Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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6 things I learned from 6 years of blogging

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Six years ago next month we introduced ourselves to the world of blogging with this blog, Downsizing The Home: Lessons Learned.

Our journey began when my coauthor and I shared our personal downsizing stories with each other, stories of helping our fathers empty our childhood homes as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. We were surprised at how powerful the emotions connected to family possessions could be and, at the same time, how easy it was to let go of many things.

We decided we wanted to share the information we had gathered with others who were going though the same process, and the result was our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. As we promoted the book, our path led to new media and to this blog.

Six things I learned from blogging:

It’s easier said than done.

It’s much easier to write about downsizing and decluttering than it is to actually downsize and declutter. That may come as a surprise to many of the people who read our blog or listen to us speak. Many times at my talks, someone comments about what a neat house I must have. Not so. But I do own up to it and express to everyone what a struggle it is to keep things organized and to make decisions about what we own and what we are willing to let go of.

People are wonderful!

People have so many interesting and inventive ways to rid themselves of clutter and excess and I’ve learned so much from others. I’ve met such wonderful people, many of them as online voices only, who have shared both strategies and advice, as well as many poignant stories, who have shared thoughtful ways to deal with others who see the clutter – and life – differently than we do, people who have inspired me to write about them and share their lives and their work with you. I have been helped enormously by listening to the voices of others.

Think outside the box.

Or, in this case, outside the book. We came to realize that we could stretch ourselves and go beyond our original focus. Our blog has given us the chance to go further and explore deeper than the scope of our book and to include thoughts about recycling and upcycling, views on how to live with less—and happily so, and a vision of how to treasure what we have, without the need to always have more. Writing posts that explore issues beyond the book has expanded my horizons.

Done is better than perfect.

And here’s a shout-out to all the other mantras that help me keep moving: Just do it. Start now. See beyond. And a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I find so helpful, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”

Life often does circle back.

The blog started with our book and ultimately comes back to our book but, oh, the places we have been! In some ways, as a writer, the biggest challenge is to make readers aware that our book exists. But having the opportunity to explore so many aspects of life with our readers, beyond the downsizing process we wrote about originally, has been such a privilege for me.

We are a community.

Yes, we are a community, you and I and everyone else in this Internet family constellation. I love hearing your thoughts and stories, in your own blogs and when you leave a comment on our blog. I’m so pleased when you follow us on Twitter and share our tweets, and when you share our Facebook posts. I love hearing from you. We are all in this together – and you have welcomed me into the group.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Gifts That Have Meaning

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Much has been made lately – the topic seems to come up every year – about gift giving in this season of so much stuff. Do we buy too much? Do we have too much? Are gifts really necessary?

Here’s a look at some gifts that have meaning and resonate far beyond the gift itself. A gift of a donation to one of these groups, or to so many other worthy causes, is a gift that can have a lasting impact.

Gifts that help the environment and its creatures

Although we can and do applaud the United Nations Climate Agreement that was signed this month in Paris, there is still much to be done to protect our planet.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $2-for$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, triples the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer Foundation helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Projects that help people here and around the world

A favorite place of mine to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here are a few suggestions from his columns over last few years.

Red Cloud Indian School is a private Lakota and Jesuit school educating 600 children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On the website, click on the Gift Shop for handmade items.

Buy a rat! In Angola, “Hero Rats” have been trained to sniff out land mines and save the lives of humans who used to do the job. At Apopo Foundation you can adopt a rat for $7 a month.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

A gift of food for those in need

We all love to eat and the season from Thanksgiving through the New Year provides so many opportunities to eat wonderful food – and often to overdo it. Not everyone gets to share in this bounty. Here is a way to help those in need.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

Let’s make a choice this holiday season by choosing gifts with meaning. Let’s make a difference this holiday season by choosing to help those in need.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Giving Thanks and Giving Back

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Thanksgiving, our national holiday for giving thanks, was established in 19th century; the very end of the 20th century brought us Black Friday for shopping in stores, and in the 21st century we have Cyber Monday for shopping online. Are we making progress? There is something not quite right about two “holidays” for getting more stuff and only one for giving thanks for what we have.

As a counter to all the “getting” we now have Giving Tuesday, celebrated on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – December 1 this year – that kicks off the season of giving and helps provide an alternative to the frenzy of shopping. Started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y, an important cultural institution in New York City, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, Giving Tuesday has become a movement that celebrates and supports giving.

According to the #GivingTuesday website, the global day of giving “harnesses the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities… encourages the donation of time, resources and talents to address local challenges…brings together the collective power of a unique blend of partners…to encourage and amplify small acts of kindness.”

Some welcoming statistics from this giving holiday:

  • More than 30,000 partners in 68 countries participate.
  • Online donations have increased an estimated 40 percent on that Tuesday.
  • People have tweeted 32.7 million times with more than 750,000 hashtag mentions.

If you need help in deciding just how to participate in giving back, visit the Tools page as well as the Frequently Asked Questions segment of the website.

In celebration of giving back and not getting more, let’s express thanks to Jerry Stritzke, the CEO of REI, the sporting goods emporium, who decided to close all his stores on Black Friday to encourage his staff to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends. Let’s all #optoutside on the day after Thanksgiving.

Black Friday started with stores opening their doors at 6 am on Friday. The opening time migrated back to midnight, and then to Thanksgiving Day itself. In response to an increasing dissatisfaction with people having to work retail on the holiday, many stores have chosen not to open at all on Thanksgiving. Not as wonderful a decision as that of REI’s chief, it’s at least something to be thankful for. Here’s a list of those stores that will remain closed on the holiday.

And for those of us who would like to vote with our feet, we can make a statement by staying out of the stores that plan to open on Thanksgiving, not only on the holiday, of course, but on the days following, or perhaps start a writing campaign by emailing the CEOs to express our dissatisfaction with their decision to remain open, during what should be their employees’ family time. Here’s a list of stores that will be open on Thanksgiving.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for what we have and not focus on how much more we want to get.

Here’s to a wonderful Thanksgiving to all our readers, a day of good food and family fun, a celebration of joy and health and happiness, and, most importantly, a time for gratitude.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

More Spring Decluttering: Cleaning Out Your Garage

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With the warmer weather finally here, spring cleaning is unavoidable (as much as some of us would like to avoid it!) and that means cleaning out the garage, too.

We know that there is a life beyond for the things we no longer need. Our trash can be someone else’s treasure if we take the time to get the items we would like to discard to the right places.

Here are some suggestions for recycling certain items in your garage.

Tires

According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, in 2013 more than 95 percent by weight of the scrap tires generated in the United States were reused: as tire-derived fuel, in ground rubber applications such as playground surfaces, and for engineering and construction uses.

Regulations for recycling tires vary by state. To locate a place to recycle tires in your area, search online under “local tire recycling.”

Motor Oil

Used motor oil can be recycled. Many service stations and repair facilities will accept used oil and used oil filters. Local recycling centers may accept motor oil or be able to steer you to a place that does. The best way to locate a collection center is to visit Earth911 and search by ZIP code.

Bicycles

For places to donate your bike and for places that help recycle/reuse bicycle parts, check out Ibike.

There are programs that provide bikes to developing countries, such as Bicycles for Humanity and World Bicycle Relief; you won’t get rid of your bike but you will help others to obtain a bike that is “an engine for economic and cultural empowerment” as they say on one of the sites. What could be better than that!

Sports Equipment

Play It Again Sports will buy back used sports equipment and this blog post on houzz offers suggestions for getting rid of sports equipment in an eco-friendly way.

Sometimes an organization like the Boy Scouts or a church youth group will sponsor a drive for gently used sports equipment. Check out organizations in your area to see if they are interested in your used items.

Tennis Balls

ReBounces has suggestions for recycling large numbers of tennis balls and check out “How to Recycle Tennis Balls” at 1-800-Recycling.com.

Shoes and Sneakers

And if you have worn-out or outgrown sneakers and sports shoes lying around, check out our post on where to recycle shoes.

Keep the memories of you and your kids playing sports or enjoying a bike ride in the park, but get rid of all the stuff you no longer need. The result? A more organized garage, a grateful recipient of the donated items, and a healthier environment.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Dr. Gail Steketee Shares Her Insights into Hoarding

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Dr. Gail Steketee is Dean and Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her work on hoarding is a corollary to her work on obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders. She has published over 200 articles and more than a dozen books on these topics. With colleague Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored the best-selling book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and the first edited scholarly volume on hoarding disorder, the Oxford Handbook of Hoarding and Acquiring (Oxford, 2014). With Dr. David Tolin and Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding (Oxford, 2013). Dr. Steketee received the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the International OCD Foundation in 2013. She a gives frequent lectures and workshops on hoarding and related conditions to professional and public audiences in the United States and abroad. Dr. Steketee graciously accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

~ What led you choose to study the subject of hoarding?

I was working closely with colleague Dr. Randy Frost on research on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) when he indicated that some of the students in his course on OCD had decided to study hoarding symptoms and had sought information from people contacted through their local paper.  They got scores of responses to an ad for “pack rats.” Gradually it became clear that this was a serious condition that merited our attention as researchers.

~ Do you think there is a continuum of behavior from cluttering to hoarding and, if so, what are the signs people can look for in themselves to help them stop sliding down that slope?

Yes, certainly this spans a range from very mild to very severe and impairing. A red flag is when the person is reluctant to invite people over because they are embarrassed by the clutter in their home.  If it would be hard to find a place for a visitor to sit down comfortably, the problem has probably gone over the edge into the realm of a psychological disorder. But the true hallmark of hoarding is difficulty parting with objects that most people would throw out – this symptom begins early and does not necessarily produce serious clutter for some years.  So it is not simply a matter of the amount of clutter which can accumulate for a variety of reasons.  Rather, the crux of the problem is inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed.

~ In the introduction to Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding, you say “This book is for and about people who have trouble managing their possessions.” What a wonderful description of people who have too much clutter! Is there one thing that you can recommend for people to do to improve their relationship with their stuff?

Know your own goals and values.  What really matters to you in your life?  Be sure to follow those goals and question whether the objects around you are serving those purposes.  If not, it’s time to bite the bullet and learn to part with things that are in the way of attaining what you truly believe in.

~ You have said in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that among the top reasons that people hoard are “to avoid wasting things that might have value” and “that the object has emotional meaning.” This is true for people with too much clutter, too. Can you give us your advice for addressing the wish to avoid wasting things?

This is not a simple matter, but in general, concerns about wasting and emotional meaning are really about our identity – who we are.  For fears of wasting, it’s worth asking how big a “sin” is wasting this thing versus the benefit of getting rid of an object that is not serving your main goals and values.  If you want people to visit your home, or if you want to enjoy reading in your living room, talking to your friend over tea in your kitchen, or cooking a meal for your family, is that a more important goal than suffering the guilt of not “wasting” this by discarding it? These are hard choices, to be sure, but essential ones.

~ And advice for dealing with the pull of emotional meaning?

Emotional attachment is similar.  It is worth asking what each of us would save in the 5 minutes before a fire consumed our home. Those items are likely to be the most emotionally important items, and the rest are nice, comforting even, but not essential to our being. Again, this returns to our own values – what is most important in our lives and is that truly represented by objects or does it lie within ourselves and our remembered experiences? But even for truly sentimental items, we can still ask – If we lost the photos of our father who has passed away, does that erase our memory of him and his influence on our lives?

~ What is the best way for people with a friend or family member who has a hoarding problem to approach the situation? What should they do or not do?

There is no simple answer except that an accusatory, critical and hostile tone won’t lead to change and is likely only to provoke anger and refusal to change. Calm, quiet, honest questions about what the loved one needs in order to reduce clutter is a great approach, but still might not yield any movement if the person is not convinced they need to change. If the situation is dangerous – the home is unsanitary, the clutter could easily cause a serious fall or a fire – the family member must seek help from authorities who are familiar with hoarding and can be thoughtful in requiring specific changes for safety’s sake.  The goal here is harm reduction first. If there is no major safety risk but the clutter is unacceptable to the family member, she or he will need to ask for specific actions and reasonable timeframes and indicate the benefits and the consequences of making or not making the change. This process may well require help from a professional, as it is not easy to decide what’s fair and reasonable in such situations.  I highly recommend Tompkins and Hartl’s book Digging Out intended for family members with a loved one who is very reluctant to change hoarding behaviors.

Thank you, Dr. Steketee, for sharing your insights into hoarding with us.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Is an Appraisal the Way to Go?

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My parents’ Herter Brothers furniture.  We researched it online, in books, and in museums, and then had it appraised on “Antiques Roadshow” before we sold it to a dealer.

As we approach the holidays and anticipate spending time with our families, some of us may be traveling to houses that are full of stuff and some inevitable questions are sure to arise. A discussion of “What will we do with all this stuff?” may lead to “Who will get what?” which may lead to “How much is this worth?”

Is an appraisal right for you? An appraiser can give you the value of a single piece, or can go through the entire house, in what is called a “look-see,” to tell you which pieces may be valuable. The value of an item is determined by its condition, its rarity, and its provenance or history. The stories passed down in the family about the original source of items, however, are not always accurate, says Helaine Fendleman, coauthor of Price It Yourself! and past president of the Appraisers Association of America. So you will need more than family lore to establish provenance.

A good appraiser, according to Fendleman, is someone who is sensitive and caring and who understands the financial responsibility of giving an accurate appraisal. Appraisers will charge a flat fee or by the hour. (It is illegal to charge a percentage of the item being evaluated, since this would lead to artificially increasing its value.) It’s important to hire someone you feel comfortable with and someone you feel is honest.

Some appraisers may simply assign a dollar value for the objects, but most will also shepherd you through the process of selling them, by suggesting the best place to sell it—to an antiques store, dealer, or consignment shop—and then will help you work with the store or dealer, if that is what you want.

Sometimes an appraiser will suggest that the item has little or no monetary value and that it would be more appropriate to donate it to charity than to try to sell it. Don’t be discouraged. As Fendleman says, “Every object in the world has a value; you just may not like the value it has.” And of course, the process of appraising has nothing to do with emotional or sentimental value. In some cases, finding out that a particular item has no financial worth may be a relief.

To find a professional appraiser, ask your lawyer, banker, real estate agent, or friends for a referral. The appraiser should ask probing questions in the initial interview, and you should, too. Ask what qualifies him or her to appraise your items, what their area of expertise is, and what professional organizations they belong to.

Can you estimate what something is worth without a professional appraiser? Certainly you can do your own research in the library, on the Internet, or in museums, and browse through antique shops and attend auctions to get an idea of what your special items are worth. If you have the time, researching the history and value of a favorite family item can be fun.

Online appraisals are another option, but they are only as good as the photographs you send in, and the expertise of the appraiser. If you plan to sell the item, you may want to then hire an appraiser who can see the object in person.

You can check out these professional appraisal organizations for more help.

The Appraisal Foundation is the organization that has issued the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP).

Appraisers Association of America, Inc. (AAA) is the oldest professional association of appraisers and is the recognized authority for standards, legal issues, and regulations. It provides a database of members that can be searched by location and by specialty.

International Society of Appraisers (ISA) has a library of over 50 webinars, some of which are free.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home