Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

De-cluttering is Necessary and Hard Work

First, her husband died suddenly after a severe stroke. Then she lost her job. Then her financial planner told her she'd need to sell the house where the couple had lived for more than 20 years.

The 59-year-old engineer in this true story agrees that a move is necessary. And she's confident that her property, a custom-built place in a heavily wooded setting, will sell quickly and for a good price once it's ready for the market. But as a self-described packrat, she's worried about the enormity of the task she faces to cull through her vast collection of accumulations.

"If you're going to sell your house for what it's worth, it's essential that you clear away all your clutter. Otherwise, no one can appreciate the inherent beauty of your place or sense the size of your rooms," says Vicki Norris, an organizing consultant who heads her own firm.

"The problem is that very few buyers can envision a home's potential when it's filled with junk," says Tom Early, a veteran real estate broker and past president of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents (

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Determine your clutter profile.

"Everybody who stacks their house to the rafters has their own particular reasons," says Norris, author of the book "Restoring Order: Organizing Strategies to Reclaim Your Life."

Norris, a former real estate agent, tells of a wealthy client who felt shortchanged as a child during holidays. As a result, she developed an irresistible urge to acquire Christmas decor and gift wrap in massive quantities.

Another woman who rarely cooked had purchased more than 100 cookbooks before realizing she was doing so to settle a score with her mother, who refused to let her cook when she was young. Though her mom had passed away, she remained bitter about this restriction.

Norris urges clients who are selling their homes to get to the root of their packrat problems so these won't carry over to their next home.

"A move presents you with a wonderful opportunity for a fresh start. ... You've got to change your thinking to change your behavior," she says.

-- Stop the inflow to keep the purging process on track.

Shopping is a hobby for many, who relish the thrill of hunting through stores for bargains. People often resort to shopping as a mood-lifter or a remedy for loneliness.

Continuing to shop during your de-cluttering process threatens your momentum, according to Diana Thomas, a professional organizer who's worked with many would-be sellers.

"At the very least, you've got to stop buying more of the things for which you have a weakness, even if you find them at bargain prices," Thomas says.

-- Develop a timeline and a step-by-step plan for de-cluttering.

Thomas says homeowners who plan to sell their property should allow the maximum available time for de-cluttering.

"Because it's laden with decision-making, going through your belongings can be exhausting,"" she says.

Thomas can spend multiple weeks to multiple months helping her clients cull through seemingly endless numbers of belongings. But that's a realistic timeframe for people who've long been packrats.

Professional organizers estimate that 2 percent of all Americans are "chronically disorganized," meaning they have deep-seated psychological issues related to the acquisition and handling of material items.

"For them, it's a much longer process to clear through their things. They might need a full year before they can move out of a house where they've lived a long time," Thomas says.

An increasing number of professional organizers are trained to work with the chronically disorganized. To learn more, and find out if you fall in this category, you may wish to contact the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (

-- Approach the purging process systematically.

Most prospective home sellers can plow through their belongings without the intervention of a professional organizer, though the help of a non-judgmental friend or family member is often useful.

For those tackling the process alone, Thomas offers several tips.

She recommends you work on just one room at a time, or a small part of that room if it's crowded. Make sure you take an ample number of breaks to avoid fatigue, and don't pass up nutritious meals that help keep you going.

Do you find it hard to part with memory-rich items, like a collection of trophies your son acquired during his teenage baseball years? Then Thomas suggests you assemble your treasures and, before letting them go, take a photo of these to hang on the wall of your new place.

She says bibliophiles who struggle to part with an overflow of books often do well to donate them to an organization that will put them to good use. Other collections with intrinsic value, such as antique teacups, can be easily sold through an Internet marketplace such as Craigslist or eBay.

Thomas also advocates using a reward as an incentive to help spur your de-cluttering project. This could be a brief vacation or a festive party at a restaurant. But the best motivational tool for many people is to begin visiting the kind of home where they'd next like to live.

"If you must make an involuntary move, it's a lot more helpful to look forward rather than back," Thomas says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at