Barrett & Company’s recent downsizing seminars were informative and inspiring – and I’m not even planning to move any time soon. Laurie Cadigan, President of Barrett & Company, offered personal anecdotes about her recent move from Concord to Boston and provided real estate expertise on planning, financing, decluttering, and staging. Marie LeBlanc, President of Transitions Liquidation Services Inc., was on hand to offer strategies for deciding what to keep and what to get rid of to help your move go smoothly.

Cadigan admitted that the whole process of deciding where to move, preparing your house for sale, and then actually making the move was “one of the hardest things I’ve done aside from childbirth.” But she outlined the process, breaking it down into manageable steps:

  1. Where do you want to move? Downsizing means many different things to different people. People move for financial reasons, to pay for college, to simplify their lifestyle. And downsizing isn’t just moving to a condo from a single-family home. Many people choose to stay in their community but elect to live in a smaller house. Once you decide on an area or neighborhood, get a feel for the housing stock and what you can get for your money. Barrett & Company offers a daily personalized email service where you can see all the new Massachusetts real estate listings that meet your specific criteria of house size, location, price, number of bedrooms, etc.
  2. Who are you bringing? Downsizing is not only for empty nesters. Cadigan and her husband are sharing their new condo with an adult child who is saving money for her own place. They also brought their Golden Retriever along. Cadigan advised, “Look into condo rules and restrictions about pets or even visitors. Some retirement communities limit the amount of time that visitors under age 55 can stay.”
  3. What are your finances? It is critical to understand your finances and talk them over with a financial advisor. This is particularly true for people who may not have bought or sold a property in many years. The mortgage process has changed. For example, people remember bridge loans, which are no longer offered by banks. Some retirement communities also have requirements about the makeup of your financial portfolio.

Finding a place and financing a place are the big decisions. Then downsizers are faced with a million small decisions in order to actually make a move. Cadigan and her family faced a household made up of 30 years of accumulated stuff where every item’s fate had to be decided upon. And that went for the kids’ stuff too. “I applied tough love for my children,” Cadigan said. Each child got to fill two plastic bins worth of possessions that she would store for them at her new condo. If they wanted to keep anything else, including furniture for future apartments or homes, they had to take it with them or pay to store it themselves.

Then she got to work staging her home for sale. “Staging is about making things look airy, clean, and neutral. A potential buyer wants to come in and imagine his or her possessions in the house, not be fixated on your decorating style,” says Cadigan. Seminar attendees got to see some great before and after photos of Cadigan’s home. Her before slides showed flowered wallpaper and custom draperies in the dining room. Personally, I thought it was charming but I saw her point that I wouldn’t know if the person sitting next to me in the audience thought the same thing.

The after picture showed the dining room sans china cabinet, with walls painted a neutral off-white, and the windows bare but clean, with sunlight streaming in. “Believe me it broke my heart to strip down my home,” said Cadigan. “No one lives like this. But that is not the point of staging. It’s about stepping aside and letting the buyer imagine living there.”

LeBlanc said the first thing that people who are downsizing should do is draw a floor plan of their new space. Then draw in the furniture that you think you want to bring. “People either think none of their furniture will fit or they think everything will fit,the floor plan doesn’t lie,” said LeBlanc. Having a real sense of what you will bring will also help when you get an estimate from the moving company.

Then it is time to sell, donate, or dispose of what you don’t want to bring. LeBlanc offered great advice about disposing of trash. If you disciplined yourself to throw out two bags of trash each week for a year, you would have gotten rid of the equivalent of a 30-yard dumpster. She warned that dumpsters cost $1,800 to rent, fill and dispose of the contents. Most houses require two!

She also brought realistic expectations to people’s ideas of selling their furniture. The bad news is that most furniture brings 10% of its original purchase price. For those who want to sell, she recommends consignment shops, which take 40-50% of the sale. She does not recommend Craigslist for older people because of the security risk of inviting the general public to where you live.

Household Goods Recycling of Massachusetts (HGRM) in Acton was recommended as a great place to donate furniture, including mattresses and box springs in good condition. Charities that offer pickup services also are good but may not take everything. “The lesson is to plan ahead on your donations,” LeBlanc said, “you don’t want to have a driveway full of stuff that the charity refused to take the day before your closing.”

Auction houses have become more accepting in the last few years as to what they will take into an auction. Don’t put too high of a reserve on a piece. If it doesn’t sell because the bidding did not make the reserve, you will be charged 10% of the reserve price and get the piece back—and that is not the goal.

Antiques dealers want to get things for as little as they can so they can make a profit. On the other hand, by buying your piece outright, they are taking on all the costs associated with moving it, and storing it and the risk that it may never sell. If you want to sell to a dealer, invite three to bid and compare their offers.

My personal takeaway lessons from this seminar, even though I plan to stay in my home for many more years:

  • Declutter now or you will pay the piper later.
  • Furniture is not the investment that I thought it was. So I guess I won’t feel so bad that my cat scratched my couch.
  • When it does come time to move, there are experts to help you. From experienced real-estate agents, to professional organizers, to financial advisors, no one has to handle this all alone.

Cadigan summed it up: “Downsizing is a massive undertaking that can feel uphill at times. But the result for many people is worth it. We love our new lifestyle. I love having only the things that really matter around me. I love having a closet with only the clothes that I really wear. Downsizing has made us feel freer and younger.”

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