AgentBrokerage

How to help downsizing clients come to terms with their possessions

Your help can lessen the emotional burden of a life-changing move
  • Agents working with downsizing sellers should be sensitive to the fact that purging treasured possessions can be very difficult.
  • Never offer to take or buy any of a seller's belongings.
  • Suggest services to help clients deal with the move, including Facebook Marketplace, garage sales or other tactics.

Bill Risser

Bill Risser, the vice president of digital strategy at Fidelity National Title, recently packed up a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Phoenix to move to an 1,100-square-foot condo in a Tampa, Florida high-rise.

So, he’s intimately familiar with a conundrum that many downsizing movers are facing: getting rid of extra possessions. It’s harder than ever to get rid of your stuff — and once that lamp, jewelry or antique hutch reaches “family heirloom” or “treasured artifact” status, feelings can get hurt.

This is an issue that real estate agents all over the country have been dealing with as downsizing movers — many of them baby boomers — look to pass down furniture and memorabilia to family members (often millennials) who don’t want it.

Because it’s a scenario that can really ruffle feathers, agents need to manage the relationships and people involved with tact and grace — especially if they’re hoping for repeat business or a referral from the family.

Different strokes for different folks

“We deal with a lot of millennials and kids who are moving to Colorado, and their parents live in other states,” explained Stacie Perrault Staub, a broker in Denver. “They get to come here and have a really fresh new start and have their apartment or their first little house just the way they want it.

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Stacie Perrault Staub

“It makes me think about their parents and what they left behind — and what a Realtor in that other state is going to have to deal with eventually,” she added.

How we think about — and buy — furniture has changed pretty drastically since our grandparents were shopping, she noted. “Furniture used to be exorbitantly expensive, which is why people considered it so valuable,” she said. “My grandma had her couches covered in plastic the entire time I was growing up; she still has that same couch in the retirement home. That has been a 60-year couch for her.”

But it’s different for today’s young homeowners and renters. “My grandma would never give me her treasured furniture when I went to college, but when I bought my first house and started to get settled, then she wanted to dump a bunch of stuff on me,” Staub noted. But with relatively cheap furniture available in warehouses and really cheap furniture you can assemble yourself from IKEA, “we don’t need $6,000 to buy a couch, and it doesn’t have to last forever,” she added.

Teresa Boardman

“We all have different ideas of what’s junk and what we want to keep, and very different ideas about what’s enough and what’s too much,” said Teresa Boardman, a broker in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

She’s seen clients who feel hurt because their kids don’t want their furniture or accoutrements, and she tries to make sure her kids feel free to decline anything she offers them. “When my kids won’t take something, I’m totally OK with it — but I know that my mother was a little bit hurt when she offered family heirlooms to the kids and the kids said, ‘No thanks, Grandma.'”

Still, she doesn’t want to keep everything, so Boardman has started telling her kids, “What would be great for Christmas this year is if you would take two or three things out of my house.”

Diane Terry

Seattle area-based agent Diane Terry, who frequently works with empty nesters, doesn’t know what she’s going to do with the artwork she’d thought she’d pass on to children — or the 12 sets of china she’s going to inherit from her mother at some point in the future. Terry’s daughter “is not interested in setting the table,” she said. “I don’t want the china but I have to act like I’m so happy about it, and my daughter’s generation has done the complete pendulum swing where it’s like, ‘I don’t even want a set of china.'”

The long runway for empty nesters

“What’s interesting about this particular real estate move is that most moves in your life are caused by an event — you graduate college, you graduate graduate school, you get married, you decide to start a family, you have more than two kids so you have to move again, or you’re moving for a good school district,” she explained. “This is the first time in someone’s life where they’re (hopefully) not making a move that’s caused by an event. The realization needs to hit them that just two of you are wandering around a 3,600-square-foot house.”

As a result, these moves and transactions have what Terry calls “a very long runway.” Sellers often start thinking about moving, waver, reconsider, call an agent, decide it’s too much work, reconsider again … it can be a stop-and-start experience for many.

She says sometimes she might go back to a client three or four times to talk about selling before they finally decide to pull the trigger. “It’s a very hands-on kind of real estate,” she explained. “It’s not a quick in-and-out. The last three that I did, I’ve known the people for 10, 15, 20 years — it’s been a long, long runway of building trust and them understanding that I’m not just coming to yank them out of their home.”

Terry adds that she’s always careful to consult early on with any adult children who are also decision-makers in the process, and that Realtors who are serious about serving this segment of the population should consider the National Association of Realtors’ Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) designation.

“There’s a lot of hand-holding involved, a lot of counseling, a lot of repeat business, listening to the same story over and over again. It requires a ton of patience and a ton of caring. I adopt these people and become part of these lives from start to finish,” she said.

The storage knife cuts both ways

Staub was in one situation recently where she was helping a family — parents and a daughter — get ready to sell their houses at the same time.

“The parents had outdated furniture in the first place, and the basement was full of all their kids’ stuff — they had four kids,” Staub remembered. The kids came over to look at what their mom had saved and said, “We don’t want any of this; we don’t know why she saved it.”

“And on the flip side, as I was trying to get the mom ready, she was saying ‘If they don’t come get it and they don’t want it, we have to get rid of it.’ It was really hard for her because it was mementos for her — but it was their stuff! It’s such a hard situation when things are treasured by everyone but wanted by no one. And it’s hard to drive up [to] a dumpster and dump everything in, but that’s where it gets to.

“The best thing a kid can do for their parents is to at least get rid of their own stuff and take ownership of that,” Staub said. “Stuff is a burden, and it keeps people from moving.”

Terry agrees. “The kids want mom and dad to hold onto it but they don’t necessarily want to take it,” she noted.

So she suggests that clients tell everybody — everybody — in their lives that they are downsizing, that items are up for grabs and that they need to come look to see what they want … and then take it with them when they leave.

“Set a timeline,” Terry suggested. “Say, ‘OK, kids, over the next year when you come visit us for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, take what you want — because on X day the dumpster is coming and everything is going in the dumpster.'”

After the kids have taken their pick, it’s safe to open the house up to neighbors and turn it into a “free for all,” Terry noted.

“I just moved a judge and her husband from a home of 43 years; she had a beautiful dining room set, which in the old days I’m sure she paid a pretty penny for, and we almost couldn’t give it away,” she said. (They did end up offering the set for free and it was finally picked up by a neighbor.)

Bringing in help

There are services that will help aspiring sellers sort through things they need to purge, but the best ones really operate like counselors, Staub said. “The good ones can go into the worst house and really help people deal with the emotions around every single thing and figure out what to part with and what to keep,” she said.

Terry says that these services can be a godsend when she’s dealing with seniors in what she calls a “must move” situation — “where they don’t have a choice about it.”

In those scenarios, she calls in a senior consulting mover, “and what they basically do is they figure out what the floorspace is where the person is moving to and cherry-pick out only that which has a function and a reason for going to the new space. They put it in the new house, move the senior out and then we deal with the aftermath — garage sale, auction, estate sale.”

Boardman has used a “junk removal” service, 1-800-GOT-JUNK. “They will take anything and everything,” she said. “Some of it they resell and some of it they recycle. They have a store — it’s like a big Goodwill store, so that’s a great service for somebody who’s just hopelessly to that point.”

The great purge

It probably goes without saying that getting rid of sentimental items can be emotionally difficult for sellers. “You’ll see the move was not a good move when you go into the place they downsized to and it’s just crammed full,” noted Terry.

As a real estate agent, she tries to keep her clients on track with their plans to downsize, and she says that agents are “kind of lucky” because by the time they get the phone call about the listing, the clients have usually already come to terms with the fact that they need to move — and they need to get rid of some things to make that possible.

“By the time I’m called in as a professional, they have come to that realization — and it’s kind of like a death. They grieve; they’re really sad; they cry; they’re angry — and then there’s a switch that flips, and when that switch flips, then they’re thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’ and it’s like they’re just chucking stuff left and right at that point. It’s an amazing thing to watch.”

Terry says it helps her clients to know that she has an appreciation for their home and their possessions, too.

“I noticed that with my clients, they have to go through the house with me several times until they understand that I have an appreciation for the life they’ve built, how hard they’ve worked for each possession, sometimes how much they paid for each possession and the sentimental value. Once they feel like they’ve regurgitated all of that, then it seems like they’re ready to let go.”

Less experienced agents might not understand the strength of sellers’ attachments to their things. “All they see is a great house in a great neighborhood and a listing that they think is going to sell quickly,” Terry noted. “They don’t know how long it’s going to take until that house is market-ready. And these sellers are still married to their drapes, which you’re going to be taking down — all their personality that you have to strip away from the home to get them the most money possible.”

She recalls a current seller with “beautiful silk teal curtains” with a (dated) flounced drape, and “she just can’t wrap her head around the fact that I’m going to take them down.”

So Terry enlisted the seller’s interior designer and told the seller that the drapes would see new life in her new home — as both window coverings and throw pillows. “It’s a lot of team effort,” Terry noted.

There are obvious environmental issues associated with hauling off housefuls of furniture and memorabilia to dumpsters. Many people choose to store their stuff, but hosting a garage sale, posting items on eBay or Facebook Marketplace and even inviting the neighbors to take their pick of what they want is preferable to tossing it.

“What is going to happen when boomers all downsize at once — and I’m talking about people in their 80s and 90s. Are people going to take great big garbage bags and just throw this stuff away?” Boardman asks. “I’m thinking that’s going to be a problem.”

Plus, at a neighborhood “buy/sell/swap” meet, Boardman realized that she had neighbors interested in some of the items her kids didn’t want — always a welcome surprise.

Setting rules and guidelines for agents and staff

When you’re working with sellers who are intent on downsizing, there’s something you should be prepared to encounter: They are very likely to offer you some of the old stuff that nobody else seems to want — and that can get dangerous.

“I just make it my policy — and the policy for everybody that works with me: We will not accept anything,” Terry said. “I learned that because if you take one thing then they think that you want more; it’s very valuable stuff, and then you have a problem with the rest of the family.

“It’s just not professional,” she added. “Even if I’m dying to have something or buy something from them, I just won’t do it, and that’s how I keep myself distanced.”

She remembers the experience that encouraged her to extend this policy to staff: “I had a stager go over to a client’s house; she had these beautiful brass andirons in front of her fireplace. I could tell they were exceptionally valuable. She offered them to my stager, and my stager was like, ‘Sure!’ And I was like, ‘Oh no — you’re fired.'”

Downsizing right, start to finish

Risser says that he and his wife started thinking about moving when their son got his master’s degree and started working at a nonprofit at age 24. “We knew he wasn’t coming back,” Risser explained. “There’s always that concern — are we really empty nesters yet?”

They didn’t need their family home in Phoenix anymore, and they’d always wanted to try urban living. After Risser landed a transfer to Tampa, he and his wife had to start figuring out what to keep and what to release.

“Fortunately for us, we had a couple of months to work that out,” Risser said. “We quickly identified what was going to go and what we were going to keep” as far as furniture went; Risser said the furniture was relatively easy for the couple to figure out. He added that it was their first experience with Facebook Marketplace and that they were able to get rid of some bedroom sets and a treadmill by using the platform.

The toughest part was yet to come: The personal, sentimental items they’d collected over 30 years of marriage and raising a child together needed to be parsed.

“That was a process,” acknowledged Risser. His son was establishing himself as an adult but didn’t have space to take overflow from his parents, so they had to be ruthless.

“He took every Harry Potter novel, and he had a few Star Wars things from his childhood that he also wanted us to keep,” Risser remembered, “but he also sold a few hundred dollars of memorabilia.

“The really tough things were the sentimental pieces that my wife had of Kevin’s childhood,” he added. “So she got really good at digitizing everything. She must have taken a couple thousand photos, getting pictures of things that were important and then either boxing them up for the giant yard sale or the Goodwill center.”

There were also some more practical items that Risser was tempted to keep … except they actually wouldn’t be very practical for his new lifestyle.

He admits to having difficulty parting with the things in his garage: “I’m not super mechanical, but I had acquired a lot of tools that allowed me to do a little work on the cars. I really thought hard about bringing them with us and maybe getting a storage unit for that.”

After a conversation with his wife, they both acknowledged they’d be stowing their cars in a parking garage and there was no place to actually do that work. So, Risser took a small toolbox with a few basic necessities and a drill, and that’s been enough so far.

“The temptation to get a storage unit is there, and it’s one that has to be fought hard,” Risser noted. “If you think you’re going to put it in storage, it’s going to do what it did the last 10 years — sit in a storage unit instead of a garage.”

There was still some downsizing to do upon arrival to Tampa, Risser added. He said they both brought too many clothes and overestimated the amount of kitchen cabinet space they’d have — as well as the amount of space on the walls for their artwork — but for Risser “it was a lot of memorabilia I couldn’t part with, sports memorabilia, and we didn’t have space for it.”

He’s happy with how the move went and says he doesn’t miss the things he left behind. “I’m going to call it a clean break. Difficult to do at the time, but liberating when it’s all over,” he said.

And to get rid of the few items left after his massive yard sale and Goodwill drop-off, Risser did a sort of “draft pick” with four other husbands who’d lived in the cul-de-sac with him for more than a decade.

“I told them, ‘meet in the garage, you’re going to draw numbers and that’s what order you’re going to get to pick from me.’ It wasn’t big items, but they cleaned out the rest for me with the little draft party I had.”

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