Are you dreaming of downsizing to a little cabin in the woods? Or perhaps a sweet little cottage in the country? It was a dream of mine that I finally made a reality last month! I downsized from my 2400 sq ft city home to a 1300 sq ft cottage in rural Virginia. Downsizing and getting rid of all my stuff was a huge process, and honestly the most stressful part of undergoing what would turn out to be a complete change of lifestyle. But I did manage to do it! I have a step-by-step process for doing it successfully and with minimal stress.
A closet that’s only half full just looks better and subconsciously tells viewers “There’s plenty of space in this home!”
First of all, you’re going to want to do the downsizing/decluttering BEFORE you put your current house on the market. Houses sell better and easier when they have been thoroughly decluttered. When I was buying my new home, many of the houses I looked at I felt like I didn’t even see the house; all I could see was the current homeowners stuff! Even if a home isn’t messy or cluttered per se, it will still give vibes of not having enough storage if it is filled to capacity. A home without a lot of visual noise will give off a sense of ease and calm to those viewing it. A closet that’s only half full just looks better and subconsciously tells viewers “There’s plenty of space in this home!”
When you’re selling a home, I believe that you are not just selling a house: you are selling a lifestyle. A decluttered home with it’s half filled closets and half full cabinets and bookshelves is selling a lifestyle of ease, refinement, and calm. This might not personally be your style, but most buyers will love it. We did this with our home and it sold immediately and well over asking price. It was honestly well worth the effort (which you are going to have to do anyways if you are moving to a house half the size!) and felt like winning the lottery when the offers came pouring in. I thought I liked a home comfortably stuffed with the artifacts of a life well-lived, but after clearing out half my stuff, I actually found that I preferred the more staged look of a sparsely decorated house.
That being said, let’s get on with it! So you haven’t bought the new house yet, but you know you want it to be roughly half the size, so let’s start there. So how does one go about reducing 50% of your belongings? I started by dividing everything into categories and then simply cutting all of those in half. So, open your closet. What’s in there? Clothes, shoes, and probably some random things you didn’t have a place for anywhere else in your house. Divide each of those in half. Start with the low hanging fruit: Do you have clothes that are damaged? Missing buttons? Shoes that you don’t wear because they hurt your feet? Items you’ve always hated but didn’t get rid of because it felt wasteful? Well you now have permission to get rid of all of those items! Honestly, most of what you get rid of will probably be stuff you should have thrown out years ago and will not be too challenging.
We ended up renting a dumpster and completely filled it with literal trash. Again, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible until I started digging in and saw what I had been storing all these years.
Move on to the rest of the house. I actually started my downsizing process in my basement. This took me the longest but had to be done. I was planning to move to the South and knew that a lot of Southern homes don’t even have basements. I wouldn’t have believed this prior to getting started, but 50% of the volume in my basement was literal trash. This is probably true for your basement as well. Let me illuminate what I mean by trash: Empty cardboard boxes, bits of scrap wood, old paint cans, remotes that belong to electronics you no longer own, same with old appliance manuals, things damaged by moisture or water damage, etc. We ended up renting a dumpster and completely filled it with literal trash. Again, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible until I started digging in and saw what I had been storing all these years.
Something changes in you mentally after you fill an entire dumpster full of trash that had been sitting in your basement. I decided that I really only wanted the bare minimum to be stored in my basement. For me this meant only keeping things like Christmas decorations, tools for necessary homeowner DIY, and some seasonal storage such as a beach umbrella, beach chairs, hammock, etc. Of course there were some other items down there such as “family heirlooms”. That is a much trickier category to tackle, but one that you will probably have to tackle at some point during this process.
I could tell that some of these boxes had in fact not been opened for generations.
Roughly 7 years ago my mother had left 10 of those giant sterilite plastic totes just inside my front door. I had given her a key to my house and while I was at work one day she took it upon herself to unload them on me. She told me they were “family heirlooms”. My husband moved them to the basement and there they sat for years. I decided I had to go through them. Indeed, part of my basement process was to go through each and every box and go through each and every item one at a time to make sure nothing important was lost in the process. I could tell that some of these boxes had in fact not been opened for generations. How do I know that? For one thing, I found my Great Grandmother’s genealogy journal from the 1940s that had been believed to have been lost when my mother was still a child. A cousin had been blamed for borrowing it and then losing it. And yet, here it was in my basement. It is now sitting on a bookshelf in a place of honor in my home.
Other things in the boxes were once again more trash. There were old road atlases, diet books from the 1980s, paperwork from jobs my parents used to have, and lots and lots of things that had been broken from improper storage. I did have moments of anger and annoyance of having to sort through this when I was at the same time trying to get a house ready for sale. I consoled myself that it would have to be sorted through eventually and that it was better to sort through it now.
Was an item bought at the 1970s equivalent of a store like Target of great familial value? My mother seems to think so, but I disagree.
Here’s the thing with family heirlooms: you can’t keep it all. My grandparents were teenagers during the Great Depression. To them everything was precious and if you didn’t want to keep things once owned by a deceased relative then there was something sinful and deeply wrong with you. In the past things were kept because they were of great value and people didn’t accumulate a lot over their lifetimes. Being able to inherit say a set of cobbling tools could be lifechanging. There were also more children to spread things out to. That is no longer the case anyone. Was an item bought at the 1970s equivalent of a store like Target of great familial value? My mother seems to think so, but I disagree. You deserve to have a home decorated to your own tastes, just as your grandmother once did.
In the end I kept a few items from each deceased relative and have them displayed in our home. We have also done this with my husband’s relative’s things because my mother-in-law did the exact same thing and also dumped a bunch of boxes and old furniture on us. What was left over fit into just one of those plastic totes and it was returned to my mother. My mother made a big show of being upset about having to deal with this large tote now, forgetting that she had originally left 10 of them in my front hallway one day while I was at work.
I couldn’t remember what was in these boxes and if they had somehow ceased to exist one day, I wouldn’t have been bothered by it.
This of course isn’t even touching on my childhood mementos. That was a whole other set of boxes in my basement. Some of these boxes were again things that my mother had decided to keep and then transported to my basement, and others were ones that I had kept when I moved out of her house as a young adult. None of them had been opened in years. I couldn’t remember what was in these boxes and if they had somehow ceased to exist one day, I wouldn’t have been bothered by it. But here we are, having to deal with it, which is the real emotional hardship and is the real reason why our older relatives delegate this task onto us.
I don’t have sentimental feelings from when I was a baby, so an old rattle or a baby book don’t mean anything to me. Same thing with the stack of birthday cards from birthdays 1 through 5. I didn’t even recognize most of the names from the people who gave me the cards. Bronzed baby shoes also do not fit into my adult design aesthetic. Unfortunately none of it can be donated. There were definitely tinges of guilt as I loaded up the trash bag. One of the arguments for keeping this stuff is that it’s a good thing to do for future generations, but is it really? I found it to honestly be a very draining experience and would have rather an older relative had done this process for me.
Any thing interesting, like cards that had messages written in them or a particular page from the baby book that I did like, I put it all in a dedicated scrapbook. That scrapbook is now on a shelf, and NOT sitting in a box in the basement! For the old photos, I was able to make a lot of space by removing all them from the bulky photo albums and transferring them all to an ultra slim photo case. This is the one I ended up buying if you are interested. It would have been better to scan them all, but I just did not have time to scan over a thousand photos.
When going through the childhood things that I had kept, some of it I could no longer remember the significance of the item and so it was easy to get rid of it. Other things like my stuffed animal and baby blanket were really hard to part with, but were old and gross and I knew it was the right thing to get rid of them. I gave them a big hug and thanked them in Marie Kondo style. I even shed a couple of tears. But at the end of the day, it is just an item. It’s purpose was to be enjoyed by a little girl, not stored in a bin in the basement forever. It had served it’s purpose and it was time to let it go.
There were other difficult choices to make as I moved through the basement, like my High School yearbook. The truth was I didn’t enjoy my High School years and that’s why the yearbook was in the basement and not on my bookshelf. So, I recycled it and freed myself of that burden. I even got rid of my comic book collection, which in the end I was only able to sell for $16. It turns out a lot of these collectibles aren’t even worth a fraction of what you paid for them. I had also been keeping boxes of old diaries. I had kept a diary since I was 5 years old and had been religiously writing into my twenties. Throwing them out felt like I would be throwing away a piece of myself. But after realizing that these diaries did not represent happy memories or times in my life I would want to revisit, I made the decision to shred them all.
When times get tough, I found it helped to think about my future little house. Look at the house above. Does an old comic book collection fit into this picture? I actually changed the background on my phone and my computer to a picture like this one to help keep me motivated during the process. It helps to have a reason why when decluttering. And honestly, that’s the reason why we had been holding on to all of this stuff in the first place: We didn’t have a reason to get rid of it. Why get rid of it when it can fit in the basement? Why get rid of it when I might start back up that hobby one day?
Although there are still somethings stored in my basement, having my basement mostly cleared out was honestly one of the most freeing feelings in my life and 100% worth it. I actually feel a sense of pride when I go down into my basement. I would brag about it to people if it wasn’t so weird!
Now that your basement is 50% cleared (or more!), we have to tackle the rest of the house. The kitchen is another difficult area, or at least seems to be at first. Even in my 2400 sq ft house, I was convinced I didn’t have a big enough kitchen. And yet, smaller homes tend to have even smaller kitchens. So it’s going to seem like an impossible task, but you’re going to have to reduce your kitchen by 50% as well. It’s easiest to start by eliminating all of the duplicates. It turns out I had two sets of silver wear, so I kept the set I liked more and donated the other one. Many people have multiple sets of dishes. Again, keep the set you like the most and sell or donate the rest. If you have special purpose dishware and glasses, can you reduce them by having other dishes do double duty? Do you really need a set of wine glasses and martini glasses? Do you really need that many pots and pans when you really only have a couple that you like to use? Do you really need that much tupperware? How many water bottles does one family need? Why have both an instapot and a crockpot when they are essentially the same thing?
At the end of the day, I couldn’t believe how much I was able to eliminate from my kitchen. I also had tons of duplicate spices and way too many jars of condiments and what not. Which brings up another point: you’ll want to make it a mission now to eat up all the food you have stored in your pantry. Keep in mind that liquids (olive oils, vinegar, bottles of cleaner, etc) are typically not allowed onto the moving truck, so it’s best to use them all up now or you’ll end up throwing them all away the day before you move.
You will find many many duplicates throughout your house, and here’s why: When a house has too much stuff in it, it’s easier to lose things, so you end up buying that same thing again. In a small house, you don’t lose things. There’s just not as many places for things to disappear off to.
Go through this same process room by room, until you have reduced half the volume of your stuff. That means: Half the amount of books, half the amount of DVDs, half the clothes, half the coats/jackets in your coat closet, etc. I’ll admit that there are some things I kept that other people would have recommended to let go of. For instance, I kept my Le Cruset tagine. I kept most of my Pyrex collection. I also kept two sets of measuring spoons and two sets of measuring cups in my kitchen. So I’m not saying you have to get rid of everything. Just make sure any exceptions to the rule are actually rare exceptions.
So here we are, you’ve successfully decluttered and set your home for sale. You’ve bought your new little home, but you’re not done yet! You now have to pack!
This is where you are going to end up shedding even more stuff. Seems impossible after whittling it down to just 50%, but you might just surprise yourself. Practically speaking, if you are going from a 4 bedroom down to a two bedroom home, you will need to get rid of some of that bedroom furniture. The first thing I did was take pictures and list for sale my excess furniture. I made some money, but not a lot. You will have to price things very low if you want them to sell in a week or two. It may not be worth the hassle to try to sell stuff and easier to just donate it all.
Next, start packing. The last time I had sold a home I was 29 and had managed to pack up my condo in just a week. If you are also no longer in your 20s, don’t expect to be able to do that again, even after eliminating 50% of your belongings! Being a little older and having some chronic pain issues, it took me the entire three weeks to pack and I barely finished in time.
But how do you start packing when you still have to live in the house for the next three weeks? Start with the non-essential stuff first. Take down all of the artwork off the walls and pack it up. Next, pack all of the decorative items. Just keep going like that. You’d be surprised to find that you actually do still have a lot of non-essential stuff in your home. For the last week, plan on just eating frozen food and take-out as you pack up the kitchen. For toiletries, just have it down to the same amount of stuff you’d use if you were on vacation. You’ll be living out of a suitcase the last two or three days in the house. The important thing is to have everything finished before the movers come in the morning. You’ll just want to have your bedding, which you’ll load into a large trashbag to pack and that’s it. Everything else you can quickly toss into a large canvas tote bag that you will take into your car with you when you leave. My husband and I ended up calling this the “go bag”.
While packing it is likely that you will reduce your belongings even further. It seems hard to believe, but you’ll be so tired of packing that some things wont even be worth the effort to pack them. Especially once you get down to the last week. In that final week, I was sending a carload full of stuff to Goodwill each and every day. Be mindful of when your last trash day is before you move because you will have your whole sidewalk filled with trashbags. Yes, even after having rented a dumpster! It’s embarassing, and wasteful, and shameful, and all of that. But it is also the reality of downsizing your home.
Two years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for me to move into my dream home in the country because “what would I do with all my stuff?!”
In the end I estimate that we probably eliminated close to 70% of our stuff. A year ago I wouldn’t have thought that my house was especially cluttered of that I had a lot of stuff, or that getting rid of 70% of it was even possible. As you declutter though, the process becomes easier and you tend to gain some momentum. Two years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for me to move into my dream home in the country because “what would I do with all my stuff?!” The truth is, I was basically imprisoned by junk. Now that it’s gone, I don’t miss it at all. I know that 5 years from now I wont even remember what I had decluttered. And now I have the freedom to live anywhere I wish, however I wish.