular right now,” says Robinson. “It’s waterproof and durable, so it works great throughout the house.”

Curbless showers are a coveted feature for older people, but the cost to install one can be high — anywhere from $2,000 to as much as $5,000. That’s especially true if the house is built on a slab, which would have to be “busted out,” Robinson explains. “But in those cases, you can have a shower installed with a very easy roll-over entry, and that works out just fine.”

Outside the house, yards can be made easier to maintain, an important conversion as income and energy become more limited. Hiring a lawn service is another option.

Clason has a quick response to anyone asking how much a renovation will cost: “Anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000,” he says. “It's going to depend on whether you’re doing a whole-house renovation or adding on.”

Here, too, emotion plays a role. “It typically comes down to sentimental value,” he adds.​

Set your own timeline

The Wolfs expect their debate to continue for a while. “I’d like to move, and my husband wants to stay,” says Kathy, who has checked out some houses on the market, though not seriously.

“If the right house was in the right place, we might jump on it,” she says. “I don’t know. It’s such a big decision.”

Paxton knows the struggle well.

“Take your time, but have a firm timeline or finish line because you can analyze this to death,” he says, adding that reaching a decision should not take longer than six months. “And remember: The decision is the hardest part. Once you make it, everything will be better.”