When less is more
When lee and eric miller decided to retire three years ago, they sold their business, their house, their furniture, and most of their possessions. They were ready for a radically different lifestyle.
“My philosophy is all or nothing,” says Lee, who with her husband founded and operated the Chadds Ford Winery for 30 years. “We decided we would totally downsize because we didn’t know how to do it part way.”
The couple left the 18th-century farmhouse on the winery property where they had raised their four sons and moved to a 1,200-square-foot house in the borough of West Chester. They gutted the house and created an open floor plan with a minimalist décor to suit this new chapter in their lives.
“We wanted to be able to travel, not be held back or attached to things,” says Miller.
Not everyone who contemplates downsizing has such a clear view of what they want and how to get there. “I’ve seen such anguish— it’s a very traumatic time in life,” says Betsy Reinert, a Realtor who teaches classes in downsizing.
Moving is stressful but doing it on your own terms helps ease the transition. “I believe that anything you can do with the most control and the least surprises is the easiest plan,” says Reinert, an agent in the Patterson-Schwartz Greenville office.
If you are thinking about downsizing—in the near future or even in five or 10 years—here are five steps to help you get there.
Step 1: Define the lifestyle you want and why
Visualize what you want for the next stage of your life: proximity to children, no yard work, a warmer climate, a return to your roots, a single-level floor plan, an older adult or continuing care community.
“For us it became a real cathartic process,” says Lee Miller, “thinking about a next stage that could be different. My advice is to think of it as an opportunity to simplify and get your life to the core of what you want it to be.”
“You have to talk to your partner,” says Betsy Reinert. “Sometimes the husband and wife aren’t on the same page so you have to get resolution for that.”
Some people opt for an interim move thinking a gradual change will be easier. Reinert says you should contemplate how you want to live next year, in five years, and in 10 years. “I think you should be moving to a place for the most part for at least 10 years,” she says.
What’s the biggest mistake people make? “Waiting too long,” Reinert says. “What a lot of people do is allow their stuff to own them so they are not in a position to do what they want to do while they are still healthy.”
Step 2: Know your numbers
A complete picture of your financial situation is essential. A financial planner can analyze how downsizing will impact your fi nancial plan. A realtor can estimate what your house would sell for minus the fees and costs of moving.
One asset people sometimes overlook is the value of their possessions. Appraiser Colleen Boyle, who often teaches downsizing classes with Betsy Reinert, travels all over the country helping clients put a value on antiques and collectibles.
“People usually have a solid grasp of their financial investments and the same is true of real estate, but they don’t think about their tangible assets—the furniture, paintings, sterling, decorative items, jewelry—along the same lines,” says Boyle, Vice-President of Pall Mall Art Appraisers, an international appraisal fi rm with an office in King of Prussia.
People often assume their children will want some of the furniture and decorative pieces that were part of their childhood home. Clients come to Boyle when they discover their offspring don’t want these items or even the family heirlooms. Grandma’s French cloisonné vase may not appeal to the kids but Boyle says a buyer in China or Russia may be willing to pay a premium for it.
“The first step is to identify if you have anything of significant value,” Boyle says. “We can help clients fi gure out the best venue to sell those items. We don’t charge a fee for that service.” Disposing of a variety of collectibles takes time, so get started early.
Step 3: Think smaller, let go
Downsizing to a place half the size means getting rid of 40 to 50 percent of what you own. It’s daunting. As a realtor, Betsy Reinert has seen the extremes. “Some people live a very edited, organized life and some people are downright hoarders,” she says.
Getting the house ready for sale may mean calling in a shredding service that comes to the house to dispose of decades of paperwork. Adult children need to be given a deadline to collect their stuff. Reinert recommends getting framed photos scanned and put on a disc. “You still have access to the memories but you don’t have all the clutter,” she says.
“People pay for light and they pay for space,” Reinert says. “I see people walk into cluttered houses. A buyer cannot see themselves or identify with it when they’re so overwhelmed by someone else’s stuff.”
Lee and Eric Miller knew they couldn’t take with them all the boxes of sentimental items they had saved. Lee Miller says: “We had a memory day. We went up to the attic and spent a day looking through papers; most of it was the kids’ stuff. We laughed, we cried, we remembered. I filled a big envelope for each kid and sent it to him. And then we walked out of the attic. When they came to take the trash, they took it all.”
Step 4: Get help if you need it
Caen Stroud is used to dealing with people who are overwhelmed. Since founding TLC Moving Service 30 years ago, she has become well-known at area retirement communities for taking the stress out of moving.
Her all-female team helps clients winnow down what clients will take, packs it up, and hires and supervises the mover. Then they unpack everything and put it all away. They hang pictures and set up electronics. “We even make their beds. We get them all settled in,” says Stroud.
Although TLC also manages moves for busy professionals and for estates, Stroud’s typical clients are in their 70s and leaving their big houses. “We take their feelings into account. We don’t just go through the house and toss things out willy-nilly. We carefully have them go through it with us so that they are part of the process,” she says.
The hardest items to part with are books and their mother’s china. Stroud arranges for items to be sold, donated, recycled, and hauled away. A few clients end up renting a storage unit— often because they are waiting for their children to pick things up. Her advice to clients is: if you don’t really love it, don’t take it.
Step 5: Find ways to embrace the new
Lee and Eric Miller have evolved into a new style of doing things they enjoy. “We don’t do big sit-down dinners anymore. We have people over our house for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and then we walk into town for dinner because it’s so close,” Lee says.
They are still active in winemaking circles as advisors but now can do things on their own terms. The couple revels in the freedom of traveling cross-country for months at a time. Gone are the worries about what’s happening on the home front. “We decided that our new model of success was to be able to do anything we wanted to do,” Miller adds.