I loved our big old Vermont house. Linden Hill was built in 1938 by the granddaughter of a former Vermont governor, and the architect was quite remarkable for his time. The house sat atop a hill, sited to enjoy both sunrise and sunset. Every window provided a beautiful view—and there were lots of them. But Vermont can be cold and gray, and His Nibs is, shall we say, “solar powered.” Vermont winters were not for him, and a 70-year- old, eleven-room house was simply too much to handle as a summer home. So on the market it went.

Eric’s parents had purchased Linden Hill in 1963 and his mother was an avid collector until her death in 1991. And then there was all the stuff from my family. As I started to “stage” the house to make it more attractive to potential buyers, it was clear that I needed to purge. But where to begin?

Perhaps this list will resonate with you: Four antique desks; three dinner tables; nine bed frames; fourteen end tables; six sets of silverware (including sterling and goldware); 150 dinner plates; more art than wall space; a phonograph from the roaring twenties; 6,000 books. I didn’t know what to sell, donate, or keep. Nor did I have a sense of what anything was worth. Unlike stocks or bonds, it’s hard to know how to value these personal possessions for resale.

I worked with appraisers, art dealers, auction houses, historical societies, consignment shops, and charities as I culled through family furnishings and collections to determine what to send where. The result? We are now happily settled in a smaller house with just the perfect amount of our favorite things—a testament to living larger with less. In fact, after a few informal requests to help others, I started my own business to address every aspect of household downsizing and estate disposition.

Like anything else, the more you know about the ins and outs of downsizing and disposition, the happier you’ll be with the outcome. If the household you’re downsizing is small or the possessions involved aren’t necessarily auction quality, you may prefer to do many of these tasks yourself. Or you can hire professionals to handle them for you. Either way, the following tips can help you make the right decisions about your belongings.

1. Make an inventory of your possessions, by category.

This is a really useful tool for any downsizing or estate disposition, particularly if you’re distributing possessions among several family members and/or you suspect there are valuable pieces in the mix. The goal is to gather enough descriptive details about the objects to get a more accurate sense of their possible value. The type of information you want to include ranges from the basic—what is it—to any or all of the following:  materials; size and dimensions; age, period and style; colors and images; designer, label, signature, inscription, manufacturer or identifying marks; evidence of ownership, where it was originally sold, or any family stories about a piece. Stories can sometimes help in determining an item’s value; they always make pieces given to family members more special.  (Photographs can also be useful, as many auction houses will request a photo along with the description.)

For example:

Chair. Hand-carved French country Queen Anne style with vase-shaped splat. Cabriole legs with fluted feet. 36″ x 21.5″ x 22″ (seat height with cushion 17″; without cushion 14″).  Fruitwood. Inherited from Eric’s grandmother.

2. Photograph the objects that conjure up the best memories and recollections. That way, you’ll always ‘have’ them—without the clutter.

There’s no doubt that purging is a time consuming process and the emotional tug of belongings and mementos can make decisions about what to keep, sell or donate difficult. But there is also joy in downsizing. Often the process triggers a wealth of memories—and it’s the memories, not the things, that we really want to hang onto. And more often than not, once things are out of sight they’re out of mind. The end result: less to take care of and more time to do the things you really enjoy.

3. Choose the Right Appraiser—and Type of Appraisal—for Your Needs.

Appraisals come in a few different shapes and sizes and they can be pricey, so the first step is to figure out whether the household or estate that you’re downsizing is worth the investment.  (An estate sale manager or dealer can also be a good first step if you’re not sure.) It’s crucial to understand the differences among different types of appraisals, and to discuss them up-front with any appraiser that you consider hiring.

It’s a good idea to use an appraiser who is an experienced “generalist,” or whose areas of specialization are relevant to your collections. Auction houses will often provide free appraisals, but unless you have an important collection they are not likely to travel long distances, and it’s always best to have an appraiser inspect the pieces in person.

Here are the different types of appraisals:

  • Walk Through. This is not a formal written appraisal, but can be useful when you are just starting out and trying to get a general idea of what things might be worth. It’s also the most reasonably priced option.  Be sure to take notes, as it’s often hard to remember the specifics on a lot of different pieces. (This is also one of those moments when that inventory will come in handy.)
  • Replacement Cost. This type of appraisal is primarily for insurance purposes and is comparable to an item’s retail value or purchase price. If a piece of art or antique has appreciated, the replacement cost would be higher.
  • Fair Market Value. Often used in estate situations where property needs to be divided equally among heirs, or to determine the value of an item that is going to be donated to a nonprofit. The IRS defines fair market value as “the price that an item might sell for in the open market, in a sale between a willing buyer and a willing seller, both with knowledge of the relevant facts.” An appraiser determines the fair market price through research and knowledge of both the item and the marketplace.  Peter Eller, an Albuquerque-based appraiser, notes that “Fair market value remains quite hypothetical as it depends on access to a ready and willing buyer—which is often not the case—and no sale has to have taken place.”
  • Marketable Cash Value. “This is often the most realistic type of appraisal as it focuses on anticipated net yield within a short period of time,” says Eller. This type of appraisal most often represents the low end of the scale and typically represents the prices things might sell for at an estate sale where buyers are looking to pick up bargains.

Bear in mind that many appraisers are also dealers. But it’s inappropriate for an appraiser to make offers on any of your belongings, as this represents a conflict of interest.

It is possible to do a lot of this research yourself.  There are a wealth of reference books, price guides, and completed auction results on many auction house websites that can help you identify pieces that are comparable to yours, and that will give you a sense of their potential value. But this is a complicated topic, and it easily merits an article—or book—of its own.

4. Match the Marketplace with the Merchandise.

Once you’ve got a ballpark idea of your sellable items and their value, the next step is choosing the marketplace that’s likely to bring you the best prices. Here’s a range of possible choices:

  • Auction Houses. For your more important pieces, a good appraiser will often point you toward top auction houses, dealers, and regional markets. Keep in mind, though, that selling costs such as shipping, insurance, and auction-house fees should be factored into this decision. Often, only the most valuable pieces will generate enough of a return to make shipping long distances worthwhile.
  • eBay. In recent years, eBay has transformed the market for collectibles, making it far more liquid. Selling costs are minimal, as eBay takes only a small percentage of the sales price and the buyer pays shipping and insurance. But eBay is really most suitable for smaller items, as shipping costs become onerous with larger items. One caveat: You do need to do your homework to be an effective marketer on eBay. If you don’t want to invest the time, there are professional eBay sellers who, for a fee in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 percent, will photograph, list, sell, and ship your pieces.
  • Dealers and Consignors. Dealers and consignors are yet another option, particularly for larger, mid-range pieces of furniture or art. Dealers often offer to buy things outright from you—not only the most convenient way to sell something, but often the most expeditious. It’s best to consult a few different dealers to get the most information and sense of value. Consignment shops typically take a percentage in the range of 30 to 35 percent. If a piece doesn’t sell quickly, consignors will often mark things down on a monthly basis.
  • Estate Sales. This is an excellent option when you have a wide variety of household items to unload. You can run these yourself or hire a professional firm to handle the sale. A professional will advertise and promote the sale; advise on pricing; provide sales staff to handle sales and payments; clean up after the sale; and help with donating unsold items. They typically take between 30 and 35 percent of the total sale. Be sure to check out local permit and signage requirements before running a sale on your property.

5. Don’t Forget About Donations.

Donations can be useful in two ways. Most common is donating things that don’t sell to nonprofit resale shops and taking the resulting tax deduction. A second scenario is the donation of high-end items to nonprofits such as historical societies, museums, or rare book libraries. The tax benefits of this type of donation can sometimes outweigh an item’s sale value. When downsizing, it can make sense to make major donations in the same calendar year as the sale of your house—but it’s always best to consult a tax attorney or CPA regarding the specifics of any high-end donation.

Donations can take other, less conventional forms as well. Give family heirlooms as Christmas and birthday gifts; you’ll save on expenditures, and offspring and younger relatives can start enjoying family things right away. It can also be rewarding to help the next generations get started in their new homes by giving them things you no longer use or won’t need in a smaller home. Think of it as giving your possessions a new lease on life.

Like death and taxes, purging is inevitable. Sooner or later. most families will face a situation—a move, an illness, a death, or the need to liquidate—that calls for sorting through a houseful of personal possessions, heirlooms and collectibles. So ask yourself: Do you want some control over the process, or would you rather leave the task to others? And since most downsizing and disposition efforts are linked to the sale of a home, it’s best to start early so that you’re not moving items that you can’t keep and will just clutter up your new home. The best part of the process is that you’ll likely find that life is little lighter, and a lot easier, with less stuff.

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  • Dovecote Decor February 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Moira: I have been meaning to post your tips on my blog for our readers, but alas, I have been disorganized. A life lived in the cool LED glow of my computer screen has left me in arrears. You must come and clean up my life, or at least make me laugh.

  • b. elliot July 20, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Wow! This is so great. I am about to down-size in a year or so and will keep this article on file. The advice is very good as well as comprehensive. My anxiety has been reduced by half!