Mothers and daughters talk about all kinds of things. But there is one conversation Susan Beauregard, 49, of Hampton, Conn., is reluctant to have with her 89-year-old mother, Anita Shear: What to do — eventually — with Mrs. Shear’s beloved set of Lenox china?
Ms. Beauregard said she never uses her own fine china, which she received as a wedding gift long ago. “I feel obligated to take my mom’s Lenox, but it’s just going to sit in the cupboard next to my stuff,” she said.
The only heirlooms she wants from her mother, who lives about an hour away, in the home where Ms. Beauregard was raised, are a few pictures and her mother’s wedding band and engagement ring, which she plans to pass along to her son.
So, in a quandary familiar to many adults who must soon dispose of the beloved stuff their parents would love them to inherit, Ms. Beauregard has to break it to her mother that she does not intend to keep the Hitchcock dining room set or the buffet full of matching Lenox dinnerware, saucers and gravy boats.
As baby boomers grow older, the volume of unwanted keepsakes and family heirlooms is poised to grow — along with the number of delicate conversations about what to do with them. According to a 2014 United States census report, more than 20 percent of America’s population will be 65 or older by 2030. As these waves of older adults start moving to smaller dwellings, assisted living facilities or retirement homes, they and their kin will have to part with household possessions that the heirs simply don’t want.
“We went from a 3,000-square-foot colonial with three floors to a single-story, 1,400-square-foot living space,” said Tena Bluhm, 76, formerly of Fairfax, Va. She and her 77-year-old husband, Ray Bluhm, moved this month to a retirement community in Lake Ridge, Va.
Before the move, their two adult children took a handful of items, including a new bed and a dining table and chairs. But Mrs. Bluhm could not interest them in “the china and the silver and the crystal,” her own generation’s hallmarks of a properly furnished, middle-class home.
The competitive accumulation of material goods, a cornerstone of the American dream, dates to the post-World War II economy, when returning veterans fled the cities to establish homes and status in the suburbs. Couples married when they were young, and wedding gifts were meant to be used — and treasured — for life.
“Americans spent to keep up with the Joneses, using their possessions to make the statement that they were not failing in their careers,” wrote Juliet B. Schor, the Boston College sociologist, in her 1998 book, “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need.”
But for a variety of social, cultural, and economic reasons, this is no longer the case. Today’s young adults tend to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea and Target, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents.
This represents a significant shift in material culture, said Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, a professional organization of moving specialists who help older people downsize.
“This is the first time we’re seeing a kink in the chain of passing down mementos from one generation to another,” Ms. Buysse said in a telephone interview from the group’s headquarters in Hinsdale, Ill.
Accordingly, the senior move management industry has experienced unprecedented growth in recent years, Ms. Buysse said. These move managers usually charge an hourly rate, typically $50 to $125. They spend time with clients, helping them sort through years of accumulated possessions and make decisions about what to dispose, what to donate to charities and what to try to fit into their new living spaces.
Final costs of the service, which may also involve an estate sale, can be $2,500 to $5,000 or more, depending on the size of the home and the density of its contents.
“We found that seniors have more needs than just the sale of their estates,” said Tracy Niro, a managing partner of Wise Moves, a move management company in Gaithersburg, Md.
Once the children have picked over what they want, and the items slated for the next home have been boxed up, the question is, what becomes of the rest?
“Some goes to auction, some goes to eBay, and some goes to our retail shop,” said Chris Fultz, an owner of Nova Liquidations, an estate liquidation company in Luray, Va., that works closely with companies like Wise Moves.
Ms. Niro said her company also works with nonprofits, like Habitat for Humanity, to find new homes for discarded items. Yet even these operations are feeling overwhelmed by the growing inventory of household goods delivered at their doorsteps.
“We are definitely getting overrun with furniture, and about 20 percent more donations of everything than in previous years,” said Michael Frohm, chief operating officer of Goodwill of Greater Washington, in a telephone interview.
Changing aesthetic tastes are also responsible for the overflow.
“The whole ’90s were the English country look, collections, chintz,” said Jennifer Lacker, an antiques appraiser in Mystic, Conn., who cited the influence of the interior designer Mario Buatta (known as the “Prince of Chintz”). The look, she added, was decidedly “rich and lavish.”
Beginning in the 2000s, though, clutter was out, and minimalism in. Mr. Buatta’s paradigm has been replaced most recently by that of Marie Kondo, whose 2014 book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” remains a steady best seller.
Millennials are also less inclined to want their parents’ household goods simply because they have no place to put them.
As his parents begin to contemplate moving from their two-story colonial home in Annandale, N.J., to a smaller living space, Travis Miscia, a 30-year-old lawyer, would like to lay claim to a good number of his family’s belongings. But he and his wife live in a two-bedroom apartment in Jersey City that is too small to hold them.
“I am very interested in family history, and I would like a lot of my parents’ things on some level,” Mr. Miscia said, “but I have had to limit myself to taking what I would call primary-source documents, like books and some pictures.”
Another option for older people and their heirs is self-storage. Like the industry that manages moves for older adults, the $32.7 billion storage business is experiencing rapid growth, projected at 3.5 percent annually over the next five years, according to statistics reported this month by SpareFoot Storage Beat, an industry tracker.
Yet often this strategy only postpones the inevitable.
“Some children take the objects just to keep Mom and Dad quiet,” said Roger Schrenk, Mr. Fultz’s business partner at Nova Liquidations. “They’ll take them and store them until Mom’s dead, and then they can’t wait to get rid of them.”
With this in mind, Mrs. Bluhm, whose adult children only wanted the new bed and dining set, recommends a philosophical approach to the process of letting go of possessions that children may not cherish but others may.
“By donating them to charity, I knew they weren’t going to go into a Dumpster and that someone who really wanted them would purchase them,” she said. Though the items are no longer hers, she said, many of her familiar household objects are not altogether gone.
“What I had left were the memories attached to them, in my heart and in my head,” Mrs. Bluhm said.
Good news for those of us clearing out a loved one’s home and finding lots of bottles of prescription medicines. NEVER flush them down the sink or toilet. Now there is (or soon will be) a new option–return to your local pharmacy.
I read this in the NY Times:
Concerned by rising rates of prescription drug abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Monday that it would permit consumers to return unused prescription medications like opioid painkillers to pharmacies. The move is intended to help reduce stockpiles of unneeded medicines in homes, which are often pilfered by teenagers. Under the new regulation, patients and their relatives will also be allowed to mail unused prescription drugs to an authorized collector using packages to be made available at pharmacies and other locations, like libraries and senior centers. The new regulation, which will go into effect in a month, covers drugs designated as controlled substances. Those include opioid painkillers like OxyContin, stimulants like Adderall and depressants like Ativan. Until now, the Controlled Substances Act allowed patients only to dispose of the drugs themselves or to surrender them to law enforcement. “This is big news and long overdue,” said Dr. G. Caleb Alexander at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s baffling that it’s so easy to get a prescription for opioids and yet so difficult to dispose of these drugs safely.”
Did you inherit a collection? Chances are, you don’t know much about it. Chances are, you don’t know what to do with it. But take care–it could be worthless or it could be worth a small fortune. Read this article in a recent NY Times for details.
To the 86 people who subscribed to this blog–many thanks for your attention, but I’ve decided to stop. After 22 months and 77 posts, I have to conclude that there isn’t much interest in this topic. Which surprises me, as there is so much need, with all the Greatest Generation and now Baby Boomers dying and leaving their heirs with so much STUFF to dispose of, and so many people downsizing. However, I’ve reluctantly decided that it isn’t worth my while to soldier on, so thank you kindly for tuning in, and good luck with your own efforts at identifying, valuing, and disposing of unwanted inherited STUFF. Please feel free to email me if you have any specific problems or questions: email@example.com.
If you have exhausted your patience with do-it-youself appraisals (by looking for similar items that have sold on eBay, craigslist, liveauctioneers.com, worthpoint.com, and other free sites), and you aren’t willing to hire a human being to come to your home and examine your object, it may be time to pay for an on-line appraisal. These are cheap and, because the appraisers cannot examine the object except through a photograph and your (possibly inaccurate) description, not as reliable as the real thing, but they can help if you are just trying to get a general idea of an item’s value.
There are many on-line appraisal services you can use. Reputable ones include Kovels, at http://www.kovels.com, where you can have a free subscription and get some information and access to price guides, or pay $3.25 a month or $5.00 a month for access to more information.
Another site is http://www.valuemystuff.com. You send them a picture and $10 and they have an appraiser give you a value. Costs are lower if you have 3 or 10 or more items you want appraised.
Another site is http://www.worthpoint.com. Here you can have a free membership for 7 days, so what’s to lose? Or pay $30 for one item’s appraisal or sign on for $20/month for unlimited access to their databases.
Before you talk to an estate appraiser, have as much of the following information as possible ready:
1. your reason for an appraisal. Do you want to sell the item? To insure the item? To donate the item? These require different types of appraisals and will usually produce different values.
2. any information you have about the item: its description, measurements, artist/craftsman, age, when and where purchased, and for how much. You probably won’t have all that information, but every bit helps.
3. a photograph of the item and any identifying marks.
Why are estate appraisers better than auctioneers? They are usually more knowledgeable about the value of objects, especially antique objects. Some appraisers are also auctioneers; other appraisers work with specific auctioneers.
There are two types of appraisers: real estate and personal property. You might need both if you have a house to sell as well a houseful of Stuff. Look in the Yellow Pages under “Estates” or search the Internet, but try to get personal recommendations, admittedly difficult if you are from out of town. The funeral director or an upscale antique store should have a good recommendation or two. Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure the name isn’t toxic. Personal property appraisers are not required to have any particular qualifications or education levels to conduct business, so you need to be careful about hiring “just anybody.” Some are nothing but auctioneers who hold up an item without knowing or caring what it is, as long as it sells fast. Ask if they specialize. Many reputable appraisers specialize in a particular area, say dolls or jewelry, and may be ill-equipped to recognize the pair of eighteenth-century Hogarth prints on the wall.
One indication of knowledge and integrity is the appraiser’s professional status. Ask if he or she is a member of the American Society of Appraisers or the Appraisers Association of America, or if he has the letters GPPA after his name (Graduate Personal Property Appraiser). Ask what their specialty is. Membership in these associations mean that the person has been in business several years, has taken a professional appraisals course, has learned how to write appraisals correctly, and has studied the ethics involved. You can use www.appraisers.org or www.appraisersassoc.org to find appraisers who are members of these two groups and search for those who specialize in either gems and jewelry or personal property. That said, there are exemplary appraisers who are not accredited, and I would not disqualify someone who was not accredited if they had solid recommendations. Contact a reputable auction house and ask for recommendations for the sort of appraisers you need.
People who appraise your Stuff should not buy it. That’s a clear conflict of interest.
The estate appraiser/auctioneer holds regular public auctions or on-site estate sales and will sell your Stuff for the highest price possible. He’ll take a commission, as little as 10% if you have several items that he knows he can flip quickly to a particular customer, or as much as 60% if you have consigned boxes of miscellaneous tools and junk that will take time and sell for only a dollar a piece. The percentage is negotiable and depends on things like how far a distance he has to haul your Stuff. The auctioneer also makes money on the other end, in the form of a “buyer’s premium” that amounts to 10-15% of the bid. He gets that money from the buyer.
Some appraisers will hold an on-site sale or auction if your location is convenient to a large customer base. Stuff often sells better in a residential setting. This is called an estate sale or tag sale and usually lasts a couple days. Everything is pre-priced, and the prices usually fall the second day. They’ll sell what they can to the public and haul the rest away. The tag sale will take several weeks to prepare: every item needs to be examined, priced, and carried into view, and the event needs to be advertised, but the heirs do not have to be present. In fact, it’s best if they are not, unless they are genuine customers intending to buy.
If you’ve inherited a house full of Stuff and you have no time to handle any of it yourself, you might consider using the services of an estate appraiser. Contact an estate appraiser before you’ve done any removals, and ask if they will meet you on site for a discussion of their fees and their recommendation. It will probably take an hour. They should not charge for this service, just like interviewing a lawyer about your case should not cost you. You are shopping for professional help and should interview at least two. After examining the house’s contents, the appraiser can tell you which of several options they recommend:
1. An estate sale on the site. If the location is convenient to lots of people and the estate includes some high quality Stuff worth a total of at least $10,000, this will probably be the way to go. Nice antiques, art, rugs, and handcrafts tend to sell better in the home than in a store.
2. If there are just a few exceptional items, they could move those to an antique shop or art gallery and sell on consignment. This takes time—many things will not sell for months, maybe years, but if you’re in no hurry for the money, it could work best. A typical cut for the store would be around 40-50%.
3. They might buy the contents of the house outright. Then you’re done with it. This means less money for you, but it’s over. Whew!!
4. Another option is an online estate auction where every item is tagged with a number and the house is open for a day or two for preview only. This is an inspection time where individuals and antiques dealers can breeze in, pen and paper in hand, and take note of any items they want to bid on. They go home, log onto the auctioneer’s website where every item is listed beside its picture, and bid for the things they want. After a few days, the top bidders are notified to pick up their property.
No one knows everything, and a good estate appraiser will have contacts with experts in many fields that she can call on for help when the estate contains Stuff like oriental rugs or antique silver or hand-carved decoys or leather-bound first editions. This ensures you get the most money for your Stuff. And since the appraiser is getting a percentage, it is to her advantage to get you the highest price.
Most auctions are “open” which means the items are going to be sold for whatever they bring. No “reserves.” A reserve is the floor below which the item will not sell. (As in, “I want to sell this table but not for less than $200.” In that case, $200 is the reserve.) In an estate sale, every single item is priced. Prices may be negotiable but not usually on the first day.
Today is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which aims to provide a safe and convenient way to dispose of unwanted prescription drugs–you know, like the ones in the bathroom cabinet and on the bedroom nightstand. These can be devilishly hard to get rid of properly. Prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs–even if unopened–can’t be returned or donated in most states. And the absolute worst thing you can do is flush them down the toilet or sink, which lets them into the water supply where they aren’t filtered out.
So, you’ve inherited a whole bunch of medicines–what next? Find a location near you that will take them back and destroy them responsibly by visiting www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov or call 1-800-882-9539. If you miss today’s event, don’t despair. Many of these sites take back drugs all year round, and besides, the DEA sponsors this event every six months.