Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


Record numbers of Americans now run small businesses from home. And many more companies let employees work part- or full-time from their residences. As a result, more people than ever maintain home offices -- and enjoy the convenience.

But what if you want to sell your property? Professional organizers say the untidy appearance of a typical home office makes a place unappealing to potential buyers.

"People can't picture themselves living in your house if it's filled with clutter," says Susan Pinsky, a veteran organizer and author of books on the topic.

Despite the importance of clearing out a home office prior to putting a property on the market, she says many people consider the task a daunting chore.

"It can feel overwhelming," says Pinsky, author of "The Fast and Furious 5 Step Organizing Solution."

Why is it so difficult to keep a home office looking neat?

Pinksy, who works with both business and residential clients, points to a paradox. At a time when vast quantities of information are available instantly on the Internet, many peoples still save many more papers, magazines and books than they need. They also hang on to lots of old technology.

Pierrette Ashcroft, who launched her own home-based organizing company in 2005, says that sifting through paper and book clutter can be the most laborious and time-consuming chore that confronts many home sellers. In fact, she recently struggled with this task herself after deciding to sell her colonial-style house and move to a condo apartment.

Are you a prospective seller who works from home? If so, these pointers could prove helpful:

-- Be ruthless when sifting through papers.

Many people who have home offices are plagued with boxes and bags filled with unsorted papers. These include business reports, computer printouts, junk mail, utility bills, credit card statements and clippings from magazines and newspapers.

Ironically, very few of the papers that people keep have value to their business ventures or careers, according to Ashcroft, whose clients include scientists, doctors and accountants.

"More than 80 percent of the papers that people save are never referred to again," she says.

Moreover, the room designated as a "home office" is often not the only space where business and professional papers mount up.

One of her clients -- a real estate developer -- even had stacks of business documents in the bathrooms of his house.

"Less is always more when it comes to selling your home," says Mark Nash, a real estate broker and author of "1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home."

Unfortunately, it can take more time and energy to go through papers than just about any other kind of clutter, he says.

One tactic that can make decision-making faster is to give yourself guidelines as to which items you'll save and which you'll toss. For example, small-business owners might choose to keep all their receipts for tax-deductible expenses -- such as office equipment and supplies -- but throw out those for clothing and food purchases.

-- Scan rather than file many papers.

Many people who work from home struggle to stay organized through the use of extensive filing systems. But Ashcroft says filing all but the most important papers is usually a waste of time and energy.

She urges those who are trying to de-clutter a home office to try to scan many of their documents into their computer rather than trying to store them in filing cabinets.

"I'm practically paper-free in my own home office. I use a rapid scanner and can scan up to 200 papers in two minutes," Ashcroft says.

-- Handle your book collections rationally.

Many people from all types of professional backgrounds maintain bigger libraries that they ever need or use for reference, Ashcroft says.

"People have an emotional attachment to books," she says, noting that bulging bookshelves are often found throughout a home, not only in the home office.

She cites the story of one client, a doctor, who left the medical profession to pursue her passion to become a potter. Even though she never intended to return to medicine, she kept a huge collection of medical books that she never opened.

The problem for bibliophiles preparing to sell their home is that shelves crammed with books make a property seem less appealing to buyers. What's more, it can be costly to pay a moving company to transport your books --especially if you're making a long distance move.

Ashcroft says home sellers with substantial book collections are wise to go through them before their property goes on the market -- dispensing with any tomes they no longer use or treasure. Remember, too, that many books can now be quickly and easily downloaded onto an e-reader.

-- Resolve to avoid taking your bad habits with you to your next home.

Ashcroft has worked with a number of clients who failed to complete the hard work of going through papers and files before selling a home. Instead, they simply packed them in boxes and stashed them in their garage.

It's better to box up and remove superfluous belongings than to leave them in the main living area of a property. But failing to cull through them in advance merely postpones the problem rather than resolving it, Ashcroft says.

Assuming time allows, Ashcroft recommends that home sellers weed through all their paper and technology accumulations in advance of a move, thereby giving them a fresh start.

"It's so much easier to pare down your clutter before changing houses. And you'll probably have a more successful sale," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at