Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


A widow in her late 80s had lived in her classic colonial for more than 40 years before resolving to move to an assisted-living residence in another state. One day her grown children arrived with a truck to take her and her basic furniture -- a bed, dresser and kitchen table -- to the new apartment.

Happily resettled, she phoned her listing agent, Ashley Richardson, to say her house was ready to sell. But when Richardson arrived, she was startled by what she found.

"The house was a disaster -- in truly terrible condition, and filled with junk. Buyers could never see past all that stuff to picture themselves living there. The place was simply unsalable until it could be cleaned up," she says.

Every room was crammed with dusty accumulations, including books, magazines, clothes, bedding and knick-knacks. And the kitchen counters were laden with many small appliances, among them blenders, coffeepots and mixers.

After a major weekend cleaning by the family removed 45 bags of junk, the house sold quickly, attracting four competing offers and fetching nearly the full asking price.

The moral of this true story? Through teamwork, focus and diligence, even a heavily cluttered home can be cleared out relatively quickly. And the reward for all that hard work can often translate to a speedy sale and more money in the bank.

Mark Nash, author of "1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home," says the removal of clutter is the most important step sellers can take to ready their home for market.

"(Buyers) can't fall in love with your house if it's filled with junk," says Nash, a veteran real estate broker.

Here are a few pointers for home sellers:

-- Take an inventory of your accumulations.

Sellers who do a thorough assessment of their clutter problem tend to be more efficient in solving it, Nash says.

To help you evaluate the nature and scope of your problem, he suggests you ask your listing agent to come over with a clipboard or notebook. Together, list the furnishings and other belongings that should be removed before your house is shown to prospects.

"One woman I know saved every birthday card and gift her husband sent her during 30 years of marriage, along with her daughter's crib and all the dresses she'd worn as a child. Other people save drawers and cabinets full of souvenirs from every vacation," Nash says.

Hard as it is, Nash says most sellers must face the necessity of reducing their collections of memorabilia.

-- Formulate an action plan.

Instead of proceeding on a random course, those who are efficient at preparing a home for sale follow an overall plan.

As an initial step, Nash recommends you plot the available space in your new property before deciding what to take with you. To do an accurate estimate, buy graph paper and plot the floor plan and storage space you'll have in the next home.

-- Take a systematic approach to sorting your stuff.

In the beginning, Nash recommends you sort like items -- such as candles, light bulbs or rolls of wrapping paper -- in one place.

"When people go through their houses, they realize they have a lot of 'rampant duplication' -- everything from flashlights to batteries to clothespins. When you discover you have way too much, it's easier to edit your collections," he says.

As you sort by category, Nash recommends you use a "three-box" system. One box should be labeled "keep," a second "give away or sell," and a third, "I don't know."

To ensure you keep up your momentum, make immediate arrangements to have your "give away" items removed quickly. Doing that will yield you more time to go through the things in your "I don't know" box, which require additional scrutiny.

"You don't want to second-guess yourself on what to keep. It's the decision-making process that gets people paralyzed. Making decisions is easier if you have fewer things to look at," Nash says.

-- Reach the end-point of your work by calling in reinforcements.

Even for organized people, culling through a house full of belongings can prove a difficult and emotionally tiring process, especially if they've lived in their home for a long time and have many attachments. Nash encourages such beleaguered home sellers to seek the help of friends, neighbors or family members.

"It's not ideal for relatives to help. They're not objective and could start reminiscing along with you. That might take you off on tangents and slow you down," he says.

If there's no one in your circle you're willing to ask for assistance, Nash recommends you run an ad to find reasonably priced help. In many cases, high school or college students are eager for this work to earn spare cash.

"Students are very good for the grunt part of the job. And their sheer presence should help keep you going at a good rate of speed," he says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at