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Baby Boomers Are Downsizing and There’s a Problem: What to Do With All Their Stuff

Baby boomers

As baby boomers age, many are planning to downsize into smaller homes. But preparing to live in a smaller space brings up a challenge: how to get rid of all the stuff you’ve accumulated through the years.

Whether it’s vintage furniture, antiques, collectibles or couture fashions, knowing where to sell it—and how—is key to maximizing your return on investment. That applies whether you’re a homeowner selling possessions or an estate administrator handling the sale of personal effects after the death of a family member or friend.

 

“The baby boomer generation is downsizing,” says Jacquie Denny, co-founder of Everything But the House, an online estate-sale and consignment marketplace based in Cincinnati. “On top of that, we’re an affluent generation. Many of us have multiple homes.”

 

Ms. Denny launched the firm in 2008 after handling her aunt’s estate. An auctioneer “came in and took the two nice paintings in the house and then wanted me to throw the rest in the front yard with a guy who didn’t know a loomed rug from a hand-woven rug,” she says. “There was no system.”

 

When someone wants to downsize or sell estate assets, Ms. Denny’s firm will visit the property for a free consultation. If the owner wants to proceed, the firm will photograph, catalog, sell and ship the items via its auction website, where bids start at $1. With about 1.5 million registered bidders, she has sold everything from a Patek Philippe 18-karat gold watch for $8,700 to a 1978 Beechcraft B60 Duke airplane for $112,000. Her fees range between 15% and 50% of the selling price.

 

Rachelle Rosten, executive managing director of the Master Trust and Probate Division of Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Beverly Hills, frequently works with downsizers as well as people who inherited a house and need to clean it out before selling.

 

She first advises her clients to decide what they want to keep and what they want to sell or donate. Those decisions sometimes take years, she says, due to the emotions involved when a loved one passes away.

 

It’s important to strategize on the best method—and place—to sell an asset, Ms. Rosten says, because the value of an item often depends on where it’s located. A house she recently sold, for instance, had art-deco bedroom furniture with inlaid wood. “In Florida, it would have had a huge amount of value. In Los Angeles, it has virtually none. That’s where auction houses come into play because they can place it in the right market,” she says.

 

Four years ago, Dindy Yokel, a writer and publicist in Boca Raton, Fla., had to sell the contents of her mother’s 7,500-square-foot home, which was filled with antiques, art, custom furniture, jewelry, Edward Fields rugs, Herend figurines, Christofle flatware and designer clothing and accessories, including more than 20 Chanel handbags. She used eBay to sell some in-demand items, such as the Herend collection. She sold antique posters back to the gallery they were purchased from and used local auction houses for much of the rest. The process took about five months.

 

Here are some things to consider if you need to dispose of assets in a home you plan to sell:

 

Conduct an inventory.

Ms. Yokel’s first step was to create spreadsheets itemizing every item in her mother’s home. That helped her determine value—she says an entire set of antique books is worth more than an individual one, for example—and exclude items she and her brothers wanted to keep. It took her more than a month just to do the inventory, which was also necessary for estate-tax purposes. “We were doing research as we did the inventory to determine the demand,” she says. “But as you’re going through it, you’re also mourning somebody so it’s not easy. It’s a horrific process, but organization is the key.”

 

Consider selling the house furnished.

If the furniture is in good shape and in demand, consider removing personal effects and collectibles and selling the house furnished. Some buyers might appreciate a turnkey property, particularly if they plan to use it as a vacation home.

 

Find a reputable auction company.

Whether it’s local or national, an auction house will walk though the home and provide advice on the assets. There should be no charge for that service unless an appraisal is required. “An appraisal may be well worth it because in some cases you may think something has no value and you’re going to give it away, but then find out it’s hugely valuable,” Ms. Rosten says.

 

Two years ago, she handled the sale of a triplex that was in a prime location but in poor condition and filled with the prior owner’s belongings. Although the new owners initially wanted to toss everything, they ultimately hired an estate-sale company. It turns out that the “rubbish” was actually old collectibles and games. The sale netted $42,000, Ms. Rosten says.

 

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