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the way home

Janice Sutton and Frank Wiebe sold their 92-acre farm in Moscow, Ont., when it became too much to manage, opting instead for a rental apartment in nearby Kingston.Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

When Frank Wiebe and Janice Sutton sold their home in July of 2013, they were hardly typical of first-time home sellers. For one thing, they weren't merely selling a house; they were parting ways with a 92-acre property that included their home for 25 years in Moscow, Ont., a hamlet on the western outskirts of Kingston. For another, they were both 78 years old.

The couple met in 1974, in the midst of 30-year careers in the Canadian diplomatic corps. Mr. Wiebe, who hails from Saskatchewan, was posted in Switzerland, Egypt, Malaysia and the former Soviet Union. Ms. Sutton, an Alberta native, served in New York City, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. After they were married, they were stationed together in India and Indonesia, and, like many diplomats, settled in Ottawa between postings.

The Moscow property was their first real estate purchase. They bought it, Ms. Sutton says, to be close to nature. "We would drive out, put up a tent, and enjoy the outdoors." After retiring young in the mid-1980s, they built a house and settled on their land. They spent three seasons a year there, wintering in Portugal or New Zealand. Eventually the travelling grew tiresome and they simplified their winter activities, spending the cold months closer to home in Panama. By 2012 they were ready to simplify on the home front as well. "We had huge gardens, and the drive to Kingston was too much," Ms. Sutton says. "It was time to sell."

Ms. Sutton and Mr. Wiebe may have lived more adventurously than most, but the choices they faced are the same ones most seniors encounter when it comes time to downsize.

"Downsizing isn't always a sad time – it's a time of discovery," says Barry Gordon, chief executive officer of Gordon's Estate Services Ltd., a Kingston-based real estate, estate settlement and downsizing firm.

Mr. Gordon says downsizing seniors tend to fall across a spectrum. At one end are those who stay in their homes as long as possible. "Those are the situations that end in an estate sale," he says. At the other end are couples like Mr. Wiebe and Ms. Sutton, who want to exert more control over the process. "We have a happy job when we can help people plan for their future as opposed to reacting to it," Mr. Gordon says.

One question that figures into that planning process is whether to purchase or rent a new home. For Ms. Sutton and Mr. Wiebe, the choice was clear. "At our age, we weren't interested in owning another home," Ms. Sutton says. "We wanted to be able to lock our doors and come and go as we please."

Once again, the couple's decision was representative of a generation. According to a 2012 Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. report, seniors who downsize after age 65 are more likely to rent than buy. Renting is even more prevalent among the over-75 crowd.

Renting's popularity makes sense, according to Mr. Gordon. Downsizers can either spend the proceeds of their sale on a smaller home or condominium or they can live in relative luxury for a few thousand dollars a month. "A lot of people like to put the house behind them and unlock the capital," Mr. Gordon says, "particularly if they have a pension to take care of the rent."

Mr. Gordon sees apartment living as the second stop on a continuum that includes retirement homes and eventually, long-term care facilities. And while newer retirement homes have more amenities and less of an institutional feel than they used to, they almost always rank behind apartments when independent living remains an option. "We haven't talked at all about a seniors' residence," Ms. Sutton says. "We will put off going to a retirement home for as long as we can."

Instead the couple rented an 11th-floor apartment with a view of Kingston's Cataraqui Golf and Country Club. Next they engaged Mr. Gordon's services.

According to the U.S.-based National Association of Senior Move Managers, downsizing consultancy is a growing industry that will only become more popular as the baby boomer generation inches toward retirement and beyond.

The benefit of hiring a consultant, Mr. Gordon says, is simplicity. "It's one-stop shopping," he says. Instead of hiring a real estate agent and a mover and seeking out a charity to collect surplus furniture and household items, seniors can take care of the entire task with a single phone call to a consultant. And while Mr. Gordon's firm offers its services on an individual basis, he says that when budget is not an issue, most customers prefer the package deal.

Mr. Wiebe and Ms. Sutton may have seen more of the world than most of their contemporaries, but their journey from the responsibilities of owning a home to the relative simplicity of the postownership years is a trip that most seniors will eventually have to make. "We started at a place where we felt slightly overwhelmed," Ms. Sutton says, "and now we're settled."

Home sweet senior

More than three quarters of Canadians aged 55 to 64 own their homes, according to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. But after 65, home ownership is increasingly less popular. At 75 and older, for example, about two-thirds are still owners.

In its 2012 report Housing for Older Canadians, CMHC says Canadians who downsized before 65 tend to stay in their smaller retirement homes longer. Those who waited until after 65 tend to downsize into a rental apartment.

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