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Family Life

Downsizing Tips for Empty Nesters

Shari McStay


Richard moved to an assisted living facility after living in the same home for 52 years — the house where he and his wife raised three children and created many precious memories.

The family had worked steadily at emptying the house which was filled with decades of furniture, household items and mementos. Still, after months of effort, there were piles of items that needed to be disposed of. A trusted junk remover was hired to finish the job.

Working expeditiously yet carefully, the crew spotted a military medal amidst the remaining items and set it aside. Within a day or two, Richard called his daughter to ask about this very medal. Thankfully, this cherished award had been rescued.

It's important to have help and be strategic when moving and downsizing. And who you select to help is often just as important as recognizing that you need help.

Preparing to Downsize Your Home?

My husband and I are real estate agents and are often invited to a seller's home to do a market analysis and give advice on how to prepare the home for the sale. A large majority of these properties require the clearing out of unwanted and unnecessary things.

Maybe your children are still living at home, or maybe they are out of the house. Perhaps they're in college and come home mainly for holidays and summers. Maybe you've thought about downsizing, or maybe it hasn't crossed your mind.

Regardless of your answer or where you are on this continuum, we have advice for you: START NOW. 

Waiting until it's time to sell to think about decluttering and purging causes stress and anxiety. By starting now, you can take it slowly, let it be a work in progress, and keep it low stress.

Our Top Decluttering Tips

  1. Don't rent a storage unit. This may not be a popular opinion! However, renting a storage unit only serves to move the clutter from one area to another, delaying the inevitable need to go through your belongings. Of course there are times when this can’t be avoided, such as when there is a need for a quick sale, but remember: Clutter equals unmade decisions. Whenever possible, don’t delay the process.
  2. Make yes, no and maybe piles. Take comfort in knowing that you don’t have to choose right away between keeping or tossing an item. Do make a timeline to revisit the maybe pile in order to reclassify these items into the yes or no piles.
  3. As you go through the process, ask yourself these questions: Is the item necessary? Does it bring me joy? Do I really want this, or am I just attached to it because I've had it a long time? When was the last time I used/wore this? Am I keeping this because I think it has value even though I no longer want it? Your answers to these questions will help you determine which pile the item should go in.
  4. Of the items you're tossing, further sort into trash and donate piles. Use local donation resources such as shelters, stores like Savers and Goodwill, and non-profits that operate thrift shops. And keep an eye out for your city or town's zero waste days. Zero waste days are a great opportunity to get rid of textiles, hard plastics, old electronics and hard to dispose of hazardous waste such as paint and chemicals.
  5. Some things are so hard to part with even if you no longer feel the need to keep them. Maybe it’s a vase with sentimental value that you are never going to use, or a rocking chair that is special and yet has been sitting in your basement for years. To help separate from the actual physical object, take a photo so you'll always have the remembrance, and then donate the item. You may even want to print the photos and put them in a small album.
  6. Take it one room at a time, one drawer at a time. Allocate specific days and times to chip away at the decluttering project, and be gentle on yourself as parting with things is emotional. Don’t move the items to a different room, or you are rearranging and not decluttering. Keep reminding yourself of your purpose and goals. 
  7.  Ask for help. Understandably, when it comes to decluttering, people have difficulty delegating. After all, who knows better than you what to keep or toss, and where to put the items you are keeping? However, there comes a time, often a little farther into the process, when you will be glad of some help. For example, friends or family members can help pack up things that you're keeping or they might take the lead with renting a dumpster and/or hiring a junk removal service to pick up unwanted items.

Decluttering Is a Journey

Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need to plan for the move and downsize your belongings. The seven tips above will help eliminate the stress of having to rush the process and will also allow you time to reflect and make rational choices about what to keep and what to discard.

By taking the time you need, you'll be ready to move into the future feeling lighter while being sure not to overlook the true treasures, like Richard's military medal.

Shari McStay is a full-time residential real estate agent and part-time writer, with master's degrees in both business and education. She is mother of four children, one angel baby and three kitties. Shari is passionate about spending quality time with family and friends and volunteering at Sweet Paws Rescue. Fun fact: In 1995 Shari was the oldest New England Patriots cheerleader and remains active with the New England Professional Cheerleader Alumni Association. She lives in Massachusetts with her children and husband of over 25 years.
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