How to Downsize from a Large, ‘Empty Nest’ House to a Brand New, Smaller Home

Photo of a mover unloading truck, walking cardboard boxes down ramp on a hand truck, in front of a new home.

The phrase “Empty Nest Move” refers to the act of downsizing one’s home after the kids leave “the nest” and the family home begins to feel too large or requires too much upkeep as it continues to age. One way to handle this challenge is to purchase a smaller new construction or custom built home. This new home will not only better fit your downsized lifestyle, but also include all new materials and an initial workmanship warranty that will allow you to spend time enjoying your new home instead of constantly repairing it!

Getting the perfect new, smaller house is one thing, but moving is another. The physical move from your old “empty nest” home into the new one is a challenge that can’t be avoided. Since you’re downsizing, this move will probably involve purging purge of items you may no longer have use for and the selection of the best moving company to complete your move, among other things.

If you’re downsizing from an empty nest move, here are a few tips and suggestions to get you started on the journey of moving into your new home:

1. Downsize and purge unneeded items before the big move
Since you’ve been in your current home for many years, and perhaps even raised a family there, you’ve likely accumulated a large volume of items that may no longer fit into your new downsized lifestyle. Deciding which items will make the move can be a challenging prospect because while many items may no longer be needed functionally, they still possess sentimental value. Begin the process by creating a list of “must have” items (i.e. family heirlooms, key pieces of furniture, etc.) so you may quickly move onto the remaining items. Next, offer unwanted items to family and friends. Then, it’s time to find the best way to either sell or dispose of the remaining excess.

2. Turn unneeded items into cash before the move
Believe it or not, many of the items not making the move may be easily turned into cash or tax-deductible donations. One secret to maximizing your profits is to begin the process early in case takes longer for some items to sell. The more time you allow for the items to sell, the more cash you will generate.

Here are a few key ways to sell your unneeded items:

  • Garage sale: The most obvious and often the most effective
  • An online bulletin board that allows you to reach your immediate neighbors who may be interested in purchasing items that will be easy for them to pick-up since they live nearby.
  • Craigslist: Larger cities are listed on this free, online messaging and selling board. After listing your items for sale, you can communicate with potential buyers via an anonymous email system. You can list your items within specific categories to better increase chances of finding motivated buyers. Items listed with photos will always sell better than those without. Be very clear what payment types you will accept, and how the item will or will not be delivered, as these questions will likely arise.
  • Used book and music stores: CDs, DVDs, vinyl albums and books are frequently items that are selected for disposal but may actually be turned into cash. Many cities have used book stores that not only purchase used books, but other media items as well, like CDs, DVDs and vinyl albums. Some resellers may even agree to visit your home if the amount of items for sale merits it.
  • Charitable Organizations: If you prefer to donate your unneeded items instead of selling them, local charities, such as Goodwill, are available to accept most items in good condition and working order. Items donated will create a charitable dollar amount that will be useful when tax time rolls around if you itemize your deductions.

3. Find and hire a moving company
Now that you’ve trimmed down the amount of items to be moved it’s time for the physical move itself. Since you are downsizing from a larger “empty nest” home, it’s safe to assume the days of renting a moving truck and paying friends and family with pizza and beer to help have long past and a full service moving company will be required.

Next to the purchase of your new home, selecting the correct moving company will be one of the most important decisions you’ll face during the moving process. Therefore, it’s vital you allow sufficient time to properly research and meet with multiple companies before signing any contracts.

Here are a few basic guidelines for selecting a moving company:

Compare phone and visual estimates
The first step of this journey is obtaining a cost estimate from a potential company so you can make an informed decision. Some companies will attempt to provide you with an estimate over the phone by either asking you a long series of questions regarding the items you intend to move, or have you submit information on their website. Other companies will insist on sending an agent to your home to visually inspect your items in hopes of creating a more detailed and correct cost estimate. If possible, always seek out companies that utilize in-home cost estimates as they are more often accurate and will help you avoid additional stress and confusion later.

Quick tip: If you are seeking online cost bids from multiple movers, consider creating a new, free email address for this purpose as you will be receiving a lot of mail and will be added to numerous mailing lists you may not be interested in after you move.

Request total weight cost estimates
Moving companies will calculate your estimate by one of two methods: Total weight or total cubic feet of the items being moved. If possible, always seek out an estimate calculated by total weight. Cost estimates generated by total weight are typically more accurate and easier to verify after the move should any questions arise. Cubic feet estimates tend to be very subjective and may be influenced by how the company chooses to pack your items before they are loaded into the moving truck.

Take many, many notes
Important details to gather from all potential moving companies you are considering: The Company’s full name as well as any other names it may utilize to do business, the physical address of the agent’s main office along with phone numbers, websites and email addresses. Don’t forget about references from the company that include valid phone numbers, too. The prospective company’s motor carrier (MC) and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) license numbers. If possible, ask the agent for a copy of the inventory list they have just created during the visit so you may double check their accuracy.

Understand the difference between binding and non-binding cost estimates
Make certain you fully understand the type of cost estimate you receive from each perspective company. “Non-binding” cost estimates are subject to change during the moving process if the company determines the original estimate was incorrect in some way or the inventory of items being transported no longer matches the original inventory estimate. While there have been instances when non-binding estimates and contracts have saved the customer money due to an initial over-estimation, they typically result in a greater final cost to the customer. “Binding” estimates and contracts will lock in the price so there will be no surprises waiting for you once the move is under way, assuming you keep your end of the bargain and do not attempt to add additional items that were not part of the original inventory estimate.

While binding estimates may tend to come in a bit higher in cost than non-binding, it may be worth the peace of mind knowing in advance the total cost to plan for in your moving budget. In larger markets, with multiple companies competing for your contract, you may be able to obtain what is termed a “Binding Not to Exceed” estimate and contract. This is similar to a binding contract but includes a provision that will refund money back to you should the original estimate be higher than the expenses actually created during the move. You may have to ask for this type of estimate and contract as they are available but frequently not pitched by the moving companies during initial cost estimate visits.

Factor additional service costs and fees into move budget
Pay attention to any and all “additional services or fees” included in both your original estimate and final contract. These additional costs and fees may include packaging items for you, moving items more than a certain distance from your house to the truck, moving items up and down a preset amount of stairs, and/or having insufficient parking areas close to your home for the truck to be loaded, just to name a few. These additional costs and fees can greatly add to the total cost of your move so take notes and attempt to negotiate before signing any final contracts.

Ask how many trucks and storage units will used and when will they arrive at your new home
It’s important to fully understand what will occur once your items have been loaded for transport and exactly when you should expect them to arrive at your new home. Many companies will transfer your items to a different truck once they leave your house or even sub-contract to a different company altogether. The act of repacking your items a second time into a new truck can increase the chances of damage occurring, so understand what is set to occur before your items are loaded into the first truck. Also, your contract should clearly state the arrival window of your items at the new location along with your rights related to financial recourse should your moving company exceed their arrival time estimate.

Know what moving insurance covers
The moving industry terms this type of insurance as “Valuation Insurance.” In most states, licensed movers will include declared liability coverage, which typically pays out $0.60 per pound of an items declared value (i.e. your $1,000 dollar TV weighs 100 pounds and is declared damaged so the payout will be $60.00). However, for most customers, the included liability coverage will be insufficient and additional valuation insurance will be needed. Your moving company likely offer additional coverage options and outside insurance companies can be an option, too. Be sure to check your homeowner’s policy as some moving coverage may be included that you are not aware of that may help keep insurance costs down. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how much valuation insurance is needed to protect your items during the move and to fully understand the policy you are purchasing. A qualified valuation insurance agent can walk you through this process.

Important note on insurance and packing your own boxes: While you may save some money packing your own boxes ahead of the move, this may also negate any insurance coverage you may have purchased should items be damaged in transit. The industry terms this “PBO,” – Packed by Owner -- and will typically only payout a claim if a listed inventory item is lost during the move, but not if damage occurs. In many cases, you may only wish to self-pack non-fragile items and allow your movers to pack the rest to ensure proper valuation insurance coverage.

Article Summary:
  • Begin trimming down your moving inventory well in advance of your moving day to allow sufficient time to maximize selling success and organize charitable donations.
  • Seek multiple cost estimates from many different moving companies. Movers that visit your home to create the estimate are usually the best way to proceed. Decide if the lower cost of a “non-binding” estimate/contract is worth the risk of possible inflated costs later versus signing a “binding” contract.
  • Make sure you understand any and all additional fees and costs associated with the contract you ultimately sign.
  • Explore all options related to valuation insurance before simply accepting the default insurance that’s included with most moving contracts. Remember that packing your own boxes will usually negate any extra insurance you purchase.
  • Receive a firm commitment on the contract related to arrival date windows and what occurs if your movers fail to keep the stated schedule.
  • Keep detailed records related to what inventory was loaded onto the truck and what was unloaded at your new location so any discrepancies may be handled in real time with the movers at your location. If possible, pay your moving company with a credit card, which may allow you additional dispute options should the need arise after the moving company has taken possession of your inventory.
B. Ford spent more than a decade in the specialty appliance retail industry, and now devotes his time to freelance print and video content creation. 

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