How to Downsize Your Home When Moving
From bulky furniture to important paperwork, learn what to keep and what to toss during the downsizing process.
Decluttering a Lifetime of Belongings Before Moving to a Smaller House
If you’re getting ready to move to a smaller home, the thought of downsizing can be overwhelming at first. The key is to get rid of the things you don’t need and consolidate what you have without tossing essential belongings.
This might sound simple enough, but it can be tempting to hold onto items you want without prioritizing space for the most important things. On the other hand, don’t get rid of everything. It feels good to purge, but make sure to leave yourself with more than two plates, four forks and three t-shirts. We gathered tips from experts with At Home With Marni Jameson, Life Organized, HomeLight, The Organizing Agency and the Sage Organizing Company to help you navigate the downsizing process.
FAQs for Downsizing
What is a good age to downsize?
Most adults between the ages of 50 and 60 are ready to downsize for many reasons, like becoming empty-nesters or wanting a one-story home. That is often because they no longer need the space as empty-nesters or they want to keep stair climbing to a minimum.
Is it worth it to downsize?
Downsizing to a smaller living space means lower bills, and less cleaning and maintenance. This both saves money and time, which leaves you the space to do the things you love.
What should I keep in mind when downsizing for a move?
It's important to consider your location, the amenities available to you and the space you'll need for storage or visitors when selecting where you'll be moving to.
How to Downsize to a Smaller Home in 7 Steps
“People dread moving, but try and reframe your view. Look at it as a chance to ‘right size,’ to get clean and organized. It feels good to purge and get everything in order,” Jameson said.
That being said, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of before a move can still be daunting, so use our downsizing tips below to help you get through it efficiently.
1. Schedule Time to Downsize
Going through your entire home and your life is a big undertaking, but if you plan it out and take it slow, the process becomes more manageable. Start by choosing a date and putting it in your calendar. This will help you stick to the plan.
Begin with the least-used areas since items in these areas are likely to be forgotten in your new home. This is an easy way to get rid of a lot of items, giving you quick results to improve your motivation. Make sure to finish one room, closet or cabinet before moving to another space.
“Work in two- to three-hour blocks of time, focusing on one area at a time. More than that can be overwhelming and you won’t be as productive.”
2. Consider Your New Space
Moving to a smaller home means there are constraints to consider. With every item you go through, ask yourself, “Do I have space for this in my new home?” To do this, consider where you’re moving. Are you a senior moving to a facility that serves meals? You won’t need most of your kitchen items. Did you find a building or community with a fitness center? There’s no need for your gym equipment.
Try to avoid thinking about renting a storage unit for extra items. If it can’t fit in your new house, it’ll likely just collect dust in storage and add to your monthly bills. Find ways to implement better storage solutions in your smaller space. If there’s still no room, it’s time to let it go.
Measure Your New Home
Pairing down your belongings may be as simple as pulling out the measuring tape. Don’t move anything that doesn’t have a designated space in your new home. It’s also a good idea to measure doorways and hallways to make sure large items can be moved without damaging doorframes and walls.
“Before the move, measure your furniture and find out what will fit in your new place and what won’t.”
3. Take Stock of Your Items
It’s important to keep the things you want, use, need and like to look at, but make sure you’re scaling it back.
An easy way to begin sorting through your belongings is to stick to the 12-month rule — if you haven’t used it at least once in the last year, it’s not coming with you to your new home.
Rules for Downsizing: Quick Tips
Here’s a list from professional organizer Barbara Reich to help you pair down items.
- Keep “maybes” to a minimum: Touch it once, make a decision and move on. Moving items in and out of “maybe” piles is emotionally draining and time-consuming.
- Group like things together: If you have duplicate items, keep the best and donate the rest.
- Discard what’s expired: This includes expired food or personal care products kept passed their use-by date.
- Ignore sunk costs: What you paid for something has no bearing on whether it has a place in your life.
- Curate your wardrobe: Your clothing and possessions should reflect your current life.
Having a hard time paring down your items? Consider enlisting help from a third party.
“Professional organizers are neutral parties that can help you make objective decisions about your belongings. We can sort, box up and discard items quickly since we have no emotional attachment to the items. Although we respect that the client has an emotional attachment, it’s easier for us to make quick decisions to let things go.”
4. Downsize the Big Stuff First
If you’re moving to a home with less bedrooms, there’s no reason to keep the extra sets of furniture. Not only will there be nowhere to put them, they’ll cost extra if you’re hiring a moving company. If you’re downsizing your space but keeping the same number of rooms, look carefully at the floor plan and square footage of each room.
You should also consider appliances. Does your new home come with a stove, refrigerator, washer and dryer? Don’t bring yours. Does the style clash with your vision? Get rid of the old set.
“Furniture appropriate for a living room in a larger home may not fit well in a condo. If you know where you’re moving, create a space plan and make sure your furniture fits comfortably. If certain pieces won’t fit, those are easy targets for the sell pile.”
5. Sort Into Groups
When you’re going through your belongings, decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Then, you can further categorize those groups with the following tips, including disposal advice from our certified professional organizer experts.
Use color-coded stickers or tags on large items to help you keep track of what’s going where.
Rules for Downsizing: What to Keep and What to Toss
The Keep Pile
- What condition is it in? If it’s starting to deteriorate or already worn, move it to the discard pile.
- Do you have duplicates? Only keep the item that’s in the best condition.
- Would you replace it if it was gone? If you can’t live without it, it stays in the keep pile.
The Discard Pile
- Would someone else use it? Donations should “lift up” the recipients.
- Is it valuable? You may want to try and sell it.
- Is this item worse for wear? Toss broken, stained, torn and otherwise outdated belongings. You may also consider recycling what you can.
The Maybe Pile
While it’s not a good idea to let the I-don’t-knows get too big, Jameson says it’s okay to start a maybe pile for the sake of momentum.
“Keep moving and putting things in piles. Stopping is your enemy, momentum is your friend. If you’re still having trouble when you come back to the maybes, remember to keep the few and small. Size matters when you’re downsizing. Then try this mantra: hanging onto the past robs me of the present.”
Rules for Downsizing: Common Household Items
Here are a few common categories to help you quickly purge.
Are you reducing belongings from a walk-in closet? Purge enough so that you can fit everything into your new closet. This is a good place to use the 12-month rule.
Kitchen Appliances and Gadgets
Get rid of everything you forgot you had or that you only use sparingly. Bread makers and ice cream makers that don’t get used just take up valuable cabinet space.
Books and DVDs
It’s okay to keep your favorites if you’ll have room, but if you don’t reread or re-watch the title, there’s no point in letting them take up space in your new home. Be realistic about how much room you’ll have to store these things.
Do you still decorate for the holidays? If so, will you have the space to set up and store all your decorations in your new home? This is a good time to scale back your displays and dial down the number of light strings you have on hand.
6. Digitize Important Paperwork and Keepsakes
Downsize your home office by going paperless. Scan important documents into your computer and save them in folders on your desktop or on a separate hard drive. You might also consider uploading pictures and files into a data center, like the Cloud or Google Drive.
A lot of paper items, like bills and bank statements, can also be found online, so there’s no need to keep paper copies. Many companies even offer incentives for switching to paperless billing. However, it’s still a good idea to hold onto some paper statements, like taxes and warranties. But if your taxes are older than seven years or you’re holding onto warranties for items you no longer have, feed them to the shredder.
7. Deal With Items in the Discard Pile
Consider donating anything you’re not keeping that’s in good condition. You can give to charities, like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity.
“Get in the generous spirit — a day of downsizing to you may be another family’s excitement over a free dining room table they couldn’t afford otherwise,” Freeney said.
If there are some items you can sell or you want to try to make some extra money, try hosting a garage sale. You can also sell items online through eBay, OfferUp, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
Finally, anything left after downsizing, donating and trying to sell has no place left to go but the trash. Rent a dumpster for large items or use it to toss everything all at once.
Rules for Downsizing: Sentimental Items
Sentimental items are some of the hardest things to part with. But if it’s been years since your kids have flown the nest, they’re probably not missing their old trophies and stuffed animals.
You’re going to run out of space for these childhood memorabilia in your smaller home. Hold onto a few precious mementos and get rid of the rest. It can be easier to get rid of these items if they go to someone you know. Give a book to a friend you know would enjoy it or pass an old doll to a young neighbor.
“Other people’s memories are not your responsibility,” Reich said. “If your great aunt’s sterling silver tea set has become an albatross, it’s time to donate it or sell it. If a memory is worth preserving, treat it as such. Random boxes of pictures aren’t compelling, but an album of pictures, whether digital or a book, tells a story that can be enjoyed.”
Jameson suggests chronicling your memories in a downsizing workbook. This will help you hold onto precious mementos without cluttering your new home. Take a picture of the treasured item and cut a square from your child’s baby blanket. Keep them in a scrap journal to preserve the memories.
“Give your kids a deadline to claim any relics you’ve stored from their childhood and let them know you’ll donate or toss anything that’s left.”
Keep Your Clutter Under Wraps in Your New Home
Once you get through this list, you will have successfully downsized your home. As tough as that is, there’s another test ahead — keeping your clutter at bay. Make sure you organize as you unpack and set accumulation limits for yourself. Really think before you buy new items — do you have space for something new, or are you willing to get rid of something else to make room for this new thing? As long as you keep a handle on your belongings, your downsized life will give you everything you need with room to spare.
Caroline is HomeLight's Executive Editor and Director of Content. With seven years of real estate reporting and editing experience in Des Moines, she has previously managed content for Inman News and co-authored a book on leadership in real estate.
Marni is the author of five best-selling home and lifestyle books. Her popular column appears in 20 newspapers nationwide, reaching five million readers. Based in the Orlando area, Marni has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs, including NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends and Martha Stewart Living.
Based in Manhattan, professional organizer Barbara has over 20 years of experience in organizing people's lives and spaces. She has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Post and countless other publications. Her book, Secrets of an Organized Mom, is the 2014 winner of the Mom's Choice Award.
Scott is one of the Nation's inaugural Certified Professional Organizers working in the field since 2007 in the Washington D.C. area. He has been the recipient of the Professional Organizer of the Year award, as well as the NAPO Founders Award.
Certified Professional Organizer and Owner of Sage Organizing Co., Candi specializes in estate cleaning for families in Charlotte who have suffered a loss. Her business was awarded Charlotte's Best Organizing Company in 2019 and 2020, and Candi has been featured on shows such as The Charlotte Today.
What Do You Think?
Downsizing your home? We're listening. Head over to Twitter or Facebook,
and use #dumpstersblog to join the conversation.