Lessons learned from downsizing

Bud and Fran Johns moved from a four-story 1905 Edwardian into a condo.

Bud and Fran Johns moved from a four-story 1905 Edwardian into a condo.

FIRST PERSON | Fran Johns

Beyond the pain, angst and despair of downsizing, there is always a story. And there are questions: How can I convince my parent or spouse or partner that it’s time? Who’s going to take care of the logistics and legalities, not to mention the tricky finances? Will I lose my independence? Can I ever replace the old familiar neighborhood? Where’s the best place for me? Can we afford what we need?

I stewed over them all.


The declining mobility of my Beloved Spouse underlined our need to downsize from a big house in San Francisco to something more manageable. Arranging the disposition of our possessions with real value — art, books and a few tons of paper — would take a monumental effort on his part, since he was the accumulator of 99 percent of the things of value. But much of the physical work would fall to me. Making decisions and then actually carrying them out are two very different endeavors. Neither comes easy.

Above all, downsizing is a learning experience, and we got some early coaching from others who had learned the hard way.

A couple of neighbors nearby on Washington Street sold their long-time home faster than expected and are still “camping out in a temporary apartment,” they say, “with 60 years of stuff in an expensive storage unit because we can’t decide where to go next.” Another neighbor sent a truckload of belongings to a flea market, then wound up with serious seller’s remorse, eventually buying back two old comfortable chairs. “Some of us,” she says, “never learn.”

For us, downsizing involved leaving behind a four-story 1905 Edwardian crammed with the accumulations of 40-plus years and moving into a 1,600-square-foot condo about a mile away. Only a few cubic tons of Stuff stood in the way.

As with all stories, ours has a backstory: Beloved Spouse and I had dated in the early 1950s, went our separate ways for 37 years, then reconnected in 1991 and married in 1992. Because I came from a lifetime on the east coast with all my worldly goods in a few boxes and suitcases, the bulk of what had to be downsized had been accumulated by him and The Late Wife. She had been a prolific and highly regarded artist. Both of them had been collectors of art, books and works on paper — anything on paper, as a matter of fact. Neither had children or family members who might swoop in and remove Stuff.

I have grown children on the east coast who did indeed swoop in and do what they could during a long weekend. But shipping to the east coast does not rank high on the downsizing-efficiency list. They were among those who looked at the overwhelming Stuff and feared I might not survive the battle.

But this is a story of downsizing and surviving to tell about it. A few lessons from our learning experience might even be valuable to others when their time comes.

LESSON 1: Treasures are your enemy. That giant urn reportedly used to ship 100-year-old Chinese eggs. The Marine Corps foot locker, circa 1951, still Semper Fi-ly protecting a supply of rusted-out garden tools. The Baccarat wine glasses used exactly once in 20 years because of a terror of breaking $85-a-stem glassware.

Disposing of treasures like these will not speed the downsizing process. In our case, the wine glasses turned out to be a plus, thanks to our new best friends the auction house people, about whom more later. But items like the foot locker and the 60-pound urn can be problematic. Beware: Some massive pieces of Stuff that have been in the closet so long you don’t see them anymore will lurch into view when those closets must be vacated.

LESSON 2: Try the Fast Disposal Plan. Almost anything you can’t believe anyone could possibly want, or is too crappy for the neighborhood Goodwill on Post at Fillmore, and not quite resalable enough for the Seconds to Go or Repeat Performance shops farther up the street, is a good bet for the Fast Disposal Plan. The plan works as follows: Place the item near the curb, either by itself or with no more than one or two other FDP items. Using something indestructible like duct tape, affix a cardboard sign reading “free.” It will be gone by tomorrow.

The only time this plan utterly failed was when I tried to churn up interest in a 4-by-6-foot pine table top, which leaned optimistically against our street tree for four days until I finally admitted defeat and brought it back inside. The foot locker actually also failed the Fast Disposal Plan, even though my son swore someone would want it and dragged it to a rather regal position under a tree. Three days later I called in good neighbor John, who took a sledgehammer to it and rendered it into disposable splinters.

LESSON 3: Beware of “valuable” papers. Papers that seem valuable to one downsizer may be less so in the eyes of another. When one downsizer, furthermore, happens not to have thrown away a piece of paper — letter, document, clipping that struck a fancy — since the early 1940s, papers can quickly exceed the capacity of the home shredder and the patience level of the downsizer. It’s likely that every family divides into the “Some day this will be valuable” camp and the “Oh, for heaven’s sake, throw it out” camp. Just try to get along.

This is also when it’s good to know the Paper Rush people. If you have enough once-valuable-but-now-disposable papers — something like one or two tons — the Paper Rush people will come over with a giant truck and cheerful crew and spirit your paper off to be baled and shipped to China. In China, it will be made into something that will be sent back and you will buy without recognizing it’s your old papers. Plus — no offense to the Recology people — the Paper Rush people pay you a penny a pound, which is not peanuts.

LESSON 4: Befriend the auction house people. Speaking of Peanuts, if you happen to have worked with cartoonist Charles Schultz at some point, and he invited you to pick a strip you liked and then sent you the original, that was a good thing. Its auction price will pretty much cover the downsizing costs, which is ample reason to forgive the collector and saver of too much paper. You may not be a collector of original cartoons, as was my Beloved Spouse, but the ordinary things that turn out to have value — blue-and-white everyday china, old cigar boxes, fountain pens — don’t come out of hiding just for Antiques Roadshow. Sometimes, if you’re seriously clearing out, it’s worth calling in the auctioneers.

But tread cautiously. Some of them are accommodating and some are rather painfully snooty about your inferior Stuff. Shop around for not just the best estimates of value, but the people who are congenial as well as clear about how the auction business works. If you have enough serious Stuff to get to a magic dollar figure, some auction houses will take the inferior Stuff and sell it in “shelf lots” to the people who will resell it at flea markets to people who will later have a lot of trouble when they have to downsize. “Those people really earn their money,” our auction house contact said of the shelf lot buyers.

LESSON 5: Use your secret weapons. There are the macho neighbors such as John with the sledge hammer from across the street. Or Josh, a few doors up, who hefted the 80-pound vintage adding machine from the far corner of a pile of debris and down three flights of stairs as if it were a down pillow. Secret weapons are usually a lot younger than you are. They are probably all around on your block, in your church or synagogue, or wherever you spend time.

Other secret weapons to ferret out: Garage sale people. There are several who will take your residual Stuff away; most want to come throw a sale on the premises. I was lucky to find help by Googling around: scrap iron collectors, electronics collectors, hazardous materials collectors. These are at the bottom of the list, below the Goodwill and Salvation Army, and generally neither make nor cost money; you’ll just be grateful for their help.

Another no-longer-secret weapon is the professional organizer. Organizing businesses come in all structures, sizes and price ranges — none of which are cheap. But unless you’ve downsized, upsized and resized a zillion times, it’s probably worth interviewing a few organizers and choosing one that seems a good fit well in advance. Our organizer turned out to present a conflict of style — she was a speed demon and I plodded along at a turtle pace and continually needed to stop and consult with the Beloved Spouse — so I wound up choosing to do most of my own digging out, sorting and disposing.

But had the organizer and her crew not helped sketch out what would go where in the new space, chosen a mover, come to pack the day before the move and unpacked as the movers brought Stuff into the new place, we would have been in very deep trouble. Our organizer stressed that many people take too little with them and later regret what they sold or gave away; but as it turned out, even with scale drawings, we had too much. Do not get me started on the self-delusion about bookcase space. Even after Paper Rush and donations to Friends of the Library, the Calvary Presbyterian biannual used book sale and Goodwill, there are boxes of books stashed on our balcony that may be there for years.

LESSON 6: Research your options. Whether you’re downsizing Mom and Dad or yourself, the more time and exploration you can invest in advance, the better. There are varied choices of urban and rural retirement communities and different degrees of health care and assisted living — from the mostly independent own-your-own-condo we chose to the full care option. (“They can’t throw us out,” my brother-in-law calls his place.) Most retirement communities have health requirements you must meet or health plans you buy in to, another good reason for considering the downsize move well in advance. All of them require an upfront chunk of change, as does the simple purchase of a smaller place.

LESSON 7: Show and sell. In times past, one simply put a house up for sale at the estimated fair market value and that was that. No more. Today one must spruce up, clear out and “stage” — which means you get all your Stuff out, they bring in Stuff they consider more appealing to today’s apparently utterly unimaginative buyer, and in the process turn your old place into a strange new place somebody will then tear apart and make into their place.

In our case, this step involved clearing out, ripping up, scraping, sanding, painting and generally re-creating every inch of what had been a perfectly good house for a century or so — albeit a century full of wear, tear and accumulation. This last step only happened thanks to Rafael the painter, who came via our real estate agent. Rafael would come over with his cleaning machine strapped to his back when the grime got to me and whistle around until all was manageable and I calmed down.

When the serious clearing-out-and-sprucing-up got underway, Rafael would drag Stuff out of the backs of closets and cabinets, help me sort and haul it, and generally take giant loads off my shoulders while he and his crew were simultaneously painting and sprucing. He also took cuttings from the geraniums for us to keep as he worked on the garden — and even cleaned out the refrigerator, which did not look that clean when we bought it. A lot of money changed hands, but I would have paid Rafael three times over.

LESSON 8: Money will be needed. Unless you’ve stashed a bundle somewhere, a lot of money will go out before any comes in, thus interim money will be required. And unlike the olden days when sterling credit and solid assets translated into temporary financing, today’s financial institutions are as fickle and finicky as yesterday’s market analysts. Shop around. With any luck, the outsized place will sell for more than the downsize choice and all will be well.

In our case, all was finally well once we resettled a little and I got past a case of stress-related shingles. My advice to anyone considering a downsize: Throw it out — and get your shingles shot.

Fran Johns’ forthcoming book, Perilous Times: An Insider Look at Abortion Before — and After — Roe v. Wade will be available this month from YBK Publishers.

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