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Many baby boomers own homes that are too big. Can they be enticed to sell them?

Some baby boomers would like to downsize from their large homes, but say it doesn't make financial sense. Single-family homes in Dumfries, Va., are seen here last year.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
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The Washington Post via Getty Images
Some baby boomers would like to downsize from their large homes, but say it doesn't make financial sense. Single-family homes in Dumfries, Va., are seen here last year.

Among the many hard truths for those trying to enter America's brutal housing market, here's one: Baby boomers continue to own many of the country's large houses, even after their households have shrunk to one or two people.

Baby boomer empty nesters own twice as many of the country's three-bedroom-or-larger homes, compared with millennials with kids, according to a recent analysis from Redfin. That means those larger homes aren't hitting the market, one factor limiting the supply for the younger generations who could use those extra bedrooms.

Some baby boomers, the generation now between the ages of 60 and 78, are happy in their large homes, using the extra bedrooms for hobbies and visiting family. Others say they want to downsize, but it just doesn't make sense financially.

Some want to downsize, but the numbers don't add up

Sherry Murray, 73, and her husband, 80, bought their house in the North Hills of Pittsburgh in 1991, for $240,000. It's got four bedrooms, including some they don't use anymore. Many of her friends are in the same boat.

"What a lot of us have done is not walled off the extra bedrooms, but closed the doors, and you try not to have to maintain them," she says. "It's just too much house at this point."

The house is paid off, and Murray has wanted to downsize for a while, but she says homes that fit what she's looking for – 2,000 square feet, all on one level, in the same suburban area – sell quickly and for a lot of money.

So they've stayed put.

"You don't want to be economically stupid. If my house is worth even $650,000, I don't want to spend $1.1 million to downsize substantially, knowing that on top of that, I'm probably going to have to pay some [homeowner association] fees," she says.

Smaller homes can cost more if they're newer, or are part of a community that provides extra services. Some metro areas have few one-story homes, making them hot commodities.

Multifamily buildings can provide single-level living, but some baby boomers are wary of paying condo fees. A mixed-use apartment development is seen under construction in St. Petersburg, Fla., in February.
Octavio Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Multifamily buildings can provide single-level living, but some baby boomers are wary of paying condo fees. A mixed-use apartment development is seen under construction in St. Petersburg, Fla., in February.

Some homeowners are also affected by what's known as the mortgage lock-in effect. While 54% of baby boomer homeowners own their homes free and clear, according to Redfin, most of those with mortgages have low rates. So it doesn't make much sense to take out a new mortgage, with rates now around 7%.

"It just is a dumb economic decision to spend that much extra money for getting so much less," Murray says.

Across the country, many baby boomers are facing their own version of this calculus: It can be cheaper — and more appealing — to stay in their current, large house, than to sell it and move to something smaller.

This doesn't only affect younger buyers.

"You've got a pure housing mismatch for older homeowners. They are mismatched physically or functionally with the house that they're in," says Gary Engelhardt, an economist at Syracuse University who studies aging and housing markets. "That's because it's multifloor living. It's stairs. It's also other upkeep."

Engelhardt says that's a serious concern because it can can lead to things like falls. "And falls can be very devastating, could have very devastating health consequences, especially for the oldest old," he says. "In general, we would like to have older homeowners ... matched with their housing in a much better way than we currently have."

So what could be done?

Engelhardt says there are basically two policy approaches to deal with what's happening.

First, he says, is to provide subsidies or tax credits for home modifications that allow older adults to age in the homes they have. While that could make seniors' current housing safer, it doesn't put those houses back into the market.

Second, encourage building housing that's well suited to older Americans, Engelhardt says: "You promote the construction of new residential units that are going to be ADA compliant, that are going to have universal design and all the types of features that lend themselves to a better match of functionality at older ages."

For instance, the government could create a tax credit to encourage developers to build accessible housing, akin to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit that incentivizes building affordable housing.

Jenny Schuetz, a housing policy expert at the Brookings Institution, says in trying to incentivize older adults to move out of homes that are now too large for them, different tools are needed depending on their geography and financial resources. For instance, a lower-income homeowner of a deteriorating row house might be willing to a swap for a newer, smaller apartment in an elevator building, if there was a program for that.

But longtime California homeowners who've seen their property values skyrocket would likely require a different approach, Schuetz says. There, Proposition 13 strictly limits increases in property taxes – so that many longtime homeowners pay taxes on a small fraction of their home's value. That created its own lock-in effect, though a recent rule change allows those over age 55 to keep their lower tax rate if they buy and move into a home of equal or lesser value.

Building more housing that's attractive to seniors

There are other policy changes that could make it easier to build housing for different life stages and thereby entice boomers to downsize.

"I think one of the things that we know to be true is that older adults want to be able to age in their communities," says Danielle Arigoni, managing director for Policy and Solutions at National Housing Trust. That's where they already have friends and neighbors, doctors and bus routes they know — familiarity that makes aging in their community possible.

Some baby boomers find that when they want to downsize, there are no smaller options in their neighborhoods. Single-family homes are seen in a neighborhood in San Marcos, Texas, last month.
Jordan Vonderhaar / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Some baby boomers find that when they want to downsize, there are no smaller options in their neighborhoods. Single-family homes are seen in a neighborhood in San Marcos, Texas, last month.

But many areas, including neighborhoods where a lot of baby boomers live, have zoning that only allows single-family homes. That means when older adults decide their current homes are too big, they basically have to move out of their neighborhoods.

"People want to be able to age in their communities, but there are very few options available for people who do want to do that but want to downsize," Arigoni says.

So if cities and states want to encourage more right-sizing, they could change their zoning rules to allow more types of housing in all neighborhoods. (Cities across the country are already working to change their zoning rules, for reasons including boosting supply and lowering housing costs.)

Municipalities can also allow and encourage accessory dwelling units (ADUs), secondary dwellings like backyard cottages or basement apartments. Arigoni says these offer lots of advantages for older adults.

For instance, ADUs can be built all one level, with no steps at all. The homeowners can move into the new, smaller ADU on their property, and make money renting the larger house — allowing them to stay in the neighborhood they love, while adding a home to the rental market. The extra space can also provide housing for caregivers or family members.

Another way to unlock supply in lower-density neighborhoods is to allow homeowners with large lots to split them, generating cash for the homeowner while creating space for a new house to be built.

More housing is coming: 1.6 million homes and apartments are currently under construction in the U.S. That supply should make it easier for buyers to find homes that suit them.

In the meantime, many baby boomers are sympathetic to what the younger generations are up against.

"I really feel sorry for them," says Gaurang Patel, 67, a Maryland homeowner who's hoping to downsize and move closer to his adult children. "They should also get the equal opportunity."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: April 18, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Gaurang Patel's first name. It has been corrected.
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Laurel Wamsley
Laurel Wamsley is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers cities.