With the oldest baby boomers now approaching their 70s, demographers say the number of homeowners who are downsizing is expected to climb in coming years.
"All five of my last home sales involved downsizing boomers," says Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker.
Davis, the author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home," tells the true story of one of his clients, a widow of 69 who, due to medical problems, must sell her 3,500-square-foot house on one-third of an acre. The widow and her family plan to work off a checklist of pre-sale tasks provided by Davis.
To ease the strain of their parents' transition, he urges the offspring of downsizers to step in with assistance as early as possible -- especially if a sudden health setback is prompting the move.
"A short deadline compounds the problems of getting the house sold. That's why I advise clients to tackle the matter as soon as their elders want or need help," Davis says.
Diana Gaydon, a broker who specializes in helping seniors, recommends that sellers line up appointments with three potential listing agents as soon as a move is planned. She also advises that you select a kindhearted agent who provides personal attention to clients.
"Your parents need to have a gut level of comfort with the agent they choose," says Gaydon, who holds the designation of Seniors Real Estate Specialist, conferred by the National Association of Realtors. (For a local referral, go to www.seniorsrealestate.com.)
Here are a few pointers for the adult children of downsizing elders:
-- Honor your parents' deep attachment to their home.
Some couples, including those with a history of corporate transfers or military postings, find it relatively easy to ready a home for sale. But those who've stayed put through their retirement years typically have a tougher time letting go of their belongings.
"If your parents have been accumulating possessions for decades, you can't expect them to dispense with all that stuff in a hurry. Remember they want to make their own decisions for as long as they possibly can," Davis says.
While a senior's family members can be very helpful with many aspects of the housing transition, Davis says it's unwise for them to become involved in the de-cluttering work itself.
Ideally, he recommends that the parents engage the help of a professional organizer, assuming they can afford it. One source for local referrals is the National Association of Professional Organizers. (www.napo.net). For a lesser fee, (perhaps $10 to $15 an hour), they could likely find an energetic student by posting a local ad.
-- Don't pressure your parents to let go of valued items.
Real estate agents say personal items shouldn't be on display during showings, because that makes it hard for buyers to picture themselves living in the property. Even so, sellers shouldn't be cajoled into dispensing with prized possessions.
Gaydon says that in addition to photographs, many downsizers find it comforting to retain a few well-used pieces of furniture, such as the dining room table on which they served Thanksgiving dinners for many years.
To help smooth the transition for your elders, guarantee you'll safeguard their valuables during the home-showing period, Gaydon says.
"For example, you might tell them you'll take those coveted photos they have hanging on the wall and place them in a nice box on your piano until their house is sold," she says.
-- Show sensitivity when helping parents sell belongings.
Conducting a garage sale to eliminate excess household items might sound like a good idea. But the aggressive behavior of some who frequent such sales can be unnerving. Your parents might be hurt if they overhear strangers haggling over items they've used for years.
Rather than holding a garage sale, Davis recommends you ask your parents for the names of their favorite charities and arrange to have their giveaways taken there. (Valuable antiques and art can be sold through a dealer or an online company such as eBay.)
-- Use tact when discussing needed updates to your parents' property.
Those who've lived in the same home for a long time are often very comfortable with its decor, no matter how dated. But their grown kids typically agree with the listing agent that the home should be updated to more contemporary standards before it goes on the market.
The problem is you could face lots of pushback if you try to press your parents into replacing their still-functioning chocolate-colored refrigerator, for example. Likewise, they might rebuff you if you demand they have their 20-year-old lime-green carpeting torn up and replaced with fresh carpeting in a neutral beige.
Instead of trying to pressure your parents into updates to receive greater proceeds from their property, try reasoning with them. Then if they still refuse, back off.
"It's not worth risking the happiness of the family to get more dollars from a sale," Davis says.
(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)