Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Taking the Emotion Out of Selling a Home

Stacy Berman has sold homes for nearly two decades, and numerous times each year, she helps clients move through heart-wrenching transitions to let go of a beloved property.

One recent case involved an accountant in her 40s who’d long resided in a small bungalow with her professor husband, two school-age daughters and her elderly mother. In the wake of the grandmother’s death from cancer, the family, who’d outgrown their small abode, realized it was time to upsize their living quarters.

But the accountant found it terribly difficult to let go of the bungalow. Why? Because she had such happy memories of living there during her mother’s healthier years.

“Irrationally, she feared that the happy memories of her mother would be gone forever after the bungalow was sold,” Berman says.

While it’s relatively rare for people of middle age to experience despair upon the sale of a property, it’s common for senior citizens to go through a rough housing transition when they downsize. That’s especially true for those who’ve lived in a family home for decades and raised their children there. For them, downsizing often feels like the end of their vital years and independence.

Even so, there can be significant advantages for older homeowners to step down to a smaller place, especially if this liberates them from arduous and expensive home upkeep requirements and lets them extract equity at a favorable time for the real estate market.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Launch a broad search for your next home before selling.

With more than 20 years of experience selling real estate behind her, Ashley Richardson, of the Long & Foster realty firm, has gained a key insight into the emotional bond that many people have to a longtime residence. She says it’s often possible to transfer this attachment to another home.

Consequently, she recommends that sentimental sellers start looking for their next residence as soon as they put their property on the market or even earlier.

“This way, you’ll more quickly detach from the house where you’ve been living for a long time,” says Richardson, who’s affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council ( However, she urges those making a housing transition to restrict their property search solely to neighborhoods with homes they can afford, so as not to set themselves up for disappointment later.

-- Confirm your housing plans with your grown children.

Mark Nash, a real estate analyst and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” says many empty-nesters fear that letting go of a long-held property will mean fewer visits from family members. Yet lots of would-be sellers are also anxious to liberate themselves from the carrying costs a large property requires.

To address their fears of fewer family visits after downsizing, Nash says it can be wise for sellers to discuss these anxieties with their offspring. Perhaps future multi-generational family visits could be centered in a resort area where all could spend quality time together.

-- Depersonalize your property by removing memorabilia.

To break the emotional ties to their property, it helps many people to sort through and remove sentimental items. Nash says you’ll want to cull through your family memorabilia, eliminating all but the most precious of items.

“I can’t tell you how many people save their kids’ cribs in hopes that one day they’ll be used by their grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But those old cribs probably don’t even meet today’s standards for child safety,” Nash says.

Nash suggests you also give away or pack away many other family-related items, including toys and children’s books. And he recommends you remove family photographs from your walls.

“While you’re at it, you’ll need to paint the interior walls of your house. Be sure to repaint that purple room where your son lived as a teenager in a nice neutral tone, and cover over those pencil marks you made on the wall as your children grew up,” he says.

Neutralizing your property will not only help you detach from the place emotionally. It will also make it easier for you and your listing agent to attract buyers.

“People aren’t going to pay more because your house is filled with memories. In fact, having lots of memorabilia on display will only slow the sale of your property, because it keeps people from picturing themselves living there,” Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at