Downsizing in Style

No need to give up great design when you give up square footage: tales from the trenches on how to downsize your home



Freeman’s former living room (left page) was single-purpose compared with her new downsized version, shown bottom right. “I call my dining-room table my ‘everything table’ now, because it also works as a room divider, library table, and my catch-all table,” she says.  Above photo and Freeman's portrait on opposite page by Phillip Ennis. 

 

The First Steps to Downsizing Your Home

For 30 years or so, Kim Freeman lived in the 2,800-square-foot, Cape-style
house in Ossining she inherited from her parents, who designed it themselves
and filled it with Early American furniture. Freeman, an interior designer in
her early 60s, added her own antique pine furniture along with vintage French
textiles, majolica, flatware, and various other collections she’d amassed during
her previous career as a magazine design editor and stylist.

Recently, though, Freeman began yearning for a simpler life—and realized one way to get it was by moving to a much smaller home. “It was an emotional decision,” she admits. “But I finally felt overwhelmed by everything. I felt the objects were owning me. I wanted to be freer with less responsibility, and that equals less space and less stuff. Everybody I talk to these days feels this way.”

Yes, downsizing is all the rage. It’s a trend whose popularization is often attributed to architect Sarah Susanka’s bestselling 1998 book, The Not So Big House, in which Susanka describes her philosophy of quality over quantity—an idea at odds with the spendy final decades of the last century. In 1950, the average American home was 983 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Three years ago, despite the shrinking of the average family, it was going on 2,400 square feet. And, in Westchester, where McMansions loom on every horizon, that average is probably higher. But it looks like the days of “more is better” are on the wane.

While only 14 percent of Americans over 65 say they plan to move in the next five years, 67 percent of them will be downsizing. Most of them are empty-nesters, those wanting to age in place, or retirees aiming to free up some of the equity in their houses. The financial advantages of heating, cooling, and maintaining a smaller home are obvious. There’s also the bonus, if you want to renovate, of being able to splurge on high-quality materials that you might not be able to afford in large quantities. Apart from practical reasons, there are those like Kim Freeman, who want a less encumbered life. “I’m in the business of things, and the more I saw, the less I wanted,” she sums up.

Freeman decided to rent a new place, rather than buy. “I wasn’t sure what the next step was. I’m single; I may want to travel. I found a dream cottage on an estate in Bedford Corners—900 adorable square feet.” Her circa 1920s home, once a gardener’s cottage, is configured like this: “There’s a living room/dining room—the living room consists of a sofa and the dining room consists of a table,” she jokes. “I changed the second largest room, once the dining room, into an office; there are two cozy bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a basement, and a screened-in porch that I call a room the minute the doors are open.”

 

Above photo, clockwise: Despite paring her belongings, there are a few treasured collections that made the move to the cottage; This desk was on the mezzanine floor in Freeman's Ossining home; now it fits neatly in a corner; Furnishings from all over Freeman's former residence have found a home on the screened porch; Pumpkin Pie seems to have adjusted nicely.

 

Moving into a house a third the size of her previous one meant unloading a lot of possessions. “That was the hardest part,” Freeman says. “But once you get past the fear, you get on a roll, and it’s the most cathartic, cleansing feeling in the world.” Freeman sold her best pieces through antiques dealers, had a garage sale, and donated to charity shops. “I still have too much stuff,” she admits, though she’s slowly culling from her storage unit, selling on the home-decor website, One King’s Lane.  

Ah, yes, storage units! They are sprouting up all over the place, and downsizers are helping fill them up. But, Freeman suggests, “Give yourself a time limit. If you can’t remember what’s in there, just clear it out.”  

Although Freeman’s decision to “go contemporary” in her new space was a brief fling (“I bought a set of four garden chairs for $200, and that was my whole attempt,” she says with a laugh), she was more successful in experimenting with color. “Wherever I’ve lived has been all white. Now I’m into chartreuse, hot pink, turquoise. A lot of people are afraid of color in small spaces. I wouldn’t paint walls a bright color, but splashes of color—I find that happy.” She gave a new look to some of her furniture by reupholstering it. “Putting things into a new environment, you see them anew,” she observes. 

Any regrets? “I don’t miss a thing,” Freeman responds. “Well, I’d like a fireplace. And just a foot or two more in the bedroom to make it easier to move around the bed. But that’s it.”

Freeman enlisted her friend Laurie Hilliardfrom Bedford Hills to assist with the move, an experience that helped inspire Hilliard to launch her new company, The Skinny Home (914-441-9055), to help others deal with downsizing their stuff. “The reason I called it The Skinny Home is that there’s a fitness aspect,” Hilliard explains. “When you’re shedding possessions, you’re becoming psychologically fit. People have emotional connections to things. It’s not just a question of changing square footage; you’re getting rid of emotional baggage as well as physical. It’s a huge psychological phenomenon—we’re all suffering from too much stuff.” 

To start culling: “First, get rid of the junk, and what you really don’t want, because that’s easiest,” Hilliard says. “Donate it or sell it.” Which leads to what she calls the first psychological hurdle: determining if your things are as valuable as you think they are. “Get an antiques dealer to come and assess. Your mother’s china, family heirlooms, an antique you paid a fortune for—they may not be worth much money because of fashion trends.” Another part of that psychological hurdle, says Hilliard, is determining the emotional investment. “If you haven’t touched something in a while, say months, you should get rid of it.

 

The creamy white daybed had been in a guest room; Freeman covered it with Donghia fabric and now uses it as her main sofa

“It’s a good idea to have a digital inventory of things you own,” continues Hilliard, who offers that service. “I come in, photograph items, write a description including dimensions, and make a pdf to circulate to family and friends, so you can ask, ‘Does anybody want this?’ You can also take it to antique dealers or consignment shops as part of the evaluating process. If you’re frightened of making a mistake, get a small storage unit and you’ll avoid buyer’s remorse in reverse,” she advises. “But do it judiciously. If you’re paying $200 a month for the rest of your life, that’s not downsizing.” 

If you’ve pared down, she says, “the things you kept become more precious. Downsizing also tempers your acquisition of things in the future—not just because you’re limited by space, but because you’ve just gone through the cathartic relief of getting rid of stuff. You don’t want to be owned by your stuff again. We boomers lived such an acquisitive, materialistic lifestyle that having fewer belongings now is liberating.”

For Mia Homan and her husband, Bram Fierstein, letting go of their belongings was easy when they moved from the five-bedroom, 1918 Colonial house in Pelham where they raised their son and daughter. “We lived there for 20 years. It was a beautiful house, and very much a home,” says Homan, who recently moved with her husband into smaller quarters in New Rochelle. “It had four floors, all sorts of charming details. But it was too much space for us. We didn’t want it anymore.” 

The move was geographically short—a mile and half—so that the couple, both 56, would be near their friends and their country club. (Both work in Westchester: Homan in Assemblywoman Amy Paulin’s office, and Fierstein at his real-estate management company.) Their new home, a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot apartment with a terrace, is far from cramped, but still, most of their belongings had to go. 

For Homan, that wasn’t such a wrench. “I’ve never been one to hang onto things,” she explains. “Also, I took care of my mother’s things after she died, then my father’s when he went into assisted living, and again after he died. Having to do that three times, I began to feel trapped by our possessions.”

 

 

Moving from a five-bedroom house into a 2,000-square-foot apartment wasn’t traumatic for Mia Homan and her husband Bram Fierstein. They purged in earnest and now have a clean slate in their new apartment.

Homan purged in earnest. “I was ruthless, to the point that we shredded our diplomas, we threw out yearbooks. I gave away hundreds of books; I’m a huge reader, but the Westchester Library System is great. Antiques went to auction, and we were the first estate-sale gig for Estate of Mine. They did a nice job of merchandising.”  

The couple’s son, who’s a senior in college and still needing a room at home, wanted to keep only his bed. A few things went into storage, including 15 boxes of Yankee memorabilia, which Homan says is her unacquisitive husband’s one contribution to their accumulation of stuff. 

“People kept asking us, ‘Aren’t you sad to leave your house?’ and we both kept saying no. I’d be lying to say there wasn’t some emotional tugging at the heart, but, once we’d made the decision, it was pretty easy to follow through. We’re making plans to age well, to affirmatively live our lives and not let old age creep up on us. Now I’m one of those people preaching to get rid of stuff—it becomes an obsession,” she continues. “None of us have that many irreplaceable objects. I’d rather preserve relationships.”

First Steps to Downsizing

  • Get Help: If you’re not up to doing it yourself, get pros to help organize, execute, and advertise your tag or estate sale. Jean MacIntosh of J & J Resales in Bedford Hills believes in the old adage that one person’s junk is another one’s treasure. “You can’t begin to imagine the types of things people buy at a tag sale,” she says. Another business, Estate of Mine in Pelham (917-513-5440), bills itself as “a white-glove version” of the ubiquitous tag sale. Owners Randi MacColl and Linda Peters of Pelham worked in sales and marketing for luxury brands such as Vera Wang, Architectural Digest, and 1stdibs before starting the venture last spring.
  • Sell antiques through reputable dealers or auction houses. Consignment shops are also a good outlet for vintage pieces. Selling collectibles on eBay or Amazon makes parting with them less painful.
  • Donate unwanted books to your local library’s used book sale; household items and clothing to your favorite charities. You’ll clean house and get a tax deduction.
  • Make a digital record of the things you have in storage, listing dimensions and condition, so that you don’t have to unpack to get that info.
  • On moving day, line up plenty of help on the receiving end. Laurie Hilliard’s company, The Skinny Home, offers the services of a decorator to help set up new homes and keep the chaos to a minimum. 
  • Use small spaces wisely. “Multi-purpose your furniture,” says Kim Freeman, whose dining table now also serves as a library table and for presentations to clients
  • Consider cutting down large-scale furniture, like two-part cupboards, that might be just a little too big for the smaller space. “It’s good to have serious pieces in a small room so that it doesn’t look dinky, like a dollhouse,” observes Freeman.

Give yourself a reward for getting rid of stuff, Hilliard suggests. “Buying a few news things that compliments the things you kept can be exciting.”

Lynn Hazlewood is a freelance writer living with far too much stuff in High Falls, Ulster County.