How Much Is My “Stuff” Worth? Tips to Valuing Used Possessions of Downsizing Seniors

Or, how much is my mother’s “stuff” worth? These are common questions that resonate frequently in our American society, where the senior demographic is quickly swelling to become 25% of our overall population. A downsizing senior must grapple with this question over and over again, often without much help. The incessant refrain, “but I paid thousands of dollars for this sofa and it has rarely been used” is heard over and over.

What we paid for something 30 years ago may not justify a price point in today’s marketplace.

So why don’t our treasures hold their value? There are three major factors to be considered when assessing the value of household goods in particular.

  • The first factor involves the current decorating spirit of the buying population. Is your item in vogue? Furniture trends come and go. Colonial and French Provincial furniture styles, once very popular, have little commercial reception today. Most dark wood pieces from the 40’s and 50’s, especially formal dining room pieces like drop leaf tables and big china cabinets, simply have no audience. On the other hand, mid-century modern décor is “hot” and well-crafted pieces command a good price. It pays to research the manufacturer as well because desirability and value are frequently tied to a trademark. Today’s market is eclectic, which means that many furniture styles can be mixed together in a home and have wide-ranging appeal. So, an oversized, dated, dining room “buffet” can be painted and repurposed as a bedroom dresser, thereby finding a new “forever” home. Just remember, if someone has to remediate a worn tabletop or reupholster a chair, do not expect to get much, if anything, for it.
  • Do your items have any special vintage or antique value? Even antiques (using the IRS definition of 100 years old as a qualifier) wax and wane in popularity. Oak used to be hot, now it’s not. Pump organs and treadle sewing machines are becoming homeless. Even pianos have become a hard sell. Rapidly changing technology makes selling computer equipment over 3 years old or any TV, other than a new flat screen, almost impossible to sell. The X generation and the millennials, who stand downstream of the assets we are looking to sell or give away, are not into “collecting” the way the boomers were. So doll collections, Hummels, collectible plates of any kind, and Beanie Babies have fallen on hard times. Even silver plated serving pieces have little value, if you can imagine!.
  • Finally, is there any intrinsic value? Does the item in question have it or not? Intrinsic value means it has a value not tied to its Fair Market Value. An items owner is frequently the sole determinant of its intrinsic value. For example, if a particular chair is not exceptionally handsome, but instead is especially comfortable, then it has a certain intrinsic value. But such value does not translate readily into marketability. The upholstery may be dated or soiled, dramatically affecting the perception. So the intrinsic value, generally tied to an item’s usefulness, will have to be communicated beyond what is easily observed. Without inherent, intrinsic value, the item in question may have no resale value at all.

The rapidly growing self-storage industry is a testimony to the backlog of homeless items stuffed away waiting for some relative to relieve the pressure. In today’s real estate market, the price of new homes is escalating so quickly that young potential homeowners, buried in student loans, are finding it difficult to become homeowners. Instead, they are staying at home longer, then renting apartments or sharing spaces when they leave home. They have no room for our “stuff.” Most homes being built now don’t even have formal dining rooms.  The trend is leaning towards expansive “great rooms.” Open floor plans cater to a more relaxed style of living and entertaining, so who wants our high maintenance china and crystal.

See the problem!

There is a solution but it means we all have to get more realistic. We can sell our “stuff” through consignment or auction if we don’t overvalue it. And we can always give it away (or, almost always). Even Goodwill and the Salvation Army, who resell our donated treasures, have now raised the bar on what they will accept, so lots of your items will go to the curb or the landfill.

Don’t let your feelings get hurt. It’s only “stuff.”

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