Looking back, looking forward: Maryland changemakers in black history

The upsides of downsizing

For Chesapeake Home + Living
After downsizing, these homeowners learned less can be more.

When Bill and Anna Leonhardt moved into their four-bedroom, center-hall Colonial in 1992, it was perfect. Its cul-de-sac location in Ellicott City let their children, Billy, 4 and Alyssa, 2, play in relative safety, and its 3,300 square feet gave the family room to grow.

But by 2009, the couple began to do some serious thinking about the future.

With the children grown and out of the house, its big rooms were more of a burden than a benefit.

“So many of the house projects that we had done ourselves in the past [such as] lawn cutting and painting, we were now having done by professionals,” Anna Leonhardt says. “To me, the house seemed empty [without] Billy and Alyssa. I thought [a] change would be invigorating for us.”

In 2014, the change came in the form of downsizing to a 2,600-square-foot house in Marriottsville, where some home maintenance is included and custom closets make the most of the smaller space.

The Leonhardts’ move is emblematic of the choice many homeowners make at some point. They view downsizing as a new chapter in a life that has known its share of personal and professional fulfillment. It often comes with retirement, more so with health issues, and almost always when the chicks have flown the nest. Less is suddenly more than adequate — it is liberating.

Cleaning out

The idea of throwing away, cleaning out and beginning anew might sound a bit daunting, and that impression isn’t wrong. When the Leonhardts realized they wanted to downsize, they began the challenging process of sifting through 22 years of accumulated stuff.

The two began making repairs and updates to their home with the intention of selling for a good return on their investment. Then they had three garage sales. One exceeded $7,000 in profit when Bill Leonhardt sold lawn tractors and a snowblower. They sold all of their furniture and even their silverware on Craigslist, which Anna says, “lightened our load.”

“It took a lot of time and physical effort [going] through all the boxes, moving furniture [and] bringing things up from the basement for the garage sales, charity trucks and trash men,” she says. “The last time we moved, we were in our 30s; this time [we were in] our 50s — a big difference.”

The Leonhardts sold their home after four days on the market. While waiting for the completion of their new villa-style house in Marriottsville, they lived at the Pikesville Hilton, where Bill, 59, is the general manager. (Anna is president of Professional Association Management, which provides administrative and conference services for small professional volunteer organizations.) There, in what little spare time they had, the two went through box after box, throwing away things their kids wouldn’t want.

Maureen Neunan went through a similar process in 2011 when she downsized from a 3,000-square-foot home in Ellicott City to a two-bedroom condo in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The 58-year-old account manager with EMC Corp. in Columbia had lived in a French Provincial-style, five-bedroom house with three fireplaces and a tray ceiling in the basement.

Her wake-up call came when her only child, Megan, now 22 and working in San Francisco, went off to college in Chicago.

“When she left, I knew she was never coming back,” Neunan says. “Suddenly this place became boring. I was ready for a change.”

Lured by the excitement of the city, and with her daughter’s urging, she moved to The Ritz-Carlton Residences along the waterfront.

“In some ways, it was traumatizing — you spend your life collecting things that you end up getting rid of,” Neunan says. “How can I create some semblance of what I had into this small space?”

Susan Curley, president of Strategic Home Stagings Inc. and a professional who has helped homeowners through the downsizing process, recommends involving a third party for exactly that reason.

“It helps to have an unemotional person in the room with you” who is not attached to your stuff, Curley says. “Start with the basic premise of dividing things into three categories. One is the keep pile, two is the donate pile and three is the throwaway pile.”

For people who just can’t seem to let go, she advises having a camera on hand “to photograph the memories.” These items include everything from pictures of children’s artwork to gifts from late relatives.

“Always ask yourself why you are downsizing,” she says. “Don’t be too quick to throw away after the death of a spouse. A positive downsize is so much easier when the person is looking forward to it.”

She encourages clients “not to see downsizing as finality as much as a new beginning. Embrace the new beginning.”

Beginning again

For Bill and Anna Leonhardt, downsizing was exactly the new beginning they’d hoped for.

“It’s a fresh start as a couple again,” Anna says. “This is Bill’s and Anna’s house, not Billy’s and Alyssa’s.”

The Leonhardts moved into their new home in 2014. The three-bedroom house is part of The Courtyards of Waverly Woods, a 55-plus community where roughly half of the population is retired and the other half is still working.

The traditional exterior style of their home opens into a contemporary and open interior, with neutral colors defining the decor. A state-of-the-art kitchen leads to a vaulted ceiling living room. Furniture pieces are minimal, with a large, round dining table used for small gatherings. Anna’s office is in a second level loft area leading to two additional bedrooms, and the first floor contains a master suite, complete with a bathroom.

The Leonhardts credit Closets by Design for simplifying their lives.

“It’s easier to stay organized in a smaller place when you have ‘a place for everything,’” Anna says. “The shelves, drawers and laundry hampers in the custom closets gave us those places. They maximized the space we had in the bedroom closets, as well as [in] the kitchen pantry.”

Their quality of life also improved, thanks to services like lawn work, exterior maintenance and snow removal provided by the community association. The Leonhardts now live a more active lifestyle in a community of like-minded residents.

Like the Leonhardts in their 55-plus community, Maureen Neunan basks in the amenities provided by the Ritz-Carlton, which include 24-hour concierge service, lovely formal gardens under her windows and garage parking. There are also a restaurant and a spa on the premises.

Initially worried about living graciously in smaller surroundings, Neunan credits friend Mary Siemak, a retired former designer for Ethan Allen, with recommending a mirror on one wall to give the illusion of a larger room. It just so happened to complement the light, breezy elegance of a few choice pieces of French Provincial furniture Neunan took with her.

Her inside unit, with a balcony overlooking the Inner Harbor and bustling cityscape, features two bedroom suites with baths, one earmarked for Megan’s visits. A private entrance hall directly off the elevator on the fourth floor leads to an open layout consisting of a kitchen, dining area and living room.

Neunan says she is ready for the next chapter in her life.

“I have everything I need. If I’m in a bad mood, I stand at the patio door and realize how blessed I am.”

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