Life stages: Downsizing

When the kids left, Christine and Bill McEchnie of Toronto wanted to move from their four-bedroom house with its games room and four bathrooms to a small easily maintained bungalow they could lock up and leave on a whim. But they had one large stumbling block: Christine desperately wanted to keep her grand piano.

And when Barbara and Don Romanowich of Niagara Falls, Ont., retired, they decided to divest themselves of their three-bedroom house and their cabin cruiser and move to a condo on Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ont. Their biggest dilemma: what to do with the hundreds of boxes of school supplies and children’s books Barbara, a school principal, had lovingly collected and carted with her from school to school over her 30-year teaching career.

If you’re considering a move to a smaller space, you can sympathize with Christine and Bill and Barbara and Don because your own lifetime accumulation of possessions may be paralysing you with indecision about what to keep, what to discard. Everything you cast your eyes on evokes a memory. Or it’s still working. Or it cost you a lot of money in 1973.

No regrets
Interior designer Betsy Shea, who dosized recently herself (she moved to a tiny townhouse without a basement in Toronto so she can spend more time at her second home in Italy), says discarding possessions is tough. Many of her clients stall because they can’t face the decision-making. Shea offers the comfort that nobody she knows has ever regretted downsizing once they’ve crossed the what-to-get-rid-of hurdle.  

Certainly the McEchnies and the Romanowichs both discovered they could let go. Now happily settled in their new homes, neither couple has any regrets. Christine finally shipped her grand piano out to her son in Victoria and now plays a small upright that fits neatly in her small living room. Barbara and Don made 10 trips to the dump, held four garage sales and a special open house for teachers. And finally, Barbara donated the last of her treasures to her last school. “Now they are being used in classrooms,” she says. 

Focus on the future
You can break the spell of possessions by focusing on how you want to spend your future rather than where you’ll put stuff gathered in your past. When you’re house hunting, think about the activities you’ll do in each room, says Shea. Don’t obsess over where to put the dining room furniture. Consider whether you even want a dining room. Do you want to have your coffee in a sunny spot in the morning? Where do you want to do your yoga stretches? Where would you like to do your computer work? Do you have overnight visitors often enough to need a guest room or will a sofa bed do?

Next page: Dream home helps a lot

Once you find your ideal new home, you’ll be excited to start your new life there and the wrench of emptying the garage won’t be as difficult. As the Romanowichs trolled the Internet for interesting condominium developments and visited dozens of communities, what became important was fulfilling Don’s dream of living in Northern Ontario (for the move, he bought matching snowmobiles for the two of them) in a community with good health facilities and finding a large, light-filled condo with a fabulous view. When they found it, they were ready to start pitching.

Finding a loving home for your discards, as Barbara did with many of her school supplies, also helps ease the loss. In her last move, Shea sold her dining room furniture to the young couple who bought her home. Barbara Romanowich gave her suits to Dress for Success, an organization that outfits low-income women going back into the workforce. Christine McEchnie gave several prized pieces of furniture to her daughters and loves seeing them in their homes.

Less to worry about
Bill McEchnie describes downsizing as a life stage. People spend years in the “acquisitive” stage, acquiring and furnishing a home. But now at 69 and 62, he and Christine “operate on the premise that the less you own, the less you have to worry about.”

Bill may be more of a minimalist than most – all he took with him to the new house were a couple of paintings and a few pieces of his pottery collection. But he makes a compelling argument for their stripped-down lifestyle that allows them to do exactly what they want to do with their time and their money.

He and Christine still keep regular hours in Christine’s insurance brokerage firm, they golf spring to fall (“The golf club is our cottage,” says Christine. “And you don’t have to drain the pipes at the end of the season,” says Bill) and they volunteer at their church. The money they saved by moving to a smaller home pays for more travel. They often go to Victoria to see one son, Paris to see another and take a yearly fall trip, usually to Costa Rica, to celebrate their anniversary. Neither of their daughters minds checking on the house while they are away because there is little for them to do.

The Romanowichs also love that they can pick up and go when they want — which is often. And they’ve taken advantage of the guest suites in their condo building to host friends from the south, who sometimes seem a little envious. When they moved, “We had the smiles and friends had the tears,” Barbara said.

“Many people want to do this but can’t face the chore. But we were happy because we had done the job.”