Supersizing the Empty Nest

The New York TimesAugust 31, 2012
Joy Tomchin’s friends and neighbors thought she was nuts, and didn’t hesitate for a minute to tell her so.

Here she was a single mother with her only child, Evan, going off to college this fall, and rather than downsize or, O.K., simply stay put in the three-bedroom apartment she had bought 10 years ago at the Chelsea Mercantile, Ms. Tomchin instead held on to her original 2,100-square-foot unit and annexed the place next door for an additional 1,400 square feet.

The result after a gut renovation: four pleasingly sized bedrooms and four bathrooms, along with a large space encompassing a living room, dining room and kitchen.

“Twenty-one-hundred square feet sounds like a lot but it didn’t lay out right,” said Ms. Tomchin, a real estate developer, who wasn’t happy that the kitchen faced a wall and that Evan’s room was so small it necessitated a loft bed.

Ms. Tomchin was motivated, in part, by an eagerness for her son to return home often and with pleasure, perhaps even live in the apartment with his own family someday. But, the purchase and renovation was at least as much for mother as for son. “I’m 64 -- I plan to be around into my 90s and I wanted a place I could stay in my whole life and enjoy,” Ms. Tomchin said.

“I had flashes a few times that I shouldn’t be doing this,” she added. “I’ve got four bathrooms now and I don’t need four bathrooms. But I felt it was the right thing for me to do.”

Many New Yorkers resolutely hang on to the family apartment when their children leave for college, and perhaps for good reason. After all, the still bleak employment picture suggests that after the last strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” they’ll return to the nest for who knows how long.

Of course, a considerable number of people whose offspring move away from home choose to switch to more modest quarters in the city since they no longer need as much space. A subset of parents, though, view the departure of the children as an occasion to start thinking bigger and better. They want to upsize, or at the very least, to upgrade. For some, paying off that last tuition bill also gives them the wherewithal to buy the sort of space they have always wanted. They leap at the chance to trade in the family apartment for one better suited to hosting dinner parties and out-of-town guests.

In certain instances, said Kathy Braddock, founder of Rutenberg Realty, the children’s departure is viewed by some as a perfect time to get rid of the weekend home. “People think, ‘Who needs it?’ ” she said. “And they might take the money and get a larger apartment in the city.”

Those looking for more expansive quarters may be contemplating a future rich in grandchildren and want to make sure there’s ample room to accommodate them. “They envision a large, gracious space to entertain and to have the extended family gather,” said Joanie Schumacher, director of sales for the Laurel Condominium, on the East Side, which has attracted several upsizing empty-nesters. “They don’t see turning into grandparents who always go to their kids’ house.”

Some buyers may want an apartment with amenities that they deemed too fraught when their children were young, like a deck, a terrace or floor-to-ceiling windows — or too fragile, like high-gloss lacquer cupboard doors or marble countertops.

“When I’m showing apartments to couples who are leaving the family apartment, they’re looking for the opposite of what they had — these people want their dream apartment,” said Barbara S. Fox, the owner and founder of the Fox Residential Group.

While their children’s rooms could be easily turned into functional rooms if they stayed in their now empty nest, she added: “They don’t want to be reminded they were the kids’ rooms. They want to start fresh and put their own adult imprimatur on something.”

Shaun Osher, the founder and chief executive of CORE, a boutique residential brokerage company, put it this way: “The biggest change to your life is when you have kids. But the biggest change after that is when your kids move out.”

Empty-nesters are naturally less interested in child-focused building amenities like a playroom, and may be more interested in a building that comes with a spa. “When you’re an empty-nester and you have the means, you buy the property that best addresses your needs,” Mr. Osher said. “That may be fewer bedrooms but more open space like with a loft. You may want a bigger dining room because you’re entertaining more.”

When Michael Namer’s sons went off to college, he and his wife, Christine, a psychiatrist, moved from a 1,500-square-foot apartment on Sullivan Street with two bedrooms and two baths to a 2,000-square-foot space on West 11th Street with three bedrooms and three and a half baths. The building is fully renovated and their new apartment comes with a much bigger kitchen and living room.

“And we now have a doorman and a storage locker,” said Mr. Namer, a property developer. “We didn’t have either of those before.”

Downsizing, he said, was never a consideration: “Some couples cash out when their kids leave. They buy a smaller apartment in New York and get a place in Florida or the Hamptons.”

Mr. Namer continued: “But we already have a summer house and we like living in a larger apartment. We wanted more room. We like having more places to sit.”

He added, with a laugh, “We don’t encourage our children to visit.”

Ms. Braddock of Rutenberg Realty said upsizing in New York is an elastic term, and empty-nesters may not intentionally set out to get a bigger space. “People don’t say I have to go from 3,000 to 4,000 square feet,” she said.

More important considerations might be how a property is laid out or what neighborhood it’s in. Ms. Braddock said: “People will think: ‘The kids are gone, let’s move downtown. Let’s get a terrace.’ ”

Living on the Upper East Side was important for George and Margee Khouri when they were raising their daughter, Hope, who attended a Catholic girls’ school in the neighborhood. When she graduated, “there was no longer that need,” said Mrs. Khouri, 63, a retired teacher who now works for her husband, a real estate lawyer.

“George grew up in Brooklyn Heights and his family still owns a brownstone there with a backyard,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have an apartment with outdoor space?’ ”

So when the Khouris found a buyer for their two-bedroom 900-square-foot co-op on East 88th Street in Manhattan, they moved to a Brooklyn Heights apartment that’s more than 20 percent larger and has a 300-square-foot terrace, the site of many intimate dinners for two.

“I would never have felt comfortable with that when our daughter was young,” Mrs. Khouri said. “I would have been hovering over her all the time to make sure she didn’t go out there alone and I would have had all sort of locks on it.”

Karen Advocate-Connolly, a vice president for Douglas-Elliman, and her husband, Tom Connolly, a partner at Ernst & Young, knew they had some decisions to make when their son, Justin, went off to college, and their daughter, Sydney, was almost finished with high school. The lease was up on their 1,600-square-foot three-bedroom apartment in the Sutton Place area, and the rent would be skyrocketing. Should they renew? Should they buy a smaller apartment and perhaps a second vacation place? They already had one in Vermont.

“We were looking ahead and wondering where we wanted to settle,” said Ms. Advocate-Connolly, adding that they ultimately decided to remain in Manhattan. “And when we were thinking about the size of the apartment, we didn’t want our kids to feel there wouldn’t be room for them to move back home.”

Or, she added, that there wouldn’t be room for their essential possessions.

“Justin was looking at his prospective bedroom at one place we were considering and he said, ‘Well, I guess I don’t need my La-Z-Boy in the new apartment,” Ms. Advocate-Connolly said of her son’s space-hogging lounging chair. “And that was a deal breaker. The ultimate test was whether his bedroom could fit the La-Z-Boy.”

No problems like that exist in the family’s new four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot apartment, which is almost at the end of a gut renovation.
Big furniture notwithstanding, not everything about the co-op is so accommodating to the younger generation. “The materials, like marble counter tops, aren’t so kid-friendly,” she said. “Now that my children are older, I hope they can handle it.”

Ms. Advocate-Connolly said she also chose plumbing and lighting fixtures that “are edgier than what we had before,” adding that many of her empty-nest clients are following suit.

“They’ve lived in a traditional apartment and now they want to go to a loft,” she said. “They don’t care about a children’s bathroom. They want a big shower for themselves. People are going back to their just married state — but with a lot more money to spend.”