Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 24, 2013

Downsizing can mean losing 'stuff,' gaining freedom


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — When Marcia Hoffstetter built her dream home, she expected it to be her last.

“I built this house thinking I would die here,” said Hoffstetter, 73, of Suttons Bay.

Instead she got caught in the economic crunch and can no longer afford to keep the house. After listing it on the market for four years, she finally sold it and is looking for a much smaller place to live.

Hoffstetter is one of millions of Americans every year who downsize to smaller homes.

Some do it to free themselves of the burden of caring for a bigger house, leaving more time for family and travel. Others do it to reduce financial stress or to save money for more of the things they want — like that travel. But all recognize that they can’t maintain a big home — physically or financially — forever.

“You just know when it’s time,” said Janet Ready, a widow and parish nurse in Traverse City. “It’s different for everyone.”

Downsizing from a home with emotional connections can be difficult, especially when it means having to give up familiar or beloved possessions. That’s because possessions are memories, said Kelly Stites, owner of Assisted Moving Services in Traverse City.

“The hardest thing for people is letting go of memories,” said Stites, whose company specializes in moving coordination, organization, design and downsizing. “When letting go, they want to know that their things aren’t just getting thrown away.”

Hoffstetter will need to let go of nearly half her possessions in order to downsize from her 2,400-square-foot house with full basement to a small house, condo or apartment. Meanwhile she’s living in a friend’s lower level.

“I want to stay in Suttons Bay or Leelanau County but there is no affordable housing up here for year-round,” said Hoffstetter, manager of the Leelanau Christian Neighbors food pantry in Suttons Bay. “It’s all vacation rentals, especially when you come from downstate and you’re used to all those apartment buildings and complexes.”

Then there’s the question of what to do with all of her belongings, many of which are in storage. So far she has sold some and donated others to nonprofit resale shops. She’s also hoping to pass down some family furniture to nephews and nieces, one of whom took part of her antique glassware collection.

“It’s very, very hard,” Hoffstetter said. “Some of it I hadn’t used since I moved here in 2003 (from Royal Oak). I moved everything up from a smaller house, then bought more to furnish the bigger house. I’m a collector of stuff.

“The hardest is getting rid of things you don’t want to get rid of. I have pictures galore, pictures of trips I took to Africa, to Costa Rica. I haven’t looked at them since I took them, so what do I need them for? And yet ... ”

When making decisions, Stites suggests that downsizers designate things they know they want to keep, then ask themselves if they’ve used others in the last year or are likely to use them in the near future. If not, selling, donating or passing them along to someone else can give them new life. She emphasizes the “80/20 rule” that says most people only use 20 percent of what they have.

But the heart doesn’t always understand what the head does, said Ready, who has helped several aging Immaculate Conception parishioners make the decision to downsize.

“I think the hardest thing is parting with memorabilia and physical treasures,” Ready said. “It kind of awakens you to your past and it can be painful. They do bring back memories. At the same time, I think it can be uplifting because they can weigh you down, become clutter and become burdensome.”

For Jeannette Fehner, selling her parents’ massive mahogany table with 10 leaves was almost easier than deciding what to do with the objects collected over a lifetime as a musician. The retired college chemistry teacher put herself through school by playing trumpet with dance bands and symphony orchestras and continued to perform until carpal tunnel syndrome ended her career about five years ago.

“In my condo I had an extra closet in a second bedroom where I stored my trumpet, flugelhorn, mutes and lots of music” said Fehner, 91, who recently moved to a small apartment in the Glen Eagle Independent Living Community. “I took everything that I liked: things that I could hang on the wall that would remind me of music.”

As difficult as it was to make decisions, pack and clean the condo, she said the hardest part of downsizing was the feeling of losing her independence.

“The transaction was short but it was a solid blow and I didn’t seem to think I had control of anything,” she said, adding that the move was complicated by a bad fall and her sister’s illness and death. “But I do have control. Now it’s a matter of taking the boxes and going through them and labeling them so everything is easy to work with and to live with. I think my spirits are good and I’m looking forward to living here.”

Stites said downsizing is stressful for many, especially seniors or families who are left with their estates.

“Seniors that are downsizing don’t like to ask for help, ask their children,” she said, adding that many feel as if they’re giving up things they’re never going to get back. “And just that coordination. Changing phone numbers is something they’re doing for the first time in years.”

The transition usually is very painful, agreed Ready, “but there’s light at the end of the tunnel — not right away, but it gets better every day, every day, every day.”

Said Hoffstetter: “I think perhaps I’ll be better off. I won’t have the financial worry that I have and I won’t have all this stuff.”