Memories for sale: what's a household worth?
It's so true: Some things in life you just can't put a price on. Until you have to. When it's up to you to liquidate your parents' treasure-filled home, you need to price the priceless.
How much for that baby grand piano Mom used to play? How much for the sideboard that served up every Thanksgiving dinner you can remember. How much for the porch swing Dad built?
When selling is both unthinkable and necessary, it's nice to have outside experts.
Such reason did not prevail last year when I cleared out my parents' home several months after they had moved into assisted living. I did not have experts. I had myself, my sister-in-law, one week and a learning curve that didn't curve but shot straight up like a flagpole.
Who else could do the job justice? I reasoned. Plus, I didn't want to give anyone a cut of the profits, which were going straight into my parents' long-term care fund.
But looking back, I see the value of experts.
They knew then what I know now, and wish I'd known. For starters, they know how emotional, irrational and deluded those of us selling our parents' belongings -- heck even our own stuff -- are when estimating value. But those were our baby bibs!
MaxSold founder Barry Gordon put it bluntly: "Things are worth what people will pay." A four-year-old Canadian company now in the United States, MaxSold (www.maxsold.com) clears out homes. The company sends in a team that organizes household items in batches or 'lots,' photographs them, then uses social media to sell them locally through online auctions.
"People think that when they put their price on items, they have control of the price. They don't," Gordon said. "The buying market will determine the value." Holding out for a price can leave you holding onto the item.
I know I turned down several offers for my parents' antique marble-topped nightstand, which I now have parked at a family friend's house across the country.
Clinging has its costs, especially if you need to ship an item, move it, or heaven forbid, put it in paid storage. (Dear readers, please, before you get a storage locker, call me. I will talk you off the ledge.)
Gordon cites this example. Say someone has a dining room set and would feel awful if they sold if for anything less than $2,000. A buyer offers $800, which the seller turns down. Then, because there's no room for it, the set goes in storage. Three years later, at $100 a month, the seller has paid $3,600 to hang onto it and finally sells it for $500.
Better to yank the Band-Aid off now, even if it hurts. And it will.
Although no two households are alike, in Gordon's experience, the contents of the average North American home, after the family has taken out what they want to keep and paid the liquidator, yields between $3,000 and $10,000. He's heard other liquidation professionals say the average house yields about $5,900.
"Our process is not designed to replace the important work," said Gordon, referring to the sifting, sorting and saving family members must do first.
But once the family decides what won't stay, if they're not up to selling items themselves, they need to step aside.
"Dealing with a family home paralyzes people," said Gordon. "It can takes the toughest, most organized, efficient people and slow them to an absolute standstill."
His advice: "Don't work yourself into a frenzy trying to control things you can't. What you can control is how much of your life you put into the process." Here's what else you can control:
- Your options. When clearing out a home, many families, including mine, hold an estate sale, where individual items are tagged and the public is invited on a particular day. The sale can - and did -- create a chaotic environment, which is hard to control, especially if a lot of people show up. Others work with a bulk buyer, who pays one price to take everything away. What you lose in profit you gain in convenience. A liquidator, like MaxSold, is a hybrid. It batches and auctions off goods from the house and reports all sales to the client.
- The location. More than 99 percent of household belongings sell nearby, said Gordon, whose company uses 35 social media avenues to promote auctions locally.
- Timing. How long families take to clear a home ranges widely and is highly personal. "I've seen clients go through the process in light speed, burning through the sorting in a day, and others take several years, and still not make much progress," said Gordon. "A good healthy time frame is probably a couple of weeks."
- Package deals. Bundling items is a tactic I wish I'd done more. Although I put items for the estate sale together - mom's two dozen dried flower arrangements, her 40-some flowerpots - I tagged each item rather than said $50 for all. You'll move more merchandise faster, and more efficiently, if you make groups: all figurines, all items in the cleaning closet, all pots and pans. "Buyers can't pick and choose," Gordon said. "They buy the lot."
- Your reserves. In an auction, a reserve is a price below which a seller will not sell. "We don't allow that," said Gordon. "We ask sellers if they are done with the items. If they are, we sell." It's a trap to think that having a reserve ensures you get the price you want. Only place one if you're prepared to keep the item.
- Your goal. If your goal is to clear the house, accept that you may not get top dollar, but that you will get what the market is paying. "Clients need to release themselves to the competitive market," Gordon said.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.