Taking a pass on parents possessions

SPOKANE, Wash. — Estate sales line up yesteryear’s valuables: china, silver, collectibles, oak furniture, 1980s geese decor.

Increasingly, adult children of aging parents don’t want — or can’t fit — all that stuff.

“It is so common now,” said DeAnne Wilfong, senior move manager and co-owner of Smooth Transitions in Spokane. “The kids were raised on IKEA, Martha Stewart, Pier 1, Pottery Barn; that’s what they want. They want smaller, something that can be transported, that will fit with modern.”

“They don’t want anything that can’t go in the dishwasher or in the microwave,” she added. “The other issue is if the kids are older, say in their 50s, they already have full houses.”

What is popular, likely boosted by TVs “Mad Men,” is midcentury modern furnishings from the 1950s and ‘60s, or potential “shabby chic” items for a slightly worn or farmhouse look. Younger people might take family furniture with classic lines and “repurpose” it with chalk paint.

What to do with a bulky 1980s oak cabinet? That’s challenging these days, she said.

“It’s called brown furniture now,” Wilfong said. “The only way someone will take an oak piece — I don’t care how low you go in the price — is if it has the potential of becoming a shabby chic desirable product.

“The really big, old oak china cabinets, well I’ve seen people buy them for maybe $50, they get rid of the top piece, and take the bottom, turn it into a bar or a hutch and paint it. It’s the same with just about any oak furniture.”

Coeur d’Alene resident Jacqueline Dean, 58, is facing decisions of what to do with accumulated possessions from her parents’ home of 45 years, after moving her mom, 90, and dad, 88, recently into an assisted-living facility.

Her parents selected meaningful possessions to take, such as old photographs and wood carvings, but could only move what fit in a one-bedroom apartment. Dean has some family items with sentimental value, but she has limited space herself.

“My parents house is probably about 3,000 square feet, and ours is 2,000,” Dean said. “Certainly, our lifestyles are different. Fifty years ago, tea sets were common, and you had afternoon teas with your neighbors.”

Although her mom still had a tea set, that’s one example of how Dean is weighing what to keep. Her mental checklist: Is it functional? Will it be used? Do they have room to store it?

Becky Reid, co-owner of Resolution Estate Services in Spokane, repeatedly watches families go through this. Although styles come and go, Reid said she’s also seeing more adult children who don’t want or can’t take parents’ keepsakes and decor.

Sometimes, it’s because of limited space. Other reasons are different lifestyles and tastes.

“For many people under the age of 50, they don’t want the china; they don’t want the fancy silverware,” Reid said. “They don’t entertain that way anymore. They’re more casual. The people who do buy it tend to be older themselves.”

“The collectibles, what some people refer to as dust collectors, porcelain pieces and little trinkets are just a harder sell. It’s challenging to sell china; it doesn’t go for what it should. People just want to put stuff in the dishwasher.”

Reid does urge family members to reflect over time before discarding family heirlooms, such as a wall clock that belonged to a great grandfather. They might be making a decision because of feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

“We want them to make sure they’re making the right decisions for them, and they’ve given it some thought. We try to be sensitive to their situation.”

Valuable and collectible items do sell at estate sales, going to people who are drawn to certain pieces or are collectors themselves, Reid said. For people deciding what to do with a few collectibles, without enough items to hold an estate sale, she suggests research online.

A Lladro piece might do well on eBay, but other items sell low.

“Small things like Precious Moments, that’s just really hard even on eBay to get a good price. You’ll always find some people who like certain things, but across the board, what’s really hot is midcentury modern and these things that would be in Farm Chicks.

“The cutesie stuff, like the cows and geese from the ‘80s, not so much.”

Depending on the item, Wilfong said she sometimes sees better resale in parts offered on Etsy, a website for handmade and vintage items. Pinterest even is having some influence, such as examples of how to turn a small piano into a bar or fountain.

“It’s all relative to who is buying, what they’re willing to pay for it, and how much of them are in the market,” Wilfong said. “The internet tells us how many Precious Moments are out there, how many banjos from the ‘30s, how many Cabbage Patch dolls.”

She’s also seeing a trend in recent months of thrift stores being more selective about donations. Wilfong sees two reasons why: A number of people are casting off more things during a hot housing market with homes selling fast, and more seniors are moving into retirement centers.

“Back in April, I moved people, and then I brought in an estate sales person,” she said. For items left over, calls went to several thrift shops. “They said, ‘We have all we can handle; we’re maxed out. They called two charities, and the charities said, ‘We’re not picking up as much as we did.’”

Wilfong said she helped a client move in June who couldn’t stand to see antique furniture go outside of family, so an adult child from another state used a U-Pack service.

“They had a company transport it,” Wilfong said. “Great grandma’s oak furniture went back four generations. It will go into storage and will stay there indefinitely. She’ll incorporate a few pieces, but her house is full, and it’s modern as far as decor.”

Reid understands some of those whys. Her own children seem less emotionally attached to possessions.

“I hear it a lot from a lot of older adults; their kids aren’t sentimental about stuff, or their kids don’t want what they call clutter,” Reid said. “It’s just a different mindset. A lot of times, they’re more into outdoor activities like camping and traveling, not as much into the house.

“They want a more simplistic home they can easily maintain, then they can have their lifestyle.”

Disposing of items within a household crammed full is sobering for estate sale workers, or even for adult children, she said. One client had a significant Lionel train collection, but after years of enjoyment, nobody wanted it or had the space to relocate it.

“We put it on the market and tried to sell it,” Reid said.

Enjoy items, but perhaps clean out closets regularly.

“People who are having to deal with their parents’ stuff, we hear it all the time from them, ‘I have to go home to my house and clean it out.’ “

About the Author