By Ellen Ryan for Next Avenue
Jane and John Doe knew they would trade in their four-bedroom family house someday for a smaller, more manageable home. But the couple put off downsizing until after retirement … then after their youngest’s wedding … then after a big vacation … then ….
Then John had a stroke. Suddenly Jane faced not just the immediate health crisis, but having to move their entire decades-old household into a one-level apartment within three weeks.
Why no names on this story? Because it’s so common. “This happens all the time,” says Aida Middel, co-founder of Maryland’s Potomac Concierge, a company which handles downsizing, moving and organizing.
“All the time,” echoes Mike Gallagher of Smooth Transitions Denver, a downsizing and relocation firm. “The number one trick to downsizing is starting before you think you need to.”
He and others mean months or years in advance, not weeks. This is a task that takes longer than you expect at every turn, but offers benefits to those who persist.
“Don’t wait for a death, divorce or debt to occur,” advises Kim Lawrence, CEO of Seasoned Life Transitions, which handles downsizing, appraisals and related work in Dallas and its northern suburbs. “Taking action now means more space, more freedom and more money.”
8 Reasons to Pre-Downsize
Pre-downsizing pays off for a wide range of reasons: strategic, physical, emotional and financial. Here are eight of them:
1. Starting early shows you how much you own and hints at how much is ahead. “People forget what’s in their homes,” says Melanie Gibbons, co-owner of Cull & Tend, a Washington, D.C., home and move management service. They don’t see what’s hidden, such as under-the-bed boxes, under-the-eaves storage, out-of-season clothing and everything stashed in the attic or cellar.
2. You can avoid working under extreme deadline pressure. My own bugaboo is paper. I’ve got shelves and drawers and boxes of notes, copies, contracts, photos and media. And while entire files can often go into recycling, in other cases every single sheet is a separate decision. (“Some people have to touch each piece of paper because they’re afraid they’ll miss something,” says Middel. Ahem.)
By going through my office myself, averaging an hour or two every week, I make my own decisions, save cash that might otherwise go to a home organizer or downsizer and find things I can sell, give away or use in the meantime.
3. You can work on the downsizing while you’re physically up to the job — which also allows more control. “We have clients who can’t sort and organize, or reach the top of a closet, or sit down and work for long periods on a project without taking a nap,” says Gallagher. “Some can’t even get to the basement, let alone know what’s down there.” Advice: Start on your home before this happens to you.
4. You can conserve valuables while there’s still time. Family photos or linens in the attic may become infested with moths. In the basement? With mildew. In the garage? With mouse droppings. “If you want to pass these along or sell them, get to them before they’re ruined,” Middel advises.
5. You’ll pass less burden on to loved ones. The average U.S. home contains more than 300,000 items, says Lawrence. If you become incapacitated or worse before making progress on all that, where will this leave your spouse or partner and children, if you have them? Most of Lawrence’s client homes take at least three to four weeks of six-to-eight-hour days for full emptying and disposal.
6. You’ll have time for necessary conversations. Ones like deciding whether those heirloom holiday ornaments should go to your daughter in Vermont. Or will you keep, auction, consign or donate them? Multiply that conversation times any number of other treasures, says Gibbons.
Some conversations that should happen, experts say: The kids/our siblings finally need to get their belongings out of our storeroom. Mom’s china/Hummels/antiques are not going to fund our retirement; now what? What people, groups or museums would be interested in these yearbooks, photographs or collections? Are there ways to recycle mattresses, appliances and medical equipment?
Don’t forget to account for conversations with yourself. “People tend to get emotionally attached to belongings,” says Middel. That adds to the time, whether it’s a DIY project or a pay-someone project.
7. You save money, Gallagher notes: “By doing this early, you can hold a garage sale rather than pay companies to come out and make a lot of stuff go away. People in my industry charge $50 to $100 an hour.” He cites a four-bedroom house with a basement where clean-out, trash removal, donation disposal and the like came to $15,000.
You pay a premium for those junk-hauling companies, which can charge more than $1,000 to fill a dumpster. Tackling a room at a time yourself — taking big items to the dump; tagging furniture to donate and clothes to consign — spares your wallet and frees up space so you feel great about continuing.
8. You may even like the results so much, you’ll stay longer to enjoy them before moving. Decluttering breathes life into your home, says Gibbons. Her clients often say, “We should have done this years ago!”
“Just having a clutter-free, organized home is a lot less stress for people,” Lawrence points out. “As long as they have the discipline not to fill it up again, when they do eventually move on, whatever’s left behind will be much easier for them or their loved ones to deal with.”
A Right Age to Downsize?
Is there a right age to downsize? It’s never too early to start, experts agree. But there is a wrong age, and that’s when you’re too frail, too unwell or too overwhelmed to do the job adequately.
On the other hand, “in forty years, maybe downsizing won’t be such an issue,” Gallagher muses. Kids today are buying from Goodwill and practicing minimalism. If all that holds, the next generation won’t have much to consider paring down.
Ellen Ryan is an award-winning writer and editor. She is the former managing editor of The Washingtonian.
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