How to Know When You’re Ready to Leave Your Big House Behind

Jen McGahan
Sep 2 · 8 min read

Downsizing is scary until you start looking around

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Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

After downsizing last year, I can’t say there was a single moment that made me realize I’d had enough of living in a big house. The decision to downsize wasn’t easy. A big move like that isn’t easy for anyone.

Before I moved to my townhouse, I lived on three acres in a 4000-sq-ft-house. I loved the hill country views until my very last day there, but I was ambivalent about staying in a place that large on my own. There were a thousand pivotal moments, both for and against the idea.

I would listen to the coyotes in the woods and see the moon outside my bedroom window, feeling deep gratitude. I’d think about how much I enjoyed my life there.

I would glance at the tick marks on the wall between the broom closet and the pantry and think, “It’s been too many years…. my children grew up here. I was meant to stay here.” I had just turned 50. The word “forever,” unpalatable as it was, hung in the air.

I would open the door to the attic to find something that was surely there, only to close it again because I could stand the thought of looking for some stupid object I could buy at Target for $13. (I know, that’s sick; in itself, that’s a motivating reason to purge.)

Or I would see pictures on Pinterest of people relaxing in minimalist-looking homes, thinking, to myself “I could be that person. My life could be simple.”

Simple is a mirage

I lost my daughter to a domestic violence crime in February, just before this COVID thing hit hard. My sons are getting the hang of moving on. My ex and I rarely talk (or make small talk), which makes it hard to raise two teenage boys after the horrific loss of their sister. I don’t know how to change this, so I take my ex’s lead and bury the pain.

I have one foot in my marketing and writing business and another in massage therapy, a subject I know (in practice) heals many. I’m not practicing massage therapy during this pandemic. I hope this is temporary, but meanwhile I’m helping others learn to write better, which is more gratifying than I could have guessed...

Life is extra complicated, more complicated than I ever thought it would be. Simple is a state of mind, and my mind feels like it’s spinning out of control, some days. But here’s one thing I know.

I’m grateful to live in a smaller house now

Old ladies in the country have the privilege of being suspicious of everyone.

At a certain age (I was 51) I knew that life wasn’t going to get simpler. I had three young adults who were in the throes of “adulting.” Life was juicy and messy. It was only going to get more complicated, especially if I stayed in my big house.

My mother was dealing with aging issues, and she lives on a large acreage 800 miles away, with a lawn to mow and many outbuilding to hide and lose stuff, including the family silver and my brothers’ Star Wars figurines from the 70s, and the wedding gifts she still hasn’t unboxed. (I wish I were joking.)

Time has taken its toll and now there’s the possibility that “people are stealing from her.” This is either the beginning of dementia or a fact — because punks do sometimes steal from old ladies in the country. There’s no reason not to believe her, except it’s also true that old ladies in the country have the privilege of being suspicious of everyone.

This simple life we imagine after the kids are gown and after we decide how to wear our hair, once and for all, and how to dress ourselves, and what to eat in the morning to get the day started on the right foot… it’s all a bit of a joke.

Some things get easier because of all the years we’ve had to figure it out, and some things get more complicated.

There is no “simple” when you live in a big house and have other people to take care of. Life in the sandwich generation, with kids of varying stages of maturity on both sides… You can’t call it simple, even in a small house.

Life is easier in a smaller house, not simpler

At a certain age I decided that life wasn’t going to get simpler. It was only going to get more complicated, especially if I stayed in my big house.

I owned a big house, and I’m not alone. A lot of single, divorced people own a big house, a house too big for their needs.

The big house became mine in the divorce decree, and I made payments on it after the title legitimately belonged in my name. It was expensive. This is the age of huge houses. People live in these cavernous spaces in America, but it’s not normal for the rest of the world. I’m not saying they’re right and we’re wrong. I’m just saying that at some point you will realize that all those rooms you don’t use could be occupied by your mother, or your daughter and her family, or a nice college kid who needs a room to study and live.

For me, that’s not in the cards. I like my little bit of control over my environment. The only reason I was keeping my house was to house Christmas decorations that my mother gave me through the years, and my children’s art, and my craft supplies, and the yard tools I didn’t have time to use anymore. I was working, so a gardener did the yard — yet another expense.

Oh, by the way, the yard guy charged $100 per visit, and he visited twice a month. My yard guy was sweet. He lived in a small house with his wife and kids, who were well behaved and went to school. He was kind and gentle and seemed centered. He advised me to be a better Catholic.

I was running out of money, paying all these people to help me maintain this large house. In addition to the worry about paying the bills every month, I was sad. Rattling around in that house that used to be so busy felt like a Cracker Jack trinket after the real snack had been consumed. I loved the house for what it used to be, not what it could offer me now.

When I knew it was time to leave

I did this for a couple of years. I recommend you do this too, even if you’re not ready. You must start looking for alternative housing even if you’re just thinking about downsizing. That way, when push comes to shove and you need to make a move (either financially or emotionally) you will know the market.

The sign I needed startled me wide awake. I was dating a needy, jealous, younger man who expected me to help him around his house. Always up for a project, I didn’t mind. Being needed was nice, and I took an interest in his messy place. He was working on building a house and it was a work in progress, to say the least. I’m sure this was some lingering co-dependent thing on both our parts.

One day it occurred to me, this handy guy might be able to get my riding lawn mower started and mow the lawn. After a few weeks of my hinting, then finally outright asking, one day he made time to jump-start the battery and get going. It took him almost an hour to get the job done, and when he came inside, he sulked and banged things around a bit. When I asked him what was the matter, he said I didn’t even come out and bring him a glass of water.

I broke up with him the next week and planned my way out.

Start looking

This was only because I’d been shopping. OK, not shopping, per se, but snooping around open houses and checking out Zillow on the weekends. This was the happiest part of the transition. I’d walk through these staged houses and picture a new life there. It was like my history softened into a lovely future with each new house I explored.

I met the owner of my current home while I was looking at another townhome directly across from hers. She came out of her front door with her little dog Winston, and she introduced herself. Peg told me she was thinking of selling. It was the perfect situation for both of us.

The only way to know you’re ready to leave the big house behind is to start looking for a smaller place — one that is more in keeping with the lifestyle you want to live.

There is no “simple” when you live in a big house and have other people to take care of.

It’s intuitive, but you’ll never really know unless you start opening your eyes. You have to leave your big house and start poking around smaller houses. That is the answer.

Once I unlocked that part of my psyche that couldn’t envision myself in a different situation, things started to break loose all around me. That’s the way things usually work, I find. Solutions seem to present themselves after you leap. My old mentor used to tell me that any action was good action.

You can’t course-correct if you’re standing still

People live in these cavernous spaces in America. But large houses are not the norm for the rest of the world.

Not one minute sitting inside my big old house ever nudged me one inch toward moving to a smaller house. I had to get out and start looking at smaller houses to imagine myself living in different digs.

Imagine yourself somewhere different

Go. Step through the doorway of a smaller house and picture what life could be like there. Dare to simply look outside your current situation. If it’s meant to be, there you’ll find your future.

Are you interested in writing, downsizing, dealing with the grief of losing a child, staying healthy in exasperating times? Follow

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Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here:

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here:

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

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