Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


A couple of middle-aged engineers are going through a crisis -- the husband recently had a stroke, and his rehabilitation process is costly. The wife feels overwhelmed by her struggle to cope with her husband's illness while still keeping her job. To pay medical bills, the pair's lakeside contemporary house must soon go on the market.

But there's one big hitch: The property is crammed with years' worth of accumulations -- including endless piles of clothing, shelves bulging with books and kitchen countertops covered with gadgets. As the couple's real estate agent underscores, all these excess items must be cleared away to make the place marketable. The couple's relatives want to help, but they don't know where to start, and they're nervous about giving offense.

Some homeowners going through a tough transition -- such as a medical crisis -- are tempted to let their property go on the market in "as is" condition. But Joan Doyle, a real estate agent who's worked with numerous clients going through tough life transitions, says this is a mistake.

"When you sell, your whole house becomes a stage. If your stuff is everywhere, buyers will never be interested," she says.

For home sellers like the engineers -- who've long struggled with organizational challenges -- the prospect of getting their property cleared out and ready for sale can seem overwhelming.

"I've worked with people who are crying and shaking when I come in," says Susan C. Pinsky, a professional organizer who specializes in helping people through messy transitions.

Pinsky, author of "The Fast and Furious 5 Step Organizing Solution," says that when a serious medical problem is the reason homeowners must sell, they often need relatives to help them mobilize.

Here are a few tips for family members who wish to step in:

-- Consider contacting a professional organizer.

Many older people resist the notion of paying for help from a professional organizer -- believing it's a waste of money for work that shouldn't require outside assistance. But Pinsky says a professional can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure.

"Too often family members are very subjective about all the stuff in the house and fail to see the big picture the way a professional can," she says.

Of course, not everyone can afford a professional. If funds are limited, one possibility is to pay solely for the organizer's services at the front end in order to create a road map that others can then follow.

To locate a professional organizer in your local area, Pinsky cites the website of the National Association of Professional Organizers ( as one source of names. Or ask friends, neighbors or colleagues whom they've turned to for this type of help. Alternatively, real estate agents can be a good source of referrals.

"If you leave a message and they don't call you back promptly, cross them off your list," Pinsky says.

-- Divide and conquer.

What if no funds are available to pay a professional organizer? In that case, Pinsky recommends that relatives choose a project manager within the family who can then delegate tasks on a room-by-room basis.

However, Pinsky cautions that no purging project goes forward smoothly unless the homeowners are consulted when decisions are made about which items will be kept, sold, thrown out or given away.

"If the owners aren't the decision-makers, you're just wasting your time trying to help. You can't make decisions about other people's things without meeting major resistance," Pinsky says.

-- Make the removal system as efficient as possible.

All too often, Pinsky arrives at the home of clients who want organizational help but aren't set up to make the process efficient.

"The pathways in and out of the house are crowded and there are just a few tiny waste baskets for the collection of discards," she says.

To promote efficiency, she arranges for the use of large trash bins, along with trash bags of different colors to ensure, for example, that items for charity don't mingle with those destined for the landfill. Then she clears pathways to the doors to make sure it's easy to remove anything that won't be kept.

"The idea is to make the removal system as streamlined as possible," Pinsky says.

-- Be sure to protect egos and family relationships.

Few people find it easy to sort through possessions in a home they've owned for many years -- especially if they're being forced to sell involuntarily. And a culling project is especially taxing for people who have packrat tendencies or who suffer from other medical conditions, such as attention deficit disorder.

"Most people with ADD have a degree of disorganized thinking. So decision-making takes a lot of mental energy for them," says Linda S. Anderson, an ADD coach and the immediate past president of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association.

It can be exasperating and time-consuming to help disorganized relatives plow through their possessions before a home sale. But Anderson says it's important to avoid admonishing or scolding them in an attempt to push forward faster. That could backfire and tarnish your relationships in the process.

"It never helps to attack someone's character," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at