21 Tips for Downsizing

[1. Fill your new pad with furniture that’s properly scaled to IT.]

Before you pack up those mauve and green upholstered club chairs that you bought in 1983, spend some time doing a furniture audit and figuring out which pieces of furniture merit a place on the moving van – and where, exactly, each piece will go in your new home.

“Working with a professional designer can really help you rethink how you will use your new space,” says RaeAnn Bogert, the designer behind the 12-year-old Bizy Girl Interiors in Lake Oswego, Ore., who had a commercial kitchen design business for 6 years in Seattle before relocating. “Sometimes, when you try to be your own space planner and interior designer, you get stuck because you say, ‘I’m taking that sectional and those chairs and the piano has to go there.'”

Like a Dachshund trying to push a Great Dane-sized doggie bed into its diminutive crate, you can end up with the same old cluttered-to-the-rafters feeling if you don’t consider the scale of the furniture that will decorate your new digs. “If you have a sectional that you’ve been living with because you had a household with a lot of children, well, now’s your time to take apart that sectional and use key pieces in different spaces,” says Bogert.

“You could turn it into two cozy ‘chairs’ in front of the fireplace and all you’ll have to add are two reading lamps and a great coffeetable. When you downsize, you don’t want to force all of your old giant furniture into the new space.”

[2. Really Think about which rooms you’re willing to live without.]

In the U.S., the average size of a new house is 2,330 square feet, but how many of those square feet are downsizeable is all over the map. The wrong way to go about living small is to throw a dart at a square footage smaller than the size of what you’re living in now. The correct way is to have a fierce conversation with yourself and your significant other about which spaces in your home are losable.

“I like to sit down with clients and say, ‘Create a list of how you’re living now and how you see yourself living in a new home,” says Kent Mathews, a real estate broker at The Real Estate Firm who specializes in vintage houses in inner-East and inner-West neighborhoods in Portland. “Once you figure out what you can live without – and which rooms you definitely need to have – I can help you figure out what kinds of properties you might consider and I can physically show you what’s available.”

And although it’s easy to play your own Realtor and cruise the websites of local real estate firms, Mathews says there’s no substitute for walking through residential alternatives with a broker. “When you’ve been living in a 2,000-square-foot house for 10 years, the only way to get a sense of what 800 square feet or 1,500 square feet actually feels like is to put yourself in that size space. That gives you the ability to look at certain rooms in your larger house and say, ‘Yes, I can leave behind this room and that room.'”

[3. Realize that it can be emotionally taxing to get rid of things you’ve treasured for decades.]

Don’t expect to pack up those framed portraits of your parents and grandparents without shedding a tear. “Most people have so many things that have sentimental value to them,” says Bogert. “Women, especially, often have the huge hutch that holds the set of china you only use at Christmastime. Sometimes you have to let go of things that have just been wall candy for a long time.”

The designer suggests you start a MOST SENTIMENTAL pile of possessions, and that you pass on the pile to someone in the family. “It’ll make you feel better to know that the family heirlooms are still around – just not under your roof,” she says.

[4. assess your furnishings with someone who has the good taste gene and heed what they say.]

Can’t bear to toss that once-blue floral sofa you’ve had reupholstered two times during the last 20 years? Maybe it’s time for a second opinion before you pay movers to lug everything to your new space.

“A lot of people feel guilty about getting rid of a sofa they’ve had for 30 years, but I assure them that owning it for 30 years is long enough,'” says Bogert. “I’m careful not to insult their choice. I always warn my clients, ‘I apologize ahead of time if what I say hurts, but I’m going to tell you the truth.’ Later, if I have to say, ‘That chair has got to go!’ and they look at me like, ‘Oh, no!’ I’ll add, ‘It’s a beautiful piece, and you’ve done a wonderful job taking care of it, but let’s let it go and bring some fresh and exciting new furniture into your life.'”

[5. Hire an estate sale organizer to liquidate your household.]

If having a yard sale is right up there with birthing twins or buying a new car, consider hiring a professional estate sale thrower before you deliver all your goods to Goodwill for resale.

“An estate sale could bring in $5,000 or it could bring in $30,000; it all depends on what you have,” says Karen Young, the owner of Karen Young Estate Sales and Appraisals in Beaverton, Ore. “A lot of $300 items brings a sale up to $30,000. It’s a different level of living. But sometimes the little things add up to fully half of the proceeds.” Hot sellers include little figurines, small appliances that have never been used and are still in their original boxes, and tools old and new.

Young collects 20 to 40 percent of the proceeds as commission, which covers the cost of running an ad in The Oregonian and, typically, the expense of a team of four helpers who help her spend two weeks organizing, arranging, tagging and pricing belongings for the sale. To see what estate sales are all about, she sugests you go to estatesale-finder.com, a website on which some 35 estate sale organizers advertise upcoming sales, find a sale near you and check it out.

[6. Have your adult kids claim the stuff they left in your attic and basement, like, 30 years ago.]

Think fast: Do you know where your high school pom-poms are? What about that suede vest with the hip-skimming fringe that you wore in the 70s? Well, your folks know where they are, too: cramming their attic and basement.

“My kids all left some of their stuff in the attic after they moved out,” says Connie Osborne, who relocated with her husband to Portland after raising their daughter and two sons in a 1960s, 2,200-square-foot bilevel on 1/3 of an acre in New Jersey for 28 years. “You know, if you really want something, you take it with you when you move, so we told them, ‘Anything you left here, if you want it, come get it! They each came home and went through their stuff; they didn’t want half of it. My daughter had left behind her Barbie dolls and a bedroom set, which we ended up selling at a garage sale. I’d told them I was going to throw their stuff away because we couldn’t move it to Portland, but I did end up moving a few things of theirs, and once I got them out here, they took them.”

[7. Expand your definition of who a downsizer is.]

Sure, seventysomething retirees downsize. But middle-aged empty nesters and even childfree singles do, too. “One of my current clients is a single woman who’s still working now, but she’s planning for her retirement and ultimate goal of living part time in Portland and part time in the desert,” says Mathews. “I’m helping her downsize from a 2,000-square-foot home in Laurelhurst to a condo in the Pearl District. So downsizers aren’t always people who are giving up the family home after 40 years. A lot of people just want to live smaller. Or sometimes, homeowners thought they wanted a large house on a big lot with a big garden, but they’ve learned that with their busy schedules and full lives, they never spend time in the garden.”

[8. Don’t let square footage make or break a deal.]

Think about how you live in a house, and assess whether a prospective home’s layout supports your lifestyle. “I always find nice, smaller houses for sale, and think, Gosh, that would be easy living,” says Mathews, who lives with his partner in a 2,800-square-foot bungalow. “We could probably downsize to 1,500 to 1,800 square feet, depending on the layout. It’s not always about the square footage. A lot of my clients are looking for single-level living. Other people still seem to like a Great Room concept or a house in which the entertaining area is in one open space. And a home with a good connection to the out of doors is still popular in Portland.”

[9. If you can’t get rid of a piece of furniture you’re emotionally attached to, rethink where you put it.]

Did you buy a 7-foot-long golden oak church pew to commemorate your first real job? Did you and your now-husband buy a 1912 Victrola as an engagement gift to each other? What’s a downsizer to do when furniture is more of a love note than a go-ahead-and-unwind-on-me statement?

“If you’re someone who has a lot of emotional attachment to furniture, what you can do is rethink where a piece of furniture gets put,” says Bogert. “Maybe that church pew you got when you graduated from college as a sign of independence could look really good in an outdoor living space such as a front porch. You could get some nice pillows made out of that indoor-outdoor fabric that resists mildew, and that pew might serve a new purpose for you: inviting you outside.”

[10. bequeath stuff now rather than posthumously.]

If your adult daughters are already putting in not-so-subtle dibs on your chandeliers, maybe it’s time to have a family meeting and dole out the family jewels.

Just be fair about who gets what. The American Association of Retired People (AARP) has a helpful article (“How to Divide Things Peacefully”) on its website, aarp.org. Or consult a downsizing bible such as Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand (2004, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $16), which offers checklists and planning tools for tasks such as this.

Experts say family members should agree on a system for passing down family heirlooms, should make sure that everyone gets something special and that parents should encourage negotiations among adult siblings who’d like to swap treasures.

[11. to ensure you sell Your home for the best price, Hire a Realtor who specializes in your neighborhood.]

Before you ask your Realtor-relative who lives 30 miles away to handle the sale of your house, consider hiring a real estate broker who lives and breathes your neighborhood. “You’ve got to contact a broker who’s knowledgeable in the neighborhood they’re selling a house in,” says Mathews, whose old-house-loving clients keep him an expert on home values in Irvington, Laurelhurst, Sullivan’s Gulch – where he lives – Hawthorne, Clinton and Colonial Heights on Portland’s East side, and Hillsdale, Portland Heights, Burlington Heights, King Heights, Westover and the Alphabet District on the West side. “We know what the current market is and what the historical sales represent. We can do a comprehensive market analysis so that your property isn’t undersold.”

[12. Let the style of your new residence influence the look of your interiors.]

We’ve all seen The Oregonian and The Portland Tribune profiles of the urban pioneers leaving the suburbs for lofts in the Pearl or condos in the South Waterfront. Wait. What’s that über-traditional dining room table doing in the middle of all that glass and stainless steel? Creating a design faux pas, says Bogert.

“What furniture goes and what stays behind is constantly a challenge for every designer who’s helping a client move from a large older home into something as hip as a loft,” she says. “The style of the home should influence the style of the interiors as well. If you buy an Old World Tuscany-style home, you shouldn’t fill it with Shaker-style furniture. I’d recommend hiring a professional who can help you blend some of your old pieces with a few new things.”

[13. expect the unexpected when it comes to your timetable for downsizing.]

You may have your retirement date chiseled in stone and know exactly how many days it takes a home of your vintage to sell in your neighborhood, but embrace the notion that you can’t totally control the downsizing process.

“When my husband and I put our house on the market, it was a tough year for selling a house, so we thought it’d be on the market for about a year, which was how much longer my husband had until he retired,” says Osborne. “The house ended up selling in three weeks.”

The then-legal secretary and her husband downsized to a five-room apartment just three miles away from the home her family had lived in for 28 years. “It was a garden apartment with a garage, and it had a pool on the premises, so it wasn’t too bad,” she says. “The only thing I missed was having more than one bathroom.” Fourteen months later, they relocated to a 1,500-square-foot rental house in Portland.

“That was the best way for us to downsize, going from a family house to an apartment in the same neighborhood, because we still knew where everything was,” says Osborne, who worked until a week before moving. “Emotionally, it was harder on the kids for us to leave the house they grew up in.”

[14. Keep your eye on the woman of the house to seethe first glimmer of a desire to downsize.]

It would be nice if both people in a couple fell in love with the idea of downsizing at the same minute, but real estate folks say that isn’t always the case. “My experience has been that the woman of the house drives the housing thing,” says Kim Childs, a real estate broker with Keller Williams Realty in Lake Oswego, Ore. “Maybe that’s because she’s typically in charge of keeping up a house, so she’s the one in the couple who first thinks, I have to keep all these rooms clean and we’re not even using half of them, and we’re flying down to Palm Springs tomorrow. Maybe I don’t need all this space. Parents often want a large place so that their kids can bring other kids over to their house, but once kids grow up, that need for a large home is gone.”

[15. Consult a Pro to evaluate what you’re getting rid of.]

Bad art can be good sellers if the poorly done canvases have been finished off with gorgeous frames. Then again, there is the art that you think is bad, but is really worth something. How to know? Seek out the counsel of a pro.

“We label most paintings we sell as FRAMED ART because they’re often student-painted deals; someone took art lessons for six months and painted a canvas,” says Young. “Nobody will buy a big red rose slam dunk in the middle of the canvas, but sometimes the frame on a piece like that is worth more than the art.”

Every once in a while, though, the estate sale organizer and appraiser’s detectivework results in big money for her clients. “Once I did a sale for someone who had two little Grant Wood things in the closet in the bedroom,” she says. “They were in thin cream-colored frames. The woman who was working that end of the house had just hung them on two nails in the hallway. As I was walking down the hall, I noticed they were signed in pencil, and I thought, Oh, my, I’d better look into these. I flipped them over and each one was stamped AMERICAN ARTISTS ASSOCIATION. In the ad I ran, I put ‘Grant Wood lithographs’ in the copy, and people started calling me about them, so I made an appointment with Mathews Gallery in Lake Oswego, and I paid him a fee to appraise them. Once I had them authenticated – I found out the lithographs sold for $5 in 1939! – I priced them at $4,600 for the pair.

“The day of the sale, a man who collected art just happened to drive by the house with my ESTATE SALE sign in the yard, came to the sale and bid $4,500 for both of them,” says Young.

[16. Give a garage sale or estate sale a chance to earn you money, even if you don’t think you live in a hot estate sale neighborhood.]

The Alameda neighborhood in Northeast Portland used to be the preferred estate sale destination, but no more, says Young. “Neighborhoods have turned over: The older generation has moved and younger couples with kids replaced them, so these days, no neighborhood is better or worse than another,” she says. “There could be an estate sale in a down-and-out part of the city that’s just packed to the rim with good stuff. We had a Roaring Lion sale – the homeowner collected lions – up on Bull Mountain and that was a good sale. She was a single woman who was downsizing after living there 20 years.”

[17. buy pieces of Furniture that take care of more than one Function.]

Good-bye, china cabinet. So long, blanket chest. One of the ways to make sure every piece of furniture deserves the square footage it eats up is to make sure every furnishing does double-duty.

“The furniture you end up keeping ideally should have more than one function,” says Bogert. “Think ottomans that have hinged tops that open so you can store things inside of them or furniture that’s convertible, such as a sofa that becomes a bed or a recliner that one of your grandchildren could sleep on.”

[18. Be ruthless about paring down your furnishings.]

Can’t bear the thought of giving up those wingback chairs? Is your husband stomping his size 9s after your pronouncement that his recliner with the seat molded to his behind is unworthy of your new digs? Does your toy poodle have any idea that her doggie bed collection is going to decrease by two?

“Everybody has something like a giant big screen or a ratty recliner that they won’t give up,” says Bogert. “Fortunately, a lot of recliner companies have redesigned recliners so that they’re still comfortable but they look a lot better.”

If there’s a piece of furniture that a family member just won’t get rid of, Bogert suggests you banish it to the space that will function as the home office. “You’re not going to entertain in your office and that’s one room that doesn’t get put on the tour when you’re showing people around,” she says.

[19. Don’t put your emotional attachment to a house above your desire to live near the people you love.]

If you’ve relocated once every seven years, you might not have an emotional attachment to your current dwelling. But if you’re still living in a home you built or have lived in the same home for several decades, remember that family trumps walls and backyard in which you’ve planted every tree.

“If one of our three kids would’ve stayed on the East Coast, we might’ve stayed in New Jersey,” says Osborne. “But since they all moved to the West coast, my younger son started calling us and asking, ‘Why are you still living on the East Coast?’ Plus, all our friends were moving to Florida or Georgia or North Carolina. When we visited our son in Portland for the first time, we just started thinking that we could live there. We grew up in Brooklyn, so Portland reminded us of where we originally grew up. It was funny leaving the house after 28 years, but it was just a house.”

[20. View your lifestyle change as a decorating opportunity.]

“Downsizing doesn’t always mean older people leaving family homes for condos,” says Bogert. “Sometimes, divorce makes you downscale, so a lifestyle change could be a great time to start to live with color. For example, if you’ve stayed with monochromatic colors for years, even if you’re trying to stay peaceful with the feeling of your interiors, you can still incorporate a little color into your life. You deserve an environment that makes you happy.”

[21. If you’re a HOMEBODY Who rarely travels, do your homework before you leap toward a smaller home.]

Everybody’s buzzing about living small, but only lots of soul-searching and research will reveal whether this is the right option for you. “A lot of my clients are used to living in large homes and they wonder whether they’ll enjoy living in a smaller house,” says Childs. “My perception is that people who travel a lot and are in and out of their residence frequently, they easily adjust to downsizing. But if your home is your major base of operation, you might not be as comfortable in a smaller home. It’s a big move. You have to think about all the pros and cons, then decide what’s most important to you.”