5 Myths Keeping You From Getting Rid of Your Stuff

Don’t let these common but misguided notions derail your goal to declutter and lighten up.

(Image credit: AleksandarNakic)

We spend the first half of our lives accumulating stuff and the latter half trying to get rid of it, says Barry Izsak, a professional organizer in Austin, Texas. If you’re in the second phase, we’ll help you make the tough decisions about what to toss and offer suggestions on where to sell your stuff. Still too daunting? We also tell you when it’s time to call in the pros. But first, you need to get over these often-untrue truisms.

1. I just need to get organized.

That’s probably a good bet, but first you need to figure out what to toss. And many baby boomers face a special dilemma: After decades of accumulating their own possessions, they want to simplify their lives even as their parents are dying and leaving behind a tidal wave of stuff, says Julie Hall, director of the American Society of Estate Liquidators. At the same time, their millennial kids are leaving home and leaving behind many of their possessions. The solution? Dispose of as much as you can, then organize what’s left.

Think of the disposal process as “right-sizing” your stuff, meaning you should have the right amount of stuff at the right time in your life, says Izsak. He advises clients to keep only what they find useful or beautiful and to sell, donate or toss the rest.

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2. The kids may need it someday.

“News flash! Your kids grew up with too much stuff and don’t want any of yours,” says Bonnie Kallenberg, owner of Finders Keepers Consignments, in suburban Atlanta. Millennials value mobility and experiences, not stuff. Tastes have changed from formal to informal, from traditional to contemporary and from cluttered to clean.

Mid-Century Modern furnishings and decor are hot, and “brown furniture” (traditional styles in dark stains or woods) and big, heavy pieces (china hutches and entertainment centers) are not. Many twenty- and thirty-somethings don’t like furniture upholstered in floral, plaid or paisley fabric. They don’t want to clutter their space with Hummel figurines or other tchotchkes. They tend to live and entertain informally and don’t want anything they can’t wash in the dishwasher, so they’ll probably take a pass on the crystal, china and silver.

Ask your children what they would like to have, accept their answers, and don’t pressure them into taking more than they want. As for another issue faced by many empty nesters—serving as Mom-and-Pop Storage Inc.—if you like, agree to store your adult children’s belongings until they get settled, but give them a deadline for pickup.

Mass-produced collectibles such as Beanie Babies and Dickens’ Village pieces are “dead, period, everywhere,” says Kallenberg. Older collectors, who amassed large arrays of stuff, are passing away, and younger collectors value quality over quantity. They will want only the best of your 50 cookie jars or the rarest of your Disney figurines.

Fine collectibles are a different matter. In hastily filled trash bags in the home of a client’s parents, Hall found antique fountain pens that sold for more than $1,000, three $20 gold coins that were worth $1,300 apiece at the time, and a turn-of-the-century Louis Vuitton trunk filled with memorabilia from World Wars I and II. The trunk sold for about $5,500 and its contents for about $2,000.

To begin identifying what you have and get a sense of its value, search eBay.com’s listings of sold items. Old appraisals (done more than, say, three to five years ago) may prove helpful for identification but are useless for valuation. It’s best to hire a personal-property appraiser or an experienced estate liquidator (see below), who may also be certified as an appraiser, to visit your home for a few hours to identify potentially valuable items and give you a ballpark estimate of their fair market value. (A written appraisal report may be needed only for insurance or estate tax purposes or if you claim a tax deduction for donation of property worth more than $5,000.) The appraiser can tell you where to sell your items or can broker items to private buyers, dealers or auction houses for a commission (the higher the estimated sale price of the item, the lower the commission).

You can find personal-property appraisers at the American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Asso­ciation of America and the International Society of Appraisers. Appraisers’ fees often range from $125 to $300 per hour.

4. I can sell things fast online.

Maybe, but it takes more time and effort than most people expect. However, you could try to sell at least some stuff yourself.

Put it on Craigslist. You can list items free on one of its 415 local sites in the U.S. Or use a neighborhood list-serv, if you have one.

Auction it online. On eBay.com, you can list up to 50 items a month free and pay 30 cents per item thereafter (unless you have an eBay store). When you get paid, eBay takes a 10% cut of the sale (up to a maximum of $750 per sale), and PayPal takes 2.9% plus 30 cents per domestic transaction to process payments. You can print eBay labels with shipping discounts of up to 24% on Priority Mail and up to 37% off FedEx rates.

To simplify your life, enlist eBay Valet to sell your items for you. Mail them to the Valet with a postage-paid label, or drop off your stuff at a FedEx location. The greater the sale price, the more you earn, from 25% of the sale for items that go for less than $25 to 80% for items that sell for $500 or more. If an item doesn’t sell within 60 days, the Valet will return it to you, free.

Consign it. Consignment shops often specialize in a certain type of merchandise, such as clothing, furniture, electronics or sporting goods. Call ahead to verify that a shop wants what you have. For example, it may not accept clothing or holiday decorations out of season. Ask if you can e-mail or text a photo of items, or if you need to schedule an appointment.

Resale shops like to advertise “nearly new or barely used,” says Adele Meyer, executive director of NARTS, the Association of Resale Professionals. Plus, “if clothing looks like 1990—and not in a cool way—or the color isn’t popular now, nobody will want it,” says Kallenberg. The faster you make up your mind to sell something you will never wear again (such as a mother-of-the-bride dress), the more money you’re likely to make on it, she says.

Shops typically allow a total of 45 to 60 days for an item to sell and begin to mark down the price after 30 days to keep merchandise from getting stale, says Meyer. They typically take a 50% to 60% commission from the final sale price. They’ll ask you to pick up your unsold items at the end of the term, or they’ll donate them.

5. Estate sales are for the rich.

Whether your house is a bungalow or a mansion, if it’s full of stuff that you need to dispose of quickly, an estate liquidator can help. Before you hire one, you and your family should take what you want. But don’t donate or trash anything else, lest you fail to meet liquidators’ typical minimum estimated sale value of $5,000 to $10,000. During a walk-through, liquidators will estimate the value of the sale overall and identify any high-value items that would sell for more at auction. Maria Masse, an appraiser and owner of Capitol Estate Services, in Olympia, Wash., says items show and sell best in a home, but limited parking or community restrictions may necessitate holding the sale at a warehouse or elsewhere. Ask companies how far in advance they book up; summer slots typically fill faster than winter ones.

The liquidator will sort, price and photograph the home’s contents for online marketing and sales, and it will advertise the sale on a site such as Estatesales.net. Pricier items, such as jewelry, that might attract sticky fingers will be displayed in one case or room, watched over by a staff member.Estate liquidators typically charge a commission of 35% to 40% of the sale. They may charge additional fees, including an initial deposit of, say, $250, to cover their up-front expenses; a penalty fee if you remove things after signing the contract; and an hourly fee to donate, trash and recycle any leftovers and leave the house swept clean. You’ll typically receive your final payment, including a refund of any deposit, within a week to 10 days after the sale. To find an estate liquidator, visit Aselonline.com and search by zip code.

And here’s a bonus: If you’re planning to sell the home, an estate sale can serve as a kind of open house. Not only will you sell your stuff, but you might also get a purchase offer on the house—the ultimate estate sale, says Masse.

Another option is to get help from a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers or the National Association of Senior Move Managers. They typically charge an hourly rate from $35 to more than $100 and may offer various packages of time and services.

How to sell your treasures

If you have valuable collectibles, such as coins, fine art, historical artifacts, timepieces or wine, an auction house is the best way to attract deep-pocketed enthusiasts. Estate liquidators and appraisers can refer you to auction houses, or you can search for auctioneers by location and specialty at Auctioneers.org. Collectors have a variety of reasons for selling, says Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions, based in Dallas, the third-largest auction house in the world, after Sotheby’s and Christie’s. A collector may lose interest or be pressured by a spouse to downsize the collection. Or a collector may want to avoid burdening his family after he dies. “Way too many times, I’ve seen a collection left to a spouse with no interest or expertise who has said, ‘If he wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him for leaving me with this,’ ” says Rohan.

Heritage conducts live auctions in several locations in the U.S. and abroad, as well as online auctions, in 40 categories. It will provide free “auction estimates” of your items, recommend which of its formats will work best for you and promote your collection to its more than 1 million registered bidders worldwide. Heritage requires a minimum fair market value of $5,000 per collection, regardless of the number of pieces. It charges a commission of up to 20%, but for high-value items, the company may charge you nothing because it will charge the buyer a premium of 12% to 25% of the buyer’s winning bid.

Patricia Mertz Esswein
Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Esswein joined Kiplinger in May 1984 as director of special publications and managing editor of Kiplinger Books. In 2004, she began covering real estate for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, writing about the housing market, buying and selling a home, getting a mortgage, and home improvement. Prior to joining Kiplinger, Esswein wrote and edited for Empire Sports, a monthly magazine covering sports and recreation in upstate New York. She holds a BA degree from Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., and an MA in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.