The hidden emotional and logistical cost in downsizing

Selling the family home has the potential of raising questions you may or may not have thought about.

Older Australians cop a lot of flak in real estate debates. 

Among their many misdeeds, they’re blamed for exacerbating the housing shortage by rattling around in enormous homes, pricing first-home buyers out of the market by snapping up investment properties and routinely outbidding young families desperate for garden apartments.

Add that to the dumb luck of being born when property prices weren’t quite so bonkers and it’s easy to understand why this demographic has become the bête noire of the nation’s housing crisis.

But it’s not all beer and skittles, especially when it comes to the logistics – and psychology – of downsizing.

Cat Brown is a former real estate agent who now runs Simplify Me, a Melbourne company that helps people declutter and prepare their homes for sale.

“There’s a lot of emotion involved in dealing with people’s possessions,” Brown says. “When they’re selling the family home that holds all the memories and going somewhere new and unfamiliar, people can get a bit panicked.”

It’s not uncommon for clients to discover trinkets that once belonged to their own parents as they whittle down their possessions.

“I’ll listen to them but I try to keep the momentum going and not get bogged down in sad memories.”

Brown says one of her biggest challenges is dealing with enormous pieces of old-fashioned furniture.

“These items have sentimental value and clients can experience massive guilt over getting rid of them. Antique pieces might suit a certain type of house but a lot of downsizers are moving to smaller, more modern homes.”

She encourages clients to decide whether they love the pieces or are keeping them purely out of guilt. Sometimes a compromise can be reached, for example getting rid of a hutch that sits over a buffet.

“If you don’t like it, now is an opportunity to get rid of it. If no one you know wants it and you can’t sell it, donate it to charity. Think of downsizing as an opportunity to simplify your life. You can’t take everything with you.”

Adult children can make the process harder by leaving behind piles of possessions. In this case, Brown advises parents to give their children a firm deadline to remove their stuff or have it kicked to the kerb.

The easiest moves, she says, happen when people are comfortable with their decision and have time to plan. Not so simple are transitions driven by illness or financial stress.

For low-income families, concerns about losing the pension if they sell the family home can add to the pressure.

Catherine Griffiths decided it was time for somewhere smaller when her two daughters, aged 19 and 23, started doing most of their socialising outside the six-bedroom family home.

“We found they tended to live in their bedrooms, just coming down for meals,” Griffiths says. “There were a lot of living areas that weren’t being used and a lot of space that needed to be kept clean. It was becoming a bit of a burden.”

The prospect of downsizing stirred up emotions about entering a new stage of life.

“The house came to represent a change in ideals, a physical reminder that time is changing.”

In a few months, Griffiths – with her husband and daughters – will move into a townhouse in the Bayside area of Melbourne, not far from their old house.

She advises would-be downsizers to leave themselves plenty of time to consider their options, seek quotes and rope in the experts if needed. When disagreements arise, remember the big picture. And when deciding what to keep, take a cold-blooded approach.

“If you’re going to downsize, you don’t want to take stuff that you’re not going to use at the other end.”

Clinical psychologist Bob Montgomery says moving house at any age is a high-stress experience. When a couple is involved, it can challenge their problem-solving skills.

“Problem-solving for couples is ideally by negotiation,” Montgomery says. “Negotiation means asking yourself and each other, ‘why do you want that?’ and ‘why do you not want that?’ and making sure that question is asked in an information-seeking way.”

Downsizing can also create mixed messages when people are confronted with the reality that they are no longer responsible for raising a family and running a big household.

“On the one hand, it’s good you got there but on the other hand, it says ‘tick, tick’.”


This article was originally published by Domain on 29 November 2017. It represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily reflect the views of AMP.

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