Season 2, Episode 3
Freedom from your Stuff with Margit Novack
Listen to the podcast at: Purpose in Retirement
Margit Novack: People will say, “It’s not the right time, or it’s not the right apartment, or it’s not the perfect real estate market.” And ultimately, there is no real perfect time to move. So many people have in their mind that they’re going to time this perfectly. They’re going to sell their home, have settlement on Tuesday and move on Wednesday. And it’s like trying to time the stock market—you just can’t do it.
Scott Miller: This is a show where we’ll explore what it means to retire with purpose.
Juanita Fox: To make a difference, to invest in your family and your community, to live to your full potential and explore abundant opportunities to live with purpose in community.
Scott Miller: From Garden Spot Communities in New Holland, Pennsylvania.
Juanita Fox: Welcome to Purpose in Retirement
Juanita Fox: I’m Juanita Fox, the storyteller at Garden Spot Communities.
Scott Miller: And I’m Scott Miller, the chief marketing officer.
Juanita Fox: Scott, have you ever opened a closet and had stuff fall on the floor at your feet?
Scott Miller: Yeah. Or try to close the door and hope that stays shut.
Juanita Fox: When I think about moving, I think about those overflowing closets. I wonder how I will ever sort through the things I’m not sure I can part with.
Scott Miller: Well, in this season of Purpose in Retirement, we’re going to be talking to experts who can answer some of the tough questions about the process of moving to a retirement community.
Juanita Fox: Today, we’re going to talk with Margit Novack, who for 25 years owned Moving Solutions. She’s widely recognized as the founder of the Move Management industry.
Scott Miller: Margit and her husband recently downsized and moved to a retirement community, so she has some really great life experiences to show as well. She recently released her book, it’s called, Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life.
Juanita Fox: After the break, we’ll hear more from Margit.
Juanita Fox: Margit, thank you so much for joining us.
Margit Novack: Thank you for inviting me. I am delighted to be here.
Scott Miller: So Margit, in this season of Purpose in Retirement, Juanita and I are going to be talking to a whole variety of people, and we’ll be having conversations about the ins and the outs of moving to a retirement community. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to answer most of the questions that people don’t know to ask about moving to a retirement community.
Juanita Fox: So to begin our conversation and kind of set you up as our expert for today, what is your work experience?
Margit Novack: Well, about 25, 28 years ago, I started a business called Moving Solutions. The purpose of the business was to help people overcome the physical and emotional obstacles of relocating from homes they had lived in for decades. They were usually relocating to retirement communities.
At first, people would say, “I’m not ready,” and we would wonder, “Are they really not ready or are they just overwhelmed with the prospect of how to deal with decades of belongings?” We found that we were filling a need that was unmet in serving this population.
There were movers, there were care managers, but no one was acknowledging how hard it is to get out of a home that you’ve lived in for many decades. And all of the emotional obstacles, not just physical obstacles, but emotional obstacles, which are probably the bigger part of the obstacles. People talk about the physical ones, but I think the ones that are really the impediments are the emotional ties.
We came in as experts in doing all of those, as well as putting people in touch with resources that they might need to accomplish this. Anyone from movers who we knew would take care of their things to auction houses or antique dealers who would buy their belongings, and then we provided hands-on help to really get the job done. We had the fortune of being a business that filled a need, an idea whose time has come, and the business grew and was successful. I had the privilege of working at a job from which I never wanted to retire.
Scott Miller: So corporations have moved me a bunch of times, and I’ve had move managers. They’ve come in and they’ve packed everything up for me, like when I was in my thirties and they moved me to the new place. What’s the difference between what you do, or what you have done, and those other companies?
Margit Novack: Normally, when you were moving, you were probably taking everything in your home and putting it into a new home.
Scott Miller: Yes.
Margit Novack: For the most part, things were going to go into the same types of rooms they were in currently. And you would pack it up, and in all likelihood, leave it in cartons and you’ll take care of it when it gets to the other side.
Scott Miller: Yep.
Margit Novack: We faced a different kind of situation. Most people who have a three, four, or five-bedroom home actually used very little of it. They use the master bedroom, they use the family room, and the kitchen, but they have things in every room. So our job is to help people think through how do they really use their home, how do they really live?
If someone would say, “Oh, I’m not going to take my desk,” but I would see the piles of bills and that they use it every day. I wouldn’t just say, “Fine, the desk doesn’t go.” I would ask, “Where are you going to do the things that you do use your desk for? How will you live? Where will your command center be?”
And you might be saying, “What’s a command center?” Every house has a command center. Maybe in the kitchen. It may be in the family room. It’s where the address book is. The phone list, the calendar. We would walk in and say, “Well, where are we going to have the command center in the new home?” It’s much more about how people live rather than simply moving their things.
We also would look and say, “Can you get to everything you need to use every day? Are the things that you use on the lowest shelves?” Although we in some ways would try to replicate the organization of a prior kitchen, they were moving to a new home and this was a chance to say, “Is it best located to make your life easy?” So we might say, “In your old home, you had a big kitchen and there was room for service for eight on the lower shelf. In your newer home, it’s a little more compact. What if we had service for four? So everything you use could be on the lower shelf and the other four could be up higher because you don’t use it as often.” It’s more thinking as you unpack and place.
Juanita Fox: So why do people need a move manager to help them accomplish these tasks? Why isn’t it something they can kind of do themselves?
Margit Novack: In theory, they can, but I like to compare it to when I started figuring out how I was going to get exercise during the pandemic. So there were lots of videos on YouTube, and I went to access them and I found the ones that were for older people because I didn’t want to compete with a bunch of 20-year-olds, but I just didn’t have any staying power. I found myself stopping in the middle, not really doing all the reps, and then just not doing it. So it was free and it was good quality, but it just wasn’t working for me.
And in October of last year, a friend was talking to me and she said she had started a virtual personal training program with three other people where they got on Zoom and had a personal trainer help them with strength training, and she really liked it. So I asked if I could join and I had to get permission. I had to be accepted by the group.
What I found is it felt like being part of a group. We chit-chatted during class. We would see the five screens on our own screen and we could see each other. We might be groaning or we might be laughing or whatever. For me, that worked. And here, ironically, I was paying money for the classes and I had to take them at 10:00 every day. Whereas on YouTube I would have had free classes at any time. But YouTube wasn’t working for me. This accomplished my goals, and I think working with the move manager is like that.
There are lots of lists that people can get online of what they should do, and they can do it by themselves or with their family. But for a lot of reasons, for a lot of people, that doesn’t work. And I hope that people look at move management and don’t say, “I’m using it because I can’t do the other way. I can’t do it on my own,” but say, “I want to complete my goals. And if this is what works for me-” I mean, I’m not embarrassed that I’m using personal training and having to pay for it. I’m proud of myself because I’ve accomplished what I want. And I hope they look at that for move management as well- it’s a way of accomplishing your goals.
Juanita Fox: Absolutely.
Scott Miller: So you helped people move to retirement communities for 25 years or so. I heard you recently moved to a retirement community-
Margit Novack: I did.
Scott Miller: -yourself, and so, like, how did you arrive at that decision and how did it go?
Margit Novack: So this is asking the queen of downsizing how did her move go. So I want you to know it was not the move anyone would want to have. About three years ago, my husband and I purchased a shore home and it was the home of our dreams on the water. And we would go down there for a weekend and Bill said, “I want to get a home where we can lock and go, so we can leave the Philadelphia area easily and get to the shore house. So let’s move.”
First, he said, “Where can we rent with three dogs?” And I said, “Nowhere.” He said, “I don’t want to move twice. Let’s move to a retirement community.” So here we were. We made a decision. We were going to downsize our belongings so we could upsize our lives and take advantage of this shore home that we were so excited about and have a home in the Philadelphia area where our kids lived. It was going to be perfect. We were moving at the perfect time for the perfect reasons.
About two months before our move, my husband had planned hip replacement surgery, and two days after his hip replacement surgery, he had a very serious heart attack.
Juanita Fox: Oh my.
Margit Novack: Not here. Not in the metro Philadelphia area or in Lancaster, where we have terrific health care resources. No, we were in the bowels of southern Delaware, far from great hospital care, and we really didn’t know if he was going to survive. We came back to southeastern Pennsylvania, where we had great medical care, and I still didn’t know for days. Was he going to make it? I had to ask myself, “Was I still going to move even if he passed away?” I’m going to fast forward and tell you he’s fine-
Scott Miller: Thank you.
Margit Novack: -so you don’t panic. But while we were waiting to find out what would happen, I had to think, “What do I do? He can’t go back to our three-story stone colonial, where we have a bedroom on the second floor and stairs to get in. I have three dogs, I have a house to sell. And I have a husband who was still on oxygen and because of the hip replacement surgery, very dependent on a walker.”
We went from moving under the best possible circumstances to moving under the worst possible circumstances. So our move did not go exactly as planned. I had done a lot of work in advance, but a lot was still left, and I did it in a way that I had not planned and there were lots of things that made the cut that probably shouldn’t have.
Some things made the cut because of procrastination, like, “I’ll get to it later,” like five hoses, but I just shoved them into a trash bag and said to the movers, “Take them.”
Some things made the cut because of rationalization, like a thirty-cup coffee urn. And I’m thinking, “Well, I may have a big party.” Forget that I hadn’t had that kind of party for six years, you know? So that came. But I’ve since gotten rid of it.
Some things made the cut for illogical reasons, like a bag of 30 pairs of pantyhose. Now, when I started Moving Solutions in 1996, one part of my business plan was “I am never wearing pantyhose again as long as I live.” I don’t even know how that bag survived in my closet, let alone arrived at our cottage.
Some things made the cut for logical reasons, but having them there was not logical. Like lamps. Our old house was a 100-year-old home. It was very dark, it faced north. We needed a lot of lamps. But our new home in the senior living community faces south, it’s got great light and it has an unbelievable amount of overhead lighting. So while I brought a lot of lamps with me, after a year and a half, we had yet to turn one of them on and we said, “Why? The purpose of a lamp is to give light. Why would we have them around if we never use them?”
Some things made the cut for emotional reasons, like a set of Rosenthal china that belonged to my mother. And I had kept it, I guess for sentimental reasons in the basement for 40 years. My mom died when I was in my twenties. And when we moved it did arrive at the new home. But I said, “Keeping something in a box at first in the basement, now in a garage, is not honoring my mom.” I think about her often. I tell stories about her often. I decided that I don’t need the dishes there to be honoring her, and I gave them to a thrift shop. And people sometimes say, “A thrift shop?” Well, first of all, I know that they’re not sellable. But even more than that, my mother would have wanted the dishes to go to someone who loves them. And that’s what happened. I picked a thrift shop whose purpose I know my mother would have supported, and someone bought them who didn’t care that they couldn’t go in the dishwasher or the microwave and is enjoying them. And that was how I knew I was honoring my mom.
So what happened to all these things that made the cut that should not have? Some are still in our garage. Many I’ve gotten rid of. And what it showed me is that I had a really imperfect move in so many ways. But ultimately, it didn’t matter because I got to my new home, and Bill’s healthy, and we are enjoying our new life and interacting with people and our lovely home.
And it made me think about the concept of perfection, and how people will say, “It’s not the right time, or it’s not the right apartment, or it’s not the perfect real estate market.”
And ultimately, there is no real perfect time to move. So many people have in their mind that they’re going to time this perfectly. They’re going to sell their home, have settlement on Tuesday and move in on Wednesday. And it’s like trying to time the stock market- you just can’t do it. And people think, “Oh my God, what if I have to put things in storage or what if it doesn’t work right in timing?”
And I say to people, “Selling your house at a price that you want and not having to worry about living in a home and keeping it market-ready all the time, that’s not a bad problem to have.” You’re not moving twice and things will go into storage when your new apartment is ready. We’ll work out a plan B, and plan B is going to be better than plan A because plan A just isn’t realistic. It’s a hope and a dream, but it’s not what happens. So don’t panic about Plan B, let’s take advantage of Plan B.
Scott Miller: It’ll be okay.
Margit Novack: Yes, that’s right. And to say to people, “Don’t wait until it’s the perfect time if your downsizing is perfect because while you’re waiting, you’re losing out on a lot of opportunities to establish connections and to have new experiences.” So I go, “Hey, my timing was perfect.” And then it was anything but perfect, and it works out okay.
Juanita Fox: From your perspective, what are some things people should think about when they’re evaluating retirement communities?
Margit Novack: I think most people start with, “Where do I want to live?” And so they may have some family circumstances that are going to trump all other considerations. They may have family they want to be near. But almost no matter where people want to move, they will have choices to make because there are a lot of senior living opportunities.
So once they have decided on the general area, the question becomes “how do they make decisions among multiple opportunities that can look very similar, at least at first glance?” And one of the first things they do is look at bricks and mortar, which, while it’s very visible, is probably the least important part of their thriving in that community. Because many communities offer similar amenities in terms of “this is what your kitchen is going to look like or these are the housing options.”
I think it’s much more important to one: look at that contract. All communities are not the same in what they offer. Some communities will say, “Oh, why pay for care you’re probably never going to need?” And they say, “Yeah, we cover everything.” But they may not really. They may make suggestions that “you’re going to have all the support you need, but it may be a very different cost experience once you do need that care.”
So these are complicated contracts. Make sure you look at that. If you have a financial adviser, ask him to go over it so you know how to understand it. Or develop some similar questions and make sure you’ve talked with the marketing personnel, the sales personnel, to make sure you understand how these same questions are answered in different communities.
I think bricks and mortar can be important. We knew we wanted to have a cottage because we have dogs, and we knew that getting in an elevator wasn’t the first choice for us. Although being on the first floor of another community could have been an option.
But maybe the most important part is figuring out what place will align with your values. My husband and I are very purpose-driven people. We’ve done Hosts for Hospitals for years, we’ve had people living in our home who had come to Metro Philadelphia for medical care. All of our friends have said, “You had strangers living in your house for months? How did you tolerate that?” And it was a gift to us.
So we needed to find a place that aligned with who we are. And many communities offer opportunities to stay there for several days. And that’s an interesting idea because you may go into some homes, some communities, and say, “It just didn’t resonate with me. I just didn’t feel like it’s where I belong.” And others may feel like you’re putting on a bedroom slipper that’s been well-worn and your foot slides right into it.
It’s a little bit like colleges. My daughter went to one school and after 5 minutes said, “This is not it.” And went to another. And after 5 minutes said, “This is what I want.” And do not decide on what the kitchen countertop is. Make it on where you will thrive.
Scott Miller: Yeah, that’s really good advice. Too many people, I think, make it on the floor plan. And like you said, the kitchen counter. And it’s so much more than that.
Margit Novack: Absolutely.
Scott Miller: Right now, the real estate market is really strong. So what advice do you have for people who, you know, think, “Oh, you know what, I should really sell my house because I’ll probably get the best price ever,” but they’re not sure what their next step is?
Margit Novack: Well, you’re right. The real estate market is really strong. And I recently was contacted by someone who had been approached by a neighbor who wanted to buy her home at a price she couldn’t believe, she’d never anticipated she would get so much. And wanted to pay cash for it- no contingency, no inspection. And she said, “How can I turn this down?” And at first, she called me because she was in a panic saying, “Where should I move?”
And it became clear that she didn’t even have locked in which side of the United States she wanted to live on, let alone what state or what kind of community. Should it be a CCRC? Should it be a condo? Everything was still an option for her. And she started to say, “How will I do this in 90 days?” And I said, “You can’t, and you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t make this decision out of pressure to complete this in a set period of days. And even if you knew where you wanted to move, they may not have the apartment that you’re looking for, or it maybe they may want to redo it. And that will take 30, 60 or 90 days. Take a gap year.”
And she said, “What do you mean a gap year?” And I said, “Well, you know, sometimes high school seniors say, I’m taking a year to explore who I am, what the options are. Why not take that?” And she said, “Move twice?” I said, “You’re not moving twice, you’re moving once. Put your things in storage and plan a year of doing some special things, visit with friends, get a one-bedroom or a studio apartment, visit different potential places and cities to live.”
So she has, and she is spending a month in Portugal, which she’s always wanted to do.
Juanita Fox: That’s amazing.
Margit Novack: And she’s going to visit some friends. She has a studio apartment. She did downsize but left a fair number of things. She worked with the move manager so that all of her belongings are itemized as to what’s in which box, so that when she is clear on where she wants to move—and all of the furniture is numbered and she has photos of it that the move manager took, and measurements—so that when she does decide where she wants to move, she and the move manager can take out the floorplan of her new home and look at the photos of her furniture and the boxes, the list of the boxes and what’s in them and they’ll be able to do a floor plan for what her new home will look like and pick out the boxes that she wants. And she’ll have an organized move at the other end.
And that’s what I mean about Plan B, it can be a smooth plan. And now she doesn’t feel like she’s under the gun to make a decision. She turned what she at first thought of as a horrible thing into something that she has reframed into an incredible opportunity.
Scott Miller: What I keep hearing you say is that while it seems overwhelming, there are people who can help, right?
Margit Novack: There are.
Scott Miller: And it turns out really great in the end.
Margit Novack: Well, I think for many people, a move planner is like what wedding planners are. And at first, ten, 20 years ago, wedding planners seemed like something extravagant that only super-wealthy people used to help plan a wedding. And now they’re almost accepted as a logical way to have an organized and most cost-effective wedding because of the resources they bring to bear and the calmness with which they can approach- something that most people have done very infrequently they do every day. So they help the whole experience be smoother. And I think that move managers will move in that same direction as a resource that people say, “Why would I want to move without a move manager?”
Scott Miller: You just released your first book.
Margit Novack: I did.
Scott Miller: Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life. So what was the inspiration for the book?
Margit Novack: I’m so glad you asked that. I’m going to talk about the inspiration through a little story. The other day, I was getting out of my kayak and I made a muscle figure to a workman. I felt very strong and glad to be alive and healthy. And I made like a- I use my arms and made a muscle. And the workman was laughing, saying, I hope I have that much energy when I’m old. And I thought, “That doesn’t feel like a compliment.” And it’s probably because he’s thinking that anyone who’s my age doesn’t have energy. He’s making stereotypes and generalizations. And that actually is what Squint is about.
In all my years of working with older adults, I certainly know that aging has a lot of challenges, and there is loss, but there is also so much opportunity for new experiences and new connections. So I wrote Squint to combat these pervasive negative stereotypes that other people have, but that we have as well. And to say that getting older has challenges, but it also has remarkable opportunities, and that is the purpose of Squint.
Juanita Fox: So your book includes a lot of stories. What is one of your favorite stories?
Margit Novack: Boy, that’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child, Sophie’s Choice, here I go-
Scott Miller: Depends on the day, you know?
Margit Novack: Yeah, right, right. It’s my dog. Okay. So one of the stories that I love- Squint covers a lot of different topics. And one of the topics that it covers, among many, is downsizing and figuring out what to do with belongings.
So I met two sisters, and they were going through their mother’s things after their mother died, and they had decided which of them would get each of the things. And this was going very smoothly, but there were two things that they both liked. And one was a very lovely ring that their mother had bought in Paris. And the other was a silver vase that their mom had gotten at an auction house. And it’s odd- their mother must have been strangely omniscient because the vase had an F on it, and both girls were in their teens when she got it. But they both married men whose names began with F, like, what is the likelihood of that, really?
Juanita Fox: Amazing.
Margit Novack: Statistically? So they couldn’t decide what to do with these two items. And it could have been the source of friction, but not the way they handled it. They decided that they would share the items and they would each keep them for one year.
So every year on January 1st, the two sisters get together and the person who has the ring just returns the ring and the person who has the vase returns it with a dozen white roses because the sister who returns the vase the first year did that. And that’s what they’ve done every year since.
And what I love about the story is that as they went through their mother’s belongings, they realized it’s not about ownership. It’s about the relationship. And that was more important. Their relationship was more important than designating someone as the owner of the belongings. And I hope that everyone who is downsizing takes that story because that is the wish that every one of us as parents would have for our children to approach things that way that their relationship is more important than anything else.
And I love using stories like that when it’s full of a lot of stories because I think they illustrate that so much better than an article might or a list of tips. Relationships are more important than ownership. So that’s that takeaway. That’s my favorite story or one of my favorites- they’re all my favorite.
Juanita Fox: It’s a really powerful story.
Margit Novack: It is, it is
Scott Miller: It is
Juanita Fox: And it’s a good reminder that it’s not about possessions. It’s about people.
Margit Novack: That’s right.
Juanita Fox: Yeah. Powerful.
Scott Miller: So I feel like we could probably keep talking for the next week-
Margit Novack: We could, I love talking about Squint, about downsizing, about relocation.
Scott Miller: But is there anything else that you would like to say to our listeners and our audience as we wrap up there?
Margit Novack: There are a couple of things. One, I would want to say, please don’t wait for the timing to be perfect. If this is where you will thrive—and this is about thriving, not surviving—please make the move to your next step now.
I love a quote that came from Katharine Graham’s memoirs. She said, “I think that moving is like childbirth. If anyone remembered how hard it was, they would never do it a second time.” No, I’m not going to sugarcoat the challenges of moving, but I wouldn’t sugarcoat the challenges of giving birth either. It’s hard, but it’s really worthwhile doing. I mean, you get a baby. Now when you move, you’re not going to have a baby. But you will have a wonderful world in which you’ll thrive. So don’t avoid something simply because it’s hard. If you raise children, you certainly said to them, “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.” And getting to where you will thrive is worth doing.
The second thing I will urge you to do is please go to margitnovack.com, where you can learn about Squint. And that’s m a r g i t, n o v a c k, margitnovack.com. And I hope you enjoy the book. And I would love it if you would leave a review on Amazon. But also you’ll see on the website there’s an opportunity to write comments to me, and I would love to hear what you think about the book and the stories and to hear your stories. So thank you very much for inviting me here. It’s been great.
Juanita Fox: Thank you, Margit, for joining us.
Scott Miller: Yeah, thank you so much.
Juanita Fox: This was a delight.
Scott Miller: Juanita, you know, Margit’s stories- they were extremely powerful.
Juanita Fox: They were. The story of the sisters who shared the rings back and forth, recognizing that relationship is more important than possessions- you know, sometimes in the midst of grief when you’re sorting through your loved one’s possessions, you forget that. It’s such a powerful reminder.
Scott Miller: It is. We summarized the five main ideas from our conversation with Margaret in a PDF. The PDF is entitled Five Ways a Move Manager Can Help, and the link is in the podcast description. The pdf includes several things, five to be exact. One is access to resources. Two: Answers to difficult questions. Three: Peace of Mind. Four: An outside experienced opinion. And number five: A professional vision for your new home.
Scott Miller: Thank you for listening to Purpose and Retirement. I’m Scott Miller.
Juanita Fox: And I’m Juanita Fox.
Scott Miller: Special thanks to Margit Novack for joining us for this podcast.
Juanita Fox: Our senior producer and host is Scott Miller.
Scott Miller: Our co-host is Juanita Fox. Our producer is Gavin Sauder. And our audio engineer is Jen Miller.