Life is a journey. Couples buy the big house when they start their families. But when their kids fly the coop, they’re stuck with a too-big house that no longer meets their needs or fits their lifestyle. The thought of starting over can be daunting.
Over the years after helping scores of empty-nesters downsize, we’ve found that folks sometimes lose their way during this phase. Here are our top three tips to help keep everyone on track:
• No one loves your stuff as much as you do.
The first three things we tell empty-nesters to do to get their home ready for market is to de-clutter, de-clutter, de-clutter. It’s amazing how many things one can accumulate over a lifetime. As we age, we also tend to hold onto things as they connect us with our past. We know first-hand. We lost our dad almost 20 years ago, and to this day, our mom still refuses to throw out any of his belongings. Unfortunately, things that we think are important to our children may not be, and things that we think are disposable may have tremendous intrinsic value to our loved ones.
Here’s how you can fight the urge not to purge:
• Hire a professional. If you have found excuses for the last 25 years not to purge, it’s unlikely that you can do this alone.Many of our clients work with professional organizers and/or estate sales companies to help them get through this process. A professional organizer can help you sort through decades of paperwork and belongings in an organized and systematic way. A professional estate sales company can help you sort through which items have value and which do not, and then sell them for you.
• De-clutter on the front end. If you get something new, throw something old out. One in, one out. If you have too much stuff, change the ratio. For example, if you buy a new shirt, get rid of two or three old ones.
The good news is that de-cluttering is a cathartic process. While the journey of de-cluttering can be emotionally difficult, our clients routinely feel free and less burdened when they are done. In fact, the vast majority of our clients tell us that they wish they had done it years earlier.
• Move when you can, not when you have to. Don’t stay too long.
It’s easy to do. You’ve raised your family in a home, and have a lifetime of memories there. It’s a growing trend for empty-nesters to modify their homes — by installing elevators and creating wide spaces to accommodate wheelchairs, for instance — to meet their needs as elderly people. Unfortunately, not every house can be adequately modified. And modifications can’t erase all the unneeded space in the family home.
It happens way too often — elderly homeowners start to lose the ability to maintain the house, whether for financial, physical or other age-related reasons. That’s when bad things start to happen. Some people refuse to leave their multi-level homes, despite the advice from their doctors and often, their spouse and/or grown children. It usually takes a calamitous event — such as a tumble down a staircase, an illness or injury or financial ruin — to force the issue. By then, it’s far more difficult, painful and almost always financially sub-optimal. If your loved ones are raising these issues with you, take them seriously and be honest with yourself. After a certain point, being stubborn is not just about engaging in an existential conversation with your grown children, it can be downright dangerous.
Have the tough conversations while everyone is healthy. No one likes to talk about estate planning. It brings up very tough conversations and intergenerational differences and conflicts. We get it. However, it is infinitely easier to have these conversations when everyone is healthy and the conversations are more “hypothetical.” Once someone is diagnosed with a terrible illness or has their health deteriorate, the last thing anyone wants to do is to talk about estate planning.
Bottom line: Have meaningful conversations with your loved ones while everyone is healthy, and understand who really wants what. It’s much more fun to gift things while you’re alive and healthy, then after you’re gone.