Downsizing Your Home

A complete how-to guide and what you need to consider

What to know about this topic:

In the Comfort Life Spotlight

No matter where you’re moving to, downsizing isn’t easy. Sorting through a lifetime of possessions can be emotionally and physically exhausting. But getting rid of clutter can also be rewarding. Ease the process by enlisting a professional to help sort trash from treasures.

Here is Comfort Life’s complete guide to downsizing, compiled with help from a panel of experts. Included here are tips from people including Edie Michel of Neat Spaces Inc., Vicky Riley Keyes of Red Coats Moving Solutions, Pat Irwin of ElderCareCanada, Susan Borax of Good Riddance, and from experts at Gordon Estate Services.

Start with the right frame of mind

Downsizing or making a major move can be overwhelming. There is a lot to think about, of course: the sale of your home, organizing finances, cleaning, sorting, packing and most importantly perhaps, managing your stress and mental well-being during all this. If you are helping your parents move into assisted living, there's added stress. It's critical, though, that you not let stress rule your mindset at this time.

Despite everything that needs to be managed, the number one concern time and time again is, “what will happen to my things?” Everyone tends to collect things over the course of their life. If you are moving from your home of 30 or 40 plus years, you will probably find that you have accumulated more than you ever imagined. Even if you know you don’t need everything in your home, it can be difficult to part with things because they are attached to memories and emotions.

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Three tips before you begin

Understand your restrictions. Are you restricted by the size of the place to which you are moving? Are you restricted by budget? Write down these restrictions.

Understand your desires and goals. What do you ultimately want to accomplish with downsizing? Some people may simply want to get rid of as much as possible. They may feel that it is finally time to reduce life to as simple a form as possible. Other people want to keep as much as possible, no matter what the cost.

Create a vision for what you can and want to accomplish. No matter which describes you, quantify things. Have a clear, definable vision of how your life is going to be at the end of the downsize. For example, a lofty goal for someone might be: “I am going to live in a one bedroom apartment and everything I really need to make a home is going to be found in that one bedroom suite. Everything else is going to be gone from my possessions.” That’s the kind of clarity you will ideally be working with.

Read 16 best decluttering tips for seniors and their families

Four things to consider while you downsize

1. Remember why you are moving. You have made a choice to improve your lifestyle. An overwhelming number of possessions can add to your stress in the future. Think of the energy required to keep everything clean and orderly. We may not be able to enjoy our memorabilia if it’s lost in clutter. You may be neglecting other pursuits or new growth opportunities when you hold onto too many things from the past.

2. Consider that we only use 20% of our possessions 80% of the time. Approach downsizing as a unique opportunity to assess what you truly love and need in your life. It is a chance to learn what you can live with and what you can live without.

3. Consider a test period. Choose a smaller space (like the main floor of your house) and spend time living with the smaller group of items you’ve chosen. This may help you to realize that you can enjoy living with a reduced number of possessions or help you better see what you do and don’t want.

4. Think of compact ways to take memories with you. Create a photo album or scrapbook of your home rather than taking the actual things with you. Digital archives are an ideal way to keep photos without the need for photo album collections or storage.

Five categories you will use as you downsize

Recognize the five categories below: on the plus side, there are things to take with you and things you will put into storage. On the side of negation, there are: things to give away, things to sell, and things to simply throw away.

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Understanding these categories can help you keep organized during the process. You can use a spreadsheet or notebook to keep track of where things ended up. During the process you can also label things:

Ask family or a friend if they can take notes or keep a spreadsheet on where things have been sent (auction, Goodwill, a friend etc.). That way, if you are wondering where an item went later on, you will be able to check.  Google Sheets are ideal, since these can be shared online by multiple users. They can be stored online in perpetuity.

1. Things you will keep

For many people, this is the thing you want to focus on. “Start by focusing on what you’re taking with you,” says Pat Irwin. Working with a vision of your new space, map out a floor plan and decide what will fit. “Too much clutter may overcrowd your new space, so you need to know what’s most important to you,” she says. One suggestion: take a selection of valuables that are reminiscent of home and choose furniture that’s comfortable and familiar.

"Family photos, memorabilia and personal correspondence can be the toughest category to deal with," says Edie Michel of Neat Spaces. "Engage the next generation or a company in helping you digitize photos so they can be preserved and shared with the whole family. Pack a 'keepsake' or 'memory box' for each of your children. Various organizations like the Victoria College Book Sale at U of T in Toronto welcome the donation of most books. There are even services that will pick them up."

2. Things you are going to give away

Offer valuables to family and friends first. Share memories with loved ones to ensure they appreciate the value of your offering. “Then, get creative with giving," says Vicky Riley Keyes, president of Red Coats Moving Solutions Inc. “Bring meatballs to a dinner party in a hand-me-down serving dish and fill teacups with chocolates or candies.”

Next, consider charities with pickup service. Giving furniture and appliances to a women’s shelter or an immigrant family not only feels good but also helps those in need. Other giveaway options include libraries, schools and churches.

You will not get a tax receipt for donating items in Canada but there are lots of great places for your things. You can Google “furniture donation” and the name of your province for a list of options. For example, The Furniture Bank in Toronto gives to immigrants. We were all immigrants once so this is a great solution! In British Columbia try Homestart which gives furniture to homeless families. You can also donate household articles to local women’s shelters.

When people call from a charity saying they’ll be in your neighborhood next week always say, “Yes!” It will give you the inspiration to go through your closets and find something you can donate

3. Things you are going to sell

“Have realistic expectations when it comes to selling your belongings,” says Susan Borax, co-owner of Good Riddance, Professional Organizing Solutions. “We tend to over-value things we’re attached to.” Anticipate that you’re not going to get very much for many of your possessions. Many items are not rare, not valuable in a market sense. They might be valuable to family and friends, so give things away.  People often overvalue what they have. You may have paid $600 for an item but if you can get $150. or even $75. then you are fortunate. Set realistic expectations.

For the most part things like furniture, household articles and clothing depreciate over time because styles change and tastes change. People often think that their dining room suite is going to be a big seller but most of the time younger people don’t want that style of furniture. Sofas are hard to sell because people often have health concerns about them and chips or cracks in china will devalue those items. Take some favourite things with you like your china cabinet. One thing you can’t do is separate a man from his desk so take it too! Sometimes it is the unusual and unique items that will sell, not the bigger ticket items.

If you have items of genuine value, secure an appraiser to help determine that value. You can also go online and compare similar items on websites like eBay or Craigslist. “You’ll make more money selling things online, but consignment stores offer an easier solution,” says Susan Borax. Before you get rid of your items get advice and take your time. If you think items are valuable, get them professionally appraised.

If you have a lot of items, create a resource list of consignment stores, auctioneers, buyers, relatives and friends who are taking items. Take photos of things you want to sell and email them to prospective buyers.

4. Things you are going to throw away

5. Things you are going to put into storage

Storage is a temptation that should be resisted.  It’s essentially a postponement tactic. All too often, people put items into storage that they will never have room for again and that no one else wants. Do yourself the favour of finding another home for your things using one of the four options above. If you do resort to storage, give yourself a deadline as to when you will move things elsewhere.

One strategy for downsizing smartly

Whether or not you have a move planned, you can begin to plan ahead (or just think ahead) using this 5 step method:

  1. Get the dimensions of the space you’re moving into and understand the floor plan. You can also do this for a place you are only dreaming of. For example, if you are considering moving from a large 2 story, 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom house to a two bedroom bungalow with one bathroom, you can get the dimensions of a typical example.
  2. If you can, go to your new residence and plot out where things will go so that you can visualize how it’s all going to come together.
  3. If you want to visualize how much closet space you’ll have in your new place, take the measurements of the closet at your new place and then using tape, section off that same area in an existing closet in your house so that you can get used to the space and see what items will fit inside. Edie Michel suggests that you "make note of receptacles for lights in your new space," as well as cable outlets, angled walls, doorways to other rooms and balconies. "Plan for the future need of mobility assistance allowing space for a walker or wheelchair when doing the furniture layout. Avoid tripping hazards with carpets, cords and small furniture."
  4. Prototype, using paper, whiteboard or blackboard, how your furniture and other items you want to keep will fit into the space. You can also use online tools such as Google Drawings. This will give you a clear vision for your space.
  5. Move furniture and other items around within your prototype to develop clear ideas how things will fit into your new space. Add things you did not realize you would be able to keep or remove things that will not fit into your space.

Alternately, use some of your current living space as a test space, if you can create a close match to your proposed destination. This will initially involve some heavy lifting (ahead of all the heavy lifting that already awaits you) but this will ideally give you a clear idea of how you can downsize your things into the new space that awaits you.

Read one case study of a senior's downsizing done right.

Neat Spaces
Red Coats Moving (retired)

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