The downsizing dilemma


For many retirees, there comes a time to consider whether it makes sense to continue putting money into a beloved old house or moving into a newer, smaller place.

By John Killen

During a December when the rain never stopped, I set a personal record.

Most towels washed, dried and laid out along the southwest corner of the basement.

Don’t ask me the exact number. I couldn’t keep track. I just know that I did more loads of towels than ever before. It had to be at least 15 or 20 over a four-day period. Wash, dry, soak up water, repeat.

The 10-plus inches of rain we received in the first half of December 2015 will do that to you if you own a 100-year-old house built on a 100-year-old foundation.

Which got me thinking: Is it finally time to move?

It’s not the first time that thought occurred to me. This house was a great place for Marlie and me to raise three boys and two dogs.

But now, our sons are on their own and we have just half a dog. (One of our sons drops his border collie at our place most work days so she won’t have to stay home alone.)

On one hand, I love our house. We’ve lived in this two-story Craftsman for 28 years — nearly a third of its life — and it’s in a great location with wonderful “walkability,” just off Southeast Hawthorne.

It’s roomy, charming and we have great neighbors. Beyond that are the memory ghosts who wander through the dining room, up the stairs or even around that occasionally damp basement.

Homework at the dining room table; fights over baseball cards; BB-gun pock marks on the side of the garage; basketball in the driveway; rushing out of the driveway to get to soccer matches in the far reaches of Tigard or Gresham; stern words over first traffic tickets; photos taken before proms and graduations; suitcases on the living room floor, packed and eager to go to college for the first time.


John Killen and granddaughter Harlow visit the newsroom two days before Grandpa retired from The Oregonian/OregonLive.

But on the flip side, it’s nearly 3,000 square feet. Charm and covered front porch aside, it’s expensive to heat in the winter, hard to cool in the summer and every two or three years, there’s some major expense: new plumbing one year, new paint another year, a new furnace yet another year.

Since moving here in 1988, we’ve remodeled the kitchen, burned through at least two air conditioners, rebuilt the deck, banished radon, first replaced the garage door windows, then replaced the garage door, and refinished the hardwood floors.

In January, we paid out around $2,500 to have the drainage system — the prime suspect in the case of the leaky basement— repaired. And more recently, we decided to ahead with an earthquake retrofit.

Yikes. Does this make sense?

I know I’m not the only one thinking about this. Demographically, we fall in with the baby boomers. And like many others in this group, Marlie and I recently retired.

So these days, I spend way too much time at my computer, wandering through home-buying web sites or looking at plans for maybe building a new home. Or maybe a condo? And after three decades on the east side, should we consider trying the west side?

It’s maddening. Every time we decide to move, we decide not to move. Or the other way around. Recently, we told our oldest son that we had finally decided to stay in the house and do yet more work: remodel the bigger upstairs bathroom and get to work on clearing out the basement bedroom (the one with the leak) and maybe adding a shower downstairs.

He looked at me with a bit of a quizzical smile on his face.

“I thought you guys had decided to move,” he said as he looked up from my car’s engine, which he was working on. “Oh, yeah. That was last week.”

He’s right, of course. We are totally incapable of making up our minds on this topic.

If we stay, the leak in the basement isn’t the only thing that needs fixing. The “new” deck – now 12 years old — needs refinishing. And then there’s the folding steps that lead to the attic. They really need to be replaced.

But we could avoid all that by moving to a new home.

Then again, maybe that would feel like giving up. It would also mean we’d never get the chance to turn our carriage house garage into an ADU. And we’d have to say goodbye to the neighbors who have often watched over our house when we’re gone or called us when our dogs got loose.

So maybe we should stay. At least for this week.


John Killen is a retired newspaper journalist.  He spent 28 years working for The Oregonian and 40-plus years reporting and editing and making lots of professional decisions, but still can’t decide if it’s time to downsize.  He and his wife Marlie celebrated their 40th anniversary this month.

Editor’s note: John and I joined The Oregonian within a year of each other in the mid-’80s.  He retired a few months ahead of me last year and the staff sendoff was something to see — a roomful of people who spoke to his professionalism and positivity, his loyalty and leadership. I recruited him onto my bowling team for one season last year. He’s back to riding his bike.

Tomorrow: Tammy Ellingson, Finger printed

5 thoughts on “The downsizing dilemma

  1. You are lucky to have lived in one place for so long … so many memories to cherish!

    The longest I ever lived under one roof was 10 years, and that was as an adult. I lived in three homes while growing up, and since moving out of the family home, I am now in my 12th home (I omitted the college dorm, short stays back at either my Mom’s or Dad’s place, and temporary housing when moving). The reasons for moving were varied, but moving I did. I learned through the moves that “stuff” became less important, particularly after leaving the house in which I spent 10 years. The stuff started to jettison easier and easier after that and now feels like I’m down to the bare bones of necessities – in a 1,400-square-foot house packed to the gills with those other “necessities” I just can’t let go of … yet. Maybe one more move is in order.

    I know the thought of moving must be so hard for you. I can say there is a freshness to new starts.Good luck with your decision.

  2. That’s just what we went through seven years ago after 26 years in our home. I realized… roof, new exterior paint, new furnace, redone back yard. Do we want to pay for all of this again somewhere down the road? Unless you love spending your time and money doing that, maybe it is time for new. And, with condos we all watch out for one another’s places and pets.

  3. This year I moved from the place I lived in for 25 years. Those memory ghosts really got to me towards the end. I thought I’d probably die in that place, but had to make decisions somewhat like yours. Oddly, though it was hard leaving, I don’t miss the old place that much. I’m in a tonier neighborhood, closer to a better variety of shopping, have plenty of places to walk (though the other place did, too). And memories are portable.

  4. Six on one hand, half dozen on the other, shifting leanings from one week to the next …. I empathize with your indecision. I can’t imagine the competing pro-con list. I hope for some consistent clarity for you!

  5. Well written! I can totally relate to this – the memory ghosts were so hard for me, I moved to another city. But we still have our old home and our old town and now we are in a sort of never-never land in between. Last year, when I was at the funeral of an aunt-in-law – it really brought this fact home – you take nothing with you – not your home, your precious possessions or your farm in a distant village. This year after I read the “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo I realized that downsizing is not just about clutter or houses, but a way of looking at life. It could apply to anything, homes, possessions, people. bucket lists. The principle is simple enough- make a giant sweep of everything, pick the the things that spark joy and keep them. Let everything else go. I hope I can do that some day!

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