Tchotchke, collectibles, antiques or curios. By any other name, it’s just stuff. And chances are no one wants it.
If you’re downsizing in retirement or cleaning out a loved one’s home after they die, the daunting business of sifting through a lifetime of possessions can be complicated.
Barring rare, first-edition books, vintage vinyl records in perfect condition or a boxed and untouched Cabbage Patch Kid, there may be few takers.
“Times have changed. People are living longer. If you have 85-year-old parents and you’re in your 50s now, you don’t want china and dining sets. You have all those things already. And the younger generation is an Ikea and Target generation. They don’t have the same attachments to things,” said Jennifer Pickett, associate executive director of the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers.
Also driving younger generations is a minimalist sensibility that favors experiences over trinkets, as well as trends such as Marie Kondo’s urging to let go of items that no longer spark joy, experts said.
“Big, heavy oak furniture that was once popular — antique malls are just full of that stuff,” Pickett said. “Midcentury modern furniture, art and jewelry can be valuable and should be appraised. Some types of collectibles can be worth money, as well, but it depends.”
“The first thing I would recommend is getting an appraiser to walk through the house to get an evaluation, to point out anything that needs to be examined further,” said Carol Achterhof, an auctioneer and cataloger with Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in Thomaston, Maine. “Set anything with inherent value aside for an appraiser such as original art, jewelry, silver, watches and coins.”
Many auction houses will do an informal walk-through of an estate for free, Achterhof said, but a more formal appraisal for tax or insurance purposes would cost a flat fee that varies by market.
American households have an estimated $580 billion of products they’re no longer using, or about $4,517 per household. In volume terms, that means 23.6 billion items or 184 items per household, according to the Mercari 2021 Reuse Report. That’s for an average household. Now imagine downsizing a home or liquidating an entire estate.
“Start early. A lot of people wait until there’s a crisis situation and you’re making decisions under stressful circumstances. It’s better to make decisions when you have the time and it’s never too early to start,” said Kaye Ginsberg, founder of Peace of Mind Transitions, a move manager in Atlanta. “Start in small spaces. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to do the whole basement at once. Three to four hours at the most – more than that is exhausting and taxing. Get little wins like clearing a few shelves and you’re more likely to do it again.”
Steel yourself: That the fine dining room table, or Lladro or Hummel collection you spent years collecting may not be worth much in resale or may be unwanted by younger family members, Ginsberg warned.
“Be prepared to have your feelings hurt. Think of creative ways of passing on memories. Take photos of collections, or pass on one platter of china that you served Thanksgiving on to a grandchild, instead of a whole china set that no one wants. Passing on little things with a note may mean so much more,” Ginsberg said.
It may be tempting to postpone such a daunting project, but that comes with costs – both emotional and financial. “When clearing out a parents’ house, the ultimate goal is to keep it out of a storage unit because that’s just moving the problem,” Pickett said.
If you have time and inclination to sell items yourself there’s no shortage of places to hawk wares, from Facebook Marketplace to eBay to secondhand clothing stores and sites like Poshmark and the RealReal. Other items may be destined for a yard sale, consignment shop or newspaper ad. Another batch may go to charities, and lastly junk haulers.
All that, however, takes time, effort and the ability to sift through potential scammers to find real buyers. In some cases, it makes sense to handle it yourself, but if you’re grappling with a large estate or handling it long-distance, it may make sense to bring in a friend who can be impartial and help speed decisions, or hire a consultant or a move manager, experts said.
In addition to sorting through the belongings and sending them to the appropriate auction houses or charities, the move manager can also coordinate with Realtors and handymen to get a house in shape to be sold. Move managers typically charge a national average hourly rate in the range of $40-$80, depending on the market, Pickett said.
Regardless of who is leading the cleanup, make sure you carefully go through all the possessions and give the person downsizing or letting go some time to adjust.
“If a move is handled poorly, it can send an older adult into a downward spiral. You can’t downsize 48 years in 48 hours. Take the time that’s needed to make sure it’s handled properly,” Pickett said. “There’s so many losses associated with aging. Something has happened to make this need to downsize or pare your belongings. For many people, our stuff defines us. When we scale back, are we departing with who we are? The key is to part with the possession while keeping hold of the memory.”