By Deborah L Cohen
CHICAGO May 7 When Rod Thorpe and his wife, both seniors, faced moving from their 4,600-square-foot house into a small apartment a year ago, they turned to a professional downsizer.
The consultant, Christine Smart, encountered some twenty years worth of stuff stacked up in the Thorpes' Cedar Rapids, Iowa home. She dove right in, arranging an auction, handling online sales on craigslist and eBay, and donating to charities. Smart also oversaw move-related details, such as cataloging items, space planning, packing, shipping and unpacking. Outsourcing these onerous tasks allowed the Thorpes to avoid much of the stress that comes with moving from a longtime residence.
"We realized we had a horrendous undertaking - a lifetime of possessions," says Thorpe, 76, a retired marketing executive, who spent more than $5,000 for the services. "(Christine Smart) had all kinds of different sources. I had no idea that some of them existed."
"Downsizing consultant" is a career that is gathering steam as the baby boomers age. The job is attracting everyone from former corporate executives to retired school teachers who like the flexible work schedules and pay, which can range from $50 to $120 an hour, depending on location. Consultants can make even more from separate commissions on the sale of goods.
Baby boomers - those born between 1946 and 1964 - grew up in an era of affluence, acquiring significantly more material goods and larger homes than their Depression-era parents. As they near retirement, many seek to downsize their cluttered lives, creating a new business opportunity for independent consultants and franchisees alike.
"We're getting busier," says Smart, president of Designing Moves, the Cedar Rapids firm used by the Thorpes, who has been doubling her business every year since founding in 2008.
By 2011, demand for her services was so great that she was able to move to an office and now has a warehouse to store goods in transition. She has hired a part-time staff and charges $55 to $60 per hour. When arranging for the sale of items, her firm takes 50 percent of proceeds, forgoing the hourly fee.
LISTS, BOXES AND COUNSELING
Downsizing professionals must tackle a variety of tasks, from the physical, such as cleaning and sorting, to the mental, such as coordinating with auctioneers and planners of estate sales, as well as attorneys and financial advisers.
Smart's duties are diverse: making lists, taping boxes, donning safety masks to clean out hazardous materials, taking fine jewelry for appraisals, organizing wills and other important documents, fielding calls from adult children.
Among the toughest jobs is counseling people who are parting with important physical reminders of their past.
"They need to somebody to listen," she says.
The overload of everything from furniture to memorabilia can lead to increased stress as seniors age and worry over whose burden it will be to unload it, says David Ekerdt, a sociologist at the University of Kansas who studies the impact of moves on the elderly.
Some 60 percent of people over the age of 60 say that they have more things than they need, says Ekerdt, citing a 2010 Health and Retirement study conducted by the University of Michigan with participation by Ekerdt's department.
"There is an accumulation. People do not realize what is in their houses," he says. "These possessions are greatly seen as threatening to people."
While many entrants to this field start their own business, such as Smart, the franchised world has also taken notice. Caring Transitions, for one, has locations throughout North America that arrange moves and estate sales. In addition, specialized websites such as MaxSold (www.maxsold.com) have cropped up to assist seniors and others with putting together online auctions.
It takes a combination of organizational and people skills to resonate with an older clientele, many on fixed incomes and careful about parting with cash for what may be viewed as an unnecessary cost, say those in the field.
"It's a complex position to be in," says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, a Hinsdale, Illinois-based trade group that represents some of these organizational consultants. "It takes a lot of attention to detail."
The group has grown to 800 members this year from just 60 in 2005. They adhere to a strict code of ethics and frequently obtain additional training. The majority are women, many who have turned to downsizing as a second career.
Consider Marnie Dawson, who runs Chicago-based Dawson Relocation. The former museum educator heard a story about downsizing on the radio and in 2007 decided to take the plunge.
"I had done a number of moves myself," she says. "I had always been the person people called on to help them with things. I'm good with projects and project management."
Charging rates of $50 to $60 per hour, she says she now makes a "decent" salary, drawing a portion of new business from referrals. Even so, she still spends much of her time at senior centers and belongs to a number of groups that market to older customers in an effort to get the word out.
"The hardest part is that it's a small business," she says. "You have to make sure people remember who you are."