Marni Jameson flew from Florida to her childhood home in California and found herself paralyzed at the front door.
Her mission was to clear out her parents’ house, update it and sell it to pay for their long-term care.
While it is challenging to declutter, streamline and purge one’s own belongings, going through the home her parents shared for 50 years was heart-wrenching.
“You want to be a good steward of their life and preserve some of their memories, but you cannot take it all with you, and you cannot store it all, and you cannot turn the house into a museum,” she says.
Marni turned to clutter busters, grief counselors and antique appraisers, sharing her deeply personal experience through her syndicated lifestyle newspaper column, “At Home With Marni Jameson.”
The response was warm, with readers begging for a book.
“Everyone is working through this,” Marni says. “They need this.”
Marni sold more than 100,000 copies of “Downsizing the Family Home.” It was followed by “Downsizing the Blended Home” and a workbook to help readers journal the process. Marni’s newest book, “What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want,” helps readers tighten their own estates.
Estate sales are not just for the departed, but for people downsizing to smaller homes, making long-distance moves or after divorce.
Marni and her sister-in-law tackled the estate sale alone, but Bonnie Frederics, president of Arizona Estate Sales & Liquidations, says there are benefits to hiring a licensed and bonded professional. You get expertise in pricing, staging and marketing, plus the benefit of years of experience that helps her level with clients.
“I’m very straight with people and tell them what is popular,” Bonnie says.
High-maintenance grandfather clocks are out. Pianos—even glamorous baby grands—can bring in as little as $500 because buyers are moving toward digital.
“Organs are the worst,” she says. “Even the churches won’t take them.”
In the past, estate sale experts depended on open houses promoted in newspapers. Online outreach can bring in more money with less expense—especially for liquidations in remote areas.
Bonnie has potential clients submit photos of every room from multiple angles—although some high-value items are not obvious in photos. Mixed in among stainless steel cutlery, she frequently finds sterling silver. Gold jewelry turns up among costume pieces.
“Gold and silver have an inherent value,” Bonnie says. “They’re always worth, at minimum, melt value.”
Other perennial classics are glassware and crystal. Men love tools—especially antique and power tools—and women come for jewelry and kitchen items. Guns sell well, but it takes a professional to stay on top of gun sale laws.
“It’s a game, it’s a treasure hunt,” Bonnie says of in-person sales, noting items not sold are donated or discarded.
Frequent Pawn Stars expert Mark Hall-Patton says in his 40 years in the museum industry he cannot count the times someone has said, “I was on my way to the dump and thought of you.”
Although most museums don’t want your grandmother’s china, your uncle’s typewriter or your mother’s wedding dress, Mark says it never hurts to ask.
Museums depend on donations but can only take items that help fill gaps in the story they strive to tell. Every addition to the collection is a responsibility.
“The museum is saying, ‘We’re going to use our resources to maintain these artifacts in perpetuity,’” says Mark, who directed the Clark County, Nevada, museum system until retiring in May.
He suggests potential donors consider the item’s origins and approach relevant regional museums. Treasures from Texas may be of interest there, but not in New York.
Though it is a challenge, Marni says she hopes people consider it an honor to manage an estate.
“As difficult as it is, it’s a rite of passage that we all go through,” she says. “We don’t get out of this world without having to do this at least once.”
Marni’s biggest takeaway when choosing what to keep is this: When everything is important, nothing is important.
“With my mom and dad’s things, I was tempted to keep so much,” she says. “They were very dear to me, and they’ve both passed since all of this has happened.
“I just wanted everything that they loved because I loved them. I wanted to preserve it, and you can’t.”
Marni suggests taking photos of possessions to preserve memories, saving a sample of fabric instead of a dress or keeping a favorite fishing lure instead of all the gear. Pick a few things that symbolize your loved one in whatever way is important to you.
“Keep the small and the few,” she says. “If it’s your mom, keep her pearls and not her piano. I have some artwork that was in our house—a set of four little French prints my mom liked and a little painting I remember seeing every day. My dad, as a teen during the Depression, worked in a cigar factory. I have a cigar box from that. I have my mom’s little coin purse she used to carry every day. I have a bottle of perfume that smells like her. That’s enough.”
But that does not mean letting everything else go was easy.
“I definitely had to go outside and cry with a couple of things,” she says.
Going forward, Marni is determined to prune her possessions.
“We live in a very consumable culture,” she says. “When my mom got married, a set of sheets were to be savored for the entire marriage. We’re like, meh, we don’t like the color. We go to Target, and we start over. They were a different generation. They valued everything.”
Marni encourages resisting the urge to keep sports jackets, trophies from high school and flowers from a prom forever.
“If your kids have kids, and you still have your kid’s Girl Scout or Boy Scout uniform, you have a problem,” she says.
“Let go. Really look at who you are right now and what is serving you right now. What do you need, use and love to make your life wonderful now? If you don’t live in the now, you live in the past or the future, and you rob yourself of the present.”
Archival Preservation at Home
Museum professional and Pawn Stars-featured expert Mark Hall-Patton offers the following tips for providing museum-quality care for keepsakes:
- Don’t keep your wedding dress or vintage clothing in plastic dry-cleaning bags. If possible, store clothing flat, not hanging, in acid-free tissue.
- Store valuables in a cedar chest rather than a cardboard box, which is acidic.
- Do not display photos in direct sunlight.
- Reframe early 19th and 20th century photos with an acid-free barrier between them and the original wood frame, if you want to maintain the look.
- Always place an acid-free mat between a framed photo and the glass. If there is any kind of moisture, the photographic emulsion can adhere to the glass, damaging the image.
- If storing things in your house, don’t store them in the attic or basement. If you must store items in a basement, consider a dehumidifier to keep the moisture level steady.
- If keepsakes are stored in the living area, keep them in an interior closet—not one with an exterior wall—to prevent heat from radiating from the outside wall.
Convert Your Memories to Digital
To preserve photos, VHS tapes, films and slides digitally, you can turn to retail photo centers such as Costco and Walmart or specialty companies.
A kit from www.imemories.com includes a crush-proof box, waterproof bags, shock-resistant bubble cushions and free shipping via FedEx. Customers may ship with their own boxes. Another company, www.legacybox.com, sends customers a box to fill. Kits include a prepaid return UPS mailing label.
Once converted, originals are returned. Memories are available in digital downloads, DVDs, USB drives and in cloud storage.
Going with a service is convenient, but can be expensive if you have a lot of media to convert, so some people choose to do it themselves. VHS-to-DVD converters are available, but if you only have a few videos to save, it probably is cheaper to have a professional do it.
Professional slide scanners are also readily available. If quality is not your biggest concern, a do-it-yourself option is to photograph a projected slide.
Give it Away
When letting go of possessions, you can go with a nonprofit or a thrift store.
Another option is the Buy Nothing Project, which began as a local gift economy launched by friends Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in July 2013. It has grown to more than 3 million participants with 5,500 independently run groups in 44 countries.
Last April, the founders’ book, “The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan”—a blueprint to help people build their own gift economy mindset—was published by Simon & Schuster.
For more information and links to a group near you, visit www.buynothingproject.org.