Like many people in similar circumstances, Annapolis, Md., resident Betsy Chotin and her brother faced an overwhelming situation when their elderly mother died last year.
While coping with their grief, they had to sell their mother’s condominium, go through her belongings and find appropriate homes for everything. How would they get it all done quickly and correctly?
Disposing of the property of loved ones when they downsize and move, or when they die, can be very difficult, both logistically and emotionally. But, as Chotin and her brother learned, expert help is available.
Lawyer Gerald K. Gimmel, of Gimmel, Weiman, Ersek, Blomberg & Lewis in Gaithersburg, says numerous specialized services are offered to guide family members and/or carry out the property disposition work. Estate planning lawyers, he says, can help families “set up a game plan.”
It is best for some of the planning to be done in advance, “before it’s an emergency,” Gimmel says. A lawyer can help set up a revocable living trust (RLT), for example, through which title to real estate and other belongings can be given to relatives or others when the owner dies. While living, the original owner maintains control of the possessions, but afterward the decision-making authority shifts smoothly to the designees. An RLT avoids probate or court authorization.
Another approach is to prepare a will that designates what is to be done with belongings. Wills can specifically list items. While wills go through probate, that’s not necessarily a reason to opt for an RLT instead. Gimmel says Maryland, Virginia and the District have straightforward probate procedures. He adds that probate has the advantage of providing a court review of the accounting regarding distribution of property and, if all is well, written documentation that everything has been done right.
Families may want to decide together who will become the owner of certain things, such as furniture, jewelry and keepsakes. Some families simply talk it over in advance and agree on a plan for distribution of possessions.
Chotin’s mother had both an RLT and a will, which simplified decision-making. “She did everything right ahead of time,” Chotin says. Another plus was that Chotin and her brother agreed on a course of action and worked well together. Nevertheless, they still had the daunting task of selling the condo and figuring out how and where to dispose of all the contents that they and other relatives did not wish to keep. Chotin’s advice: Ask lots of questions at every stage along the way, so you will know your options and can make informed decisions.
First on the agenda was selling the condo. Even if a residence is owned outright, with no mortgage, until it is sold the family must continue to cover any condo obligations and pay for insurance, utilities and other ongoing expenses.
Chotin and her brother asked around for recommendations of real estate agents knowledgeable about condo sales in the immediate area. They met with five agents. Each said the condo should be offered as-is — no new carpeting or paint — because it was in good condition. The wall oven was broken, so the sales contract would include an allowance for purchase of an exact replacement. The agents said pricing of the condo should be based on the sales price of other units in the building; special features such as a private patio would contribute to sales appeal but not to the sales price.
Just as they were about to hire one of the agents to list the condo, a building resident stepped forward and bought it directly from Chotin and her brother. It is not uncommon for buyers to purchase furnishings and other contents of a property, but this buyer did not.
The next steps were for Chotin and her brother to get help in determining what to do with the condo’s contents, and then in carrying out that plan. The field of professionals in estate liquidation includes appraisers and evaluators of various types of belongings; estate sale specialists; auction houses; cleanout companies that sort, pack, transport, distribute and discard; and charitable organizations that accept property donations.
Real estate agents, estate planning lawyers, financial planners and accountants often can recommend companies that specialize in appraisals, estate sales and general property liquidation. National websites such as EstateSales.net, EstateLiquidators.com and EstateSale.com list businesses by location.
Ideally, Gimmel says, the first step is for family members to remove important papers as well as jewelry and other valuables. Next, an appraiser would evaluate the valuables for tax and sales purposes.
Francine Proulx, president of Art/Antiques Information Resource in Fairfax, Va., says appraisers often are brought in too late, after items whose value was not recognized have been given away. She recommends choosing an experienced appraiser who belongs to one of the three major professional associations — the International Society of Appraisers, the American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America.
Membership indicates that an appraiser conforms to the profession’s ethical code and prepares reports that abide by the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. All three organizations have websites that identify members by location, describe their specialties and list the accreditations or certification they have earned.
In addition, Proulx recommends selecting an appraiser you would be comfortable working with. The appraiser’s website might include client comments or testimonials that would be helpful to review. “Be sure not to hire an appraiser who charges a percentage of the appraised value,” Proulx adds. That is a conflict of interest. Appraisers who also are dealers or work for an auction house should have explicit and clear boundaries between these functions and their appraisal work.
Appraisers can provide a cost estimate and usually charge a flat fee or an hourly rate plus expenses. Proulx says charging an hourly rate is most common; that rate can range from $150 to $350, based on the appraiser’s credentials and experience.
Once the valuables have been dealt with, experts in general property disposition can move forward. Gimmel stresses that “yard sale values” are used in determining prices of most ordinary items sold or donated. Proceeds from sales may be used to pay the bills related to the property; any net proceeds can be distributed as the will specifies. (Often, Gimmel says, family members agree to take items in lieu of their financial share.)
Specialists such as booksellers might review items in person or online and offer to buy some for resale. Rock Toews, of Back Creek Books in Annapolis, says booksellers often offer a low price, such as 25 percent of what they hope to sell a book for, because it can take quite a while to find the right buyer.
Just as in the appraisal stage, the first cardinal rule with general property liquidation is not to toss things out before bringing in the pros. What looks like junk to you may be valuable. Professionals in the business have a trained eye; let them evaluate everything you have and determine what to discard. Toews says, for instance, an old book that does not look special to you might be a collectible first edition. And that old casserole? Joann Cameron, of A2Z Estate Sales and Appraisals in Silver Spring, says Pyrex prices are “through the roof” right now.
The second cardinal rule is to step away from the liquidation process once you have removed what you want to keep and have hired a professional. Pulling items that have been included in an estate sale assessment or listed for sale misleads customers and may result in additional charges, or even cancellation of a scheduled sale.
EstateSales.net recommends that you call numerous estate sale and/or liquidation companies before selecting one. Ask about their services, prices and insurance, and how they operate from start to finish in the process. Select at least three companies to come to the house, meet with you and look over what is there.
Initial visits usually are free and often include not only assessments of what will appeal to buyers, but also tips on where to donate or recycle other things. If service providers seem trustworthy and you like them, check their references. You might even visit estate sales run by companies you are considering.
Estate sale companies assess, sort, clean, price and tag items. If needed and they are able, they may appraise valuables; they also may bring in appraisers. They publicize and advertise the sale, often posting photos online of items included. They set up and conduct the sale (at the house or online), which usually runs for two or three days, and arrange for remaining items to be donated, recycled or discarded. Finally, they clean up the house, tally the sales proceeds, deduct their fee and present the net earnings to the client with a sales report and tax donation receipts.
While owners may be tempted to host their own estate sale, Cameron says, “There are so many details to cover that [people who do so] wind up getting ripped off, burned out, at the chiropractor, or all three.”
Fees charged by estate sale companies may include a guaranteed minimum of, say, $1,500, part of which constitutes a retainer when the contract is signed; a cleanout fee based on an hourly rate; and a commission ranging from 35 percent to 50 percent that is tied to a schedule of gross sales amounts. While the associated fees may be a surprise to some owners, Cameron says that many hours of work are involved and sales prices often are low. Likewise, clients may be surprised if the net earned is not large. But as Cameron points out, “It still represents 100 percent profit from inherited items in which you don’t have a dime invested,” and the house ends up empty and broom clean.
Fran Nystrom, who runs Annapolis-based Empty Nest Estate Sales, says her goals as an estate sale professional are to make as much money for the client as she can, and to ease the liquidation process for them. “I’m not attached to things,” she says, so it is easier for her than for the client to empty things out of the house. Cameron agrees and says, “One reason to hire people [to liquidate belongings] is that it’s hard to let go. If something makes you happy, then keep it. Don’t sell it and then regret it.” But let the liquidator take care of the rest for you.
Nystrom examined Chotin’s items, estimated what an estate sale might earn, and advised her against doing a sale. That was because family members were keeping most of the valuable items, so that not enough contents were left to merit the cost of a sale.
Chotin and her brother turned to a pair of Damascus, Md., companies for help: Attic to Basement, a sorting and packing company, and Junkit Dumpit, a hauler. Janet Ray, owner of Attic to Basement, says cleanout companies such as hers can do as much or as little as the client wants, from sorting and packing, to transporting small electronics to collection sites for recycling or disposal, to returning cable boxes.
Roland Ray, Janet’s husband, runs the hauling company, which trucks items to auction houses, charitable organizations, the dump and elsewhere as needed. Both businesses charge an hourly rate based on the number of personnel involved. “We do an assessment — 30 or 40 minutes on average — then sit down with [potential clients] and tell them if it is cost effective to hire us,” Janet Ray says.
Estate sale and cleanout companies search for important documents and other valuables that may be unknown or misplaced. They have been known to find a range of items, from car titles, tax documents and photos to traveler’s checks, cash and long-lost jewelry. All this is turned over to the client.
Decisions then are made about what to do with everything else. Valuable items may go to high-end auction houses that deal in antiques and major collectibles. Boxes of books and other everyday things may go to auction centers that handle more ordinary items. Silver and gold may be sold to fine metals dealers for meltdown at a foundry.
Cleanout pros know which charities take furniture — and the types of furniture they accept — as well as which will pick up donations. They can advise on where to donate clothing, rugs, linens, glassware, dishes and all the other contents of the house. Another resource is the website donationtown.org, which lists charities by location that will pick up donations of various types.
Real estate agent Jennifer Knoll, with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in Chevy Chase, Md., has helped many elderly clients get rid of a lifetime of belongings when they downsize. As with estate disposition, it can be wrenching for the clients and their families to discard things.
To ease the pain, Knoll says, “I try to find new homes for things as much as possible” rather than throwing them away. Suits and dresses might go to groups that give job interview outfits to those in need. Beds, barely used guest room mattresses, other furnishings, linens and housewares might go to organizations that help the formerly homeless set up a home.
“People light up,” Knoll says, “when they see that their donations can change someone else’s life.”
Wendy A. Jordan is a freelance writer.