Moving is stressful enough, but when your move involves major downsizing, you need a plan. Don’t worry: we’ve got one for you! Here’s your four-week downsizing checklist. In just a month, you’ll be ready to live out your tiny house dreams.
Downsizing in a move is becoming more and more common. Whether you’re losing the big family home for a more manageable condo (the percentage of Americans over 65 is set to double by 2060), saving money on a smaller home, moving in with a partner, leaving suburban life for the city, or just going minimalist, you’re not alone. A recent poll found 15% more people would trade their current home for a smaller one than trade for a bigger one.
Going from big to small in just a month takes focus, and the work isn’t just physical. According to Alex Lehr, a top-five agent in Redwood City, CA and author of The Unexpected Sale, one of the toughest parts of downsizing is emotional.
“The majority of it is sorting, physically and emotionally,” he explains.
You’re not just getting rid of “stuff,” you’re getting rid of objects with memories attached to them.
“That’s what slows down the process,” he says. “Reliving memories.”
Week 1 of Downsizing Checklist:
Sort All of Your Things!
Your first task is to take all of your stuff out and sort it. Sorting can be a daunting process, especially if you’ve been in your home for a long time and accumulated lots of stuff. For the sorting phase, you’ll need to go over everything you have—including what’s in the attic, garage, shed, or storage space—and put each item into one of four categories: keep, sell, donate, or recycle/trash.
Lehr suggests making stickers for each category, and labeling everything as you go. This is the time to have stakeholders weigh in. If you are an empty nester, have your adult children label anything they want to take, with a strict deadline for removing it. If you’re moving in with a partner, make sure to look at your things together so that you aren’t duplicating kitchen essentials or furniture.
In Lehr’s experience assisting with over 2,200 sales, many involving downsizing or estate processing, one of the biggest difficulties of the sorting phase is figuring out what to do with items that are not functionally useful but carry the weight of memory. He describes helping a client with multiple sets of old family china, none of which they actually used or had space to store, who nonetheless didn’t want to part with it.
He suggests using a digital camera to shoot good photos of meaningful items, then getting rid of them. The photos can be used to create digital or even physical scrapbooks, preserving the memory without having to continue storing the item. “It’s not the stuff, it’s the emotion it stirs when you see it,” he explains.
He tries to help clients understand that, “You have the opportunity to free yourself from your possessions, things that your kids are going to look on and curse you for.” Because of changing home sizes, more frequent moves, and minimalist aesthetics, millennials are rejecting their parents’ heirlooms. Preserving memories free of stuff keeps you from becoming a “functional hoarder,” clinging to bulky, useless things and ruining your ability to enjoy your new, smaller space.
Once everything has been sorted, pack and store as much of the “keep” pile as possible. This clears space for staging everything else and ensures nothing you want is accidentally gotten rid of.
Hiring professional packers and movers can speed this step up dramatically. Packers will make sure all of the special items you want to keep are properly stored, and will help you stay focused on the next steps—conserve your energy, you’ll need it!
Week 2 of Downsizing Checklist:
Sell Stuff Off
Next, we deal with the sell pile. Decide how you want to sell your things. Options include a garage sale, eBay, Craigslist or Nextdoor, Etsy, or a consignment shop. Selling household items takes time and effort, so make sure it’s actually worth the money you will make, especially with a limited timeline.
Depending on where you live, selling furniture may or may not be worth it, unless you’re selling exceptional pieces. In cities like New York and San Francisco, where people move frequently and living spaces are small, the resale market for non-designer furniture is sluggish. Since most people don’t have large vehicles, the cost to move a piece could be higher than the cost of the item.
Less dense areas have much more vigorous resale markets, and consignment shops will be less picky about what items they’ll accept. However you’re planning on selling your things, the best way to make a quick sale is to price things low. Remember, you’re on a four-week deadline: you don’t have time to sit around waiting for the right buyer.
If you’re considering a garage sale, that especially applies. The average price of a garage sale item is $.85 and 43% of frequent garage sale shoppers’ biggest turnoffs is overpriced items, so if you want to move the stuff, price on the low end.
Craigslist publishes 40 million classified ads a month, so the market is there for the right kinds of items. Browse your local listings to get a sense of pricing and what buyers are looking for.
The downside of Craigslist is that you have to create a listing and negotiate the sale and exchange of each piece individually. Craigslist also has a problem with scammers: if you’re going that route, absolutely do not accept any payment other than cash.
Nextdoor is similar to Craigslist, except that users have to be verified residents of your neighborhood. That cuts down on the potential for scams, but also limits your reach. Some areas are more active with Nextdoor than others. Facebook classifieds is another online option for selling things locally.
Vintage or collectible items can be sold through eBay or Etsy, though you will be required to go through the extra step of packing stuff up and shipping it to the buyer.
For especially niche collections, Lehr recommends contacting hobbyist or collectors’ groups to find interested buyers. They are more likely to pay a fair price, and you’ll know your things are going to people who really appreciate them.
Week 3 of Downsizing Checklist:
Donate What You Can’t Sell
You’re getting so close! Now it’s time to donate as much of what’s left as possible. If you are donating anything to family or friends, be sure to give them a firm deadline to come and get their stuff (and, to be safe, pad that deadline a bit if you have to be out of your current home at the end of the month).
Like with selling items, the ease of donating things will depend largely on where you live. In the affluent Bay Area, where Lehr lives and works, there is so much high-quality stuff being donated that even charities have to be picky about what they accept.
If this is your situation, he suggests seeking out smaller, more grassroots organizations that work directly with local people in need. Homeless and domestic violence shelters, refugee assistance organizations, religious organizations, and local service organizations all often need furniture, clothing, kitchen items, and other essentials. Here is a directory that can help connect you to a local nonprofit.
In some areas, large national charities like Goodwill are willing to come to pick up donations or allow you to drop off donations at stores or central donation locations. For clothing and shoes, many organizations have donation boxes in parking lots and gas stations.
Used bookstores will often take donations of books. You could also seek out nonprofits in your area that connect donated books with classrooms, libraries, children in need, or incarcerated people. The American Library Association has listings of organizations that accept donations and suggestions for other places to give away books.
As a last-ditch effort, before you recycle or trash stuff, put what’s left out on your driveway or stoop and post a “curb alert” for free items on your local Craigslist.
Week 4 of Downsizing Checklist:
Recycle or Trash What You Can’t Donate
Dumping large amounts of trash may be more complicated than you anticipate. Most municipalities have rules about bulk trash pickup, and putting too much on the curb could leave you with a sanitation violation. Make sure to check your local ordinances.
You may want to rent a dumpster if you have a large amount of trash. There are also trash removal services that will haul away large amounts of trash and bulk items for a fee. If you have a large vehicle, you can take trash to the dump yourself.
Depending on what you’re throwing away, portions of it may be recyclable. Most electronics and textiles can be recycled, though you will probably have to take the stuff to a drop-off location—curbside recycling won’t usually pick up these items.
Be careful disposing of paints, chemicals, and other potentially toxic items. Not only is it illegal to throw in the the dump in many places, it’s harmful to the environment and groundwater. Make sure you’re responsibly disposing of anything toxic.
If you’re working with a top agent as part of your downsizing process, they should be able to help you with this step. Lehr, for example, has people and vehicles to help with the recycling portion, as well as a full-time project coordinator for logistics.
Hiring Help for Your Downsizing Process
You don’t have to DIY your downsizing process. In fact, to get it done in a month, you will almost certainly need some help. That could come in the form of family and friends providing extra sets of hands, but most likely you’ll need professional help, too.
Your first best resource should be a knowledgeable real estate agent, if you’re selling the house you’re moving out of. When you’re looking for an agent, make sure to ask questions about what kind of services they provide for downsizing. An experienced agent like Lehr comes with an entire team to help coordinate everything from garage sales to packing to recycling trucks.
If you’re over 65, you might want to consider a Senior Move Manager. This is someone who specializes in helping people move from a large family home to a smaller residence or senior-specific housing.
A full-service moving company can also provide a lot of different kinds of help, from professional packers to help moving furniture where it needs to go. Just be sure to get a quote for each piece of your moving puzzle.
Going from Big to Small in Just 4 Weeks
It’s possible get your downsizing move done quickly, as long as you stay focused and get help when you need it. This downsizing checklist should give you a starting place, and working with a specialist or agent can provide the rest of the support your move requires.
It can be hard to let go of stuff—especially stuff you’ve been carrying around for what feels like a lifetime. But your future self will thank you when you’re enjoying life in your smaller, uncluttered, junk-free new space.