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Big homes come with a certain grandeur—but they’re also expensive and take lots of work to maintain. In fact, more than 1 in 4 Americans recognize the perks of smaller living and plan on downsizing their residence once they retire.
Trouble is…future plans to downsize don’t typically reduce our tendency to collect stuff earlier in life. We live in a society where it’s normal to have two refrigerators and three-stall garages that are too cluttered to fit a single car.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to put 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag,” says Jennifer Pickett, Associate Executive Director at the National Association of Senior Move Managers.
…And if you’re smart, it doesn’t have to go down that way. Just stop right now before you toss junk into boxes labeled “Misc.” Instead, follow these logical steps to downsizing your home in a truly organized fashion.
Step 1: Lock in the details of your destination
Now’s the time to set some boundaries on your next move. Before you sign the lease on a fourth-floor apartment or put an offer in on a smaller residence in a different part of town, make sure you won’t end up with regrets.
Let’s review a few of your top considerations for downsizing:
How downsizing will impact your financials
If your intent is to stretch your retirement money further by cutting back on housing expenses, it won’t do you much good if you’re taking on a bigger mortgage or adding costs after you factor HOA dues and the higher cost of living in your new golf community.
To calculate your home sale proceeds, you can use HomeLight’s Home Value Estimator to get a ballpark range for how much your home is worth, then subtract what you owe on your mortgage and the costs of selling your house (such as home prep expenses and agent commissions).
From there, you’ll know how much take-home money you have to put toward your next place, and how much you’ll have left over to stash away in savings or pay off other debts.
What you want out of this next stage of life
The second biggest reason people move later in life is to usher in new beginnings. Is it your dream to read mystery novels on the beach or spend more time with your children and grandkids? Do you hope to join a community where residents can attend happy hour and get shuttled to architecture tours downtown?
Think about what you value most and which type of residence and location would fulfill your dreams. Start with HomeLight’s list of ideas to reduce space and still live large.
How long you want to stay there
Downsizing could be your chance to think long-term about aging in place. A residence with features like walk-in showers, wider hallways, grab rails and handles, and no stairs could help you put off paying $43,000 per year for assisted living.
Need more help deciding which type of residence will best suit your needs? Use HomeLight’s guide to finding the right housing style.
Step 2: Create a plan of attack for sorting through each space of the house
Don’t start the downsizing process with the living room bookshelf because you happen to be watching TV in there. If you don’t have a plan before diving in, you might burn out or lose steam without an end goal in sight.
Instead work in what’s called “concentric circles” from the least-used to most-used areas of the house. For example, start with storage rooms, the attic, those dreaded basement bins, and the overflow in the garage. It’ll be easier to eliminate items from these places first, since you use them less frequently.
Next, tackle, guest rooms and baths before you get to those core utility spaces like the kitchen, master bed, and master bath.
Be realistic about how long you think sorting through room will take—one long weekend probably isn’t enough “It took you 40 years to accumulate these treasures,” says Pickett. “They’re not going to go away in 40 hours.”
Once you have your roadmap down, you can sort items using the steps below.
Step 3: Take an inventory of what you already have
Once, while assisting in a move, Pickett discovered a forgotten stash of $4,000 in cash tucked away in the homeowner’s game room. Which is to say, if you don’t know what you have, how can you be expected to move it, or get rid of it?
Documenting what you already own can help illuminate what you might have too much of, where there’s duplicates (no one needs two avocado slicers!) or what you’re ready to part with.
With help from The Moving Blog, industry pros that have been in the moving industry since 2009, here’s how you can take a home inventory:
- Decide on how you’ll document your inventory, then stick to it. A few post-its or scrap paper won’t do. You can opt for paper and pencil (with neat handwriting), or take a digital inventory using Excel or a formatted Google Spreadsheet. Another low-hassle alternative is a digital inventory app like MoveAdvisor.
- Take inventory of each room on a separate sheet of paper or document. Note the number of items, a short description (if necessary), and include notes as to where each item might fit in your new place.
- For bonus points, you can also take photos. “One of the very first things that you should do is take pictures of everything,” Pickett recommends. For some, this might give you a better idea of how much you really have.
Depending on your attention to detail, your inventory list will vary. However, getting a high level idea of where items are now, and where they’ll fit into your new home can give you an idea of what rooms could be overstuffed in your new place. With an inventory list in hand, you can start addressing the next step.
Step 4: Tag everything you haven’t used in a year
Kevin Yoder, a top-selling agent in Grand Rapids, Michigan who works with downsizers asks his clients to consider, ‘If I was out, and my spouse literally took this thing and took it to the Goodwill, would I even know?’”
This idea is the backbone of the one-year rule. If you haven’t used that item in the past year, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll start using it next year. This rule has a few exceptions (like formal wear or treasured keepsakes), but if you still have those holiday cards from years ago that you haven’t looked at since, it’s time to part with them.
Step 5: Sell items of value
This step is most likely to vary for homeowners. While everything holds some value to you, remember not everything will sell. If you have the time and patience, selling might be a smart idea for you. If you don’t think you have the time, there’s always donating and giving away.
Consider the guiding questions below for your best chance at selling:
- Is your item big or bulky?
Might want to try local marketplaces like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or Letgo. This way, your buyer can pick up directly from you and won’t have to deal with shipping costs.
- Is it memorabilia, or easily shippable?
Ebay, a thriving marketplace for collector, could be the way to go.
- Is it clothing in good condition, or high-end designer?
The rise of vintage shopping makes consignment shops or thrift stores a good option for selling clothes you no longer need.
- Are you selling functioning electronics in good condition?
Sites like Ebay, Swappa, Glyde, and Gazelle make it easy to get cash for phones, laptops or other devices you no longer use.
- Antiques or items that are difficult to value?
Call in an appraiser or auction house before you toss any heirlooms prematurely.
If you are willing to negotiate, and have the time and patience, you’ll likely be able to find a buyer for what you’re selling. However, you’ll have to weigh the cost of your time when it comes to selling, so finding buyers for everything from your card collection to old lighting fixtures might not be worth it in the long run.
Step 5: Group what you still have into categories: Keep, Toss, Donate
You can’t sell everything… so, for the rest: Pickett swears by a three label system: “I used to get three different colored dot labels that are easily removable, I might add. Then you have to start labeling by color with keep, donate, toss. It’s a very simple way to get started.”
From there, you can continue to sort down your “donate” pile, suggests Yoder. “You have to make a list of those using four labels: relatives, friends, charities, garage sale/auction.”
Grouping your stuff into smaller chunks can make the whole downsizing experience more manageable. Instead of a single mountain of stuff, you’re now looking at several climbable hills.
Step 6: Follow through on your donations
You might choose to donate things to friends and family, but “if you do decide to give something to your kids, don’t go looking for it in your daughter’s house,” Packett explains. “Don’t give with conditions.”
With your toss and donate piles resolved, it’s time to address more of your keep pile.
Step 7: Eliminate items not necessary for your new lifestyle
With your piles neatly grouped, it’s time to take a critical eye to the “Keep” pile. This is when your imagination comes in. Think about the new life you’re taking on, and what your life might look like.
Downsizing often includes a lifestyle change that homeowners don’t consider, explains Sicalides. You might be headed to a place with a smaller yard, and “we know in that case that they’re not going to need a shovel.”
Additionally, you might be heading to a new city or climate, which could mean ditching most of your winter wear and keeping you temperate gear.
Step 8: Be selective with memorabilia, and digitize the rest
Take time to appreciate the memorabilia you’ve accumulated and share it with others, suggests Pickett.
“Sit down with your family and talk to them about where you got all of these things. You know, it’s not necessarily the item itself, it’s the memory that’s associated with that item. So if you get rid of that item, are you then parting with the memory? Of course not.”
Here’s how you can digitize images, video, and film:
- At home:
If you’re looking to save a few bucks, you can scan images at home using PCMag’s at home scanning guide.
- Mail in:
Gophoto.com will scan and send your images. They can also restore old, damaged film. Or you can try ScanCafe, which was rated #1 for value from CNN Money.
- Preserving film at home:
If you have delicate or sensitive film you don’t want to send away, you can try Consumer Report’s comprehensive guide to scanning and digitizing film originals.
Deciding what keepsakes to part with can be emotional, but using technology, you can preserve a lot of it using a fraction of the space.
Step 9: Measure your furniture and the rooms in your new place
You don’t want to go through the trouble and expense of moving bulky furniture into your new place, just to learn it won’t fit.
“The big thing for furniture is, it’s really heavy and harder to get rid of on the other end of the move,” explains award-winning professional organizer Anna Sicalides.
To avoid making any unnecessary hauls, take the time to measure the furniture you already have, as well as the dimensions of the rooms in your new place.
Simply follow these steps:
- Sketch out the layout of your new home, including proper dimensions for each wall and room. The Spruce has a guide to measuring rooms with good old paper and pencil and a metal tape measure, or you can use a room measurement app like PLNAR or Easy Measure.
- Measure your existing furniture (take note of Carolina Chair’s guide to getting proper furniture measurements), compiling the dimensions into a spreadsheet where you can note the piece’s future destination in your home. With a clear idea of what can fit where, you’ll have a stronger understanding of what can stay and what won’t physically fit in your smaller space.
- Go a step further and use one of Apartment Therapy’s recommended room design apps to get a better idea of how to arrange your place. From there, you can further weed out furnishings that don’t match the style and layout of your downsized home.
Step 10: Create a storage plan for your new space
Since you have a comprehensive floor plan of your new place and an inventory list, you can start moving in without actually moving. Check out closet organizers from Wirecutter, making the best use of clear plastic containers, and the importance of a label maker (or at least neat handwriting) in your new storage spaces.
If you have the budget, you might consider hiring a professional organizer to help you plan storage in your new home. National storage pros at the Container Store offer consultations and planning for any size space.
Creating a storage plan before you move can create peace of mind before the move. It can also be a good gauge as to whether you’ve downsized enough for your new space.
However, don’t hang onto something just because you found a smart way to store it. Ask yourself if it genuinely has a use in your life and if not, save the space for something that does.
Step 11: If necessary, find a storage unit that fits your needs for any overflow
There are five times as many storage facilities in the U.S. than Starbucks. So if you’re not ready to part with certain items, but don’t have the space for them in your new place, take out a small storage unit rather than jam-pack everything in your new home.
Lifehacker’s guide to storage spaces can help you find the right fit, size, location, and access, for your needs.
Step 12: Plan and execute on your move
Downsizing comes with all the same regular challenges as moving in general and most people are also juggling the sale of their existing home.
Make sure you’ve got plans laid out to:
Coordinate move-out and move-in dates
Unless you’re prepared to juggle two mortgages, you’ll want to try and close on the sale of your existing home before you buy a new residence. If there will be a gap in between, be sure to have temporary housing lined up for the interim.
Collect no fewer than three professional moving quotes
Try to get no fewer than three in-person moving estimates after you’ve already pared down your stuff. The less you have, the less time it will take for your movers to haul it all… and that saves you money.
Gather up the necessary moving supplies
Use HomeLight’s comprehensive moving supplies checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you need for the packing and loading process.
Step 13: Get settled into your new house—you made it!
If you’ve done all the work to reduce your possessions to a level proportionate to your new house, then you’ll be able to unpack, decorate, and arrange what remains without any trouble.
Just make sure to put together a duffle bag of moving essentials to get you through the first few days and have your utilities and appliances up and running ahead of time.
Breaking down the downsizing process, step by step
Downsizing to a smaller residence means learning to live and function comfortably with less square footage. If you tackle the challenge in a methodical way, you’ll come to appreciate the freedom that comes with having less stuff rather than grapple with the chaos of clutter when you have nowhere to hide it.
Header Image Source: (Monkey Business Images/ Shutterstock)