Less is More: How Appraisers Can Assist You in Your Downsizing or Minimalism Journey

Less is More: How Appraisers Can Assist You in Your Downsizing or Minimalism Journey

Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Member Insights

You are ready to downsize.
A spring-cleaning is overdue.
It’s finally time to go through that storage unit.
You have decided to donate your prized collection.
The family is about to move across the country.

Many of us have a large quantity of belongings that must be sorted and evaluated. Whether it is because you are moving to the other side of the country, helping a loved one downsize into a smaller home, or simply in the mood to declutter, dealing with a houseful of items can be a daunting task to undertake on your own. What is an excellent early step to alleviate some of the burden? Hire a professional appraiser who can both catalog and provide an unbiased opinion on the value of the property.

The Minimalism Trend

Downsize, minimize, de-clutter, tidy up, let go – whatever buzzword you wish to use, having “less” is a trend in today’s culture. But what are the origins of this trend?

Baby Boomers Downsizing: With more baby boomers preparing for the retired life, there is a large population in the midst of downsizing. They have transitioned from acquiring to disposing. Many struggle with deciding what to do with their lifetime accumulation. In addition, younger family members often do not want to inherit everything, especially if their own closets are already full. One common route is to rent a storage unit for the assortment of items that they aren’t quite ready to part with. This limbo state for belongings can last for a few months to several years. The general ambivalence towards inheritance has resulted in a flood of goods in the secondary market that outweighs current demand. Choosing how to handle unwanted possessions is a growing dilemma that families will face for years to come.

Millennial Taste: Some say minimalism is the influence of the millennial generation. Due to growing up in post-recession America, millennials often choose to spend their money on experiences over material goods. They will also more likely reside in smaller dwellings with no space for formal living rooms, like an apartment in the city, and own objects that can have multiple uses, such as modular furniture. Their taste has veered away from previous generations, who typically enjoyed acquiring the antique look. Instead, millennials generally prefer the streamlined aesthetics of midcentury and modernism. They are also considered to be an eco-conscious group with the philosophy of using what already exists in the world. This attitude makes retro and vintage items alluring to the green-minded shopper, which can be helpful to know when determining what to sell during the downsizing process.

Design for a dining room, Chris Williams, 1976
Victoria and Albert Museum,London

De-Clutter and Change Your Life: Increasingly there is a belief in the correlation between decreasing materialism and increasing happiness. If you declutter your physical surroundings, then you will achieve mental clarity and emotional contentment. The popularity of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing highlights how a minimalist lifestyle has indeed gone mainstream. Clearly Ms. Kondo has tapped into the American psyche by connecting the desire to materially purge with the desire to declutter the mind. In addition, there is the phenomenon of the “small house movement” which advocates living simply in smaller homes (between 100 to 400 square feet). Of course, a tiny house with a closet that can only hold ten articles of clothing is an extreme example, but nevertheless, the small house movement indicates a widespread trend to pare down one’s belongings in the pursuit of well-being.

How Appraisers Can Help

Whatever your reason is for sifting through a large amount of personal property, hiring a professional appraiser during the early stages makes deciding what is worthwhile much easier.

An Objective Professional: You know the personal significance of each object, but what about its monetary worth to the rest of the world? A professional appraiser has not only years of experience in the field, but also formal education in appraisal methodology to determine appropriate values. An appraiser will also conduct valuations without bias. While professional organizers and liquidation companies can certainly be helpful and efficient, they are not necessarily qualified to discern the quality, rarity, and current desirability of pieces. Unlike a liquidator or a dealer who expects to receive a commission from the sale, a qualified appraiser will not base his or her fee on the percentage of the property’s value. This objectivity and ethical standards of a professional appraiser means that the opinions of value are provided with no other incentive than to be truthful to the best of his or her ability.

Preliminary Walkthrough: If you are unsure as to which items should be appraised, a preliminary walkthrough may be beneficial. In a preliminary walkthrough, the appraiser will visit onsite to get an overall sense of what the property entails. Through a cursory examination and conversation with the client, the appraiser can provide non-monetary opinions and give you a better sense of what may need further evaluation. Although a preliminary walkthrough as described is not considered an appraisal since no values are given, it can be a useful way to figure out what needs to be appraised for your particular needs. Another option is to email the appraiser an inventory list and/or images beforehand so that you can both agree on the scope of the assignment.

My Work Room, Cassel by William Orpen, 1917. Oil on canvas.
Imperial War Museums

Take Inventory: Do you even know what you have? An inventory is a complete listing of the property and is a great record to have for a variety of purposes including estate planning. Having all items noted in one document will give you a much better sense of the entire picture. Most appraisers offer inventory management as an additional service so that items may be properly identified. You can request items be listed in the inventory either by room or by category. Descriptions will typically include details about the maker/artist, material, measurements, model/serial numbers, known provenance, etc. Many will also include a thumbnail image of the item (or group of items) catalogued. Since the appraiser is already cataloging, why not take it a step further and request an appraisal to be performed at the same time?

Items That May Surprise You: Not every home or storage unit contains an unknown treasure, but the appraiser’s eye will always be on the lookout. Often, there is a space like a closet or attic that has evolved into a receptacle for overlooked items that may be worth something. Here are just a few examples:

  • Silver – Is it silverplate or sterling silver?
  • Handbags – Are those really haute couture?
  • Art – Is it a giclee print or an original painting?
  • Books – Is it a first edition or first printing of a collectible volume?
  • Vintage – Are all those pieces from the 50s to 70s worth something?
  • Toys – Is it a rare and popular Star Wars figure?

A generalist appraiser can help with a large variety of residential contents. And a good generalist will know his or her limitations and communicate when outside consultation is needed. If you feel strongly about a specific item or collection, consider contacting an appraiser who specializes in the particular category.

When Google Fails You: Performing some preliminary internet research is how many start to figure out if an item may have significant worth. But keep in mind that not all sources are created equal. Listed asking prices may not accurately reflect current market trends. Understanding the various factors when looking at prices and sales results is a skill that appraisers hone daily. In fact, appraisers frequently use paid subscription databases in their research that are not accessible to the public. After you have exhausted your own web searches and still believe that something could be valuable, call a personal property appraiser for assistance.

The Etching Amateur, Honore Daumier, c. 1860
Petit Palais, Paris

Preparing for the Appraiser: In order to expedite an upcoming appraisal, consider the following suggestions:

  • Decide which items you want to have appraised. A previous preliminary walkthrough (see above) may help with this decision.
  • Ensure that items located in the attic, basement, closets, drawers, etc. are unpacked, unwrapped, and ready for viewing. You don’t want to be charged hours for someone to open all the boxes and unwrap all the china.
  • Put all things of like kind together such as flatware, crystal, and dinnerware services. This will not only help the appraiser group items appropriately but also give you a better idea of what exists.
  • Gather any receipts, sales slips, or relevant documentation near the appropriate items.
  • Gather any historical information or family history that relates to the items being appraised.

If you don’t have time or unable to do these suggested preparations prior to an appraiser’s arrival, there is no need to worry. Most appraisers will manage and are used to expecting the unexpected.

Keep in Mind

Sifting and moving a sizable amount of items can easily become overwhelming. It may even feel like you have become an archaeologist excavating layers of content that represent a lifetime of memories. In addition to hiring an appraiser to help you determine value in the marketplace, what else will help in your minimalism or downsizing journey?

Have the Right Attitude: It’s probably the moment you’ve been dreading for years – figuring out what to do with it all. Whether the items belong to you or someone else, you have become responsible for determining their fate. But keep heart and momentum. Remember the good that you are doing and how you will feel when all is complete. This too shall pass.

Manage Your Expectation: Cultural taste has changed and so have values. Even if your grandmother told you time after time that her Victorian sofa is worth a great deal of money, furnishings and décor that have been in the same home for thirty years or more may not be in vogue anymore. The current fashion for a modern look along with the waning popularity of antiques are reflected in current prices. The items that achieved top dollar decades ago may not perform as well today.

Portrait by Jo Spence, 1989 Color photograph, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Swiss Cheese Approach: You walk into the room or storage unit and just see too much too handle. Looking at the totality of what needs to be down can quickly lead to panic. Instead of hyperventilating, tackle a smaller task that you feel is manageable. Then take on another small project, and then another. As you work your way through your property, start making piles of items you plan to keep, sell, donate, and toss. Avoid “maybe” piles. Why handle the property more than once? If you hesitate to keep an object, then it is probably not necessary to own any longer. This can be helpful to keep in mind if you are helping a loved one choose what to take during the downsizing process. Remember that the items you sell or donate will be finding new homes too.

Avoid the “Just in Case” Syndrome: Sometime the “maybe” pile can transform into a “just in case” pile. Nevertheless, consider parting with items that fall into the “what if” or “someday I might need this” category such as water skis in Arizona or a snow blower in Florida. This is especially true for duplicate items. When on the path of minimizing, one must let go of keeping two vacuums just in case the other one breaks.

Consider Giving Now: Take the time to decide if you want to donate both big and small in the near future. Perhaps you wish to gift a wristwatch to your nephew or a valuable painting to the local museum. Why not now when you can decide? If you are not sure if you need an appraisal to claim a tax deduction for a donation, consult your attorney or accountant. They should let you know when an appraisal report by a qualified appraiser is required by the IRS.

Digitize: Have an assortment of family photos, paperwork, old letters, kids’ drawing, or even manuals for electronics? Digitizing may be your best option. Thanks to technology, ephemera can be scanned and saved onto a hard drive or a cloud-base system. Younger family members can usually guide you in the right direction for current software. If rebellion from sentimentalists ensues, you can argue that you are still keeping the nostalgia but just transforming it so that posterity may continue to cherish it.

Enlist Help: You don’t have to do it alone. It likely took years to acquire the contents you are sorting therefore it’s no wonder you will need a few helping hands. Assistance from family, friends, and professionals (from appraisers to movers) will lighten the burden.

Ready to find a professional personal property appraiser?

Check out the International Society of Appraisers' Find An ISA Member page. You can search by location, category, or name. May your journey to a less-is-more lifestyle be a successful one.

Courtney Ahlstrom Christy, ISA CAPP, is a personal property appraiser who has in-depth knowledge when investigating the value and past life of objects. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in fine art history at University College Cork in Ireland and a master’s degree in the history of decorative arts from Smithsonian Association/Corcoran College of Art. In addition, she is an Accredited Member of the International Society of Appraisers, an Accredited Member of Appraisers Association of America, and in compliance with USPAP. Along with an education in the arts, Courtney has worked in museums, galleries, and auction houses, all of which have provided great opportunities to examine works ranging from the antique to the contemporary.

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