How to Help Your Clients Downsize—and Have Fun Doing It

Wednesday Jan 05th, 2022



Lisa and Michel Zujar, a married couple from Richmond, Va., sit side by side and exclaim over the colorful, hand-drawn illustrations that have just been presented to them. Created for a book they had self-published, the original images had been lost for years.

The Zujars are guests on the second season of the Emmy-nominated(link is external) PBS series, “Legacy List with Matt Paxton,(link is external)” in an episode titled “Viva La Downsizing.”

“It was a labor of love,” says Lisa Zujar of the book, which was illustrated by Michel’s cousin. Michel’s parents emigrated from Mexico, and the book, titled The Piñata Story, explains the symbolism behind the colorful, candy-filled paper-mâché creations. The book has never hit a bestseller list, nor would its original illustrations ignite a bidding war if they were offered for auction on eBay.

But to the Zujars, they’re family heirlooms.

For “Legacy List” host Matt Paxton, helping families who are preparing to move to find the possessions that carry the greatest emotional significance is the heart of the show.

What Matters Most 

“Families have stories that younger generations may not know about,” he says. “What we do is help them begin building their legacy.”

Often, that means helping people sift through mountains of stuff.

Like the Zujars, most guests on the show are baby boomers who are attempting to whittle down the possessions they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating. And often that sizable stash of belongings that have been collecting dust in the attic, basement, or garage includes items from multiple generations: children who have moved out and parents, or even grandparents, who have moved to assisted-living communities or passed away.

“You don’t need those 10 thousand items,” says Paxton. “You can define what matters most, and then you don’t need the other stuff.”

The idea for “Legacy List” grew out of Paxton’s 20 years experience as an extreme cleaning specialist and his work on the popular reality show “Hoarders.”
“I had a lot of clients who said to me, I’m not a hoarder but I’ve got a lot of stuff,” says Paxton. “I wanted to do a positive show that could help aging Americans. I was tired of the negative drama.”

Paxton spent a year shopping the show around before it found a home on PBS. “It was not an easy sell,” he says. “I had one executive who asked me, ‘Are there any attractive granddaughters who will fight each other over stuff?’ That was absolutely not what I wanted to do.”

Instead, Paxton preferred to focus on what he termed the “legacy list”—the items people own that tell their family history and truly can’t be replaced, regardless of their monetary value.

Buried Treasure

Paxton discovered that, in many cases, families don’t know where those items are.

In the show, Paxton sits down with the families and helps them hammer out a list of about eight items that they want to have found within the house or that they want to learn more about. Then, Paxton’s intrepid team comes in to help the families with sorting, packing, moving—and finding their most treasured possessions.

Mike Kelleher, an expert on a wide variety of collectibles, helps coordinate moving the family’s belongings. Avi Hopkins offers his expert opinion on religious and military collectibles (and, as a side note, also ran track against Paxton in high school). Jamie Ebanks is an agent with Long & Foster Cos. in Richmond, Va., and worked for four years as a certified senior move manager. She provides special expertise in helping older clients navigate the intricacies of downsizing and shifting to a smaller household.

Even though decluttering a house for a move is a lot of hard work, Paxton contends that’s where the fun comes in. Families can use the process to learn about each other and share the stories that turn ordinary objects into valuable keepsakes.

Paxton tells the story of a client who wanted to gift a snowflake ornament to her daughter—that the daughter staunchly refused. “I asked her what was so important about that ornament,” he says. “She told me that it was given to her the day her daughter was born. That day it was snowing and sunny at the same time. So she received a snowflake ornament and a sun ornament in honor of that special day. When her daughter heard the story, she said, ‘Well, of course, I want it now!’ ”

Help for Your Clients

With more boomers reaching retirement age each day, the trend toward downsizing for older Americans is likely to continue. According to the Census Bureau,(link is external) by 2030, all baby boomers will be over the age of 65.

For real estate professionals who would like to help an older client with downsizing, Ebanks recommends contacting the National Association of Specialty and Senior Move Managers:(link is external) “They can help you find a senior move manager locally, and then you can meet with them and interview them, just like you would any other vendor. Find someone you’re comfortable with.” The National Association of REALTORS® also offers the Seniors Real Estate Specialist® designation, which helps members learn how to meet the special needs of clients age 50 and older.

In addition, 1-800-GOT-JUNK? offers discounts on removal services for NAR members and their clients through the REALTOR Benefits® Program.

And for those who wish Paxton made house calls, the next best thing is now available. Paxton has poured two decades of experience into his new book, Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff. (link is external) The book takes readers step by step through the decluttering process and includes a resources section that lists the 100 most common items that people need to dispose of and where they can be sold.

Paxton and his team really do believe that, through the process, families can have fun and learn about each other. “People say ‘there are no stories in my family,’ ” says Ebanks. “Every family has a story. It doesn’t have to be a huge event.”

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