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Downsizing: Dos & Don'ts

Learn the ins and outs of the process of downsizing and the best age to begin.

Last month I gave a talk at a local senior center about downsizing. Here is the list of Dos and Don'ts I presented to a lively and engaging bunch of older adults. But before I begin I have a quiz question for you that I'll answer at the end of the post. Here goes:

What's the best age for downsizing your home?

And now on to the list...


1. Know your why

The most common reason that people make the move to downsize is declining health. Maybe arthritis or poor balance means you can’t navigate stairs or do your own cleaning anymore, or you’re fearful of falling. You might have a heart problem so your loved ones are worried about you being alone at night. You might have given up driving which means it’s hard to get to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments. Or you might have declining mental health such as Alzheimer’s or other dementias. This could mean you’re skipping meals, forgetting meds, or wandering. Knowing your WHY for downsizing will help you determine your next steps and considerations for your new residence. 

2. Start early

Begin downsizing 3-6 months ahead of your moving date. The saying goes: You never realize how much stuff you have until you try to put it in a box. Not to mention sentimental items will often send you down a rabbit hole and trip you up! Also, if you're interested in selling any of your possessions, it should be noted that the longer you have to sell something, the more money you’re going to get for it. 

3. Make lists & have a cut-off 

Write a list of all the items you love and can’t live without. It will help you bid farewell to things that don’t make the cut. Also, it’s important to give yourself parameters when downsizing. Limit yourself to 12 coffee mugs, 15 tee shirts, 8 houseplants etc. Make some hard and fast rules to stick to. You might need to invite a friend over who can give you some tough love around this!

4. Get your children involved

Notify your children of your downsizing project. Sharing the treasured stories of your stuff might help your children decide if they want to keep something, and its a nice way to pass on the family legacy and preserve family history (even if they don’t end up keeping the item).

5. Do your research

Conduct online searches or contact an antique appraiser to see if there’s a market for your china, art, jewelry, furniture, crystal or other collectibles. You can contact auction houses to see if they could sell your items on consignment.

6. Donate locally

Often people feel better about parting with their belongings when they’re giving them to a good home. Research nearby charities, civic organizations, or even contact your local historical society to see if there’s a need for your items.

7. Use floor plans

Use floor plans to prearrange your furniture before the move. This can be a helpful reality check. If your new living room is the size of your current bedroom it’ll give you a visual cue as to what will realistically fit in the space.

8. Systemize your packing

Once you get to the packing stage, use a system for each room and mark the boxes accordingly whether it’s color-coded – all the boxes with pink sticky notes are things that belong in the living room or number-coded – anything with a number 2 on it goes to the kitchen. It’ll also be important to have an “Open First” box or laundry basket which can include things like a roll of tp, can opener, coffee maker and mug, soap, clean underwear, bottled water, medications, etc.

9. Accept a roller coaster of emotions

Downsizing is no easy feat. With it comes an array of emotions; anxiety, disappointment, sadness, and/or relief. Remember this phase of life is no different than most other phases you have lived through. It’s important to remember your WHY and stay focused on the goal and anticipate the rewards of a reformatted lifestyle. 


1. Don’t tackle the whole house

Don’t overexert yourself in an attempt to “tackle this downsizing project.” As I mentioned on the DO list you want to start early but you also want to start small. Start in one area of your home and work out from there. Often, it’s easier to hit up the less sentimental items first or the bigger items that take up a lot of space. The garage is a good place to start – the lawnmower, snowblower, or all the gardening tools might not be needed in your new home.

2. Don’t procrastinate

Downsizing requires time for reflection and honesty. Those things don’t mix well with urgency and stress. You want to be thoughtful in your decisions and not rushed.

3. Don’t do it all yourself

If you can get friends and family involved, the better. They can help with the big stuff and be an impartial party regarding items you’re struggling with making decisions about. There are also top-notch professionals you can call on through the National Association for Senior Move Managers (NASMM). You may need to call on auction houses, consignment services, junk haulers or movers.

4. Don’t expect your kids to take it

We’re in the age of Ikea & Target, not china and credenzas. The younger generations are all about clutter-free homes and not collectibles. Dining room tables and chairs, end tables and armoires are now known as “brown furniture” and no one wants it anymore. Unfortunately, antiques have become antiquated.

5. Don’t leave it to people without asking

Sometimes people will draw up their will and will leave their possessions to museums, historical societies, churches, or nonprofit groups, but without ever asking them. They think they’re being charitable but this places a terrible burden on those organizations. These groups often inherit things they don’t want and then they have to store and maintain them.

6. Don’t put it in storage

Avoid storage units at all costs. The entire point of downsizing is to have less, not simply hide it somewhere else. Renting a storage unit will only move your problem of owning too many things – and cost you far too much for it. If your storage unit costs $200 a month and you times that by 10-years you need to think about if the items you're storing are really worth the return on investment.

7. Don’t plan for an imagined life

Sometimes people think that when they retire they’ll finally take up knitting or create an exercise room to get in shape. Don’t plan your downsizing on these whims. Looking for a smaller residence with a room dedicated to the scrapbooking hobby you’re eventually going to take up or insisting on a 2-car garage for that dream workshop to build furniture is often far-fetched. If you haven’t done these things by now, don’t count on doing them in your golden years.

8. Don’t sign any contracts without professional input

It would be wise not to sign any agreements with assisted living facilities, retirement homes, over 55 communities until you have a professional look at the paperwork. You want to make sure you know and understand your contract terms and fees.

9. Don’t assume this is your last move

Moving to a community geared toward older adults may seem like a final step for you, but it’s possible you’ll make another move farther down the road. There is a strong possibility you may have to move again if you need to receive more care so it’s good to be open to possibilities well into the future. 

I hope this has given you some food for thought as you begin your downsizing journey. And to get back to the quiz question...

Answer: 64-years-old

A study out of the UK suggests that 64 is the perfect age to downsize. Respondents said they still feel young enough to make a move and they’re generally mentally and physically fit enough to do it on their own. 

Do you think Paul McCartney was on to something when he wrote the song, “When I’m 64?"

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