Welcome to the Urbaneer.com blog that explores housing, culture, and design in Toronto, Ontario, Canada! I’m Steve Fudge and I’m celebrating my 31st year as a realtor and property consultant in Toronto, Ontario,
In 2023’s first installment of Dear Urbaneer – my monthly post that answers a topical real estate query – I’m guiding a family who is helping their parents downsize from their residence of almost 40 years into a retirement home. As they undertake this process, they’re trying to navigate a number of considerations, including whether to keep the family home until market conditions stabilize or if they should sell the property now.
Our elderly parents are preparing to move out of the house they’ve owned since 1984 into their retirement home of choice, as a space has recently come available. Along with seeking your guidance on downsizing, we’re wondering from a tax standpoint whether it’s better to rent the property and sell it as part of their Estate down the road, or is it more optimal to sell the property sooner? Also, given real estate values are dropping, is it to our advantage to wait until the market begins to recover a little before selling?
What Is The Right Move?
Here is my reply:
Dear Right Move:
Thank you for your question. It’s very timely, being both an important topic of conversation around the dinner tables of many Canadian families, as well as on the pages of finance in the media like Rob Carrick’s Globe & Mail recent piece “2023 Will Be The Year Of The Downsizing Boomer“. I also witnessed the process firsthand when a close family friend we call ‘Auntie’ recently sold her condominium and downsized into Assisted Living which provided me with a deeper understanding of the perspectives, and points of view, of everyone involved. Prior to that, my familiarity with the subject was in my capacity as a realtor acting on behalf of families navigating this process and from tales recounted in my social world. In most instances, there would be mention of complications, but I’ve since learned that this is one of life’s situations where, until you’re directly involved, you have absolutely no idea of what you’re in for. I found it enlightening with all the colours and shades of the human condition.
I want to start by tipping my hat to all the families who have helped their parents, uncles, aunts or grandparents undertake this challenging transition. And to all those who are personally at the beginning stages of their downsizing process, unless you’re one of those highly-organized folks who still regularly use their Dymo Label Maker from the 1970s, or you’re that rare bird of a person who knows where every single item in their house is located (you also have a secret fireproof safe that currently holds your passports, birth certificates, insurance policies, the deed to your house, a stack of emergency cash & your stash of twinkly treasures), I want you to buckle up your seatbelts because there’s a high chance of turbulence ahead. Of course, there’s also a slight chance that my forecast is wrong, but if your household has a sentimentalist who cries at 50-year-old baby photos, someone who likes to make all the final decisions about the household’s domestic lives, or an ornery crank prone to yelling at clouds (that’s a Homer Simpson me-so-funny reference, folks!), then I can pretty much guarantee there will be stormy times ahead.
Like other family units, my siblings discovered how daunting a task it is to sort through a dwelling that holds the contents and memories of a lifetime, and how genuinely overwhelming it was for Auntie to process, reconcile, accept, sell, and then let go of her personal private sanctuary. For anyone in this situation, what you are doing for your elders is kind and noble, even if your efforts to make it as gentle and stress-free as possible fall off the rails at times. Because executing this while making it appear effortless can be a tall order. That said, there are a number of variables I want you to consider in this situation because they’re not immediately obvious when this situation is new to you.
Downsizing from your home and streamlining your contents, or someone else’s, is a massive undertaking that takes time, money, and energy. Over the 2 years prior to her move into Assisted Living, when Auntie and I connected on FaceTime she’d talk about the challenges of aging, including how it all kind of crept up on her, Such as needing new glasses, realizing her hearing was becoming impaired, and how she didn’t have as much energy as she used too. The conversation would invariably lead to where she would live when her health deteriorated further, and all of the factors she had to consider before she could make a decision. Eventually, I realized the magnitude of reconciling this when you’re physically or mentally slowing down can be daunting so it’s best to be gentle and let the process simmer on low. Which is entirely reasonable, quite frankly. Like making any big life decision, you don’t awake one day and schedule in your day planner the dates you’ll “downsize”, “sell the condo”, and “move into a retirement home”. Auntie began speaking about it more often, shared what her friends were doing, toured some retirement homes, and admitted her attachment to her renovated open-plan condo was delaying her decision. If I can look at myself and my family retrospectively with an eye to the future, I’d encourage us to collectively be more transparent about how we see ourselves aging, share the steps we’re taking (or not) towards the end game, and express what we’re particularly fearful about in crossing the threshold of life into death. Because the truth is that all of these topics are bubbling under the pragmatic stew of downsizing and disposing of assets, and I suspect the family member who is resisting having these conversations the most (and it may not be the older folks) is the individual who needs the most hand-holding.
Did you know the Top 3 most stressful life events are dealing with the death of a loved one, divorce, and moving? For anyone navigating each of these major life stressors coping can be difficult, but the reality is that in your senior years, you’re more likely to experience 2 of these 3 events at the same time. To be under that magnitude of stress can become overwhelmingly debilitating for anyone, so it’s important to hold space for them. I also want you, dear reader, to understand that stress is not solely an emotional issue that lives strictly inside our heads, but it can also manifest physically, contributing to anxiety, sleeplessness, digestive health issues, and impacting our immune systems, among others. As an empath who intuitively guides people to the place where they belong, I want to be candid and let you know that downsizing and moving to a next chapter will, at times, be emotionally charged, mentally taxing, and physically exhausting for everyone involved. And I’m not writing this solely for dramatic effect, but when moving is mired in the fear of change, stuck with the resistance of letting go, or suspended in the in-between of facing loss it can become very complicated. In this respect, my success as a realtor is not limited to my multi-disciplinary education in housing and home, nor my 3 decades of experience in the trade of real estate, but because I have been witness to the human condition as it transitions out of one place to another. And after helping hundreds of households, I am well-equipped to help ground almost every situation.
Take Small Incremental Steps When Downsizing, If Possible
Downsizing can be challenging for the entire family, given the sheer complexity of the undertaking.
First, if the property has been in the family for decades, there is always some corner of a storage area that contains the contents of any number of family members other than the parents. A box filled with Mark’s public school report cards, kindergarten artwork & yearbooks, Susan’s collection of vinyl from the 70s and 80s that she’s certain holds some Ebay Gold but has procrastinated determining this for years, or Cynthia’s mementos, textbooks, and the papers she submitted for her History of Art & Architecture Degree when she was attending university that she knows she’ll never look at again but is loathe to throw them out. Yup, downsizing really is a family affair. I’d like to take a moment for these family members to pay attention to how they reconcile removing their own contents – no matter how small – from the family home. Do they take the time to open up each box and examine every item and decide what to keep, what to sell, what to donate, what to toss, and what to leave out on the front lawn with a sign that says “Free”? Or do they consider that too time-consuming or overwhelming that they just put everything in the trunk of their car and relocate it to their own basement to deal with another day? Take whatever feelings you experience addressing this and magnify it by all the contents in the property your parents may think they should assess and decide what to do with, whether that’s out of desire or obligation. Daunting, right?
I’ve written many blogs about the challenges surrounding downsizing – and my strategies to make the transition successful. Check out Urbaneer’s Secrets To Successfully Downsizing To Smaller Accommodations and Downsizing: The Challenges Of Finding A House-Sized Condominium.
Scaling back on belongings during the downsizing process is never easy, but if your parents are moving into a retirement community or some level of assisted living, consider that there may be rules around what they are permitted to have (or not have) in their units. Depending on the motivation for the move into a retirement residence, you may be looking at a shortened timeline or a longer one.
Ideally, begin the process early (you can never start too early!), allowing your family the time to pare down incrementally. Depending on how many treasures your parents have retained from years gone by, it can be quite a fun and lively walk down memory lane. But it can also be onerous and time-consuming if they start recounting all their go-to-stories that you’ve grown up with to the point you can recite them. Just remember to keep your eye on the overall goal when doing so, and if you get the old “I used to walk 100 miles to school every day, even when there was a blizzard” tale of life take the opportunity to go fishing for new stories. For example, ask them “What was the school like or you? What was it like having the boys and girls separated most of the school day? What antics did you and your friends get up to?” Over the past two years, our Aunt has started sharing stories we’ve never heard, and I wonder if it’s because we started asking for more details. Recently I learned that Auntie’s mother was a chain smoker bent on nicotine, a barmaid who beat up drunk men who got fresh with her, and in the darkest days of World War II when she had no money and was jonesing for a cigarette she would pawn off her children’s toys and tell the kids they were robbed. She was a badass who survived the war (and died at 69 from lung cancer).
When you’re in good health mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, and you believe the horizon of your life is a distant future, you cannot imagine the obstacles your future self will face that will be challenging. It’s like when you injure yourself or you’re really ill, and in its darkest moments before you begin to recover, you acknowledge how much more challenging your life would be if you were incapacitated for a longer period of time. Eventually, you recover and you forget all the challenges and inconveniences you faced. In my Aunt’s case, at the age of 88, she left her comfortable familiar home to move into an aesthetically pleasing albeit still institutional care environment. Ironically, it has an almost identical space plan as her condo which made us think the transition would be easy. But as she was exiting her condo she said “I know where every light switch is located, how many steps it is from the kitchen to my living room sofa once I’ve made a cup of tea, and exactly where to turn the faucet to fill my bath with warm but not too hot water. I’ll miss that”. Being a younger generation, the lens through which we view a move into a new place is that there will be a period of adjustment learning its systems, its nuances, and its quirks. It’s not a task we welcome, but it’s also not a task we resist. And presumably, in our heads, it’s occurring because it’s a choice we’ve made and it’s a choice we want. But what if you don’t really want to move, even though you know you have to move? Or you’re tackling it when you don’t feel your physical, mental, or emotional best? What happens is that for several weeks after taking occupancy of your new residence, you’re still fumbling for a light switch that isn’t there, or you scald yourself while having a shower. And in your mind’s confusion, you may even start misplacing other everyday items which frustrates you even more. This is happening because all of the original electrical switches and outlets, faucets and taps, thermostats and ceiling fans, and levers and pulls to open and close the windows of your former home for decades are still part of your own foundational circuitry as a human who occupied that space for a really long time. Except your mind is still adapting to the reality you don’t live there anymore which is completely understandable when it’s become an ingrained pattern. But it also portends the challenges anyone may face if their last move is late in life. Understand and acknowledge this as part of aging, ok?
As a realtor in his 50s, when I’m meeting with past clients who want to discuss selling their existing residence to move into something more manageable, like a townhouse for example, I always ask them how many moves they have ahead of them. And most everyone looks at me a bit astonished because their focus has been on the ‘next place’ without considering it may be their ‘last place’. I bring to their attention that everyone, no matter their age really, has to consider factors regarding the location of their next dwelling, like how important the proximity to hospitals, shopping, public transportation, and family & friends is. Should your purchasing decision be based on living a life without a car one day, being close to health care specialists, or being able to walk or scooter to a grocer? And what about the next dwelling? Should you take into consideration how many stairs it has, how easy it is to get in and out of the bathtub, and whether you need as large a property as you want given the cost, time, and energy required to maintain it? After all, for most of us moving into retirement the operating costs and repair expenses of our residence will likely go up as our income goes down, right? It’s never too soon to process this when you’re at the top of your game, instead of when you’re unexpectedly in decline.
From the outside looking in Auntie was resistant to giving up her possessions, even though she was moving into a smaller space. And it frustrated my siblings because our Aunt wanted to keep items they felt she would never use, or discard projects they felt she would never finish. For a little while, I agreed with them, and I thought she was inflexible for not seeing the obvious. Why would you keep your bakeware when you only bake on special occasions, and you’re moving into a care home that has a dessert table always at the ready? Why wouldn’t you toss the pattern and the fabric of a dress you never completed in the 70s when it would no longer be wearable in fashion or in fit? I didn’t know why Auntie was like this – and this is a conversation we still have to have – but I suspect it may be about reconciling one may never complete or do tasks that were once an everyday part of life or deeply rooted in one’s identity. I write this from personal experience because, when the pandemic arrived, despite having spent 4 years getting the approvals, drawings, and permits at an enormous expense for renovating my house, I pulled the plug on transforming my home into a contemporary piece of architecture because the cost became too exorbitant and I realized I have zero need for an additional 1000 square feet of living space despite my ego thinking otherwise. It was the first time in my life that I let go of a dream I was deeply invested in, and there was a period of time when I genuinely mourned the fact that, at my age, that kind of dream wasn’t feasible anymore. With respect to Auntie’s resistance, whatever her reasons are I reminded my siblings that we were bearing witness to our own futures as we journey into old age, and our Aunt’s experience was our opportunity to learn.
On The Practicality Of Paring Down & Purging
After the delegated parties have determined what the must-keep items are for your parents to take with them, or that others in their social world will be receiving, the focus can be channeled into paring down, whether by donating, selling, or tossing. Paring down is the first step to getting the home ready for sale or for rent – depending on what path you choose to take.
A few tips that run the gamut from strategies to decor:
• Decide what you are going to keep (in the context of the new space), donate, sell, or toss. In the “sell” pile, make sure that you are being objective about the market value of items – and if there is a market for them. Timeless furniture and small appliances that are in good shape are generally popular but there are a whole lot of things that are no longer fashionable and difficult to sell. Like formal china that isn’t dishwasher safe, Royal Doulton figurines, or spoon collections.
• Consider getting an appraisal done for items that you feel might be rare or valuable (like jewelry and antiques).
• You can either have a garage sale, try to sell things privately, or engage an auction company. There are a number of companies that specialize in helping seniors downsize by bundling packing, moving, and unpacking belongings in the new home, in addition to items that are put up for auction.
Quick Urbaneer Tip: I want to give a shout-out to MaxSold – a Canadian online auction house that can sell a large volume of contents quickly – “connecting sellers with an extensive network of engaged and interested buyers” – to sell everything within two weeks. One of our clients – who was one of four siblings – had accepted the task of emptying their parents’ house (that they had owned since the 1960s) in advance of coming to market. This dwelling had a lot of stuff, mostly because their father loved collecting anything, and because their mother indulged herself by buying items she never had as a child. For example, there was a massive collection of teddy bears still with their price tags attached in the corner of one of 4 bedrooms that their mother had bought because, as a child refugee from World War II, she had arrived in Canada with a frayed teddy bear as her only possession. Amassing a pile of them represented her survival and her success. That makes sense, right? However, after the daughter spent four hours trying to tackle one corner of the living room and making little progress she simply knew she couldn’t do it, and she texted me completely overwhelmed. So we referred her to MaxSold who organized everything and sold it online within 2 weeks. And our clients were thrilled because, in return for MaxSold earning 50% of the sale proceeds, they were relieved of an endeavour that was too much to take on. Furthermore – and this is really telling because it could be a possibility for any one of us trying to downsize on behalf of someone else – there was a tiny piece of porcelain that was interesting but leaned more to unremarkable that our client admitted she would have sold for 10 cents in a garage sale. Except that the Maxsold online auction garnered a bid that was for over $4000! Can you imagine? Our client felt that the cheque they got from Maxsold was more than if they had undertaken the task of getting rid of all the contents themselves, and it was near effortless on their part.
• Make sure that you fully vet any services that you intend to use in this regard. Interview a few candidates. Ask how long they have been in business, what experience they have, what qualifications/ certifications they have, and ask for references. Sadly, when dealing with seniors, there emerges the opportunity for untoward folks to take advantage of people when they are vulnerable, so don’t be shy about advocating for your parents and for yourself. Get in writing exactly what the expectations are around your auction sale and the move, including packing & unpacking. Be detailed (i.e., what does unpack mean to you?). This avoids confusion, during a time when there is a lot on the go. Get everything in writing and read it over in detail before you sign anything.
• If you or your parents want to keep existing furniture, make sure it is appropriately sized, especially if it’s going to be relocated to a smaller space.
• Nothing can make a small space feel smaller than overstuffed furniture. Similarly, not having enough room to move safely around furniture – including walkers or wheelchairs, which are common in a retirement home- if not for your parents, but for their neighbours should they pop by for a visit – can be a hazard.
• Ideally, you would blend the old with the new. Keep a few key sentimental objects, artwork, and lots of family pictures. A few key furniture pieces are ok as well – like a favourite chair, or perhaps your bed. Plan to integrate some new items that speak to the new space that they are in, but mesh in the familiar.
As for the timing of the sale of the home, the answer to that question resides fairly squarely in cash flow. If your parents – like so many homeowners of their generation – have a significant amount of their savings tied up in the equity of their home, they may or may not have other savings on hand (or pension or retirement income) to fund their retirement home fees.
Additionally, retirement homes (particularly privately run retirement homes) can be extremely expensive, with monthly rents easily in the tens of thousands of dollars and upwards – depending on the nature and amenities. Some retirement communities are truly resort-like, which comes with a price tag, as does a high level of care. So, it depends on what your parents might need.
Your parents may have insurance that covers a lot of the care, or they may be moving to a government-funded home, where costs are much less, so cash flow may not be as much of an issue.
As a side note, there are a plethora of government-funded programs available to assist seniors and their caregivers, with things like subsidizing private nursing care, to paying for equipment that might be out of pocket (i.e. shower/bath chairs, walkers etc.) to arranging for respite care to give caregivers a break. You may have to dig a little, but it’s definitely worth a search. In Ontario, many of these programs are delivered through the Home and Community Care Support Services.
Additionally, even though it doesn’t make for fun dinner conversation, now is the time to talk about estate planning and wills, if you haven’t already. This hyperlink is to the Canadian government’s web page on the topic. It’s prudent to first choose who the Estate Representative will be, and have a Lawyer complete all the documents and directions so it accurately reflects their wishes.
Back to the question of when to sell the parental home.
The first item on the to-do list is to meet with your parents and their financial advisor (if they have one). Get a full understanding of the monthly costs for their retirement home and how they will be covered. If there is a shortfall and the equity in their home needs to be converted to cash to fund this new level of care, then the answer is obvious. You would need to sell the property sooner rather than later, in order to unlock that equity and pay for the retirement home costs. But what if cash flow isn’t an issue, and you have other options – what is the best path ahead?
Selling Now Versus Selling As Part Of An Estate
You wondered about the implications of selling the home now or waiting until it would be part of the estate. What is more costly and/or complicated?
On the one hand, if the property is sold before your parents pass away, the proceeds of the sale can be spent (or gifted) by them as they wish. Personally, I think this is a wonderful opportunity for parents to express their gratitude and thanks to any individuals, or charities, they support. However, if they’re gullible, it could leave them vulnerable to giving money to scammers, which are really clever today both in person and online.
However, if the assets are sold after death, the estate is obliged to do a full accounting and tax remittance. It’s important to note that there are no inheritance taxes in Canada, but you will eventually be responsible for capital gains that are determined by a change in market value.
Let’s say you inherit the home. You won’t be responsible to pay taxes on the home immediately. Rather any capital gains that were generated by your parents owning the property would fall under the final tax return filed by the estate after they pass away.
There is no time limit in which you must sell their property after you inherit it, but you will pay capital gains tax from the point you inherit it to the point you sell it should you rent the property in the interim (and the income you generate will be taxable based on your own income tax filing). Make sure to have a market assessment done when you inherit the home.
Theoretically, if you turned around and sold the home in quick succession, there would likely be little difference in value, so your capital gains tax may not be substantial.
However, if the home was a vacation property, or if it will be converted to rental property – taxes are generated differently.
Here are some good government resources with general information: How Estate And Inheritance Taxes Work In Canada and Understanding Inheritance And Estate Taxes In Canada
If you and your siblings together are going to inherit the home, remember that you would be sharing the ownership. If you used it as a rental property, you would be sharing the income as well. It’s important to bring to your attention that the moment there are a number of beneficiaries in an Estate, there will be many different points of view on how and when to dispose of it with the potential for conflict. It may be optimal for the parents to sell the property rather than it becoming part of the Estate in order to minimize future conflict. I share this because I once sold an Estate Sale that took several weeks to negotiate after one of the beneficiaries refused to sell. Why? Because even though my Buyers – a young couple about to give birth to their first child who I had brought along to the offer presentation and introduced to the family had submitted the best offer in a bidding war – the wealthiest and oldest of four siblings wanted to hold out for a higher price. So all the offers were rejected and the house was relisted the next day at a significantly higher price that wasn’t in line with market values, much to the dismay of my Buyers. For a couple of weeks, the family stalemate continued while the house garnered little interest, and then the big brother offered to buy the house for a small premium above what my buyers had offered. The result was not what he hoped for. His siblings got really angry because they had always believed their mother would want the house to be sold to a young couple starting a family, and not their big brother whose motivation was pure profit. Fortunately, because I intuitively believed my Buyers would make this place their home I never stopped engaging with the listing realtor, so the day the mother’s wishes prevailed the call came my way first inviting my Buyers to secure the property. This may not be how real estate is typically traded, but it’s often how a home is sold, even though these stories don’t often come to light.
It is also worth noting that if you inherit a home with a mortgage, you may be required to pay off the mortgage from the trust (ie, their other assets).
And another side note – from a practical standpoint, I recommend you put the property on the market after your parents have moved into their retirement home. This helps with the paring down on items as you prepare to stage the home (they will have taken their necessary and most desired items with them).
Leasing The Property Now & Holding Out For A Better Market
The timing of selling a home is less about timing the market (which is hard to do) and more about the property itself. Is it a property in a sought-after location with amenities nearby that would attract tenants? What condition is the property in? How old is it?
If the property we are talking about is a turn-key condo in a demand location that will rent for top dollar it might make sense to keep it. However, if it’s an older dwelling with aging building components and has high operating expenses (as in utility costs) then you could find yourself coordinating a lot of maintenance and repairs on behalf of the tenants, and they might be resistant to paying rent increases if oil and/or gas costs keep going up.
Also, there’s the challenge of getting vacant possession when the time comes to sell (and all the other risks that accompany renting to tenants). And there is the investment of your time as well. Who will manage the rental? Is this something that you or others can take on reasonably, or is it a burden?
While, obviously, the overarching goal is to get top dollar for your parents’ home, pinpoint your priorities. Supporting aging parents, especially if they are ill, will consume a lot of your time – and your emotional reserves. Time management matters too.
For background reading, have you seen my past posts: How To Navigate Renting Your Toronto Investment Property and How To Become A Toronto Real Estate Landlord.
And in terms of waiting out the market, don’t forget there are costs involved with carrying the property, and with an increase in interest rates, this may affect you. Especially if the house is mortgaged. And especially if it has a variable rate mortgage or is up for renewal soon.
The Question Of Return On Investment
So many of us are focused on what the value of a property is and whether it may go up in value, but the real question should be if you sell the dwelling now, is there an opportunity to get a better return, and is there merit in having that capital more easily accessed than being tied up in bricks and mortar? If the property is going to be sold now, where will the money be invested- and how does that affect the estate? And if the sale is happening imminently because of cash flow, where will it be invested that is both low-risk and cash-ready to facilitate paying out expenses?
If you are looking to invest in something else, how might your ROI compare to keeping the home and generating a rental income?
There are considerations from a taxation and liquidity standpoint, no matter what you are investing in. Check out my past post Dear Urbaneer: Is It Better To Invest In Stocks Or Toronto Real Estate?.
People tend not to think of a retirement home necessarily as a “new home”, but it is. And ideally, you should strive to evoke those feelings of comfort from being at home- surrounded by your beloved items- appropriately sized, of course.
I encourage you to read Urbaneer’s posts on downsizing for more in-depth info. Like this one: Urbaneer’s Secrets To Successfully Downsizing To Smaller Accommodations.
I sincerely appreciate you writing to me and don’t hesitate to let me know if I can be of assistance!
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Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
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