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Family home sale means letting go

Date published: 4/13/2012

BY By Bill Ward

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)


--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. His 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.

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. 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.

Barb Fellman of Bemidji, Minn., 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.

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."