Robin and Stefanie Wohnsigl, a couple who recently moved to an active-adult community in Chester, Md., have been on a four-year journey to find the right place for their retirement.

“We sold our big house in Great Falls four years ago and downsized to an apartment in Reston, Va.,” says Robin Wohnsigl, a retired Air Force colonel and airline industry executive. “The apartment was great, it had indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and we loved Reston, but we had downsized too much. Plus, we wanted a backyard for our dog.”

The Wohnsigls moved from an 8,000-square-foot house to a 1,500-square-foot apartment before their recent transition to a 3,700-square-foot single-family home.

“Not only did we want more space and wanted to get back to owning a home, but we realized that every time we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to visit our daughter in Dover, Del., we felt this complete decompression,” says Robin, who is 76. His wife, who retired about 20 years ago, is 74.

For empty nesters transitioning out of their longtime houses, making the choice of a new place to buy in a 55-plus community doesn't always mean downsizing.

“Older homebuyers today are ‘smart-sizing’ rather than just downsizing,” says Mollie Carmichael, a principal with Meyers Research, a housing research firm in Costa Mesa, Calif. “Affordability is a big priority before and during retirement, so people think they need to downsize for financial security, but that’s not always true.”

In active-adult communities, where typically residents must be 55 or older, the average home size is 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, Carmichael says.

“We’ve found that about 30% of people who move to age-restricted communities move to a larger place within the community after they’ve lived there for a while,” Carmichael says. “They just want a little extra space and yet want to stay in the neighborhood.”

The Wohnsigls wanted a yard for their 14-year-old Basset hound.
J. Lawler Duggan / For the Washington Post
The Wohnsigls wanted a yard for their 14-year-old Basset hound.

Rhea Jacobson, a homebuyer at the Atrium at MetroWest being built by Pulte near the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU Metro station in Virginia, downsized once already and plans to downsize a little more to move into the new active-adult community adjacent to her current home at MetroWest.

“Two years after my husband passed away, I moved from King Farm in Rockville, Md., to a two-level townhouse at MetroWest to be closer to my daughter and my grandkids,” Jacobson says. “My two priorities were to buy something new so I didn’t have to do maintenance, and to be near Metro so I could get downtown. My friends are scattered around the area, and so my social life is more downtown than anywhere else.”

Jacobson is also looking forward to the social life in the active-adult community, the yoga room, and an indoor swimming pool.

Figuring out where to go and what to buy for the preretirement-into-retirement life phase can be complicated by finances and careers, as well as lifestyle choices, says Alison Bernstein, president and founder of Suburban Jungle, a national real estate advisory service based in New York City that recently opened a “ReSizer” division aimed at people in their 50s and 60s.

“The people we work with aren’t retiring yet, but they are in a, ‘Now what?’ phase where they can choose where they want to be based on their lifestyle rather than on their kids’ schools,” Bernstein says.

Some of her clients stay in their same region to maintain close ties to friends and family, while others are ready to move someplace where it’s easier to travel and experience new things.

“We take a personal inventory of what people hope to accomplish with their move, such as reducing their commute, eliminating home maintenance, or downsizing to something less expensive so they can use their cash for something else,” Bernstein says.

That evaluation of finances as well as emotional goals is important for buyers and can help them decide whether they need to move to a smaller or larger home.

For Kari Peterson, a 62-year-old ReSizer client who now rents a townhouse in Haymarket, Va., the decision to move was triggered by her realization that her consulting business allows her to live anywhere. She chose Haymarket to be closer to her children and grandchildren.

“Having family nearby means a lot to me, but I also don’t want to just follow my kids everywhere,” she says. “I like being nearby but not involved in their daily life. I want to be happy in my own life.”

Robin Wohnsigl looks out from his backyard as potential home buyers tour the Four Seasons development by golf cart in Chester, Md.
J. Lawler Duggan / For the Washington Post
Robin Wohnsigl looks out from his backyard as potential home buyers tour the Four Seasons development by golf cart in Chester, Md.

The right-size home depends on your family needs, budget, and location.

“People need to figure out what they can afford and what they can find in their market,” Carmichael says. “In Texas, for example, most 55-plus buyers choose something equal or bigger than their current home, but in more expensive markets like California, you’re likely to see more people downsizing.”

For the Wohnsigls, the readjustment back to a home that's more than double their apartment but about half the size of their original home means sorting through the belongings the couple had stored while living in Reston.

But they have plenty of time now that their lawn care — and future snow removal — will be handled by their homeowners’ association.