By Richard Eisenberg for Next Avenue
After my father died at 94, leaving my sister and me to empty his one-bedroom, independent-living apartment, we learned the hard truth that others in their 50s and 60s need to know: Nobody wants the prized possessions of your parents — not even you or your kids.
Admittedly, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not far off, due to changing tastes and homes. I’ll explain why, and what you can do as a result, shortly.
The stuff of nightmares
So, please forgive the morbidity, but if you’re lucky enough to still have one or more parents or stepparents alive, it would be wise to start figuring out what you’ll do with their furniture, china, crystal, flatware, jewelry, artwork, and tchotchkes when the mournful time comes. (I wish I had. My sister and I, forced to act quickly to avoid owing an extra month’s rent on dad’s apartment, hired a hauler to cart away nearly everything we didn’t want or wouldn’t be donating, some of which he said he’d give to charity).
Many boomers and Gen Xers charged with disposing the family heirlooms, it seems, are unprepared for the reality and unwilling to face it.
“It’s the biggest challenge our members have and it’s getting worse,” says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM).
“At least a half dozen times a year, families come to me and say: ‘What do we do with all this stuff?’” says financial adviser Holly Kylen of Kylen Financials in Lititz, Pa. The answer: lots of luck.
Heirloom today, foregone tomorrow
Dining room tables and chairs, end tables and armoires (“brown” pieces) have become furniture non grata. Antiques are antiquated. If you’re thinking your grown children will gladly accept your parents’ items, if only for sentimental reasons, you’re likely in for an unpleasant surprise.
“Young couples starting out don’t want the same things people used to have,” says Susan Devaney, president of NASMM. “They’re not picking out formal china patterns anymore. I have three sons. They don’t want anything of mine. I totally get it.”
The Ikea generation
Buysse agrees. “This is an Ikea and Target generation. They live minimally, much more so than the boomers. They don’t have the emotional connection to things that earlier generations did,” she notes. “And they’re more mobile. So, they don’t want a lot of heavy stuff dragging down a move across country for a new opportunity.”
You can pretty much forget about interesting your grown kids in the books that lined their grandparents’ shelves for decades. If you’re lucky, you might find buyers for some books by throwing a garage sale, or you could offer to donate them to your public library — if the books are in good condition.
Most antiques dealers (if you can even find one!) and auction houses have little appetite for your parents’ stuff, either. That’s because their customers generally aren’t interested. Carol Eppel, an antique dealer in Stillwater, Minn., says her customers are far more intrigued by Fisher Price toy people and Arby’s glasses with cartoon figures than sideboards and credenzas.
Even charities like Salvation Army and Goodwill frequently reject donations of home furnishings, I can sadly say from personal experience.
Midcentury, yes; Depression-Era, no
A few kinds of home furnishings and possessions can still attract interest from buyers and collectors, though. For instance, Midcentury Modern furniture — think Eames chairs and Knoll tables — is pretty trendy. And “very high-end pieces of furniture, good jewelry, good artwork, and good Oriental rugs — I can generally help find a buyer for those,” says Eppel.
“The problem most of us have,” Eppel adds, “is our parents bought things that were mass-produced. They don’t hold value and are so out of style. I don’t think you’ll ever find a good place to liquidate them.”
Seven tips for home unfurnishing
What else can you do to avoid finding yourself forlorn in your late parents’ home, broken up about the breakfront that’s going begging?
- Start mobilizing while your parents are around. “Every single person, if their parents are still alive, needs to go back and collect the stories of their stuff,” says Kylen. “That will help sell the stuff.” Or, it might help you decide to hold onto it. One of Kylen’s clients inherited a set of beautiful gold-trimmed teacups, saucers, and plates. Her mother had told her she’d received them as a gift from the DuPonts because she had nursed for the legendary wealthy family. Turns out, the plates were made for the DuPonts. The client decided to keep them due to the fantastic story.
- Give yourself plenty of time to find takers, if you can. “We tell people: The longer you have to sell something, the more money you’re going to make,” says Fultz. Of course, this could mean cluttering up your basement, attic, or living room with tables, lamps, and the like until you finally locate interested parties.
- Do an online search to see whether there’s a market for your parents’ art, furniture, china, or crystal. If there is, see if an auction house might be interested in trying to sell things for you on consignment. “It’s a little bit of a wing and a prayer,” says Buysse.That’s true, but you might get lucky. I did. My sister and I were pleasantly surprised — no, flabbergasted — when the auctioneer we hired sold our parents’ enormous, turn-of-the-20th-century portrait of an unknown woman by an obscure painter to a Florida art dealer for a tidy sum. Apparently, the Newcomb-Macklin frame was part of the attraction. Go figure. Our parents’ tabletop marble bust went bust at the auction, however, and now sits in my den, owing to the kindness of my wife.
- Get the jewelry appraised. It’s possible that a necklace, ring, or brooch has value and could be sold.
- Look for a nearby consignment shop that might take some items. Or, perhaps, a liquidation firm.
- See if someone locally could use what you inherited. “My dad had some tools that looked interesting. I live in Amish country and a farmer gave me $25 for them,” says Kylen. She also picked out five shelters and gave them a list of all the kitchen items she wound up with. “By the fifth one, everything was gone. That kind of thing makes your heart feel good,” Kylen says.
- But perhaps the best advice is: prepare for disappointment. “For the first time in history of the world, two generations are downsizing simultaneously,” says Buysse, talking about the boomers’ parents (sometimes, the final downsizing) and the boomers themselves. “I have a 90-year-old parent who wants to give me stuff or, if she passes away, my siblings and I will have to clean up the house. My siblings and I are 60 to 70 and we’re downsizing.”
This, it seems, is 21st-century life — and death. “I don’t think there is a future” for the possessions of our parents’ generation, says Eppel. “It’s a different world.”
If you would like more information about retirement living at Luther Oaks, or to schedule a tour, please contact Elizabeth Jannusch or Karen Coughlin at 309-557-8000. Luther Oaks is located at 601 Lutz Road Bloomington, IL, and is a Life Plan Community, or Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) offering independent living, assisted living, memory support, and healthcare pavilion.
© Twin Cities Public Television — 2017. All rights reserved.
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