Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin


In the movie "5 Flights Up," Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman portray a married couple putting their Brooklyn apartment up for sale. Their real estate agent exhorts them to remove "all your clutter." The artist-husband scoffs at the notion that items in his studio are clutter. Still, he does as instructed and soon the couple receives several strong bids for their place.

Like it or not, home sellers who prune their accumulations fare better than those who fail to remove superfluous items prior to selling, says Vicki Norris, who heads her own professional organizing firm.

"People want to picture themselves living in your place, and they can't do that if it's crowded with all your stuff," says Norris, author of "Restoring Order to Your Home."

Would-be sellers are not only advised to streamline their possessions, they're also urged to reduce the inflow into their home until they receive a solid contract for sale. And that means less shopping.

Ironically, many people begin an anti-clutter campaign with a shopping spree involving the purchase of numerous storage containers. But all those big plastic bins prove more of a hindrance than a help, according to Barbara Hemphill, author of "Less Clutter More Life," who began her career in professional organizing in 1978.

"What's inevitable is that those containers will just get in your way," she says.

"Before you start acquiring new items, you need to measure your new space and see what will fit," says Judith Rough, a downsizing expert.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Enlist outside help with major projects.

Rough estimates that to fully declutter an average-sized house usually takes at least four weeks of concentrated effort. And to avoid getting sidelined with the feelings that the process arouses, many people need assistance.

"Going through everything you've acquired for decades is extremely emotional -- particularly if you've raised your family in that house," Rough says.

Sellers often turn to relatives for help. But Rough says you're better off with an objective third party --ideally a professional organizer. One source for referrals is the real estate agent who will list your property. Another is the National Association of Professional Organizers (

If you're on a budget, Rough suggests you limit the organizer's help to just a few hours of planning time. Then also pay the person for a few one-hour "check ins" on a weekly basis, during which you'll receive a "homework" assignment for the following week.

-- Query your loved ones on items they wish to keep.

Are you the parent of grown children? If so, Rough says you may be tempted to hang on to nostalgic possessions you believe your offspring may someday want to claim. But as Rough says, "your kids will want far less of your stuff than you expect." So she suggests you ask them directly what they want.

To illustrate, she tells the true story of a former client who'd retained her wedding gown for decades on the assumption that her teenage daughter would one day wish to use it.

"But when the mom asked the girl if she ever planned to wear the gown, she replied that she 'wouldn't be caught dead in it'," Rough recalls.

-- Photograph cherished items that you can't keep.

Before seeking to declutter, Hemphill often recommends that home sellers take photographs of entire rooms to create compact memories of these spaces. She also advises taking pictures of valued items that are too large to bring to the next property.

"Converting prized belongings to art is a great way to hasten the clearing process and make your house more saleable," she says.

In addition to taking photos, Hemphill recommends you keep a small box of special items from the children's early lives, such as clothing and toys. Still other mementos, including drawings or small pieces of sculpture, can be framed or placed in shadow boxes.

Those who convert precious items from your kids' early years into art or photographs often find the transition to their new environment to be emotionally easier, Hemphill says.

-- Store keepsakes and valuable documents in a safe manner.

To safeguard small items that need to be kept, such as passports and diplomas, Rough suggests you encase them in clear plastic sheet protectors and place them in a three-ring binder. Alternatively, you may wish to buy a storage item designed for vital records. This is known as a "PortaVault" (

-- Find a new home for your discards.

In sifting through your accumulations, you're bound to find many things you no longer want, need or value. There's obviously little reason to haul these items -- including extra books, toys and pieces of unused sports gear -- to your new property.

Whenever possible, Rough encourages you to donate serviceable items to a reputable charity. Through the years, for example, she's donated many of her own discards through church groups.

Another option is to post your giveaways on a social network account, which could result in finding a friend, relative or acquaintance who would appreciate receiving them.

"It's hugely satisfying to know that things you paid good money for will find the right home," Rough says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at