A Suburban Curmudgeon and the Empty Nest Condo

by rthieme on November 28, 2003

Suburban curmudgeon and the empty nest condo

copyright 2003

The Business Journal of Milwaukee – November 28, 2003

When my family moved to Milwaukee 16 years ago with four children still in school, the five-bedroom brick colonial we found in Fox Point made sense. But, one by one, the kids left, and their bedrooms became guest rooms, home offices, dens. Finally, it seemed there was too much space and it was time to look for one of those new condos we keep hearing about downtown.

So my wife and I traipsed through warehouses, factories and processing plants that had been converted into living space for empty nesters like ourselves. That’s when we discovered that when we weren’t watching, we had become . . . old.

It took a young couple looking at open houses to show us how old we are.

We must not have fully appreciated the meaning of “open concept.” When we entered the first condo, we thought we were in the entrance hall. Then we realized we were somehow inside the entire thing.

My wife frowned at exposed pipes running along the ceiling and said, “We used to hide things like that behind plasterboard.” The young couple, also looking for a new home, laughed, thinking it was a joke.

We climbed steep, narrow stairs to what they told us was the bedroom. But all we found was a kind of platform without walls or doors on which a queen-size bed and a small table had been crammed. We asked the real estate agent what we did if one wanted to watch television downstairs and the other wanted to go to bed.

The young couple, who had gone to explore the kitchen that had neither walls nor doors, overheard this and laughed again, loudly.

The young woman came into view around the dining area (large enough for a small round table and four chairs pushed in tightly) and shouted:

“Do you really not know?” She seemed amused. “That’s what headphones are for!”

Space without walls

Silly us! We had been socialized to live in a space with boundaries, with walls that kept light and noise outside and doors that let us come and go as we chose.

We came downstairs to look at the rest of the unit.

“I must be missing the storage space,” my wife said. “All I see are two small closets.”

This time the youngsters dissolved into thigh-slapping guffaws.

“It’s time to get rid of that stuff!” said the young woman, who had become our condo mentor.

The rest of our condo hunting didn’t fare much better. Looking at one unit on the river, we asked about parking and were told we could use the garage a block away. I imagined my wife taking the elevator down in a parking garage at midnight.

Yeah, right.

So we’re left with some questions.

When we moved here, we chose a house in part because of the great schools, the quiet neighborhood, the beauty. Now we can sell that house and add maybe $100,000 to the proceeds and buy a unit that does not offer privacy, requires that we dump all worldly goods on e-bay, drive to stores in other neighborhoods, and live with exposed plumbing.

Forget the noise of footsteps above and fire engines below, the lack of amenities, the higher taxes. Forget all that.

Just tell me why.

Why is one big room with areas for cooking, eating and sleeping where I would listen to CNN inside wireless headphones, so much more expensive than my comfortable home? And why, when I can drive from Fox Point to downtown in 10 minutes and park in front of any theater and buy a ticket, would I want to be closer to everything that is already so accessible?

When you have the answer, tell me. I’ll be on e-bay, huddled inside headphones, selling off everything I own.

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