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There are upsides to downsizing your house

By WENDY A. JORDAN
Special to The Washington Post

August 30. 2018 8:07PM
L. Starr Osborne, right, from Tailored Transitions, helps Mary Hangley organize and pack her belongings before her move into a smaller house in Philadelphia, Pa. (BARBARA L. JOHNSTON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER FILE)

If you had asked John Weis last year whether he and his wife were going to move out of their Vienna, Va., house, “I’d have said absolutely not,” he says.

But Weis started thinking about the fact that he’s 72 and that at some point, the couple would want to switch to one-story living, and that they did not want to burden their kids with the big old house and sorting through all the belongings they had amassed over the years.

These realizations pressed Weis into action. In December, he and his wife bought a one-story, 1,762-square-foot house to be constructed in the summer at Trilogy at Lake Frederick, a 55-plus community near Winchester, Va.

In mid-February, they moved to a small, two-bedroom rental apartment they are occupying while their new home is built, and they began readying the old house — a four-bedroom, 4,100-square-foot place with two stories, plus full basement and garage — for sale. That meant contending with all the belongings in it.

This transitional period — when shifting from a large home to smaller one; or moving from an old house to a new one and wanting fresh furnishings; or managing the contents of a home while it’s being remodeled — is notoriously daunting. Every item in the house needs a decision — keep it with you; keep it but store it; give it to family or friends; or donate, sell or trash it. And once all the decisions are made, it’s another overwhelming project to carry them out.

Most homeowners accumulate more and more belongings, often not realizing how much — or even what — they have. They delay going through everything until they have to, and then, under pressure to get it done, might keep or toss too much instead of making focused decisions.

Some people get into the groove quickly — often with the help of organizing consultants. Widower Bill Blumberg, for example, plans to move in the fall from his four-bedroom suburban home to a smaller, more urban one that he is in the market to buy.

With the support of Potomac Concierge, a Washington-area company that offers personal assistant, decluttering, organizing and move-management services, he is rolling rapidly and pretty painlessly through the work of getting rid of much of the contents of the suburban house. Potomac Concierge is helping with disposing of, donating, selling or finding new homes for what he is not keeping.

“I’m not one to want to save a million things,” Blumberg says. “I have cleaned a lot of stuff out. It is so liberating.”

But Blumberg is far from typical.

“The average person is like a deer in the headlights” when considering the prospect of sorting and dealing with belongings, says Aida Middel, co-owner of Potomac Concierge. She advises homeowners to “divide and conquer. Take it step-by-step.”

Middel and other home organizers say the process works best when a friend or professional is there to motivate and help.

Cheryl Larson of Cheryl’s Organizing Concepts in Clarksburg, Md., agrees. Especially if homeowners are paying a professional to help, they are likely to “take the project seriously” and get the job done efficiently, she says.

Libby Kinkead, Potomac Concierge co-owner, says that many new clients comment that they feel more relaxed after a consultation.

The hardest step is often the first one. For Weis, that meant beginning to chip away at the mountain of stuff, including items handed down from relatives, things acquired by four sons when growing up and curiosities harvested during extensive travel.

“I used to go around the world on business, and would pick up some of the weirdest stuff” to bring back as souvenirs, Weis said.

The mountain of belongings also included furniture, books, photos and office supplies.

“The basement was filled to the brim. The pool table was stacked high,” Weis said. The two-car garage housed “every tool known to man.”

Weis needed someone to take charge and guide him. Enter Maria White, whose Ashburn, Va., company, Enuff with the Stuff, provides personal organizing and moving help.

Weis’s project was “multilayered,” she says, encompassing a general purge of excess belongings; the temporary move to a small, storage-deficient apartment; separate storage of possessions while the Weises lived in the apartment — including some things likely to be used during that time; and a second move to the new house when construction was complete.

White started the weeding-out process by tackling the old house’s storage areas — closets, basement, garage — where many things had sat unused for a long time, and perhaps even forgotten. Item by item, she helped Weis decide what not to keep; what to do with those things; what “keepers” to place in storage when moving out; and what to take to the apartment.

It’s important for helpers to understand the homeowner’s feelings, decision-making style and pace, and to guide the homeowner accordingly during the purging process.

Homeowners often have emotional ties to things, Larson said. “People need time if a spouse or parent dies,” for example. “We do our best at such times to (encourage parting with things to) eliminate the need for storage, but we don’t push.”

Over the course of many sorting sessions — twice a week at first and then less frequent — White and Weis worked through the process at his house.

Weis says White used questions to help him. She would ask whether he wanted to hold onto an item. “I want to keep that,” he said. She then would ask, nicely, “How are you going to use this in your new house?” Such questions eased the way for Weis to let go of things. White says she often “acknowledged along the way how hard it is,” to let Weis know that she understood.

Before disposing of things, many homeowners tell their children to take what they want.

Kinkead says it’s wise to “touch base with the kids” regarding their mementos from childhood and to be sensitive to their wishes.

As for other belongings in the house, get a decision from the kids early in the purging process regarding what they want to have.

This saves the expense of moving and perhaps storing items pending a decision. (One Larson client rented a storage locker specifically to hold things while her daughter mulled whether to make them her own.)

And disposing of truly unwanted things is doing the kids a favor; as Larson says, “Get rid of it now so your kids don’t have to.”


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