A friend’s downsizing dilemma was a wake-up call for 83-year-old Mary Jane Adamson of Schenectady. “My friend decided to go to Glen Eddy [retirement community], and there was a vacancy there sooner than she expected,” Adamson recounts. “All of a sudden, she was faced with all these problems downsizing. She’s still unloading the house; it hasn’t been put on the market yet and she’s been at Glen Eddy about six months now.”
Once children are grown and life’s circumstances change, downsizing becomes a practical reality for many. But sorting through a lifetime’s worth of belongings can be an overwhelming task. The trick is to take a systematic approach, says Adamson, who recently completed the process, and experts agree.
Adamson and her 88-year-old husband, Floyd, decided to take on the project while they were still physically and mentally capable.
“I inherited things from my parents, things from my first and second marriages and a few from my third. There were things I wanted to be sure the kids would have,” Mary Jane says.
Last October, the couple got started. Their first step was to check out local retirement facilities. “We wanted to see what was available, how big a place we could have. Could we afford it? We’re not moving yet, but we did investigate,” says Mary Jane.
Next, she set about cleaning out their attic, cellar, closets, cupboards and drawers.
“I was amazed how many items we had forgotten we had or have no current use for,” she says. “I used to entertain quite a bit, but the days of entertaining are gone, the days of travel are gone, so a lot of things that we have no use for I wanted to get rid of or pass on.”
Materials the couple planned to leave with the house, such as left-over shingles, paint and tiles were placed in a corner of the attic. Items of low monetary value were separated from those to be looked at by an appraiser.
When it comes to sorting, where should you begin? Step one is to go through personal papers, family photos and mementos, advises Suzanne Medler, a local certified appraiser who, along with her business partner, James Kerr, runs private estate sales. “Those are the things people have accumulated and really need to get rid of — those 27 boxes of old checks — things like that,” she details.
But some things that might look like junk — old postcards, magazines, photos and the like — should be saved, because they could be worth money. “Usually we tell people that if they are questioning whether something has value, it’s better to keep it and then throw it out later if it doesn’t. If in doubt, don’t throw it out,” advises Kerr.
Attics and basements commonly harbor cartloads of clutter, but that’s often where items of value hide as well. “Don’t hire someone to clean out your cellar or attic, because usually those locations hold the oldest things in the house,” Medler cautions. “A lot of times homeowners actually pay people to throw away everything that’s in the attic or basement and it turns out that there’s value there, and those people [hired to clean] should actually have paid the owners” she says.
Those anxious to have their basements and attics put in order should first call a certified appraiser to examine the contents, says Medler. An appraiser can usually also provide names of reputable companies that clean out attics and basements, she adds.
Calculate what to keep
Those moving to smaller quarters should next measure their new living space and calculate what items can fit comfortably there, says Medler.
Practical planning is important when deciding what to keep, she notes. “I often tell people, don’t forget to take that hope chest or cedar chest because it will double as a coffee table and storage area. You’re going to be lacking in storage [in a smaller residence] so you want to move things that have good storage and also provide a space for your table lamp, et cetera.”
Although the prospect of moving isn’t in the Adamsons’ immediate future, Mary Jane wanted to prepare for that eventuality and also pass on some heirlooms immediately to her five children. She had an appraiser examine those items as well as others that would eventually be part of her estate. The appraiser provided a written report on the value of each piece.
“I sent the list to all five children and said, ‘Decide who wants what,’ so they e-mailed me back what they wanted. They all had a fair chance,” says Mary Jane, who notes happily that there were no disputes during the process.
Once everything was settled, she compiled a list of who got what, along with the items’ appraised values, sent the complete list to all of her children and put a copy in her safe.
Along with each item she gave to her children, Mary Jane also included some history. “I went through and took pictures [of the items] and on the back of each photo I wrote notes. They have good background stories on all of the pieces,” she says.
Once it’s been determined which items will be kept and which will be sold or given away, it’s a good time to have an appraiser come in, especially if there are antiques in the home. In preparation, belongings should be sorted so that it’s very clear which need to be appraised and which do not. A color-coding system works well, says Medler. For example, a red sticker, affixed to everything to be appraised, will remove any ambiguity.
The appraiser should be informed in advance as to the purpose of the appraisal, notes Kerr. Different values are assigned to items dependant on that. “If you want to divide things up between your children, that’s what’s called equitable distribution,” he explains. Those items, he says, are assessed at a fair market value. Pieces appraised solely for insurance purposes are assigned a higher value to cover potential replacement costs. Items intended to be sold at an estate sale are assigned a fair market value or a high wholesale value, he adds.
If an itemized written appraisal isn’t desired, a general idea of an estate’s value can often be obtained from a professional estate sale planner. “Jim and I can ‘guestimate’ from experience what a sale is going to net,” Medler says. Often estate sale coordinators will provide that service as part of their package.
eBay and giveaways
Once Mary Jane had distributed the chosen heirlooms to her children, she contacted local dealers and sold coins and jewelry that had no family attachments. Opting not to bother with a garage sale, she turned to the Internet and sold items of lesser value on eBay and craigslist. She was pleasantly surprised by the results. “I listed six or eight items on craigslist and three of them sold. There’s no charge, so you can’t lose,” she said.
At Christmastime, Mary Jane held an odds-and-ends giveaway for family. In advance, she sent out a list of items that would be up for grabs, so everyone would be prepared. “I told them, ‘OK, go on upstairs, everything is spread out in the spare bedroom. Grab what you want, they’re freebies.’ They took a number of things,” she notes, adding that she received a very nice thank- you note from a granddaughter who had recently taken up housekeeping. Left-over items were donated to charity for tax credit.
“People should realize that they can donate useful household items or books,” says Medler. There are some items, however — old textbooks and encyclopedias in particular — that are best relegated to the dust bin, she says. “Sometimes, you have to pay to have things taken away,” she notes.
All in all, the Adamsons’ downsizing project took four months — a lot longer than Mary Jane had expected — but she’s pleased with the outcome. Prized possessions now have places in her children’s homes and she’s happy to know she’s given them an additional gift as well: She’s spared them the work of sorting out her house in the future. “I think it saves them a lot of headache. I think they’re pleased that it’s been done and it gives them an example. These are things they’ll have to face sooner or later.”
Mary Jane’s daughter, Jean Russell of Ballston Spa, was inspired by her mother’s initiative. “It’s very cool that she can decide where things that she really cares about go and she can tell the person that’s receiving it the family story that goes along with that article.”
Although it was initially difficult to face the thought of her mother’s downsizing project, Russell knows that it was a smart thing to do.
“It’s certainly better than trying to do it when everybody’s in the emotional mess of losing a parent,” she says. “We all want to think our parents are going to live forever and they’re all going to live in the same house we grew up in and nothing’s ever going to change, but it does change, and it’s easier for everybody just to admit it’s changing and deal with it because there’s no stopping time.”
Mary Jane agrees that being realistic was the best way to go. “The house is a little emptier, but I haven’t missed a thing,” she says. “I’m just glad it’s behind us. We just enjoy now.”
Downsizing dos and don’ts
DO: Call a professional estate sale manager for a free consultation to help you organize your move.
DO: Work through the floor plan for your new apartment to see what furnishings will fit.
DO: Provide the sale planner with a list of items you know you are keeping.
DO: Provide the sale planner with a list of items that stay with your home, i.e. appliances.
DO: Keep your utilities connected, i.e. telephone and electricity. They are needed before, during and after the sale.
DO: Schedule enough time before and after the estate sale for thorough preparation for the sale and cleaning for the house closing.
DO: Dispose of old foodstuffs, medicines, newspapers, recyclables, etc.
DO: Talk to your children and grandchildren to see what items they might want.
DO: Sort through photographs and albums and give them to the next generation.
DO: Sort through personal papers, old checks, etc., and dispose of them properly.
DON’T: Get the urge to clean it all out or to call someone who advertises in the paper to clean out your attic or your cellar. There may be some hidden valuables in those areas.
DON’T: Throw out anything you think might possibly have value. Ask an expert first.
Information provided by Suzanne Medler
Looking to sell some stuff?
When hiring professional estate sale managers, make sure they:
– Provide a free consultation.
– Provide a written contract.
– Charge a fee that is a percentage of the total sales excluding sales tax.
– Provide a list of what was sold and the prices realized.
– Collect New York state sales tax.
– Give you a written receipt for each transaction.
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