Here are six tips on how to fly smoothly from your empty nest.
1. Start early. "The biggest mistake is waiting until you sell your home or tragedy happens," says John Buckles, who founded Caring Transitions after enduring his parents' forced downsize due to failing health. He is now president of the company.
A good rule of thumb: Start paring down at least one month before you list your current home for sale (less clutter makes it appear larger), and at the first signs of declining health.
2. Have a plan. Hit the "heart of home" rooms first. That's usually the kitchen, living room and family room, which tend to be the most cluttered and contain items with the greatest emotional value and everyday use. Make four piles — keep, donate, give to family members and trash.
From these rooms, work outward. Items furthest away, in sheds, garages and attics, generally have less practical use in the new living space.
Work with a space plan of the new home to ensure a "right size." When the new, smaller room dimensions are known, experts typically use scale white-board diagrams of the rooms to determine how items will fit — or won't. So measure all furniture before deciding what to keep and unload.
3. Involve the kids. "One big problem is seniors thinking their children want that grandfather clock or Waterford when they really don't," says Buysse. A heart-to-heart about items' emotional — and monetary — value is in order.
4. Keep memories, without the clutter. Making DVDs of photographs is a space-saving option to hauling boxes of old pictures. "One client had a collection of rare teapots but couldn't take all 78 with her," recalls Buysse. "So she took her three favorites with her and we made a framed poster of the others."
5. Donate. Goodwill and the Salvation Army may be the first thought for donations, but items like Civil War memorabilia or fancy camera equipment may be better suited for a museum or school. (The camera equipment of Roger Kline, a former photographer, was donated to a local college.) Such legacy gifts may even result in special plaques or recognition in addition to tax deductions. Even everyday items may benefit off-radar organizations. Everyday glassware, for instance, will fetch little money at a yard sale. So donate it to a children's camp or a soup kitchen.
6. Be a shrewd yard sale manager. For a better turnout, call it a "moving sale" — especially when selling furniture — and advertise in the local newspaper and Craigslist. Post bright signs on nearby roads (fluorescent poster board costs about $3 for three sheets that can be cut in half).
Include large directional arrows, not just addresses that drivers will find hard to read as they whiz by.
Organize items by groups — books on one table, tools on another, etc. Know the "dog" items. Bedbug fears and years of wear and tear can make sofas and other upholstered furniture a tough sell.
"In most cases, expect no more than $20," says Buckles. You might do better just donating them. Also on his "don't waste your time" list are tube and rear-projection TVs and run-of-the-mill small kitchen appliances such as toasters.
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Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.