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Careers on the up for downsizers

Published on Friday, 10 May 2013
Photo: iStockphoto

When Rod Thorpe and his wife, both seniors, faced moving from their 4,600 sq ft house in Iowa, US, into a small apartment a year ago, they turned to a professional downsizer.

The consultant, Christine Smart, encountered some 20 years’ worth of stuff stacked up in the Thorpes’ home. She dove right in and arranged an auction, handled online sales on Craigslist and eBay, and donated to charities. Smart also oversaw move-related details, such as cataloguing 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 realised we had a horrendous undertaking – a lifetime of possessions,” says Thorpe, 76, a retired marketing executive, who spent more than US$5,000 for the services.

“Downsizing consultant” is a career that is gathering steam as 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 US$50 to US$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 – in the US grew up in an era of affluence, acquiring far 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, who has been doubling her business every year since founding it in 2008.

By 2011, demand for her services was so great that she was able to move to an office. She also now has a warehouse to store goods in transition. She has hired a part-time employee and charges US$55 to US$60 per hour for her services. When arranging for the sale of items, her firm takes 50 per cent of proceeds, forgoing the hourly fee.

Downsizing professionals must tackle a variety of tasks, from the physical – such as cleaning and sorting – to the mental – such as co-ordinating with auctioneers and planners of estate sales, as well as attorneys and financial

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, specialised websites assist seniors with putting together online auctions.

It takes a combination of organisational and people skills to resonate with an older clientele, many of whom are on fixed incomes and are 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, an Illinois-based trade group that represents some of these organisational consultants. “It takes a lot of attention to detail.”

The group has grown to 800 members this year from just 60 in 2005. The majority are women, many of whom have turned to downsizing as a second career, such as Marnie Dawson, who runs Chicago-based Dawson Relocation.

“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 US$50 to US$60 per hour, Dawson 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 centres 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 you’re running a small business,” she says. “You have to make sure people remember who you are.” Reuters

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