Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stuff Addiction

A week and a half ago our family embarked on an adventure that has been difficult and challenging for all involved: getting ready to sell my Mom's home.

After living in apartments for the first few years of their marriage, Mom and Dad arranged to have a starter home built. The idea was to live in the home for about a decade before moving into something nicer. That was nearly five decades ago.

Every time my parents thought about moving out of the home, something came up. At the 10 year mark, some of Dad's family came from Germany and spent the summer with us. My parents felt it necessary to take them to many tourist destinations in the region. They also felt it necessary to install a central A/C unit because my German relatives wouldn't be used to the arid Utah summer climate. All of that ate up the money my folks had hoped to use toward a new home.

Within a few years after that came a number of missions, weddings, and helping young adults get started in life. That consumed excess funds that might have helped buy a new house.

Eventually my parents served a mission. Although they didn't want to live in the same house when they returned, there were so many things to do to get ready for the mission that they couldn't bear to even think about trying to sell the home at that time. Besides, they let one of my siblings live in it rent free for the time they were gone.

By the time Mom and Dad could think about getting into a new home, their dwelling needs had changed significantly. They looked at homes, but they had difficulty achieving a unified vision of what kind of home they needed. When Dad's health went downhill, any thought of moving was out of the question.

Dad made me promise on his deathbed that I would get Mom out of that house and get her into something more suitable. In the three years since then, Mom has halfheartedly looked at new homes. She has repeated over and over that she can't keep up with the current home's maintenance needs. But she has never gotten serious about the matter.

Something has changed this summer. Dad was very handy. He did many upgrades to the home over the years. For its age and type it looks nice and is in pretty good condition. But Dad also enjoyed creating features that ostensibly would require maintenance within a few years. I think Dad enjoyed having to re-work these features after a while.

But Dad's not here anymore. I did not inherit Dad's handyman gene. One of my brothers did, but he lives half an hour away and has his own property to care for. Mom has been reluctant to hire out the work. The upshot is that nothing gets done and Mom feels oppressed by the ever increasing load of projects crying for attention.

A few weeks ago Mom started talking about selling the home once again. I admit that I was shocked when she actually called a real estate profession and asked to meet with him. I attended the meeting at Mom's request.

It is no secret that the northern Utah home market is in the tank. There are lots of properties on the market right now and prices are in a declining trend. Many homes remain on the market for months and even years without selling. But this fellow has demonstrated his ability to sell homes of all kinds even in a poor market. It all comes down to pricing and aggressive marketing work.

The starting price the realtor suggested seemed pretty low. But he had done his homework. He carefully laid out the case for his suggestion, backing it up with ample research. He even said that it may be necessary to go even lower than this price to sell in a reasonable amount of time.

Selling homes in a declining market requires a different approach, the realtor explained. He said that we needed to move absolutely everything out of the house that Mom didn't need within the next 90 days. We were also told to de-personalize the home so that prospective buyers wouldn't be influenced by my folks' decor choices. Prospective buyers need a relatively blank canvas onto which they can paint themselves. This meant taking down nearly all wall hangings.

We were also instructed to get most of the furniture out of the house. Any furniture that remained was to take as little floor space as possible.

Dutifully, we began boxing up stuff and moving it to a storage unit last Thursday. We did a lot more work on Friday. I brought a moving van on Saturday and many family members spent many hours hauling the larger items to the storage unit. I was grateful for the Sunday break, but we were back at it on Monday. We ended up getting a second storage unit and moving some of the stuff from the first unit in there, while adding more stuff.

It turns out that 50 years of living in one place can result in significant stuff buildup.

As we have moved things into the storage units I have thought about how many of these things will never go to Mom's new home, regardless of what it ends up looking like or how big it is. I see five classes of stuff:
  • Stuff that should be thrown away.
  • Stuff that is of marginal quality and utility.
  • Stuff that is nice but that Mom will never use again.
  • Stuff that Mom actually needs.
  • Stuff that Mom will keep for mainly sentimental reasons.
Even though some stuff won't go to Mom's new home, we stored it because we didn't have time to make decisions about it right now. I suspect that it will be easier to part with some of these things after they have been in storage for a while.

We have continued the project throughout this week, but at a slower pace. I think the home is finally ready to show. But it has been a heck of a lot of work. (And there will still be a whole lot more work to do to clear out the home when it finally sells.)

But the work has only been a portion of the challenge. The emotional toll on Mom has been significant. Mom says that she realizes that this is necessary. She has worked very hard this past week. But the emotional turmoil of thinking about moving out of her home and neighborhood (a place she loves among people she loves) has been difficult. All in all, I think Mom has handled the situation quite admirably.

As we have worked to move stuff out of Mom's place, I have heard family member after family member remark that they have to go home and start de-junking. We all said it many times. But we likely won't do it. Life is busy. De-junking isn't fun. We tend to put off that kind of thing until we're forced into it.

Right now my wife and I envision a day when we become empty-nesters (or nearly empty-nesters). I have a fantasy about leisurely taking weeks and months to de-junk our home at that distant future date, and then putting the home up for sale after months of careful preparation. We would then move into something more suitable for empty-nesters with a whole lot less stuff than we have now. I doubt it will work out like that in real life.

During this moving project I have reflected on why people in our culture tend to accumulate so much stuff. Do we acquire and hold onto stuff in some kind of vain attempt to validate our existence? You know, "I have substance, so I am substantial. I have stuff to prove that I exist—to prove that I matter."

Why did I put my old electric shaver on the shelf instead of throwing it away when I got a new one last month? True, it isn't completely dead. But it's pretty shot. Why didn't I throw it away? If I don't do so soon, it will be among the myriad things I look at when we eventually move from our current home and wonder why I kept it around all those years.

Years ago I came to the conclusion that everything I own owns a piece of me. Not only does it take up space, it takes my time. It takes energy just to think about it and to categorize it. (I am remembering an old toilet seat that I replaced years ago but that is still in the crawl space under the stairs.) Even that owns a little piece of me.

The idea, I guess, is to keep only stuff that comes out good on the cost-benefit scale, and to get rid of everything else. Since the factors in such an analysis change as our lives change, it takes energy to undertake that process as well. I guess it's the cost of de-junking that keeps me from doing it.

Maybe I will live to regret that.

1 comment:

Bradley Ross said...

Every 18 months or so, our ward holds a "free sale" where members can bring stuff up to the cultural hall and others from the neighborhood can take anything they want for free. People get rid of stuff and other people from the community are blessed. What isn't claimed goes in the dumpster or to D.I.

It is great for us, because we stick stuff into the free sale pile and we know we'll get rid of it in a few months, but we've got it in the interim if it turns out to be useful to us. (That hasn't actually happened yet.)