Home & Garden

Making a big move to a smaller space

When Edith Frank, 83, got an offer on her three-bedroom Florida house, there was a catch: The buyer wanted to close in two weeks. No way, she thought; she couldn't possibly sort through a lifetime's possessions so quickly.

But at her daughter's urging, she took the offer and started getting rid of most of her belongings.

"It was extremely painful," Frank said recently at Heritage Pointe of Teaneck, N.J., where she now lives in a one-bedroom apartment. But her daughter advised her to look forward, not back. "My daughter told me, 'You have to think about where you're going and how lovely it's going to be. Think about how the apartment is going to look.'"

Many people downsize as they age, trading the responsibilities of a large house for a cozier space where someone else mows the lawn and shovels the snow. One of the toughest parts of this journey is dealing with all the stuff - the family photos, furniture, lamps, vases, dishes, glasses and on and on - that accumulate over the years.

Home owners can feel "completely overwhelmed," said Bernadette Flaim of Attention2Detail, a design and organizing firm in Leonia, N.J.

Most downsizers use a combination of strategies: They give stuff to family and friends, donate it to charity or sell it.

Frank, a retired interior designer, gave books to libraries and donated her late husband's Steinway piano - he was a professional musician - to a church. She also gave her husband's old sheet music to a music store, though she wishes she had kept some of it for events at Heritage Point, a retirement community.

She gave furniture and other household items to friends, and called in a used-furniture dealer who bought some of her best pieces. When he was done, another dealer came in and offered her $1,000 for whatever was left.

In the end, Frank took relatively few items north to Teaneck, N.J., where she moved to be closer to her family. She brought end tables, lamps, vases and, of course, memorabilia that included family photos and a scrapbook of almost 500 love notes and poems from her husband, Irv.

Like many older people, she had hoped to pass furniture on to family members, but her daughter and grandchildren didn't have the room to take much.

As a former decorator, she would advise other downsizers to be choosy about what they keep.

"Take your personal treasures," she said. "I don't mean jewelry. I mean special books and special memorabilia."

Frank also advised downsizers to measure their new homes carefully, to make sure they don't take furniture that won't fit in the space - advice echoed by Flaim and her partner, Sue Corbo. Too often, people pay to move large pieces of furniture and then discover they won't fit in the new, smaller home.

Sandra Schwab, who moved from a large house in Closter, N.J., to a town house in Demarest, N.J., said she got rid of "tons of stuff."

"We finally threw out the boxes we never opened from our last move 10 years ago," she said. "Once a week, we had a pickup by the Vietnam Veterans."

Through a friend's church, Schwab found a needy family who had lost their home to fire; she gave them blankets, towels and other household goods. She donated books and clothes to nonprofits. Her daughter and niece took some furniture.

Schwab told her adult children to come pick up boxes of their old belongings and gave them a deadline. They ended up throwing out much of the stuff anyway, she said.

"Now we only live with the things we really love most," Schwab said. "Life is easier with less clutter."

Flaim and Corbo of Attention2Detail say a garage sale is not a job to tackle alone. But if you have help from family or friends, they say, garage sales can be very profitable; Corbo made close to $3,000 doing one recently.

Lisa Regal Dodenhoff of Regal Tag Sales in Westwood, N.J., says a tag sale or moving sale inside the house can bring in thousands of dollars.

The things that sell aren't always what you might expect. These days, buyers tend to turn up their noses at furniture, unless it's from the 1950s and 1960s. Almost no one wants oak and mahogany from the 1920s and 1930s, she said.

Instead, they drop a few bucks on 1970s clothing and inexpensive items like books, knickknacks, tools, costume jewelry - even food and shampoo.

"It's the stuff," Dodenhoff said. "When I get to a sale and somebody has emptied the desk, I'm upset, because I can't sell the desk, but I can sell what's inside it - paper clips, maps, train schedules from the 1940s."

The good news: "It adds up."

After her own garage sale, Kate Conover decided to donate her dining room table and other household items to a housing nonprofit, the DACKKS Group in Ramsey, N.J.

"You can make a difference in the world and never write a check," she said. (You can also get a tax deduction for the donation.)

Donating can be tricky, however. Not all charities take furniture, and those that do have limited manpower and typically pick up items only on scheduled days.

"Probably, one of the key points people have to keep in mind is the time frame," Corbo said.

If you don't plan ahead, she warned, you may end up paying the junk man to haul away items that could have been donated to people in need.