Letting go of a legacy

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2012 - 8:29 AM

As their elderly parents move out, many baby boomers face the painful prospect of selling their childhood home.

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Chris Smith reflected on his teenage years in this bedroom (when he wasn't sneaking out the window to his left) at the Edina house his parents built and recently vacated.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Chris Smith grimaced as he surveyed the faded floral carpet in his parents' upstairs hall, then sidled past the small cross and family photos and into a corner bedroom. He waved both arms, semaphore-style, toward the back window.

"Right across the roof and down over the porch, an easy exit," he said, recalling frequent, furtive late-night forays from his high school years. "And out there was where my dad built a sweet tree fort. That's where I broke my arm when I was 5 years old."

Smith, who at 45 looks fit enough to bound across that roof again, is in a particularly nostalgic mood these days. Like many folks whose elderly parents no longer can take care of themselves, he's faced with selling the house he grew up in.

"That house is the only context I really know my parents in," he said of the Edina home his folks built. "It's tough to think of somebody else living there and you can't go to the yard anymore."

Smith's task is bittersweet because he's trying to sell a house that's been in his family since he was born, a house permeated with memories. He's not alone.

The quarter-century after World War II saw an unprecedented housing boom. Many young couples who bought homes in the 1940s and '50s raised their families there, and didn't move out until they passed away or moved into assisted-living facilities.

Mary Thorpe-Mease's 95-year-old mother died in September. Her south Minneapolis home had been a gathering place for friends and extended family members for 68 years.

"At one point during World War II, we had 13 people living in the house, and only one bathroom," said Thorpe-Mease, 72. "One of my cousins called and said, 'I can't believe people are going to look at our house,' and it was never her house, but she lived there for a while.

"We had wedding receptions and celebrations after funerals and baptisms, just a lot of really wonderful history. Last year we took a photo of [nearly 50] members of the extended family sitting on the front porch, our iconic front steps. None of us can really believe we're not going to have those steps."

Hard to 'keep it in the family'

Last year, 15 percent of U.S. home sales involved dwellings that had been in the same hands for more than 20 years, according to the National Association of Realtors. A century ago, several generations might all be living in the same house, so these transactions were rarer.

Nowadays, the people who grew up in these homes have the option of "keeping it in the family" by purchasing the home for themselves. But there can be geographical, emotional or even logistical barriers.

Linda Halvorson said she would have considered buying her parents' south Minneapolis home of 60 years, "but we already had purchased my mother-in-law's house. So we had already done the mother and father thing and gone through the emotions of doing that.

"They [her husband's parents] moved first, what can I say?" she said with a chuckle.

Barb Fellman of Bemidji didn't have that option when her childhood home in Brooten, Minn., went on the market last year. Other family members made the decision. "I was disappointed that I wasn't consulted, but it wouldn't have changed anything," she said. "It was the right decision."

Now that Fellman has no relatives in Brooten, she said she felt "very sad to not have a reason to go back to that town again." But she said she began taking leave of the house years earlier, when her parents still owned it.

"My old bedroom, you personalize that when you're a teenager," Fellman said. "So it was harder for me when they changed that room into a guest room than when they physically moved out."

Ties vary among siblings

Fellman's situation -- having several family members involved in making a decision -- is not uncommon. Margaret Thorpe Richards, a Realtor at Coldwell Banker Burnet, has seen a pattern in handling several such scenarios.

"There are typically one or two family members who are more tied to the house, whether it's the oldest sibling or daughter or whoever took care of the ailing parent," she said. "Everyone has a different timetable of when they come to grips with it. You just have to let it unfold."

In most cases, Richards said, the sellers are not in a "let's just get this over with" mode. "It's typically quite the opposite," she said, "because it's the last thing they have to hold onto. It's letting go of a legacy."

That's the pace she and Thorpe-Mease, her mother, have adopted with her grandmother's home. The women are taking their time to prepare the brick foursquare-style house for the market.

"It's an older house and needs so much work," Thorpe-Mease said. "My mom's family lost their house in the Depression; they were foreclosed. When she and dad bought the house, they paid it off quickly. They took a home equity [loan] in 1952 and built on to the back and redid the kitchen. When we talked to her about selling the house, I'd say, 'It needs a new kitchen,' and she'd say, 'It has a new kithen.'"

Richards said that the real estate market also has made her feel less urgency about getting the house ready to sell. While she acknowledges that the market is improving, home sales remain balky.

Smith started talking to his parents about moving into assisted-care housing five years ago, before the real estate bubble burst. Now four of the seven houses on the cul-de-sac are up for sale, and an appraiser estimated that the house will fetch about half of what it would have in 2007.

"But the house and lot cost $40,000," Smith said, "so it's money nobody ever had. There's no sense crying over it -- although I kind of am."

Smith said his parents' stay in the family home as the market went from bull to bear actually helped him prepare to say goodbye. "If it was just a clean tear and break out of here, it would be harder," he said. "But I've seen this day coming for a long time now."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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