Q&A: Carol Sheridan on downsizing

Carol Sheridan
Sep 06, 2018

Carol Sheridan is an expert in designing spaces for life transitions. Her firm Contemplated Spaces in Germantown, Md. helps with empty nesting, starting over, having a baby, retiring, blending families and relocating. Carol, a native Washingtonian, specializes in editing furnishings, designing new layouts, reimagining art and accessories and helping pare down..

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 15 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Welcome to designer Carol Sheridan who joins us today to talk about moving and downsizing and change - whether that means adding a new baby, moving in with someone or getting rid of lots of stuff to start over in a new place. Carol, a native Washingtonian, specializes in editing furnishings, designing new layouts, re-imagining art and accessories and helping pare down. Let's chat. 

Opening statement: Thanks for having me on the chat today, Jura. And thanks to your readers. In my 30 years as an interior designer I have found many clients requiring special sensitivity to their circumstances, and I've found I enjoy helping these folks. 

Who are your clients?

My clients are defined more by needs that a group. All are experiencing a change in their living arrangement. Empty nesters, people retiring, starting over, blending families, having a baby or relocating. Even family member of a loved one recently deceased. They can be Baby Boomers to millennials. 

Last year, I inherited my father's house and furnishings after his death. He has several pieces of mid-century modern furniture (Danish rosewood) that I'd like to sell. I would do this on Craigslist, but I don't live in the area so that's inconvenient. I found a DC company called Modern Mobler that buys and sells that era of furniture; is this the best way to handle this? Thanks for any advice about this--I'm panicking about dealing with all my dad's stuff.

I'm sorry to hear about your dad. But you are in luck that mid-century furniture is in great demand now. This is tricky, but if you want to contact me on my website I can help you. There's an app called LETGO which is very popular as well as estate sale companies. I've not used Modern Mobler yet. But if there are plenty of good reviews, give it a try and see how it goes. Small steps will get you through this. I'm sure it is emotional.  

Are vignettes still a thing? Should you curate your displays on bookshelves and coffee tables? How do you look at your space with a new perspective?

Vignettes will never go out of style. They often show the history of your travels or collections. It is a big focus of my rightsizing and downsizing, as I can often preserve the vignettes even if the size of the space one uses changes dramatically. And you can move the vignette from a coffee table to a book shelf to a nightstand and get a fresh look each time.

Talk about downsizing: from a 5800sf Victorian to a 1600 sf condo in preparation for a move to Tel Aviv. After 10 months here, we are finally about to move into the newly built apartment we bought. I've worked most of it out, but can't figure out what to do with the corner near the guest bath where the washer&dryer go. Is there a neat way to cover up the two open sides? Can drapes be hung from the ceiling? (Not ideal for sure) There really isn't any room to wall it in. PS I'm not installing a dryer, but using that space for shelving/storage. Thanks!

There's wonderful drapery hardware that you can hang from the ceiling and has and elbow to it so you can hang fabric on the two sides. I'm glad to hear you won't have a dryer, as heat isn't necessarily ideal around fabric for safety. 

Sometimes you just need to take a moment. Moving can be unsettling and overwhelming. Stopping to listen or hear about a fond memory actually can speed up the process. It helps people work thru the emotion as they move forward. 

I need to spend a year overseas, and then move to the West Coast. Naturally I'm downsizing like a crazy person, to lighten the load. But should I store all my stuff here, or move it and store it there? Would it be better to have one big firm do both the moving and the storing, or should I parcel it out among storage units and moving companies? Also, would this be a good situation to use a self-packing service like Pods?

Sounds like quite an adventure. I'm a big fan of Pods even if you hire help to pack them. Their size is manageable if you need to get into it and rearrange or look for something. I would store now and move later, keeping everything together and document everything with photos and lists. 

As our baby enters, we want to reduce the rest of our things to give him space to grow and play but it is hard to find time to dedicate to pulling everything out and going through it. We can't just empty a closet and leave it out until we get to it, because its not safe for him. What's the best way to deal with sorting/reducing when you may only get 5-10 minutes a day to yourself?

You are a perfect candidate for a professional organizer. You can explain your needs and let them do what you don't have time for. You could ask for someone who has experience raising children so they understand the safety concerns. 

My parents lived in their house for 55 years. After my father died, my mother was preparing to move to a 1-bedroom CCRC independent living apartment. She spent the last few months in her house donating and throwing away lots of stuff. After she moved, she realized she should have spent more time picking out what she wanted to keep. After all, we hired a clean-out company (recommended by the realtor) to empty the house after she moved out.

55 years of accumulation is quite a lot to go through. It is helpful to get as early start as possible and have time to experience the memories. A rush can be overwhelming. Even starting early, it's hard to make the best choices. USing photos of things you don't have room for helps. Store them on a computer or a digital photo frame and be sure to back up your photos! 

Good morning. My parents downsized from our large suburban home 5 years ago to a one-level 2BR condo. It was painful. I still have PTSD from the experience and they retained way more than my brother and I thought they should. Now, they are facing heading to a tiered-living facility, which will mean doing everything again. How do you recommend that we avoid the tensions associated with the last move, especially given that they are now in their late 80's and one of them is in very delicate health? Thank you for responding.

This is one of the most difficult transitions because one generally moves to very small quarters. Again, the photos help, but I recall cutting a piece of a best loved oriental rug for the client to take with them. They just wanted a piece of what they couldn't take. The rug was old and threadbare, so it was an easier choice. Try to be creative about keeping the memory and parting with the item

After parting ways with someone after being them for 10 years and keeping the house, how do you make changes to start over without leaving and throwing everything away and starting brand new.

Some relationships end on a down note, but there were some highlights. I try to be mindfully optimistic with my clients. What was the good that came of this time? Does an item bring you joy or pain ... this is a good barometer. You can make furnishings look new with new pillows and throws in a different color scheme if you need to keep much of it. Most of us can't just throw everything away to start over, and this is where I come in. 

Thanks for all these years of giving us practical and fun advice. Hope you celebrate accordingly!

Thank you so much! My family and friends and colleagues are definitely treating me to a festive day. Munching on baklava from Jordan, huge blueberries, biscotti, chocolate brioche and pumpkin spice donut holes right now.  Much more to come...

The original lock hardware on my original wood entry door is no longer working. We've been told by a locksmith there is no way to replace the lock hardware without getting a new door. I want to keep my door, but the hardware is on the verge of breaking. Who would you go to for a second opinion? If I do have to buy a new door, where would you recommend I start? I'm willing to spend a lot to get a quality wood door to replace my original.

A very good carpenter might be able to fill the hole and place the lock lower or higher if you are especially attached to the door. The door would need to then be painted, not have a stained finish. But you might find the perfect new door if you look. A good builder supply company will have an array for you to choose from. You may enlist the help of a designer too.

I bought a Pottery Barn Caden ottoman (https://www.potterybarn.com/products/caden-upholstered-leather-nailhead-rectangular-ottoman/?pkey=cliving-room-benches&isx=0.0.808) off of CL. The leather needs a bit of attention, but the care instructions encourage that you take it to a professional. Any suggestions by chance? I wasn't sure who else to ask!

I would try a good saddle soap, but baby wipes are very good for this type of thing and are gentle, not harsh. 

I am trying to find a rug for a family room with elementary age children. Everything else is pretty neutral - beige/greige/cream - so I might like something with a hint of color, but still pretty neutral. I feel like I have exhausted the typical furniture stores/websites. Any suggestions of where else to look? Thanks.

I love outdoor rugs for children. They have gotten softer over the years. Frontgate has a nice variety of well-priced rugs.

My husband has a tendency to hoard. Any suggestions for helping him to purge?

This is honestly one of the biggest challenges as we get older because needing to lighten up is almost a certainty. Approaching it from the most positive angle possible is helpful. You will need to find an agreeable way to preserve the memory but part with the item. Marie Kondo has a wonderful book, Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Try reading that together and discussing it. I also find setting a date and time to start, and work on this regularly helps. Take small steps but you have to take the first step. 

For the leather: you can buy leather wipes (just like the Clorox bathroom wipes, but for leather) in the home cleaning section. We use them on a high-finish sofa and chair and they look great. For the lock hardware: it sounds as though the lock and knob might be separate pieces (like a deadbolt?) -- if so, it's often possible to replace the lock hardware with a similar, but slightly bigger-plated lock, so the old holes are actually covered by the new piece. Does that make sense?

Thanks. Great info.

Hi, I have a crazy quilt that I've dragged around since college -- and now my own kids have graduated college! I think it is pretty old. I never really used it, thought, and it's missing several pieces. I always thought I might upholster a chair with it but I think it's really time to let go of some of the clutter. Any ideas on either how to use it, or how to sell it?

You might consider folding over the end of a bed with a white coverlet. It would show nicely. You could also cut a piece that is in tack and have it framed. If you are a DIY-er, Micheals has some nice shadowbox frames. 

Do you do your laundry the same way each week? Get some tips for changing it up from my story on getting out of your laundry rut here.


Almost ten years ago -- at the depths of the real estate crash -- we short-sold our 3500-foot house and moved into our 1400-foot rental property. It was traumatic, but as time went on and we recovered financially, we came to realize that (a) it's just stuff (meaning that if it's not a precious family heirloom, it's probably archaic anyway) and that (b) we can live with less stuff. My beloved wife, who was just this side of hoarder, has come to embrace near-minimalism. (Other than shoes, of course.)

Wow, good for you. That was quite an undertaking at a difficult time economically. Most of my clients find that lightening up makes them feel freer and less encumbered. The trick is in finding a way to preserve the memories, and it sounds like you must have done that well. 

I'm the person whose parents lived in their house for 55 years. After 8 years in independent living, my mother had a stroke and had to move to the Assisted Living wing (a smaller apartment). The second downsizing was MUCH easier. When she died (at age 97!) we had to clean out her apartment, and that was even easier. My adult kids took a few pieces of furniture, and I mailed various keepsakes to the grandchildren.

Giving special momentos to the grand childen is a great way to carry on your parents legacy. IF you have time, send a note that includes a story to preserve the history.

Hi- I seem to recall a fairly recent "At Home" piece that identified a few decluttering companies. Would you post the link?

Here is a good piece on decluttering by Nicole Anzia. Also if you didn't read my piece about Swedish Death Cleaning, its definitely got great advice on getting rid of stuff before it's too late. Read it here.

I'm in the same situation and a friend recommended a product called Leather Honey Leather Conditioner (you can get it on Amazon). I haven't tried it yet, but he's pretty particular so I'm sure it's good.

Thanks a lot.

What to do with all of my CDs?? Can I hire someone to transfer to itunes??

Yes, you can hire someone in your area. This is time consuming even with efficient equipment. There is a demand for older music in all formats, so check to see if there's a music resale store near you. People of all ages enjoy all genres of music. I recently went to a Springsteen concert and all the 20 somethings new all the words. There's a market out there. t depends on how much time you have to do it yourself.

I am looking for a declutter that will actually post items online that are worth selling. Any ideas?

There are E-bay stores. Check your area to find one. You can bring your items in to sell them. 

Long time chat follower and first time chatter. Can you direct me to source for a small slip covered club chair? I would like to put a linen covered chair in our guest bedroom and can't seem to find good options. I'm outside of the DC area and will have to order on the web. Many thanks for all of the good suggestions over the years!

An estate sale is a great place to find small furnishings to slipcover. I find older furniture is generally smaller. And Grandin Road has some smaller scale chairs I've had great success with.

When my husband's parents decided to downsize, they had the opportunity to send things to the local salesrooms in England. I've wished I had the same options now that I'm faced with my parents' furniture and our own unused wedding presents from 30 years ago. I am uncomfortable with having people come to our home and would like a middleperson as a buffer (and am willing to compensate said person.)

Everyone would like to realize come cash from their belongings, but it can also be very advantageous to donate items to a charity. I had a client who received a tremendous tax write-off by donating when she couldn't realize anywhere near the amount her custom furniture was worth. I am partial to donate to Habitat for Humanity and to AMVETS, but there are so many good causes. Wider Circle and upscale Resale are also possibilities.

What are your favorite tips for a high-end look on a budget?

For a high end look on a budget use neutral furniture and add interest with small amounts of bright color. Find a look you like and copy it. Imitation is the greatest compliment!

Enter babysitter.... In my college days, I would babysit for some folks who just wanted someone to keep the baby/toddler busy to get stuff done. I would be in a separate room and the parents could get stuff done without worrying about their little one get into danger. You may want to swap babysitting with another parent to keep cost down. I met mothers who would visit/swap time just so the mom could take a long hot shower and relax. :-)

Great suggestion!I know a family of babysitters who love a project. Sometimes you can enlist the kids to help. 

I would not have thought to look for reviews of this store, but it has many excellent reviews on Yelp. Thanks for the suggestion; I feel more confident about them. Emptying out my father's house has been one of the worst experiences of my life; it's been very fraught. I'm not sure if I need an estate sale specialist or a therapist! Thanks for the help.

I rely a lot on reviews. There are so many resources out there, you can't know enough about them all. I also rely on local consumer affairs offices, especially if the client needs to make a larger investment. You want to know how many unresolved complaints the company has. 

You can sell on Craigslist from another location -- just pick the area where you want to sell and use a LOT of pictures. EBay is good for this kind of collectible stuff too. Best plan is to gather your shipping cost info before you begin to list the items.

Yes and it's not just the costs but the logistics.  I find with larger items it is often better to donate if you do not know of someone who can use them. Another resource is a community web board. And if your church has a social justice group, they usually can find a home for any practical furnishings. 

My parents downsized from a rather large house to a one-bedroom condo (then downsized even further...they live on a boat now). When they were doing the first clear-out, my mom told me "you know, when we're gone...you're going to really appreciate that I've taken care of this already." At the time, I was kind of upset by that (my parents are young! Late 50s/early 60s). But a couple of years later, we all helped my grandparents move from their house to an independent living community. And--surprise, surprise--my mom was right. It's SO much easier for the person who owns the stuff to do the decluttering.

You are so right, and thanks for sharing this! The owner knows the meaning and history. When we went through my mom's desk, she had told us to throw it all away. I found a photo of Abe Lincoln and thought it was odd she kept it. In further research we found it was legitimate!

It will be about half a dozen years until we're ready to sell, but I'm trying to work on getting rid of some things that I know the kids don't want sooner. I have multiple generations of bric-a-brac that I have no idea if it's worth anything. I don't think I have anything that would turn up worth thousands at the Antiques Roadshow - are there companies that can actually evaluate 50 - 70 year old stuff?

You can take to an antique shop and see if the items are collectable. But there are also good search engines on line. You can scan a photo and it will look for you. Time consuming though ... I would probably ask for help. There are many vintage things that would be very pplular right now, so a vintage shop is another good option.

Just an encouraging word. My husband and I moved from a 4 BR house in the suburbs to a (large) 2 BR apartment and threw out tons of stuff, including over 800 books, clothes, furniture, art, linens, etc. I don't miss anything! (except for some ugly unbreakable dishes that, in retrospect, I wish I'd kept as they were handy) As for those who say they could never throw out books, I note that although we got rid of plenty of old books, we continue to read new books (often from the library) which is more fun than looking at old dust jackets.

One man's trash is another's treasure ... books definitely fall into this category. There are many good second hand book stores and the older the books, the more you should consider one.

For those looking to organize/declutter on more of a budget, I hired a college student last year to help me out and it was a great move for me. She was super sweet, but also a good perspective for the "will I ever wear this again?" moments. I found her on our community facebook.

When going through clothes the first question is, "Does it fit"?, the second, "Do I LOVE it"? 

hi. do you have recommendations of places to sell used (excellent condition) furs, or jewelry? not high end but not costume either..

A vintage shop or possibly Etsy, for which you have to open an account to sell and be prepared for the packing and shipping. I know people who made a small business but a relatively big income doing this. IF you are local, Steve Woodnick atthe Maryland Jewelry exchange on 355 in Gaithersburg could take a look at your jewelry. He is always fair!

I have to travel to help my parents get ready to move from a 3500 sq ft home into senior living, so I need to be as efficient as possible. What's your advice for what they should/could get started with before I go there?

Take a look online and see if they have floor plan options and discuss with your parents how much space they need. If they can help, they could send you photos and dimensions of the things they love most. 

What should you do with old flowered china that looks very granny?

I like to hang pretty china in groups on a wall. You can plan a room around it ... a guest room perhaps.

Downsizing and decluttering is always a huge topic for our readers. So Carol you have helped inspire people drowning in stuff. Very cool chat. So next week: tune in for designer Vern Yip. Thanks for being with us Carol and thanks to all of you for the great questions and tips.

What do you advise as the priority when downsizing from a 4 BR, 3BA home to a 2BR, 2 BA apartment? Is the space the first priority? Or the needs and wants?

Both go hand in hand, but I would say the needs first. Try to determine how much you can actually use. If you bring too much it will be more overwhelming at that time to try to eliminate.

It's a legit store, but it still may be worth having an independent appraiser look at the furniture before you sell it. I'm not sure if Modern Mobler sells on consignment or whether they buy furniture outright and resell it in their store. Either way, you will get less from them than you would selling on your own. But it would be faster and far less hassle, which seems like a big plus for you.

If you have the time and you can do it safely, you can certainly sell it yourself. But I recommend that you have two people at home if you arrange for someone to come see it. And if you get a bad vibe on the phone don't set up a meeting. 

I would call another locksmith first -- and look on ebay or Houseofantiquehardware.com to see if you can find a replacement for your old lock. If that fails, call Chris Gray at TW Perry. They custom made a solid wood front door and surround for me last year - it's beautiful and, though expensive, so worth it. Chris is an architect and solely works on designing doors.


It seems we have run out of time. Thanks everyone for participating and Jura for contacting me. Anyone can reach me through my website contemplatedspaces.com

Our first baby will be born in about two months ... and we're also trying to buy a house! While I would LOVE to have more space (current plan: pack 'n' play in the closet), I'm worried that it will be an excuse to aquire too much stuff I'll have to get rid of later. Any tips for transitioning into a larger space and NOT filling it?

Not sure if this will make it ... yes ... be VERY selective and think long term and multiple uses. 

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius or follow her on Instagram @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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