9 tips for downsizing to a smaller space

Moving can be a stressful life event — more so if you're downsizing to a smaller home or apartment. Here's some advice on how to do it well.

'With less things to care for, you have more time to enjoy life'

I'm a fairly avid thrifter who visits a lot of yard sales and auctions — two ways people get rid of excess stuff. 

Such events can be bittersweet — sometimes they are being held by adult children or grandchildren who have been left the task of disposing of a relative's household items after they have moved to an apartment or moved on from this mortal coil. They often express they feel guilty about the process — however they don't like, want or need many of their relative's things. 

I will travel light and not accumulate much going forward. It's a liberating feeling.— Cate Proctor

So, what's a graceful way to undertake downsizing? 

One of my grandmothers handled this elegantly — in her elder years, if a visitor complimented a belonging such as a pretty dish, she'd say "It's yours!" It brought her joy to see their surprise and happiness. She gave each of her granddaughters quilts hand-stitched by her mother.

This kind of purging-in-place can work if you know long in advance of your departure, but that's not always the case, is it? 

Margie Villard is a professional organizer on P.E.I. with her company, Joy of Organizing. She teaches workshops in downsizing and offered her advice, as did you, dear readers, via Facebook

1. Take your time, if possible

It is going to be a much larger job than you anticipated so start early, Villard said. 

'It is a huge undertaking and can often take six months to a year to clear out a house,' says realtor Kelly Lantz. (Marija Stojkovic/Shutterstock)

"Moving is the quickest way to realize how much stuff you have accumulated," she said. 

"As a realtor I see people in this process all the time," commented Kelly Lantz. "It is a huge undertaking and can often take six months to a year to clear out a house."

Lantz often sees the job of clearing out a house left to adult children if elderly parents become sick before they have had a chance to do it — a stressful chore. 

"In my experience, start a year in advance — it will elevate a lot of stress," commented Pauline Reeves. 

It took Cate Proctor about six weeks to downsize from a three-bedroom house to a shared two-bedroom apartment. 

"It is intense," Proctor said. She gave away truckloads of stuff to her many family members, and took small items to community donation sites. "There was much to purge!"

2. Be ruthless

"When deciding what items will be moving to your new location, be ruthless," urges Villard. "Only take items that fit your current lifestyle," she said. 

Once the sold sign goes on, the clock is ticking to moving day. (David Horemans/CBC)

However, a caution on ruthlessness, from commenter Cynthia King for adult children helping parents downsize, remember — it's not your stuff. 

"If possible make sure your parents are the primary decision-makers about what to keep (with a little prodding). I think it's really hard for elderly parents to make such a big change so every little decision seems very important," she said. 

When Tracey Allen moved a few years ago to a much smaller home, she took four months to sort her things. 

"Knowing we had to put our things in a storage locker helped the decision-making process," Allen said. "Asking the question — do I want this enough to pay to store it?"

3. Give up your role as 'keeper of the things'

"You can no longer be the keeper of the items. Stop storing things for your children/parents/friend," said Villard. 

"Give them back their belongings and let them take on the decision where it will go." 

That's exactly what Maureen Campbell-Hanley did — "I stopped being the 'keeper of the stuff' for anyone other than myself and my husband!" she said. 

4. Take only what fits

If possible, know the dimensions of the space you are moving to, said Villard. 

"Are you going from a five-bedroom house to a two-bedroom condo? Perhaps your favourite pieces of furniture will be too big," she said. 

5. Donate, give away and sell

"My advice is to give yourself lots of time, hire someone to help, get a dumpster, donate as much as you can to charity," advised Lantz. 

Going monochrome with the colour scheme in a smaller space can make it seem larger, experts say. (CBC)

That's exactly what commenter Sandy Terakita did — "I donated enough stuff to outfit three households," Terakita said. 

"After you get past the realization that it's just material stuff ... it is so easy. Donation is key. What a great feeling to give to organizations that really need help." 

Villard's advice: "Find someone in your life that will treasure and enjoy the item as much as you do." But don't attach expectations to the items, such as being prominently displayed in someone else's home. 

You could also have a yard sale, sell some items online or hire an auction house. 

"When selling items look at comparable items to set pricing, not what you think it is worth or what you paid for it," Villard advises — check out Kijiji or Facebook marketplace/buy and sell groups for reference.

6. Take photos

Take a photo of your favourite things that are going to new homes, advises Villard.

'Look at comparable items to set pricing, not what you think it is worth or what you paid for it,' says pro organizer Margie Villard. (Peter Evans/CBC)

"Enjoy the memories associated with the item and appreciate the role it played in your life," then let it go, she said. 

Daphne Dumont commented she follows this advice for things for which she no longer has room, like beloved clothes she's grown out of. 

"We attach our memories to the items, and if we have an alternative place to secure the memories it's not so hard to let go of the things themselves," Dumont reflects. 

7. Make it your job

Downsizing in place was Eleanor Boswell's "first non-paying job when I retired" in 1994, she shared.

"Started in the attic, ended in the basement. Sorted, shredded, bought material type boxes for each daughter ... Gave lots away, had yard sales," she said. 

"I had heard so many stories about people dumping their parent's treasures into the black can after their parents passed. I decided to sort photos of the many weddings attended over the years and made arrangements to drop off or mail to families. Did the same with magazines, greeting cards, community history clippings, and scrapbooks. Called seniors' homes, legions etc. — the cards can be used for crafts," Boswell said. 

8. Gather a team of helpers

"My family is in this process now," commented Cody MacDonald. "We are currently helping my grandmother move from her home of 30 years to a small two-bedroom apartment. The task can be massive sorting through years and years of memories and items."

'Asking the question — do I want this enough to pay to store it?' helped Sandy Terakita when downsizing. (Marija Stojkovic/Shutterstock)

Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of can be stressful, MacDonald said, noting the process has taken more than three months. 

"We have a great team of family, hired help, and a tremendous real estate agent to help us with this entire process," he said. 

When it comes to packing and moving, label items clearly so you can easily find them once you are moved, Villard advises, and pack items by room. 

When dealing with photo albums, ensure if you are keeping them for future generations that there is identifying information on the photos, she adds. 

9. Don't reaccumulate stuff

"Because I live in a small apartment I have this problem perpetually," shared Dumont. 

"I will travel light and not accumulate much going forward. It's a liberating feeling but quite a task," said Cate Proctor. 

"I kept only the things that we would use every day and the freedom that comes with downsizing is unbelievable. Life became very easy and very stress-free," said Sandy Terakita.

"With less things to care for you have more time to enjoy life," said Villard. "You are not leaving someone else to deal with all the things you have accumulated.

"You will enjoy the items you choose to keep in your space because they are treasures to you and bring you pleasure and you will have room to display them properly."

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Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at