Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Decluttering Tips for Downsizers

No matter your age or income level, if you need to get rid of some possessions due to downsizing, you’re likely to be tormented by the process.

Indeed, those at the top of the success ladder often feel the most overwhelmed when they need to purge possessions, says Vicki Norris, author of “Reclaim Your Life ... and Get Organized for Good.”

Norris, who was a real estate agent before she started her own organizing firm two decades ago, says the proliferation of inexpensive imported goods and the ease of buying online have exacerbated the problem, particularly for middle to high-income people.

Ownership of too many possessions isn’t only an emotional burden; it’s also a problem for those who need to make their place appealing to buyers to achieve a successful sale, says Dorcas Helfant, a real estate broker and co-owner of several realty offices.

“Nowadays, buyers want to start fresh in a house that’s free and clear. They can’t picture themselves living in a place jammed with other people’s stuff,” says Helfant, a past president of the National Association of Realtors (

Before embarking on the huge task of getting their property ready for market, she urges sellers to create a timeline and a checklist.

“There’s a lot of emotional turmoil with any move. But you’ll be much better off if you take a strategic, step-by-step approach rather than a disorganized one,” Helfant says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Equip yourself with the right gear for the job.

Norris says an efficient decluttering and packing program shouldn’t require a lot of expensive equipment.

In most cases, cardboard boxes should suffice for your move. Ideally, these should be boxes of uniform size -- like the “bankers boxes” sold at office supply stores -- that will stack neatly.

After pre-packing the items you’re determined to take to your next property, place these in your garage or a guest bedroom not currently in use. If possible, Norris urges you to avoid renting a paid storage unit.

“Storage units can be very expensive. People think they’ll just rent one for just two or three months. But due to their inertia, the average rental period is at least 15 months. When your stuff is out of sight, it’s out of mind,” she says.

-- Go room-by-room when decluttering and packing.

Norris says it’s very unnerving to approach a decluttering project by working on several fronts simultaneously. Instead, she advises you to tackle just one room at a time, beginning in the “public” areas of the house that will receive the most scrutiny from prospective buyers. These include your entryway, living room, dining room, family room and kitchen.

-- Take your children’s feelings into account when sifting through their toys.

Children feel an understandable sense of alarm at the notion that many of their toys will be packed up and stored away until the move is complete. As Norris says, they need reassurance that their toys will be available to them once your family reaches its destination.

How can you calm your children’s fears that their toys will be safe?

Norris suggests you involve them in the pre-packing process, making a game out of choosing a few very special toys that can remain in their room until the move is complete and placing the rest in packing boxes.

“Don’t pack their toys behind their back or they could be very upset and freak out. This could make your move even more upsetting,” she says.

-- Allow extra time to clear through your kitchen.

As real estate agents observe, most home shoppers won’t routinely look inside a chest of drawers and examine your clothes. But many will open kitchen cabinets and are very critical of countertop clutter.

“Give the kitchen top priority. No one wants to see that toaster or blender on your counter space,” Norris says.

You won’t want to remove basic kitchen items -- plates, pots, pans and utensils -- until right before you move. But much earlier, you can pack away seasonal and special-use items.

-- Realize that purging can prove cathartic once it’s done.

Few enjoy the arduous chore of sifting through years’ worth of accumulations. This project can be especially unpleasant for those who must move against their will for whatever reason.

But Norris says many who complete the process discover, much to their surprise, that they feel happier when they’re less encumbered with excess belongings.

“It’s an unexpected chance to lighten up and start over,” she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at