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Successfully Downsizing Your Living Situation

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Whether it’s because of the economy taking a plunge, the housing market tanking, or the fact that we all just want to live a simpler life, “purging,” “organizing,” “donating,” and “downsizing” are all words we’ve become more familiar with. But it can be difficult to let go of things we’ve held close to our hearts for such a long time. It may also mean leaving a home where our children were raised. But there is light at the end of the downsizing tunnel, and it can be an exciting start to a new chapter of life—it was for these two homeowners, who successfully downsized. Here, we take a tour of their new, smaller homes and get tips based on what they did right and what they wish they had done differently, as well as some design tips to make a new house (or apartment) feel like a home. 

Downsizing to an Apartment

Novins’ spacious master bedroom in soothing neutral hues.

Homeowner Rochelle Novins faced tragedy several years before she decided to sell her house and downsize. “In January 2011, I lost my husband of 55 years, and, five days later, I lost my son, Kevin,” says Novins. “I was in shock for the remainder of that year. My kids started persuading me to sell the house and move to an apartment. I told them I would not leave the house that I loved.”

But four years later, Novins did decide to move after some friends of hers relocated to Boston. “If they could do it,” she recalls thinking, “Maybe I could do it.”

She moved from her three-bedroom house in Ardsley to a two-bedroom apartment in Hudson Harbor in Tarrytown. “It was love at first sight,” says Novins. “The Hudson River beckoned, and although the [building] was not complete, the plans were promising.”

Novins no longer has to worry about shoveling, mowing, landscaping, stairs, or any sort of exterior upkeep. 

With the help of interior designer Margreet of Margreet Cevasco Design, she was able to purge what she didn’t need and keep what she could use. 

“I had to get rid of 90 percent of the stuff I had in the house,” says Novins. “I took my family-room sofas, my dining-room table and chairs (Margreet had the seat cushions redone), the glass cocktail table from the living room, two director chairs, a media bench, an étagère, and two bookcases that I put in a closet.”

Novins, who had a finished basement in her former home, says when you have extra space, you tend to store more things you know you’ll probably never use. 

“The hardest part [about downsizing] is the memories, the photos, the diplomas, the books,” says Novins. To help with this, her children came up with the idea to photograph everything she owned so that she would have photos of them on her computer even if she didn’t have the physical items anymore. 

“Anything with people in it I couldn’t toss,” says Novins. “Everything else I donated or left for the sweet young couple who bought the house.”

Novins recommends starting the process a year before you plan to move. This gives you enough time to find the right home to move into, purge any items you won’t have room for, make arrangements for donations or to sell items, and arrange for your move. 

Novins says she has no regrets about her decision to downsize. “I love that the sunshine washes all over me [in my apartment],” says Novins. “After my terrible tragedies, I truly thought I could never be happy again. I think it is the sun and the feeling of a new beginning, a new chapter in my life, that makes me feel so good.”

Downsizing to a Smaller House

The exterior of designer and fellow downsizer Susan Anthony’s “acorn cottage” 

Interior designer Susan Anthony recently decided to downsize because her children were out of the house and she was living alone. She moved from a 6,000-square-foot home to a ranch-style house that is 2,200 square feet. 

Being a professional designer gave Anthony a special advantage when upgrading what was a smelly house that hadn’t been updated in awhile to a charming cottage with a garden that she had been dreaming of. 

Before she even started looking, Anthony made a list of features she wanted in a home, something she suggests every potential downsizer do. “I wanted [my home] to have necessary luxuries like an attached garage, a proper foyer, gorgeous bathrooms and appliances, a garden, light on all sides of me, and a place to spend the holidays with my family, but I had no need for a large footprint,” says Anthony. 

Anthony wanted space to entertain inside and out. This kitchen and eating area allow her to do just that.

Anthony says apartments and townhomes can be a great option for downsizing, but, for her, it posed challenges. Parking would be limited, she probably wouldn’t have light coming in from all sides, and she wanted to have a place to entertain guests outdoors. 

No matter what kind of dwelling you choose, Anthony says that location—as any realtor will also tell you—is the number-one thing to consider. “You want the right community, one whose members support one another, and one with a well-maintained infrastructure and a great school system, because it will keep your investment safer,” says Anthony. 

Consider whether you’re willing to renovate, and, if you’re not, add that to your list as a priority. However, if you’re like Anthony and find that what you really want doesn’t exist, you may need to consider a renovation. She purchased a home that was half her budget so she could spend the balance finishing it to suit her taste and style. 

Like Novins, Anthony realized that, once she found the right home, the next step was to purge “stuff” that would not fit in her new space. 

“The first thing you have to do is let go of the edge of the pool and swim,” says Anthony. That can be tough, she acknowledges, as it “means you have to let go of what you are used to. If you have a large dining room with big furniture, say goodbye to it and everything that’s too big. If you can eliminate the things that you no longer need, you can make room in your life for new and wonderful things.”

The living space in Susan Anthony’s cottage is cozy, comfy, and beautifully designed.

Anthony suggests dividing your belongings into three categories: give away, throw away, or use it. And she says selling your things is hard, so, unless you have unlimited time, stick with the three categories above. (See “10 Tips for Downsizing” below.)

Anthony recommends photographing your furniture from all sides and looking at each piece realistically to see if you can use it or reuse it in a different way. Also consider how much it would cost to make it work. For instance, you may have a sofa that you want to reupholster, but the price of the labor and fabric maybe more than the cost of a new sofa. 

“Keeping what you have is important—if it works,” says Anthony. “Don’t be afraid to give new life to old things by using them in different ways.”

For example, Anthony repurposed an antique dresser by adding a new honed Carrera top to make it into a bar that she put in her first-floor laundry room. She then added ceiling-mounted drapery in front of the appliances and uses the laundry room as a bar for parties. 

“The biggest mistake that downsizers make is to waste resources,” says Anthony. They either pay someone to move something that doesn’t work in the new space, and then have to pay again to have the furniture moved out, or they buy things that look great on the showroom floor, but don’t fit in their new surroundings. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of researching, finding, and buying a new home on top of eliminating some or most of your belongings, Anthony says there is always help. 

“Unless you have an unlimited budget to absorb costly mistakes, seek some form of professional help. It is worth it,” says Anthony. “Hire an architect, designer, or professional organizer for a specific task if you cannot afford one for the entire project.” 

Of her own downsizing, Anthony says she feels “so much lighter than I did before I started this. It makes you think differently, too. I don’t buy anything I don’t really need. If I buy new clothes, I give away what does not work before I do. One item is given for one item purchased.”


10 Tips for Downsizing

Get your head in the game. The motivation for the change does not matter. Go into this with the attitude that your life is going to improve greatly when you are finished. The journey will be fun once you get used to this new way of life.

Start a book. Get a sturdy three-ring binder, at least two to three inches thick, and a three-hole punch. Buy dividers and sheet protectors to use with it.

Start collecting. Pick up design, shelter, and lifestyle magazines and rip out all the pages that feature ideas, colors, themes, appliances, bathtubs, etc., that you like or gravitate toward. Put them in your book under “categories.” 

Use dividers. Put a divider in your book for each room that you will have in your new space. For example: entry, master bedroom, master bath, etc. Put separate dividers for appliances, lighting, colors, closets, and notes. The first section will be “notes,” and it will contain phone numbers and information on resources you discover along the way. The next section will be “existing furniture,” and, after that, “budget,” and so on. 

Take pictures. Photograph all of your furniture, lighting, and art. Measure it as well. Print out the photos and put the measurements on the back of each. The furniture will go into the book under a tab for “existing furniture” until you know what you are doing with it.

Write down the things you love about your home. Then write down the things you do not like about your home. Write down the things you love about your favorite resort, hotel, or another place you go and why. How does this favorite place make you feel? How can your new home make you feel this way? File this in the book under “design program.”

Take a good look at what’s in your closets. Look at your wardrobe and that of your significant other or family members who will live with you when you downsize. Choose a day or weekend to go through and get rid of things that you never use but that take up room in your closet. Be ruthless. If it does not fit or has not been worn in a year, it belongs to someone else now. Send it to Goodwill or the garbage man.

Rinse and repeat. Do this with old sports equipment, coffee mugs you’ve collected, old encyclopedias, mismatched dishes, books, etc. Look at your things as just things. Ask your family what they would like to take and donate what could work for someone in need.

Get inspiration from other small homes. Go online and look at Westchester Home, Lonny, Pinterest, and Houzz at ideas for small homes. Print out what you like and file under the appropriate category in your book.

Decide on the keepsakes that matter most. This list should include important items that you use every year like Christmas ornaments or menorahs. Limit the amount you keep to what you’ll use and store them in a garage or storage facility.

“Remember: This is the book of your new life you are creating,” says Anthony. “It is up to you to write it and fill it up with things that will support new memories.”

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