NJ’s empty nests downsize to renovated Philadelphia condos

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Mindy and Bill Hauptman had planned to wait to downsize and move to Philadelphia until their retirement. But the moment seemed propitious.

Their two children were grown and gone. Their Colonial central hall in Voorhees, with its large courtyard, needed more work than they wanted to put in. They were eager to start this new part of their life in the city they regularly visited for its entertainment and restaurants.

But Bill, 60, and Mindy, 59, couldn’t find a home that satisfied their vision of a large, low-maintenance entertaining space with a large kitchen and room for Steinway’s grand piano. Bill – and space for all future grandchildren to play.

So they bought side-by-side condos in the 37-story Academy House on Locust Street in the city center and began to consider combining the units.

“The ability to create the space for what our needs are is what appealed to us,” Mindy said. “I think we can have the best of both worlds” – city life and space.

The effort would have been big business and a game-changer at any time. But the Hauptmans bought their condos in February 2020. The couple’s journey from empty nests in a suburban single-family home to condo owners in town spanned the duration of the pandemic and highlights housing market trends in the course of 2 and a half years.

“There were times when I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?'”

Mindy Hauptman

At the start of the pandemic, news articles described people leaving cities for more space in the suburbs. But the Hauptmans became part of the stream of residents moving in the opposite direction. They had already had a taste of suburban life, having moved from Manhattan to Voorhees in the early 1990s.

Bill has since retired from his job as a doctor, while Mindy continues to work in market research consulting. Throughout this process, they have been buyers, sellers, owners and owners. They welcomed an adult child into their space. And, like many homeowners during the pandemic, they’ve remodeled their homes to accommodate changing needs.

The Hauptmans bought their condos on the 32nd floor of the Academy House at an estate sale. From their new corner house, they can see William Penn perched on City Hall and overlook Washington Square Park. They watched the Arthaus condominium building go up on Broad Street. They can look east to New Jersey and see fireworks during celebrations and storms.

The views were major selling points for the couple, so a challenge was how to “retain those views and have different living spaces without shutting everything down completely,” said Catharine Lowery, architect and interior designer of the Hauptmans and senior project manager in Philadelphia- based on Toner Architects.

Lowery sent their first designs to the Hauptmans in February 2020. The couple planned for the renovation to begin in the spring. Everyone expected the project to take about a year.

“It was weirdly smooth, except for the whole COVID thing.”

Architect Catherine Lowery

When the pandemic hit, the Hauptmans “made the difficult decision” to delay their plans as the country struggled to figure out what was going on, construction faced new hurdles – including a work stoppage in Philadelphia – and supplies became more difficult to obtain. While waiting to see what the pandemic would do, they rented their condos to their daughter, now 26, and two of her friends.

In the summer of 2021, restrictions were easing and Philadelphia was reopening, so the Hauptmans decided to move forward. Construction began in October 2021, after a year and a half delay.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus calms Philadelphia’s construction boom (from April 2020)

Doing the type of renovation they did “isn’t for the faint-hearted,” Bill said.

“There were times,” Mindy said, “when I was like, ‘What did I get myself into? “”

The renovation process is always “a leap of faith” for homeowners, Lowery said. The pandemic has underlined this.

Their floor plan and vision for their space evolved, and they and their team worked around the curves imposed on them. The pipes in the bathroom from the unit above meant they couldn’t open part of the foyer ceiling as high as they had planned. So they created a suspended ceiling that adds dimension to the space. Shelves with pictures of the couple’s children eased the sting of not being able to remove a section of wall.

Then there were the additional challenges that come with renovating a home in a high-rise building – from the need for permission from neighbors to access their units above or below to carry out work, to workers and to materials that must travel by lift.

Of Academy House’s 551 units, residents combined more than 20 into double or triple units, so the building suited the Hauptmans’ level of renovation and approved their plans. Neighbors have not complained about noise or other issues. The owners, the architectural firm and the contractor worked together.

“It was weirdly smooth,” Lowery said, “except for the whole COVID thing.”

Labor and supply chain issues have caused delays. Building materials have become more expensive and difficult to obtain. The tile installer received COVID-19 just as the tile was ready to be installed, so another had to step in.

Construction took six months, two more than expected, said Adam Sherman, owner of Devon-based design-build company Cottage Industries.

READ MORE: Philadelphia-area homebuilders continue to struggle even as buyer demand slows

The Hauptmans enlarged their bathroom, enlarged the foyer and created a larger kitchen. They added a closet to their bedroom, transformed a bedroom into an office and added a laundry room. And they have created dedicated spaces for eating, reading and playing the piano.

On March 30, the Hauptmans moved into the house they had purchased two years earlier. They are still waiting for some furniture to arrive, the result of ongoing manufacturing delays and a sign of the lasting effects of the pandemic.

The two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo measures approximately 2,080 square feet and has plenty of space to accommodate a vacation. The couple hosted family and friends.

“Everyone,” said Bill, “wants to visit.”

As their condo came together, the Hauptmans entered what was then still a frenetic real estate market in January. They put their Voorhees home, which needed renovations, up for sale on a Friday. On Monday, they had eight offers.

Lowery, their architect, had a lot of experience combining units in NYC apartment buildings in his previous firm and worked with other landlords transitioning from suburban to urban environments. Unlike some other clients, she said, she could tell the Hauptmans were “so ready” for the transition from their detached single-family home to a condo.

“Our goal is to be the cool grandparents in town.”

Bill Hauptman

“Sometimes some people try to adapt this suburban lifestyle to the totally different environment of the city,” Lowery said. This includes trying to store belongings in their smaller space. But the Hauptmans embraced the necessary downsizing.

They enjoy the more independent lifestyle of owning a condo. When they owned a house, Mindy says, “there was always something to do.”

READ MORE: What aging homeowners should consider with their next move and decades of memories

Their 29-year-old daughter and son presented them with a framed illustration of their Voorhees home that sits among the family photos in the lobby. Bill and Mindy brought a few touches from their old home, including photographs Bill took on their travels and a wooden bed wall they got in the 80s.

Now that the renovation is complete, the Hauptmans can enjoy city life and look forward to their next adventures.

“Our goal,” Bill said, “is to be the cool grandparents in town.”

According to the Center City District, which promotes downtown, large populations of empty nesters and retirees, as well as millennials, have been driving much of the demand for housing in the downtown core.

“From here on everything is convenient,” Mindy said.

Bill criss-crosses the city on his bicycle. He got to know Fairmount Park, and on a recent trip to the Delaware River, he listened to a jazz trio and watched jugglers. Mindy has found a studio where she does Zumba and likes to walk down charming side streets. They attended performances at the Academy of Music and the Wilma Theater. They have a growing list of restaurants they want to try.

» READ MORE: 5 takeaways from a downtown-focused housing report

“We are constantly blown away by all the city has to offer,” Bill said.

Their nearly 50-year-old building houses more than 1,000 people – owners and some tenants; undergraduate and graduate students; young workers and retirees. Their neighbors in the building and the people they meet in town are “incredibly friendly,” Bill said. When the Hauptmans lived in New York, they didn’t talk to their neighbors. In Voorhees they didn’t have that many.

“I feel more like a community than I expected,” Mindy said. “It’s very easy to have my little village in this huge city.”

Bill said they often hear the question: Do you miss your house and your huge, beautiful garden?

“And we both say in unison, ‘Not at all.'”

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