Downsizing Guide and Checklist


Moving is a high-stress life event, the experts tell us, and they’re right. Whether it’s cross-town or cross-country, whether to a small apartment or a large suburban home, tackling the organizing, packing, discarding, cleaning, paperwork and myriad other tasks is a major challenge.

When you’re older and moving from the family home to a new smaller residence, possibly in a new community or your adult child’s home, sorting through decades of family history and possessions can feel overwhelming—even paralyzing.

As we progress through life, moving may signal new opportunities, a new relationship, a new adventure ahead. For an older adult, this “new” opportunity may feel like a mixed blessing. On the positive side, a move may offer a sense of “lightening” to reduce the messy clutter of a family’s history, fewer home and yard chores, and can help reduce feelings of isolation of living alone. More often, this relocation can be an unwelcome admission of frailty, loneliness, possible serious illness, and a loss of independence.

This tip sheet offers a handy guide to saving time, energy, and sleepless nights. Most importantly, the Checklist below provides a tool to help you organize your move and help it progress as smoothly as possible. Since every situation is different, select the areas that apply to you, and add your own notes if needed.

 Planning Ahead

1)    If you have the luxury of time, think about beginning to declutter before a move is on the near horizon. Six months or a year prior to moving is not too early to start this process.

2)    Shred, toss, or give away obvious items such as old canceled checks, outdated food or medications, clothes, or extraneous household items that just take up space.

3)    If you’re not sure, ask an accountant or tax person what records need to be retained.

4)    Continue this decluttering process monthly until you start the major activities of sorting and packing for the move. You’ll be surprised at how much you can eliminate before you get into the emotional quandaries of dealing with prized possessions.

5)    Collect and keep together important papers: deeds, wills, Durable Powers of Attorney, medical records, military records, diplomas and degrees, birth certificates, passports. These can be in a file cabinet or safe deposit box, but let key family members know where they are.

6)    Try not to allow grown children to use the home as a storage unit or museum. Now is the time for them to claim their keepsakes, old sports trophies, CDs, posters, school projects and remove them from the home.

7)    Throughout the process, try to limit sorting and packing activities to no more than two hours per day. Try to keep it relaxed and companionable. Have a cup of tea (or glass of wine!), and take breaks.

Where to Start

1)    Make lists: start a separate notebook just for the move. Keep it with you, and whenever you think of something—anything at all related to the move—write it down. Include to-do lists, a calendar/timeline, things you’re likely to forget, questions about the new residence, floor plans. Even anecdotes or historical notes about possessions, or offhand remarks like “Oh, Aunt Judy would love this tea set.” Although the notebook may not be particularly orderly, at least you’ll know where to find the information.

2)    Find and get estimates from moving companies. Some fees may be negotiable if you plan ahead and schedule the move for nonpeak times.

3)    Set a firm date for the move.

4)    Make a floor plan or template of the new home, whether it’s one room or something larger. Be sure measurements are accurate and reflect the placement of doors, windows, appliances, built-in shelves, linen storage, heater vents, etc. You now know precisely how much space you will have; you don’t need to guess.

5)    Make a preliminary plan of where major furniture will go in the new place—bed, couch, table and chairs, TV, bookshelf, dresser, and desk, for example. Again, measure carefully. If pieces can serve more than one purpose, all the better.

6)    If finances allow, think about hiring a move manager, senior relocation specialist, or organizer. Fees vary across the country. A real estate agent may be a good referral source to find this specialist or get recommendations from friends, seniors’ residences, or senior centers. This person can help with all or part of:

  1. sorting and decision-making
  2. packing
  3. arranging the move
  4. arranging for charity pick up, garage sale, estate sale, or consignment shops
  5. unpacking boxes and arranging your new home.
  6. If pets are involved, be sure to have a plan for them to be moved and accommodated in the new home.
  7. If needed, change providers for utilities such as gas and electricity.
  8. Refill prescriptions in advance.


1)    Complete address changes:

  1. Post Office
  2. credit cards
  3. bank accounts
  4. investment/retirement accounts
  5. Medicare & Social Security
  6. voter’s registration
  7. family & friends
  8. driver’s license/car registration
  9. newspaper/magazine subscriptions
  10. social clubs & places of worship
  11. notify lawyer, accountant, insurance agent, other

Next Step: Sorting

1)    Plan on going through one room at a time. Start with the easiest. Don’t try to pack now, just sort.

2)    Divide furniture and possessions into four categories:

  1. definitely save (these are the most useful, most beloved, most meaningful items)
  2. possibly save (you’ll need to revisit these later and continue paring down)
  3. donate, sell, or give away to a friend.
  4. discard.

3)    Use colored tags or stickers to indicate in which category items belong, e.g. green=save, orange=possibly save, blue=donate/sell; red=discard.

4)    This is the time to designate items to be given to specific people. Make a list.

5)    Items that have much sentimental value but are not likely to be taken can be memorialized in photographs. Later, you can put these on a DVD or into an album.

6)    Don’t try to sort paperwork or photos at this point unless it’s immediately obvious certain items are not needed or wanted. This kind of decision-making takes too long and is too draining. Pack it up and it can be sorted in the new home. Shred discarded paperwork.

7)    Don’t go overboard purging items to take—you can keep some collectibles, especially if they’re small. You want the new residence to look like a home, not a motel room!


1)    Welcome others to help with packing chores: family members, friends, the move specialist, or a moving company. With everything pre-labeled, the task is easier and fairly mechanical.

2)    Label all boxes with their destination room/area in the new residence.

3)    Moving companies can supply specialized containers, e.g., wardrobe boxes, so you can leave clothes on hangers.

4)    Pack “open first” box(es). The contents are for setting up sleeping accommodations and the bathroom. Include items such as fresh bedding, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste & toothbrush, comb, nightclothes, towel, plate and utensils, one change of clothes, flashlight, tape, scissors.

5)    Pack other important items that you’ll keep with you during the move: new lease or residence contract, keys, medications, legal documents, checkbook, cell phone, address book, first-aid kit, extra cash, your relocation notebook. Label this container. Valuables such as jewelry should be in a safe-deposit box unless items are worn regularly.

Unneeded Items

1)    Discard items that are so marked. You may need to call for extra trash pick-ups.

2)    Give away items as designated. Offer friends and family members additional keepsakes.

3)    Before selling items, get an appraisal from an expert such as a jeweler, art collector or someone knowledgeable about rare items if you’re not sure of the value.

4)    Furniture and other items can go to:

  1. estate sale companies
  2. auction or “want ad” websites such as eBay or craigslist
  3. consignment shops
  4. garage sale if someone has time and is willing to organize and operate it

5)    Donate the remainder of items to charities that will pick them up.


1)    Be sure you have a written contract from the moving company and a clear idea of coverage for lost or damaged possessions.

2)    Get a firm time for their arrival, at both the old and new residences.

3)    Check inventory lists.

4)    Check payment options: credit card or check?

5)    Have someone assigned to meet the movers at the new residence. Be sure they have a key! If this is a facility, be sure the manager is expecting you.

6)    Ensure that all boxes are properly labeled.

7)    Use the “open first” boxes to set up the bedroom and bathroom immediately.

8)    Prepare to spend a few days unpacking and organizing. Get someone to help if you can. Work as quickly as you can to make this new home feel homelike.