Image: Home garage sale © Image Source Pink, Jupiterimages

Related topics: retirement, financial planning, boomers, spending, shopping

It's 8:55 a.m. on a crisp Thursday morning in the exclusive New Jersey suburb of Bernards Township, and at 34 Emily Road, more than 60 people are lined up impatiently outside the front door. Inside, owners Mark and Mary Tuller, who were up most of the night and feel like "zombies," are girding themselves for the onslaught: a three-day crush of strangers pouring into their home, pawing through their family's stuff. Attic to basement, nearly everything is tagged with a price, from the mahogany dining room breakfront ($5,000) to the half-used cans of spray starch (50 cents).

Mark, a 62-year-old former general counsel for Verizon Wireless, and Mary, a retired math teacher, say they couldn't be more excited about their imminent move to a smaller, Mediterranean-style place on the California coast. But with moving trucks arriving in exactly one week, they're more than a little anxious about whether this estate sale will be successful in unloading nearly three decades' worth of accumulated belongings, especially prized pieces like their antique, hand-knotted Persian rugs (the one in the living room originally cost $20,000).

"We wanted to sell these expensive items in a way that brought closure," says Mark, "and didn't want them to just walk out the door for almost nothing."

Indeed, to help facilitate the sale, they've chosen a company called the Grand Bazaar to run it; unlike some other mom-and-pop businesses they interviewed, it actually takes credit cards. But from the moment the doors open and sale-goers storm the 5,000-square-foot home like pirates rushing a ship, virtually no one bothers with plastic. Not the man with the white ponytail happily scoring a $1 jug of deer repellent or the woman in chunky diamonds and fur-tipped pumps snapping up old garden hose nozzles.

Some bargainers cart off books or clothes in bulk, but most arrive at the checkout table with small items: Christmas decorations, souvenir Parisian drink coasters, a board game from the downstairs toy closet. In fact, when the doors close on the Tuller family sale (final take: on the plus side of $30,000), there's still quite a bit of furniture left, most of which is destined for donation or -- cue Mary's nostalgic sighs -- the Dumpster. And those expensive rugs? At least $30,000 worth of fancy floor coverings are headed into storage.

"The sale was a huge success if you were in the market for unopened soap," says Mark.

Call it the great American sell-off. For years now, Americans have been gathering and collecting at an amazing pace, filling homes that over the past half-century have more than doubled in size, to an average of nearly 2,500 square feet. And even that hasn't been enough to contain our nation's overflow of stuff. These days nearly one in 10 U.S. households maintains at least one self-storage unit, 65% more than did so in 1995. Filling these spaces, of course, comes naturally to baby boomers. Born into the giddy postwar climate of conspicuous consumption and weaned on decades of easy credit, they're a generation accustomed to regularly leaving offerings at the altar of retail.

That is, until they hit the empty-nest, time-to-start-downsizing phase and begin wondering what to do with their mountains of accumulated stuff. With some 8,000 Americans turning 65 every day, on average, and the senior population expected to double by 2050, millions are facing a massive, multifaceted purge that's turning out to be much tougher than they thought it would be. And millions more find themselves in similar quandaries as they deal with the truckloads they've inherited from pack-rat relatives.

Indeed, whether they're leaving an heirloom china set at the local consignment store or packing a stately grandfather clock off to Sotheby's, many are discovering that the resale market is glutted with household goods. And oriental rugs are only the beginning. Got a home full of middle-market, traditional-style furniture to sell? Dealers say that stuff's plunged 50 to 75% in value. Elaborate silver tea sets are worth more melted than as decorative objects. And huge, heavy items like dining-room breakfronts and banker-style desks are often the toughest to unload.

"I once sold a piano for $11," says David Rago, a Lambertville, N.J., auctioneer.

For many of those in or near retirement, this is not unimportant income. Inspired by shows like "Antiques Roadshow" and "Pawn Stars," many hope that monetizing that painting over the mantel will help make up for ground lost in their battered retirement portfolios, says Julie Hall, a liquidator from Charlotte, N.C., and the author of "The Boomer Burden," a book about challenges like these.

And beyond the economic significance, there's the emotional struggle that comes with letting go of decades' worth of memory-laden stuff. As David Ekerdt, director of the Gerontology Center of the University of Kansas, puts it, "They're not just things. They're you." But the disconnect between perceived value and actual value when the kids don't want their parents' stuff and the market is overrun can be a cold splash of reality.

"What are people going to do?" asks Chicago appraiser Jane C.H. Jacob, a trustee of the nonprofit Appraisal Foundation. "Dig a ditch and put it in a landfill?"

Indeed, it's hard to know where to start. Selling things piecemeal on eBay and Craigslist? Too time-consuming. A weekend garage sale? Too much work and too hard to figure out pricing. (And what happens with all the unsold stuff?) Like the Tullers, many downsizers begin the liquidation process by interviewing a quirky collection of small-business folk who run estate sales, at companies with names like A Couple of Dusty Old Bags or 2MuchStuff4Me. No one tracks this unlicensed, unregulated universe of mostly family-run firms, but according to John Buckles, the founder of Caring Transitions, the industry's first franchised business, the sector pulls in at least $5 billion a year.

In Southern California, Betty Ulemek got her first taste of the liquidation industry last fall, when the Santa Ana resident decided it was time to sell her late brother's houseful of lovingly acquired collections -- glass, china, clocks and such -- and found an estate-sale company the way many people do: by asking the real-estate agent listing his house. Experienced liquidators say most of their referrals come from clients, real-estate agents, estate lawyers or estate trustees. Some are even paid as much as $10,000 by senior-living centers to help new residents get "unstuck" from a longtime home.

The firm Ulemek was referred to, South Hills Antiques & Estate Sales, is fairly typical: It's run by a sole proprietor, Anita Sassounian, who's self-taught in the ways of valuation and who conducts a side business as an eBay seller. Ten years in, the energetic former waitress, who wears a black apron at sales and calls out that she's "86ing" a misbehaving customer, charges 35% of the final kitty. (Depending on the size of a house and the quality of its contents, a sale can gross between a few thousand dollars and $100,000, with the majority falling in the $5,000 to $15,000 range.)

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For her cut, Sassounian offers extensive advertising (her mailing list yields more than a few die-hard big spenders who sleep overnight in front of the house for the privilege of first dibs); staffs the sale with up to a dozen helpers; and transforms the home into a retail boutique, polishing silver, washing baseboards and bringing in tables, racks and display cases. When it's all over, she arranges for leftovers to be donated and leaves the house, in industry parlance, "broom clean."

In the liquidation milieu, many firms operate on a handshake basis. But the more documentation a liquidator provides, the less room there is for squirrelly dealing or outright stealing. This is, after all, a business where strangers spend days in a house, often unsupervised, handling every single object and finding surprises ranging from Mom's rainy-day cash stash to letters from Dad's secret mistress.

Sassounian works with a contract that leaves little to misinterpretation, helping to ensure, for example, that when a sale's proceeds are to be distributed to heirs, family members can't remove items from the house once the contract is signed. When the sale is done, she provides the estate trustee with an inventory, complete with prices paid. In a field with no licensing, accreditation or official means of censure, Sassounian says, "my reputation is everything."