Ten years ago, while building my last house in Colorado, which I really thought would be my last house, contractors kept telling me to think of the next owner. I kept thinking: What next owner? I’m never moving.
Well, guess what?
I am here in Florida to tell you, despite what you think, no house is forever. What’s more — and I hope you’re sitting because this is shocking at least to me — change happens.
One year ago, I was living with my family in my forever house. Today, the four of us — still very much a family in some new modern sense — live in three states, in smaller quarters (one rental house, one loft, one college dorm) while we transition to the next phase of our lives.
On top of that, my 80-something parents, who really have lived in the same house forever — 45 years — are looking to move to a smaller retirement place that requires less work and offers more support. When that happens, the world really will stop turning on its axis.
All that colored my response to an unsuspecting magazine editor who recently asked me for my new year’s design resolution.
Other years I might have prattled on about my plans to remodel more frugally, paint with bolder colors or be greener. But the mood is different now. I am doing what, judging from my emails, many of you are doing: re-evaluating what I want in a home.
“For me, it’s a time of transition,” I wrote to the editor, putting it mildly. “So I’m looking at all I own and all I may acquire in a new way and asking: Is it nimble? So my family could evolve, I sold a lot of furniture and kept only those items that would kill me to part with, and that would look good in many spaces. If a piece isn’t versatile, handsome, well-made and nimble, I’m not interested.”
As usual, when life is chaos, I talk about furniture and everything seems right.
Again, because of my new, questionable state of mind, something about a financial planning e-pitch I received, (one I normally would have zapped with my spam blocker), caught my curiousity.
“The recession is the very best thing that happened to Americans,” it read. “It got them to rethink their priorities.”
Indeed! I had to stop thinking about when I could squeeze in a nail appointment and start thinking about real matters like paying for my daughter’s college meal plan. That’s another shocker. That five-figure tuition bill does not include food! Meanwhile, my fingernails look like the business end of a scrub brush.
I called the financial planner in the pitch. “Americans got too wrapped up in having things,” said Guy Hatcher, of Southlake, Texas. “They bought into the culture of stuff. Eventually, many saw that the more they got, the less free and happy they felt. The recession has helped them get back to quality not quantity.”
“So that’s what just happened?”
“Like a lot of people who get to be 45 or 50 and have been successful, I looked up a few years ago and asked, ‘This is it?’ ” said Hatcher, now 52. “I used to believe that having things would bring me respect. But all assets take work. Houses have to be kept up, and that takes time and energy. Whenever I see clients downsize, I see their stress go down.”
“After owning four progessively larger houses, I like having less house and fewer things,” I said. Next I’m heading for the broom closet.
“You’re ahead of most people.”
“I love to be ahead,” I said. “Even if I’m ahead going backwards.”
Because my be-nimble furniture advice can only take you so far, I asked Hatcher what insights and advice he had for folks facing life and housing transitions:
— You are not your stuff. “Too many people relate who they are to what they own, but we are not our houses or our things,” he said. “Besides, what’s the point of having a big house if you’re no fun and not having fun, if no one’s coming over to play cards?” Once people grasp that, letting go gets much easier.
— Less stuff equals more happiness. The day Hatcher hit bottom, he saw he had lots of material success but was so depressed he needed medication. He started unloading assets, a business and some land. “As I did, I freed up my life to have more family time, more fun and more freedom.”
— Pace your improvements. When his clients want to do a home improvement, he insists they work on a cash basis. Over six months, put aside money for new drapes or new counters. Then do it. Keep in mind: “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow. But it does have to be in the budget.”
— Get wiser with age sooner. The importance of things goes down with age, starting at age 50, he said. “By your 80s, possessions really don’t matter.” Why do so many people have to live so long before they understand that?
My two cents: Transition. Plan for it. Cards anyone?