The downsizing dilemma? Getting rid of the family furniture
Changing fashions mean many people get a rude awakening when they try to find new homes for their old stuff
Anne and Martin Croft at their home in Ailesbury Grove, Dundrum in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Patricia Deveney remembers that when she had to empty her mother’s home some years ago, the auctioneer said “You’ll get very little for any of this” and suggested she and her six brothers and sisters divide what furniture there was among them.
This meant she had some idea that she might not find buyers for her own treasured furniture when it came her turn to downsize in 2015.
“All my dining furniture had to go when we moved: it was oak and fitted perfectly into our old house; it came from my husband’s family home. But we got over feeling sad about that, because they went to a niece.”
Changing fashions, changing lifestyles, changing house sizes all mean that many people get a rude awakening when they downsize, or when they have to empty a parent’s house for sale.
Handsome oak or mahogany furniture that they may have paid a lot for 40 years ago may sell for a fraction of that price, perhaps not even enough to cover the cost of sending it to a saleroom.
Minimalism is in, heavy dark furniture diningrooms are out. Couples realise with a twinge of sadness that their children don’t want or just can’t fit into their homes the tables, sideboards, china and glass they may have inherited from their parents or bought themselves.
Patricia Deveney and her husband sold their 2,500sq ft house in Foxrock in 2015 and built a new 1,900sq ft house in its back garden. They had to move into an apartment for 18 months while the new house was built, putting a lot of their possessions into storage.
The couple were terrible clutterbugs, she says, “and you get panicky when you’re about to move,” not knowing what to keep, what to get rid of.
She got good advice from her architect, who went around the old house with her, putting stickers on furniture that might suit the new house before deciding what to put into storage. But nearly a year after moving into the brand new house, she’s still in the process of getting rid of stuff.
“I would have been more drastic if I’d known the cost of storage – we paid €613 a month.”
Emotions about getting rid of once-prized possessions fluctuate but “you get to a stage where you’d pay someone to take it away. We were delighted to see the back of it all – although months later, you’re saying ‘where the heck is that?’”
‘You have to be practical’
The couple have four children, but at the time they moved, none was in a position to take furniture – although at the last minute, her daughter did take a Victorian bedroom suite that Patricia had bought at auction years earlier.
What she has learned is that Victorian/Edwardian furniture of the kind she and her husband either inherited or bought, what she thought were antiques, have little or no resale value.
But she also found that some of her period furniture did look well in her new modern house: she kept a pair of ornate Victorian coal scurttles on little Chippendale legs “because they’re pretty” as well as a 4ft high blanket chest that she stores her dinner service and glassware in.
“They came from my father’s house and I like them.”
In the end of the day though “You have to be practical. Once it’s out of your vision, you don’t pine for it.”
Anne Croft and her husband Martin are early retirees on the point of selling the home they’ve lived in in Dundrum for 30 years - and they’re even less sentimental about getting rid of their possessions.
We’ve thought about decluttering and see it as an opportunity to start again from scratch.
“We both retired recently and did a lot of travelling last year; we went to Australia for three months, and altogether were away for nine months. I wanted to see if we could detach emotionally from our home. And we found it was easy to detach.”
The couple have two children, a son settled permanently in Australia and a daughter who lives with her family in Co Clare.
“My daughter wants the sofa, partly for sentimental reasons, plus, her house has two sittingrooms. And she’ll take the piano for her own children.”
At this stage, however, Anne and Martin don’t know where they’ll move to - they’ve just put their detached five-bed up for sale through DNG - so don’t know how much space they’ll have for their “stuff”.
“I’ll bring my good cutlery service with me, and would like to bring some good china. We might try to sell the diningroom furniture and cabinet on Done Deal – they’re in a good state, they’re not marked.”
But in the end, says Anne “We’ve thought about decluttering and see it as an opportunity to start again from scratch.”
It is said that people’s adult children don’t want their parents’ possessions because modern houses are so small. But how do people buying large period homes furnish them?
“People want really stripped down, minimalist lean interiors nowadays,” says estate agent Gordon Lennox, “with perhaps a couple of key pieces . . . We recently agreed a sale of a period house that was really edgy, had no sop to its period character.”
“I grew up with mahogany furniture and I love it,” says Muriel Simpson, associate director of House & Garden Furnishings, a company which fits out and stages many houses for sale.
“But you hear people looking at houses referring dismissively to ‘brown furniture’. Modern styles are minimalist, even for people who own period homes.” However, there are things you can do with period furniture to give it a modern look, if you have a house big enough to fit the typically large Edwardian and Victorian dining suites, she says.
You could, for example, strip and stain a mahogany table “which deepens it to black - that goes well with cool greys and whites”. Or you might strip a piece of furniture back to the natural wood: “If it’s oak, it would be a washed pale oak you could seal with wax , then perhaps paint the legs in a Farrow & Ball colour. You might upholster the chairs in modern fabric, and paint those legs too.”
“I haven’t used mahogany furniture in the past 10/12 years,” says Simpson. “Diningrooms have been eliminated; interior fashions are light, bright and uncluttered and there’s no room for pieces like big old wardrobes. They’ve disappeared - but I’ve seen wardrobes where glass shelving has been put in and it’s been put into the kitchen and used as a dresser.”
Big old sideboards and chests-of-drawers aren’t popular either – but Muriel herself still has just one piece of mahogany, a chest of drawers standing in front of a wall she painted bright blue, to lighten it up.
Auction rooms like Mullen’s in Bray will come and value for free the contents of your house and tell you whether it’s worth sending to them for sale: it might cost around €400 for it to be collected, depending on where you live, and if it’s not going to sell for more than that, Mullen’s will probably tell you “don’t bother” says managing director Joe Mullen.
Still, the volume of stuff being sent to Mullen’s has gone up in the past few decades even while values have gone down.
He confirms that a younger generation just doesn’t want clutter: “The day of having two or three tea services, candelabra and so on is gone.”
That said, Mullen’s auctions, like those in places like Buckley’s in Sandycove and Herman Wilkinson, remain popular.
People can dispose of their stuff in auction rooms or by giving them to charity. Age Action is one of the few that collects items for its six charity shops around the country for free.
Anthony Flynn, its logistics manager, is in charge of collections.
“A client will ring up, say ‘I’m clearing out my parents’ home’ and depending on the volume I’ll go out and say what I can accept. They don’t have to commit there and then – I tell them to call whenever they’re ready for collection.”
A lot of the time though the charity will talk to people on the phone and will accept “anything that’s saleable; it’s not a dumping ground. Most stuff will sell if it’s in reasonable condition.”
That doesn’t include beds or mattresses: “Mostly, I’d say ‘bring them to the dump’.”
Anthony’s job requires sensitivity, talking to people at what’s often a sad time. “I try not to make it too clinical. I visited one man recently whose parents’ house was in probate. He had two siblings and he was in charge of clearing it out; he’d been in the house for nearly two months and was very sentimental about it. Some of his furniture was really nice and he told me his father had been a bit of a collector.”
Age Action takes pretty much everything from clothing to bric-a-brac to paintings on the wall to furniture to up to four or five boxes of books.”
A lot of older people are really happy that their stuff is going to a good cause, says Anthony, but “clearing out can still be quite emotional. I’m taking 50 years of memories out of someone’s house”.
In one case, a daughter wouldn’t step into her parents’ house that she had to clear out “because there were too many memories. Some time later, a customer in one of our shops discovered a drawer with a small box containing jewellery and a pendant with a picture of a couple – her parents - in it and handed it in. We were able to track down the woman who’d donated the furniture and return it to her.”
Anthony, who worked in warehousing and distribution before this, says of his new job “it’s very rewarding work”.