Empty Nest? Leave the Boring ‘Burbs Behind And Move Back To The City For A Better Social Life

After the kids leave, couples are foregoing their multi-bedroom homes in the suburbs and moving back to the cities for outdoor markets, restaurants,  public transportation and more freedom

Karen and Jim Richardson were so certain their last home build would be their “forever” home that they had wheelchair-friendly doorways installed. But a few years later, when Jim’s office relocated to downtown Minneapolis, Karen leapt at the chance to explore the burgeoning condo scene in the heart of the city.

After looking at several different types of housing, the couple down-sized from their “forever” house to a new-construction high-rise within walking distance of both their offices and offered something else very much at the top of Karen’s list – a panorama view of the Mississippi River. A year later, when a second new building went up across the street, they swapped their 1,575 square foot living space for one slightly over two thousand.

Too Big for Comfort

In the early 2000s, lots of home owners built big. Dave and Katherine Meyer included. They built their five bedroom, 4,300 square foot house outside Dallas in 2004. “The kids were teenagers and needed their own rooms,” Dave explained, “and with the pool in the backyard, they could have friends over. We liked knowing where they were.”

But when those teenagers left one by one for college, everything changed. “It became clear that we were paying for a lot of things we weren’t using,” Dave, a CFO for a small healthcare company said. “We paid substantial property taxes for good schools we no longer needed, there was a lot upkeep on the pool and yard, not to mention air-conditioning costs for a house that size.”

Dave’s wife Katherine had a more emotional reaction. “With the kids living here it was great, but without them, it just seemed empty, and new people moving into the neighborhood were all younger than we were.” So the Meyers sold to a younger family and bought an upscale townhouse in Dallas. “Most of our neighbors are empty nesters like us, and there’s a very lively residents’ association. We have a better social life here.”

The New Trend

Karen and Jim joined a trend that realtors and urban planners began noticing in the 1990s. “During the ’60s and ’70s people would stay in their houses or go to retirement communities,” notes Robert Bruegmann, an architectural historian. Today, rather than stay in their homes or transition to a retirement community, empty-nesters are leaving the nest with the fledglings.

According to George Washington University School of Business professor Chris Leinberger, it’s that post-WWII generations lived “a more extreme version of suburban life than their parents, adding to the burdens of home and garden care and commuting. The baby boomers’ lots are much bigger and they moved further out. They’re tired of mowing their lawn.”

Depending on whose survey you consult, between 51 percent and 72 percent of people over 50 say they’d prefer city living to the suburbs. The most enthusiastic proponents of urban living tend to be younger, higher income, and still working. Those who prefer staying in the suburbs tend to be older, already retired or planning to, and, since their prime earning years are behind them, more money-conscious.

The Perks of Urban Living

Among the top reasons people give for relocating to the city is transportation. Though most are still working, or have ditched the idea of retiring completely, they are tired of long commutes and time spent in the car. Many two car couples whittle it down to one, and some give up car ownership completely, a savings that offsets the cost of city living.

Giving up the car means more walking – another frequently mentioned benefit of city living, so much so that “walkability” is now included in evaluating a city’s overall appeal. Along with walkability, other valued city fitness perks include parks with walking and biking trails and condo amenities like pools, gyms, and classes.

Jim Richardson, initially reluctant to make the move to high-density urban living, now says he wouldn’t give up his five minute walk to work for the double garage he still sometimes misses.

Richardson’s other reservation about making the move was loss of privacy, but says their high-floor condo is actually quieter and offers more privacy than any of their homes did. 

But the real draw of the city seems to be less easy to identify. Call it bustle. “A summer art fair a few blocks away, the reading group in our building, concerts in the park, a new restaurant to try, says Karen Richardson. “There’s always something going on.” 

The Best Part About Leaving The Suburbs: Freedom

John McIlwain, resident fellow of the non-profit Urban Land Institute, has studied the trend in detail and concluded that what draws people back to the cities “are things like a lively neighborhood you can walk around in. The cafes, quality food markets as well as interesting boutiques and stores are all strong attractors.”

But what cities are doing most to attract newcomers is creating high-density housing that has the feel of a private home, with high-quality materials, more space than traditional apartments, and features like fireplaces and outdoor balconies with fire pits for grilling. It’s home without the hassle – only with better views, amenities and concierge service.

The New Hot Spots

For those re-locating, the sun belt still tops the list, and many warm weather cities are now building urban condos and town homes rather than retirement communities. In the last decade, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin, and Phoenix all saw twice the usual growth rate in the 55- 64 year old population. Other cities with substantially above normal growth include Portland, Albuquerque, Dallas, Orlando, and Washington. D.C.

College towns like Madison, Wisconsin and Burlington, Vermont are also popular. While this seems ironic at first take, college students and empty-nesters have similar needs and interests. Cultural offerings like theaters and museums, unique shops, cafes and movie theaters are tremendous draws for both. Since neither group needs a child-centered environment, it’s a perfect fit.

Whether the urban trend will continue to grow or will, at some point, level out remains to be seen. For now, however, it’s a good time for anyone who’s ever wanted a new adventure to jump in and enjoy city living.