Hamilton resident Jacqui Childs didn’t have much time to get used to the idea of downsizing. She put her nearly 5,000-square-foot home on the market to test the waters but it sold right away, leaving her with four months to find a smaller place and purge decades of accumulated stuff.
Her blended family had only lived in their two-storey house for eight years, but she’d saved many of her now-grown children’s things and the house was packed with old tricycles, kids’ hockey sticks, Halloween costumes and boxes upon boxes of mementos.
“It was really emotional,” says Ms. Childs, 46. “I was going through the kids’ memory boxes and asking whether we need to keep every craft they ever did … I became a closet hoarder. I was hiding things and saying I’d given them away.”
After years of living in a home and raising a family, the prospect of sorting through a lifetime of accumulated belongings is overwhelming for many people – emotionally and physically. It’s a big job.
Retirees facing this task might not have the strength to tackle it, while those still working might not have the time. In Canada, an industry of downsizing specialists have emerged to help homeowners sort belongings, pack up, sell unwanted items and even set up the new place so it feels just like home.
As for Ms. Childs, she and her husband, Drew, rented a dumpster after their house sold and “made a pact to each other” that by month’s end, it would be full. They went room to room and threw out almost everything. “I remember trying to stand on the hood of my Jeep and crawl in [to the dumpster] because I was worried I had thrown out too much.”
She now lives with Drew and one son in a 1,400-square-foot townhouse. The couple, who shared the previous home with their combined five children from previous marriages, have cut their expenses in half and can afford to travel “a lot.” After overcoming “panic” from the massive task of sorting and getting rid of many of their possessions, she’s already thinking about downsizing again when their last child moves out.
Cindy Beaudet, owner of Destinations Seniors Downsizing in Calgary, charges $60 an hour for services such as sorting, packing, moving, setting everything up in the new place, and selling or donating a home’s contents. She says it typically takes 50 hours of labour to pack, move and unpack for a person moving to a one-bedroom apartment, adding up to about $3,000.
Ms. Beaudet – whose clients are typically above 85 – says her team pays special care to making the new place look familiar, placing artwork and knick-knacks in a configuration that looks like home. She believes her company’s focus on navigating an emotional time with compassion makes it different than a traditional mover.
“If they have a curio cabinet, we take a picture of that and put all the Royal Doulton figurines back in the same place … When they walk in, the light is on, maybe some music is playing, the bed is made. We get a lot of them that are in tears when they see it.”
Once the resident is out of the house with the goods they will keep, she starts on the process of unloading the rest of their possessions – “sell, gift to family, donate or garbage” – a process that can take a month. Clients are only billed for the hours she’s actively working for them, and have access to a spreadsheet where she documents the price every item sold for or where it ended up.
She says many clients have far-flung adult children who aren’t around to help with such a taxing project – and who have already furnished their own homes. “Typically, the daughters and sons don’t want any of the stuff.”
Mary Shay, owner of Abraxas Appraisals and Liquidations in Ottawa, helps clients get rid of their unwanted stuff, working alongside other companies who help with packing and moving. She sells some high-value items individually, and hosts a contents sale in the house with the rest. Her team clears out the house and cleans it after the sale is over.
She charges 30 per cent to 35 per cent of the proceeds of what she is able to sell, which creates an incentive for her company to get the most it can for each item. Ms. Shay is hesitant to estimate average net earnings from the sale process, but says her clients typically make enough money to offset moving costs or buy something nice like a living room set for their new place.
She often meets with people eager to reap big rewards from a lifetime collecting jewellery or expensive furniture, but says those items don’t fetch the big bucks like they once did. On the other hand, items such as vintage clothes and dishes can often be sold even if they don’t seem particularly special. “Even if you think it’s garbage, it’s not necessarily garbage.”
Surrey, B.C.-based financial planner Julia Chung, chief executive of Spring Planning Inc., says she often sees parents who are ready to downsize, but the children want them to keep the family home or vice-versa.
She says determining how long they will be able to afford their house alongside the mounting costs of old age often helps resistant parties come around, especially if it’s done with enough time for people to adjust. “It puts an end to the financial conversation so they can have the emotional conversation separately,” she says.
Ms. Chung says she also sees similar tensions between spouses – where one is ready to downsize but the other wants to stay at home as long as possible. It’s something Monique Mailloux and Allan Gedalof – both 75 – are considering as they plan for the future in London, Ont.
Their two-storey home, in the city’s Old North neighbourhood, has a basement that holds Mr. Gedalof’s woodworking shop – a passion that would be hard to transport to a downsized home.
“Allan does not want to leave this house; it will be a bigger discussion as we age,” says Ms. Mailloux, noting they both live with knee pain and won’t be able to climb stairs forever. After 22 years in their home, moving is not a decision that comes easily.
“It’s going to be very difficult to leave this place.”