Between the tiny-house craze and bestselling books about minimizing your life, we’ve probably all thought about downsizing at one point or another. But is it really the right move for you at this moment in time? Before you decide to move forward with downsizing, it’s smart to spend some time thinking about the possible repercussions and what it’s going to mean for your life so that you can do it the right way — without regrets.
If you think that downsizing might be in your future, then follow these must-do steps so that you can get it done intelligently and relatively stress-free. You’ll be glad you didn’t leap into something you weren’t sure would work for you, and you’ll be able to assess whether this is a step you should take right away or put off for a few months or years.
Understand why you want to downsize
If you don’t have a set reason to scale back your house and your lifestyle, then this might not be the best time to try it. For most people, downsizing entails a lot of work and major decisions, and remembering why you’re going through the process can help you keep on track with the ultimate goal.
Are you hoping to move closer to family members, like kids or grandkids or siblings? Do you want to downsize so that you can travel more efficiently (or maybe even live in a camper van)? Does it make financial sense, or are you simply tired of having so much house to keep clean? Are you hoping to trade in a house in the suburbs for a cute condo downtown?
Whatever the case, talk to your other household members (if any are involved) and figure out what your “why” is for downsizing. It’ll give you a true north to follow when things start to feel tough down the road.
Assess your current possessions
Some downsizers find it helpful to take a literal inventory of their belongings and decide how much they’re willing to remove from their current inventory. How many bookshelves (and books) do you have in your house? Desks? Beds? Endtables? Dressers? What’s in your drawers — especially in your kitchen — and can you do without any or most of those items? What does your clothing situation look like? For that matter, how many towels and sheet sets do you have, and how many do you really need?
Consider where you want to move
Maybe you already have your eye on the place where you want to move — this might have been hashed out already when you were considering why you want to downsize. But if not, it’s a good practice to think about where you’ll go and to be as precise as possible. If the units in that development downtown where you’d absolutely love to live contain a certain number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and square feet, then that gives you a parameter to aim for. And if you’re hoping to pack everything up and travel the world in a fancy RV, then that gives you a different goal. Getting your head around where you want to be, specifically, is going to help you make some tough decisions later.
Think about what you’ll miss if it were gone
There’s no shame in admitting that some of the possessions you’ve accrued over a lifetime just aren’t that exciting or necessary to you. Maybe you really wanted that sewing machine and got a few good years (and clothes) out of it, but if it’s been collecting dust for half a decade or longer, then perhaps you’re better off taking any needed hemming or adjustments to a tailor and focusing on other things. On the other hand, if you still use and love the sewing machine, then maybe you need to make sure it comes with you on your downsizing journey.
As you work on taking an inventory of what you have, think about whether (and how much) you’d miss it if you were to give it away or sell it. This will help you identify the things you can let go of without much strife, and what you really need to think hard about rehoming before you take the plunge and do it.
Understand your guest situation, short-term and long-term
Some of us love hosting guests in our house, while some of us find it a minor imposition at best. Do you have adult children who are likely to want (or need) to come stay with you while they get their lives in order, either after college or during a major life change like a divorce? Do you have siblings who like to visit where you live and who are used to bunking in your house when they do? Are those circumstances you’ll happily accommodate because they bring you joy, or is part of the reason you’re thinking of downsizing because you want some space of your own — no guests allowed?
“I just don’t have the room to host you anymore” might be something that you don’t want to have to say, or it might sound like a dream come true to you. Depending on your own family circumstances and your future hopes and dreams, you’ll want to consider how you plan on dealing with any short-term and long-term guests in the future.
Assess your finances
Many people decide they want to downsize for financial reasons; smaller homes are cheaper to heat and light, and you will likely use less water if you’re moving from a home with a lawn to a condo that contracts out landscaping. But there might be other costs of living that you need to consider. Let’s say you’re hoping to move to one of the coasts to be closer to children or grandchildren — not only does housing cost more on both coasts than it tends to in the middle of the country, but you’ll likely also be spending more on groceries, gas, and even utilities. Similarly, if you want to trade it all in for a van life, you’ll have to consider whether you can afford the price of gas rising in the near or distant future, and if it does, what that will mean for the longevity of your new lifestyle. Talk to your accountant or another financial professional to get a sense of what you might need to spend to have the sort of lifestyle you want, and make sure that your finances can accommodate it.
Consider the cost of replacing what you’ve already got
Even if all of your furniture is perfectly serviceable, are you really going to need a dining set that seats twelve and has room for all your ancestors’ china in a condo? Probably not. Even if you sell that dining set, you’ll likely want to replace it with a smaller table and chairs that fit four to six people, and whatever money you net in selling your current possessions might not quite cover the new things you may want to purchase before you settle into your downsized home.
Think well beyond furniture when you’re considering replacements. Will you really need a toaster that toasts four slices of bread at once in a smaller kitchen? Can you replace your desktop computer with a laptop computer? Or all of the cutlery, plates, mugs, and bowls that you’ve accumulated over time with smaller sets? Will your dog’s bed fit, or your houseplants? Will you need to keep all of the holiday decorations? Do you need that full set of large pots and pans, or should you invest in a smaller one? There may be quite a few things that you want to shed and replace, so go back over your inventory of possessions and decide whether anything should be replaced, and then try to ballpark how much that will cost you.
Decide whether a home sale could cover your new living expenses
Depending on when you bought your current house, home prices have likely gone up, and you may have spent some of your time fantasizing about what you might be able to buy if you sell now. But that rise in home prices works both ways: Anyplace you might be considering downsizing into has probably also gone up in price, and mortgage rates might be higher today than your current rate, so you’ll need to think about how much you’ll really be netting, whether it makes more sense to rent than buy, and what you’ll use for a down payment if you decide not to sell your current home and rent it out instead.
Be honest about storage
A lot of people who downsize tell themselves that they can just put whatever they don’t take with them into storage. Technically, this is true, but that’s an additional monthly expense you’ll have to take into consideration when you’re working on your budget. And not to be morbid, but consider the people who might have to clean out that storage unit if you were to pass away unexpectedly. Do you really want to compound their sadness by stashing everything you don’t move with you in storage?
If a small storage unit for storing seasonal items that you can rotate out makes sense, then go right ahead and reserve one. But if you already know that you’re going to put your stuff in storage and then mostly forget about it, do everybody a favor and just release it now.
Get ruthless about new purchases
A lot of us go shopping when we’re stressed out — it’s a very normal way to handle big life changes. But before you start going nuts at the mall or on amazon.com, set up a series of warnings or flags so that you don’t buy anything without thinking about it for at least 48 hours in advance. (Yes, this even goes for items on sale — if you really need it or want it, you can wait until it’s on sale again. Sales happen all the time!)
Don’t make your downsizing job any harder than it has to be by bringing in new items consistently. Crack down on your own shopping habits (and the shopping habits of other people in your household) so that you can downsize as quickly and easily as possible. You can always get what you need after you’ve moved!
Talk to your relatives and friends about what they might want
If there are any family heirlooms or personal treasures that you’re hoping to pass along to the next generation, now is the time to have a potentially tough conversation when you ask them if they really want the item (or items) and whether you can go ahead and hand it over. Sometimes people who are downsizing don’t realize that their children or grandchildren are also trying to live minimally and have no intention of collecting things, no matter who owned it in the past, and this might be a difficult pill to swallow.
There may very well be some items or keepsakes that you think really should stay in the family, but if nobody claims them, it’s time to start thinking about what you’ll do with them now instead of getting upset that no one seems to care as much about your grandmother as you do. Perhaps a close family friend would like them, or maybe it’s time to let another family enjoy them by adding them to an estate sale. But definitely don’t make any assumptions about what your own relatives will want — then you won’t be unpleasantly surprised.
Follow the one-year rule
One well-worn rule for getting rid of extra possessions is: If you haven’t used it in a year, then you should get rid of it. This applies to everything except (perhaps) family heirlooms and possessions, but it’s definitely a good rule of thumb for things like clothes and books, kitchen appliances, dishes, blankets and pillows, or anything else that you don’t have strong feelings about but need to determine if it’s coming with you or not. If you haven’t already started purging some of your things in preparation for the downsize, then using the one-year rule can help you get started with items that aren’t necessarily personal or important to you.
Family photo albums are fun to flip through, and it might make sense to keep one or two, but if you have stacks and stacks of them, then it’s time to seriously consider digitizing your collection. The same goes for books: Almost everything you can buy in paperback or hardcover, you can buy digitally, and even though you might insist that the feel of a paper book in your hands is too much to give up, you’ll save quite a bit of room. Movies, CDs, and other forms of media can also be digitized and still enjoyed just as much.
All that said, before you go too crazy moving all of your media to digital files, make sure you have a reliable backup system in case your computer crashes. An external hard drive, cloud drive, or another form of backup can save you a lot of heartache in the event of a total computer failure.
Take it room by room
Downsizing is definitely overwhelming, and the good news is that you usually don’t have to do it all at once. If you work room by room and item by item, you’ll have better success than if you try to tackle, say, all of your clothes (which are scattered all over your house) at once, or all your sports equipment at once. Start with a guest room or garage where you’re already storing things you don’t use very often, then work your way into the living room, bedrooms, and kitchen, where it’s likely going to be harder and harder to make tough decisions about what stays and what goes. If you begin with the less personal areas, by the time you move into the real heart of your house, you’ll be in the downsizing zone, and you’ll be better able to decide what stays and what goes.
Keep your goal front and center
The process of downsizing is a lot to take in, and if you don’t keep reminding yourself why you want to do it, then it can be very tempting to simply give up and decide you’re staying put instead. Make sure you’re remembering your end goal. Maybe it’s living in a smaller home so that you can travel the world like you always wanted to. Or maybe you’re giving up a big house in the suburbs to be closer to the city center and nice restaurants that you never get to enjoy. Whatever your “why” is, remember it and hold it close so that you don’t get discouraged by the process itself. In the end, your streamlined lifestyle will be worth it.
This content is not the product of the National Association of REALTORS®, and may not reflect NAR's viewpoint or position on these topics and NAR does not verify the accuracy of the content.