March-April 2020 | Home & Garden

Love it or leave it

When homeowners outgrow their house, it’s time to make a decision

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The need for a larger home led Alex and Paul Freedman to move their two daughters, ages 12 and 16, and Alex’s mother from their cottage-style colonial in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to a 6,500-square-foot house in Bethesda’s Bannockburn neighborhood.

The family loved their Palisades property, but the three-bedroom house that was “cozy and fun” when their children were younger began to feel cramped as the girls approached their teenage years. “It didn’t feel as comfortable as they got older,” Alex says of the house the family bought in 2011.

Already living in close quarters, the family of four became five in 2015, when Alex’s mother, who had spent the beginning of her retirement in the Dominican Republic, moved in with them. “We are Latin, and in our tradition the old folks come and live with you,” Alex says. “In the Dominican Republic, people tend to be very surrounded by family. She could have come and had an apartment by herself, but she would have been alone, and the idea was for her to be with us in a family setting.”

Though the house in D.C. had an in-law suite in the basement, Alex worried about her octogenarian mother going up and down stairs, and thought it would be safer for her to have a private space on the first floor of the house. The
Freedmans were unsure whether to obtain the extra space through a remodel or a move. “We’d been grappling with the decision for five years,” Alex says. “We’d been doing additions, redoing bathrooms, always doing little things. We never did the big addition, but we were getting to that point.”

Before jumping into a major remodel, the Freedmans, both attorneys, decided to do some house hunting. The couple soon discovered that they had very different design tastes and priorities. Paul gravitated toward new builds near D.C.’s urban offerings, while Alex hoped to find a classic older home close to the C&O Canal. “As long as we were along the Potomac [River], I was happy,” says Alex, who doubted that she and her husband would ever find a property they both loved.

“It made more economic sense to move, but we just couldn’t find the right fit…and then we did,” says Alex, who was about to sign a contract for an addition to the Palisades home when the couple found the house in Bannockburn.

The Freedmans moved into the five-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in March 2019 and report that their entire clan is loving the extra space—and the scenery. “It’s like living in a tree house,” Alex says of her home. Built in 1992, it has a modern feel that appeals to her husband, and its location near Glen Echo Park and the canal satisfies her need to be near nature. “I love the setting more than anything; it has a lot of windows, a lot of light and a lot of trees all around.”

Like the Freedmans, other potential buyers in Montgomery County may struggle to find the perfect house in a competitive market with a lot of dated stock, so the answer to the question “relocate or remodel?” may actually be “relocate then remodel.”

Current trends indicate that buyers are prioritizing walkability, desirable neighborhoods and urban centers close to shopping and leisure activities, according to the Zillow Group report. “There is a growing group of buyers in the last few years who might buy a house in a neighborhood because they like the school district or the proximity to work or the proximity to parks,” says Erich Cabe, who points out that buyers who prioritize the location over the house itself may look to make improvements down the road when they have the funds or bandwidth to do so. “People like the idea of making their home their own.”

Wilder says he often advises clients to “go find your favorite neighborhood and wait [for a house to go on the market].” Once they have acquired a property in their dream community, his firm can step in to create a home that suits the new homeowners’ needs and tastes.

Though the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University predicts that home improvement and maintenance spending will decline nationally at least through the third quarter of 2020 as a result of a slowdown in home sales and new construction, there will always be homeowners in the market to remodel. In fact, the Zillow Group found that
59% of homeowners surveyed said their properties needed a little updating, and 19% of respondents reported that serious updates were required.

Additionally, homeowners may become dissatisfied with their dwellings more quickly these days, as interior design trends are rapidly introduced to the mainstream through HGTV and design-focused magazines and websites. “Trends are moving at a faster pace than they used to,” Erich says. “It used to be if you remodeled your kitchen and redid your bathrooms, you were probably safe for about 10 to 15 years. Now, you’re outdated in like five.”