When kids move out, empty nesters can renovate to get dream house
David Shanks longed for a bigger house. A roomy kitchen was on the list — he loved to cook and had a hard time whipping up specialties for his wife and two daughters in their old narrow one.
But his No. 1 priority was a shower stall in the bathroom large enough for him to maneuver without jamming his elbows against the tiles.
“We’ve always had a small house, including one small bathroom that I shared with three women,” said Shanks, a retired publishing executive. “I really wanted a shower where I could stretch my arms and not knock my elbows every time I moved.”
After the girls moved out after college graduation, Shanks and his wife, Elizabeth, were done with tuition bills and their mortgage was paid off. It’s a time when many empty nesters downsize, or find their dream home, or both.
But the Shankses are one of the many couples who decide to keep the houses where they raised their children, remodeling them into their dream home. Many have features in their current houses that they don’t want to give up, and they finally have the time and money to spend on such indulgences as walk-in closets, roomy master baths and cozy breakfast nooks.
Like many, the Shankses wanted to remain in their hometown — Tenafly — because, among other things, it provided an easy commute for David Shanks to his job in New York City.
“Our ties are really in Tenafly and we were very content to stay where we were,” Elizabeth Shanks said. “Our friends thought we were crazy to do this at this time of our lives but we renovated and put everything into the house that we wanted.”
The Shankses’ daughters didn’t want any changes to their childhood home — they didn’t want their parents moving out of it, nor did they want any renovations.
“They moved into their own places and we were left with this tiny kitchen and a shower that gave me bruises,” Shanks said. “They wanted a shrine to their childhood.”
Despite the girls’ objections, the Shankses looked at a few homes in Tenafly before deciding to renovate the three-bedroom Colonial where they had lived since 1977.
Remodeling specialists in North Jersey said they are seeing a steady stream of customers who want to renovate and stay in the houses they’ve lived in for decades, houses where they created strong ties to their neighborhoods.
“Some clients are remodeling as soon as the kids go away to college — they want a bigger home so they can enjoy it when the kids bring friends home from college or their spouses after they get married,” said Mark Cobucci, owner of Dovetail Designs in Bergenfield, N.J.
“One client wanted a bigger kitchen that looked over the family room because when she was cooking she always felt trapped in the kitchen while everyone else gathered in the family room.”
David Goscinski, owner of JJED Remodeling in Dumont, N.J., said he has had clients request bedroom renovations or upgrade basements that had been crammed with toys and used for play areas.
“Some are putting in home theaters or a man cave,” Goscinski said. “Others are taking bedrooms and making them into offices so they don’t have to pay their bills on the kitchen table.”
Peggy Vandervoot and her husband, Mijo Mirkovic, from Ridgewood, remodeled several times as their three children moved through high school, college and beyond. One child is still attending college, another married and a third moved back home between college and medical school.
“We’re of the mind-set that when your kids go to college, they don’t go away and stay,” Vandervoot said.
“They are always coming back, and now my daughter is married and she may start creating more people that will come back to the house.”
Vandervoot said before they started renovating, they also considered moving, but wanted to stay on the east side of Ridgewood. They found, however, that most of the houses in that section of the village were the same size as their own home. Their house also had a lot of qualities they just didn’t want to give up.
“We live in a flat area on a cul-de-sac with good transportation to New York City, where my husband works,” Vandervoort said. “We would have had to spend a huge amount of money to move to a more expensive neighborhood and we found we would have had to sacrifice something that we already had.”
Instead, they expanded their kitchen and reconfigured a good portion of the house’s general layout.
“We took some space from our dining room and expanded the great room,” Vandervoort said. “The remainder of the dining room became an office and storage space, and we made a much larger living room and kitchen. The whole area just has a lot smoother run.”
Tony Guerriero, owner of The Renovation Co. in Saddle Brook, said he has had a few requests from similar clients who decided to stay put.
“It’s too early to tell if this is what is to come — at this point it’s kind of random,” Guerriero said. “But when people are happy with their neighbors and comfortable with their town, they don’t want to move.”
In addition to enlarging the dining and living rooms, the Shankses put in a new kitchen and great room. And best of all, David Shanks got his spacious shower.
“We put in a [larger] shower with body jets and pebble stone,” said Bob Olson, owner of Homes Resources in Ridgefield Park, who did a lot of the work in the Shanks home.
“Probably about one-quarter of my customers are those with older children who don’t want to move out of their homes,” Olson said. “But those who do say this is something they’ve waited for all their lives.”
Some homeowners who decide on renovation rather than a purchase try keep a part of the old structure that made their house unique.
Elizabeth Shanks wanted to keep a piece of a stained-glass window “as a form of transition from the old into the new. We put it in a foyer — it’s not on an outside wall, but it looks like a church window and you can also see it from the dining room.”
“This is our version of nirvana,” David Shanks said.