oes it seems like everyone is talking about downsizing right now? If you’re over 50, you’re probably hearing it alot! In fact, the typical home seller in 2023 was 60 years old, according to the National Association of Realtors. When you combine the Baby Boomers’ buying power with a less-is-more attitude and a desire to pursue a carefree lifestyle, it’s easy to see how the downsizing trend can be expected to continue many years into the future.
I’ve spent the last six years managing downsizing moves in the Washington DC area. After helping people of all ages downsize in all kinds of circumstances, I have learned to start the conversation with the same general advice: Keep the focus on what’s going with you, don’t get hung up on the value of the things that aren’t, and take advantage of the resources available to you to get everything done correctly, respectfully, and completely with a minimum of stress.
You don’t have to empty your entire home by yourself. This is probably the biggest misconception that I hear from downsizers who are just beginning their process. I can see why some would jump to this conclusion, but wow is that overwhelming or what? Many downsizers have accumulated the stuff in their homes over decades, and the sheer volume of belongings puts the job squarely in the “I can’t do this by myself” category.
Yes, technically it is “your” stuff, and “your” responsibility to make decisions about it, but the kindest thing you can do for yourself in the early stages is to set a different goal for being “finished”. In my experience, your mental and physical energy should be reserved for the hard work of working on what you’re taking with you, and leaving the stuff you’re not taking with you to the professionals to disburse appropriately and efficiently.
The other benefit of this approach is that you get to spend the last months in your current home enjoying it, instead of dismantling everything and living in chaos for weeks or months on end. So, that brings us to tip #2, which is…
Focus on the stuff you’re keeping. Your real job is to get focused on preserving the items that you truly want and need in your next chapter, especially items that literally can’t be replaced. If you have any lead time, use it to go through your personal items like family jewelry, tangible proof of family history, awards, photos, mementos, slides, videos, yearbooks, letters, and cherished drawings—anything that contributes to your personal narrative.
These collections should be dealt with early in your process, or if you don’t have enough time, you should at least gather them all together and make a plan for transporting and storing them until you have the time to give them the attention they deserve. Obviously, legal records and financial documents should be identified early in the process and secured accordingly.
After securing your personal history and vital documents, you’ll turn your attention to the most appropriate, useful, and beloved household and decorative items that will come with you on your move. This process involves careful consideration of the actual space that you’re moving to, and deliberate decisions about where everything will live. We highly recommend a careful floor plan and detailed decisions about art and decorative items that will make your home feel exactly the way you want it.
By the way, some people want their next home to be smaller versions of their previous homes, while others are excited to create something totally new in their next space. It’s totally up to you, but either way, there is quite a bit of advanced planning either way.
Don’t waste valuable time trying to figure out what your stuff is worth. Including your house. When you embrace the idea of keeping all of your focus on what’s going with you (see tip #2), the flip side of that decision is letting go of overthinking or worrying about the stuff that’s not going with you.
I’ve been doing this work for a while, and the one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that you have no control over what unneeded stuff is worth, either from an emotional standpoint (“they don’t want Grandma’s china??”) or a resale standpoint (“but we paid $8K for this dining room furniture!”). Anytime you spend trying to research, anticipate, or calculate the amount of money your unwanted belongings might bring in the secondary market is time and energy you could have spent on either setting yourself up for success in your next chapter or relaxing and enjoying your current home, community, lifestyle, etc. in advance of your move.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure that anything of value is handled with care and sent to the appropriate final destination, but I strongly advise you to leave this process to professionals who actually know the best avenues to disburse or liquidate your unneeded items efficiently and can provide the labor to get everything where it needs to go. The good news is that a reputable estate specialist will be able to identify everything that may be sold and will maximize efforts to net as much money as possible for your items.
This goes for real estate, too. I’ve noticed that many times, the Realtor is the first one to get the call when people decide to downsize, even if their goals are months or even years into the future. However, the real estate landscape literally changes week to week, and even the numbers you may find on the internet are ballpark (and frequently misleading), Sadly, I’ve seen some families get so focused on unrealistic gains from selling their home that it negatively influenced the entire downsizing process.
My advice is to keep an open mind and use a conservative guesstimate of how much your property may be worth because neither you nor your Realtor have control over the market forces that will impact your sale at the time that you are actually ready to sell.
Your choice of mover matters. Your actual move has both the potential to be a joy of efficiency and care or a total nightmare that stresses you out to no end. Choosing the lowest cost mover rarely works out. Remember, you’re only taking the things that mean the most to you. So why would you risk loss or damage to your very favorite, most important things? The other risk is dependability. We usually work with a complex timeline that relies on a strategy of logistics, building, and staff availability, and tight windows to complete the job, and unexpected delays can end up costing you a lot more money and stress in the long term. Also, in my experience, low-end moving estimates are also notorious for hidden fees and escalating costs.
Accept that you’re going to need help. If you’re still reading, it should be no surprise that I advocate a careful plan for downsizing and moving, and that it may include more services than you were initially picturing. I’ve seen industry estimates that project over 80 hours of work to complete a typical downsizing move, but some of my most experienced colleagues tell me that 80 hours seems like a low number to them! Of course, just like anything else, it all depends on your goals, your location, and your specific situation.
The biggest categories of skilled downsizing help include:
- project management/move management
- floor planning
- interior design
- photo or document digitization, organizing, and/or preservation
- legal assistance or financial services
- Identifying and selling items of value
- marketing/selling your home.
Of course, physical labor will be required to handle every single thing in your home, regardless of its value or final destination. This includes:
- property updates and maintenance
For most people, these professional services are an unavoidable fact and expense that you just have to accept as part of the process.
You can do this.
When you approach your transition with a confident plan, realistic goals and a focus on the future, you’re going to have a much more positive experience. And, at the end of the process, you’ll be all set to start enjoying your new lifestyle surrounded by the things that serve you the best and matter the most.