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The downsizer’s dilemma: what to do with a lifetime of possessions

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As Mally Skok prepared to downsize from her Massachusetts family home of 25 years, she took stock of her possessions. Should she keep the African baskets or the pottery-festooned dresser? What to do with the party dresses and games kit languishing in wardrobes, or the yellowing files of school reports? For Skok, a textile designer with maximalist leanings, decisions about what to keep and what to relinquish needed to be made.

To “curate” her belongings Skok enlisted an expert. In the US, downsizing — or, less flatteringly, “senior moving” — is an industry with professionals paid to sift through possessions. “Her task was to work out what’s important and find homes for unwanted things. Nowadays we’re all much more mindful of where our possessions end up,” says Skok.

Surplus bedding went to a homeless shelter, future heirlooms to storage. The auctioneer’s “eyes sparkled” as he valued the silverware and brown furniture. Meaningful items — amateur watercolours, baskets that “talked of holidays” — were earmarked for her new home. “Nothing went to the dump,” says Skok.

The curated downsize is catching on in the UK too, says Caroline Hartley. Relocating her mother from her home of 35 years with its attendant “decisions and logistical strains” convinced Hartley, a former Sotheby’s porcelain specialist, that there was a niche for a home-sorting business.

The scions of stately homes decamping from castle to cottage, time-starved professionals moving elderly parents “overburdened with lovely things” or empty nesters who can afford the £45 hourly rate are among Hartley’s clients. Since last year, inquiries have risen by 50 per cent.

Mally Skok
Mally Skok enlisted an expert to curate her belongings when she moved from her family home of 25 years to her new place in Cape Cod: ‘Nothing went to the dump,’ she says © Sarah Winchester

© Sarah Winchester

Through contacts in charities, auction houses and design, Hartley’s company Good Sorts has rehoused everything from a wardrobe of City suits, sent to Suited and Booted, a charity for unemployed young men, to “twiddly tea sets” snapped up by a vintage-themed caterer via Instagram. A tower of 1960s decorating magazines was dispatched to a design writer.

Distilling a lifetime of possessions is not to be confused with a Marie Kondo-style purge. “Decluttering has fostered the idea that belongings are toxic. I prefer to see them as the accumulation of a fulfilling life,” says Hartley. Compare, if you can, downsizing to staging an exhibition of your life: “Ask yourself what you’d put in it. What do you love? What’s your history?”

With an eye to the future, clients are encouraged to annotate old photographs and keep resonant curios: an opera ticket or Granny’s blackened baking tray redolent of Sunday roasts. “Don’t be too clinical,” says Hartley, who attributes her interest in the lives of others to her father.

Caroline Hartley, who runs Good Sorts, can help you decide which meaningful items to keep, such as archives of letters, or a set of Spode Blue Italian china, and what to sell on © Caroline Hartley

Max Henry “Fredy” Fisher, a German Jewish émigré, was editor of this newspaper from 1973 to 1980. “He was just as likely to tell us a tale about a newspaper seller on the street corner as [about] the chair of the Federal Reserve. As he enjoyed reminding me when I complained about my history A-level, history is about people.”

Val Foster, an antiques dealer, also resisted the temptation to be “ruthless” when she swapped her 6,000 sq ft Regency farmhouse for a compact 1930s lodge in Oxfordshire. “We have far less storage now but I held on to some treasured china. It went straight to the garage in labelled boxes. Now I cherry pick odd pieces, like an evocative 19th-century French jug. Using things is a reminder of past lives.”

But she applied a formidably forensic approach to furnishings: “I photographed every piece of furniture and artwork in our farmhouse. Then I sorted them into a room-by-room list for the new house. It sounds laborious but it meant I could get a sense of what each room would look like, bearing in mind how different the proportions would be.”

Every item was then labelled and colour coded by its destination room, to aid the movers. Next, she scrutinised her paintings: “I chose the pieces that encourage you to draw closer and take a second look.” The rest was sent to her antiques shop, Foster & Gane, “but now without a pang of sadness.”

Foster and her husband, a retired doctor, joined the surge of homeowners downsizing during the pandemic. The rush to meet the June stamp duty deadline was an obvious incentive, says Nina Coulter, Savills’ director of residential development sales. “But there are other reasons. A big house loses its appeal when the children start to move out. Some move to be nearer to family, or return to the place where they grew up.”

Val Foster’s Oxfordshire home
Val Foster swapped a 6,000 sq ft farmhouse for a compact lodge in Oxfordshire (pictured), where she retained a few favourite items, with the rest going on sale in her antiques shop © Harry Lawlor

© Harry Lawlor

Coulter notes a rise in sixtysomething country-dwellers buying new-build apartments in London. “After people had their second jab, we saw a rush of viewings,” says Coulter, singling out Marylebone, Fitzrovia, the former BBC Television Centre in west London, or the glossy, concierge-manned Triptych in Southbank (where one-bedroom apartments start at £945,000) as downsizing hotspots.

“Covid also played its part. It’s focused people’s minds on what’s important: experiences over the responsibilities of a big house. Some people just want a simpler life,” says Coulter.

Tom Scott, project manager and chartered surveyor at Woodforde Scott, singles out other another reason: “Unaffordable house prices mean that first-time buyers are increasingly reliant on their parents for financial help. So more homeowners are downsizing to release equity.” (Savills estimates that homeowners aged over 65 own homes worth a total of £1.75tn, with a debt of just £145bn.)

Mally Skok offers another perspective: “As our parents live longer and we’re having to help them move — to a smaller place or a care home — it’s focusing our minds on how much it takes to downsize. You need time and energy to do it properly and to resist throwing things in to black bags, which you might later regret. I think that’s making people consider downsizing earlier.”

Auctioneer Thomas Jenner-Fust, of Chorleys in Gloucestershire, agrees. “The three Ds: death, debt and divorce used to be the trio of reasons why people called in the valuers. Now it’s just as likely to be downsizing. It’s increasingly rare for someone to end their days in a large house surrounded by ancestral clutter . . . For many, downsizing is about closing a chapter of their life and opening a new one,” he says.

He recently auctioned 500 items — from a Hockney portrait to a cache of embroidered Indian coats — belonging to Sir Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who was decamping from Lasketts, his 23-room house in Herefordshire.

Embroidered Indian coat that belonged to Roy Strong, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, auctioned when he left his 23-room house in Herefordshire

A shift in decorating taste is good news for downsizers with surplus furnishings to sell. “We’ve noticed a return to antiques, especially among younger buyers,” says Jenner-Fust, who keeps a keen eye on social media for design trends. Prices may not be “sky-high” but pieces that were hard to shift a decade ago now achieve “sensible sums”.

Once-derided brown furniture has a new following among rural homeowners kitting out those parsonages and dower houses acquired during the Covid-prompted exodus from town to country.

There is also, says Jenner-Fust, “a fascination with the rusty and dusty everyday ephemera” downsizers might find lurking in the attic. Initialled trunks, Constance Spry-style urns or old-fashioned patterned dinner services strike a chord with nostalgist, vintage-loving millennials. One generation’s cast-off becomes the next generation’s collectible.

Which is precisely the point of the mindful move. Downsizing, with its mingled, bittersweet emotions of regret and relief is never straightforward, says Hartley, “but if you can keep the important things and find sympathetic new owners for the rest, it becomes much easier”. As one client put it to her: “You’re not just dealing with objects but the fabric of your life.”

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