Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Decluttering Tips for a Quicker Sale

Before retiring, many people look forward to blissful years without work demands. But a huge job awaits retirees who wish to downsize and must declutter to sell their property.

Take the true story of a doctor who’d worked in an executive post at a large medical center. He and his wife, a structural engineer, both left their jobs at age 70, excited at the idea of foreign travel. But first they decided to sell their family home, a seven-bedroom Tudor.

That decision came two years ago, and the couple’s passports are still gathering dust. Why? Because they’re bogged down by the process of decluttering, and hence their house has yet to go on the market.

Mark Nash, a longtime real estate analyst and broker, doesn’t know this retired couple. But he’s assisted many retirees with large homes who must confront the challenging purging task before they can move.

Many older sellers “spend too much time on a process they could expedite,” says Nash, the author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.”

Such people need a game plan, says Kristin Bertilson, the owner of “Queen B Organizing.” She’s helped dozens of sellers sift through their accumulations quickly.

To reduce the size of the task at hand, Bertilson suggests that her clients apply objective standards. For example, they might decide to keep all the pieces with their kids’ handprints but toss out craft projects that are falling apart or hard to store.

She also helps clients downsize by encouraging them to confront the true costs of shipping their belongings to the new location -- a sobering realization.

“When people get an estimate of $1,200 to move furniture, they find it easier to let go of all the excess pieces,” Bertilson says.

Nash urges home sellers to undertake the stuff-purging process as soon as they know they’ll be moving. That’s because a decluttered home is much more appealing to buyers.

Here are a few pointers for retired sellers:

-- Get a preliminary handle on your overall clutter situation.

Some downsizers try to grapple with the decluttering process without a plan. But those who do a preliminary inventory of their problem are more efficient, says Dorcas Helfant, a past president of the National Association of Realtors.

“Sellers who have a room-by-room picture of all their possessions can make faster decisions about how to streamline it all,” she says.

Your listing agent can assist in deciding which items should be removed to make your home show-worthy. These will likely include some bulky furnishings, like recliners.

“A house filled with furniture can look a lot smaller than it truly is,” Helfant says.

-- Formulate a plan of action.

Nash says those who are most efficient at decluttering follow a step-by-step action plan.

To begin, he recommends you plot the space in your new property before deciding on the volume of items you can take with you, assuming, of course, that you've already bought your new home.

A few years back, Nash left a 3,200-square-foot bungalow for a 760-square-foot condo, requiring him to drastically reduce his total belongings. To gain a more precise estimate, he bought graph paper and plotted the layout and storage space.

“The drawing allowed me to plan a place for everything I expected to take with me, down to my bike and favorite clothes. That made it clear which things would be impossible to keep in my new condo,” he says.

-- Sort your accumulations systematically.

During their years in a property, many homeowners unwittingly acquire a large array of similar items. Early in the purging process, Nash suggests that sellers sort like items to determine which they have in excess.

“I’m talking about all that stuff you went to the store to buy because you didn’t know you already owned it. After you see all the rampant duplication, it’s easier to cut out extras,” he says.

Once you have the like items in each room categorized, use what Nash calls the “three-box system” to cull through them efficiently. One box should be labeled “keep,” a second “give away or sell,” and a third, “I don’t know.”

To hasten the process, immediately make arrangements to have your “give away or sell” items carted off. This allows you to create more space to sort through possessions from the “I don’t know” box that will require more consideration.

“Decision making is what slows people down. But you’ll make decisions a lot faster if you have fewer items to look at,” Nash says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)