Downsizing: 'Do you have anything smaller?'

Andrew Benns and his family are swapping their country pile for a more modest home – and they're not alone. Ruth Bloomfield meets the new generation of downsizers
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The Independent Online

There are some houses that make you catch your breath – and Baytrees is one of those houses. The Grade II-listed timbered manor on the edge of the Stour Valley dates from around 1425 and has more than three acres of gardens, complete with a pond, orchard and woodland.

It is unsurprising that Andrew Benns, 50, and his wife Laura, 35, were thoroughly seduced by its good looks. So much so that they spent £825,000 on buying it for themselves and their two children, Alexander, eight, and Amelia, six, at the tail end of 2009.

But 18 months, on a "for sale" board has gone up outside Baytrees. Having stepped up the property ladder from a four-bedroomed executive home, the Benns have quickly decided to step back down to a more modern, more manageable home.

"I think that we will look back and think that it was a stunning property – but it was just not us," says Benns, who works as an investment and tax consultant.

The concept of downsizing – empty-nest parents selling their large houses once their children are grown and they are getting on in age – is an old one. But the economic downturn has sparked a new vogue for downpricing. Families – specifically, the "squeezed middles" that the politicians Ed Miliband and David Cameron love to tussle over – are ridding themselves of statement homes and opting for something a little more austerity friendly.

The Benns admit they underestimated massively the cost and effort that Baytrees would take to maintain – mowing the lawn required an industrial mower purchased, second-hand, at a cost of £5,000. Jet-washing the patio is a two-day job.

"It was just perfect for the children and basically everything about it was 10 out of 10," Benns says.

"On paper it was perfect, but in practice it takes a lot of time and eats into other options, like holidays."

The property, near Great Horkesley, is now on the market for £895,000 ( www.savills.co.uk) and the couple plans to stay in the area but buy a newer, easier home with a good-sized garden for between £700,000 and £800,000.

"We will release a not inconsiderable amount of money," Benns says.

"And it is the overheads as much as anything. Old houses are never cheap."

Benns knows he will miss living in a house that boasts such an obvious wow factor. "To be totally honest, yes, I will miss the house on that basis," he says. "But I will get over it." According to agents, the most common single reason for downpricing is the spectre of school fees.

And Casper Swinley, 48, and his wife Dawn, 47, are relinquishing their detached country house in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire, for just that reason.

In September, their 11-year-old twins, Matthew and Laura, who are now happily ensconced at the local village school, will move on to an independent secondary. The Swinleys are selling their five-bedroom house with almost an acre of gardens for £499,950 (www.hamptons-int.com) to help foot the fees, which they estimate could cost £140,000 over the next five years.

They have their eye on a four-bedroom house in a development in Gloucester which will cost around £275,000. "It is not just the fees, it is all of the extras," says Casper, who works as a hotel inspector while also helping out with his wife's health-and-nutrition company.

"They get sports tours to Australia, trips to Mongolia; these are things that I never had the chance to do.

"But if we send them private in part for the extra curricular we also have to pay for it."

They hope to sell the house for almost exactly what they paid for it just over four years ago.

This means they will technically make a loss from the sale, once legal fees and agents' commissions have been paid. But buying a significantly cheaper new house will allow them to release a chunk of equity.

"We don't need so many bedrooms, we don't need a huge garden – the new house we have found has a small garden and there are parks next door," Casper says. "Compromises have to be made."

It is possible that the downpricers are emerging as a direct result of the pre-recession housing boom, when buyers were encouraged to load themselves up with tremendous amounts of debt to scramble up the property ladder. Dennis Hall, the managing director of Yellowtail Financial Planning, says that in the early Noughties people took advantage of easily available finance to mortgage themselves to the hilt.

"People were putting 40 to 50 per cent of their income into property and now that is coming down to more like 30 per cent," he says.

The reason for this shift is simple. "Fear," Hall says. "Job security is not as it was, school fees are going up, as are other costs, and people know that interest rates are going to creep up."

Peter Ogilvie, an associate director at Savills, based in Ipswich, says several of his vendors are in the process of divesting themselves of big mortgages. "They were very highly geared before the downturn and they are now being a little bit more sensible," he says.

Ogilvie says he believes that while downpricers are partly motivated by the desire to cut costs, they are certainly not broke and are treating their move as an opportunity to change their lifestyles for the better.

The other thing about downpricers is that they all seem remarkably cheerful about losing their addresses in smart neighbourhoods. The mounting body of evidence suggests it is true that wealth and its trappings do not bring happiness.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate and Professor at Princeton University, has calculated that a person really needs only a middle-ranking salary of £45,000 – and presumably a middle-ranking property to go with it – to enjoy life.

Simon Littlejohns, 54, and his wife Julie, 45, are currently living in a detached four-bedroomed house in "the middle of nowhere", with glorious views over the Warwickshire countryside.

Last year, however, they decided it was time to move on: they were tired of chauffeuring their son Luke, 17, around, were fed up with having to get in the car each time they wanted a pint of milk and they also wanted more disposable income.

Their property is on the market for £799,950 ( www.bigwood.co.uk) and they have already bought a three-bedroom terrace in the charming old town of Stratford-upon-Avon for £350,000.

They estimate that the new house needs £100,000 of renovation, but even so, they hope to be mortgage-free once they make the swap.

"The house is lovely, very very peaceful and with a half-acre of garden," says Littlejohns, who is a tax partner at a firm of accountants.

The couple is viewing the move to the town with some trepidation – everything from next-door neighbours to street lights will be a novelty.

"But we will be able to free ourselves from a mortgage and we have already booked ourselves a holiday in Africa next year with the anticipation that we will be able to travel and have nice holidays once it all comes together," Littlejohns says.

"Will I miss the status of living in a big house? Not at all. Everyone we speak to say they would love to be able to live in the old town."

Downsizing tips

* Identify the leaks in your finances. If you only go to the gym once a week it will be cheaper to cancel your membership and buy a running machine. If you are a member of a club, assess how often you really go there.

* Forget about changing your car every year, and when you do need a new vehicle go electric — running costs will be cheaper and you will save on road tax and the congestion charge.

* Make sure your house is well insulated and save hundreds of pounds each year for a modest outlay. From 2012 you can even borrow the money under the Government's Green Deal.

* Make a list when you go food shopping – and stick to it. Avoid trophy supermarkets and go budget.

* Investigate house swapping instead of hotels when you go on your holidays. If you are willing to allow strangers into your home for a couple of weeks you could find yourself with a free pad in New York or the South of France in exchange. For details, try: Homelink ( www.homelink.org.uk); Home For Exchange ( www.homeforexchange.com); or Luxe Home Swap ( www.luxehomeswap.com).

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