Helping seniors sort, toss and pack

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2013 - 5:02 PM

Business model fills a niche for elders who need to sell their homes and decide what to get rid of - and where.

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Jodi Laliberte is a real estate agent who opened a brokerage and second-hand store in Shoreview, that specializes in helping elderly people transition from one home to the next.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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When Jodi Laliberte's mother died five years ago, grief wasn't the only emotional challenge. She and her four siblings were left to deal with the tiny house in Fridley where they grew up, including all of the stuff inside.

The house had to be sold. And all trinkets, knickknacks and personal possessions had to be assessed to determine their value.

The logistics of selling the house weren't difficult -- Laliberte had been a real estate agent for several years -- but dealing with all the items was overwhelming. That experience inspired her to expand her real estate business into a brokerage, packing company and consignment shop geared specifically toward seniors who are downsizing.

"The process of handling thousands of 'invaluable' items was a daunting task. Our decisions were clouded with memories, and emotions ran high," said Laliberte, noting that it took years to pack up and sell her mother's house. "In many ways, we let our emotions instead of our business sense make important decisions for us."

At about the same time that Laliberte was dealing with her mother's house and belongings, the housing market started to crash. So she started a real estate brokerage called OEA Realty that works with seniors who need help selling their houses. She also created Sort Toss Pack, which works with estate trustees and seniors as they transition to their new living spaces by helping them make decisions about what to bring along and what to donate, toss or sell. As those businesses grew, she realized that one of the biggest problems facing seniors is what to do with the stuff they don't want to donate or give to a relative.

"It's not just a matter of going in and creating piles of 'Here's what we'll keep, throw and this is what the kids are going to take,'" Laliberte said. "What do you do with the piles? We didn't have an outlet for those piles."

That's when a tenant moved out of a commercial building she owns in Shoreview. She turned that space into Odds & Ends Again, which functions as a consignment shop where clients can sell their items and receive 50 percent of the proceeds.

Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), said this comprehensive approach is an unusual business model.

Buysse said that for real estate agents, tapping into this niche is smart, because seniors can't choose the timing of their move. Senior homeowners have been among the few segments of the housing market that have retained strength through the downturn.

"An 85-year-old woman really can't afford to wait five years for the market to return," Buysse said. "It's not about money at that point."

That's one of the reasons the NASMM membership in the association has grown from 300 to more than 800 in just six years.

Laliberte's business is growing, as well. She said that she and her business partner, Katherine Francis, had to hire a full-time manager at the consignment store in Shoreview, and they have a growing pool of workers who handle the packing jobs. And they're even considering how to create a national franchise based on the same model. As Francis and Laliberte navigate their growing business, that's an initiative that will take time.

Though Laliberte is not surprised that the business has been successful, given the growing needs of aging baby boomers, she said that the business is still a work in progress.

"Initially, I didn't know what the concept was. I just knew what the end result would be," she said. "It was always an evolving concept, and it still is."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

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