Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Decluttering Strategies for Sellers

Real estate specialists observe a striking difference between the mobility patterns of young adults and those of their aging parents.

“Untethered from family and enticed by new job opportunities, young adults are more mobile today than they have been over the past nearly 60 years,” says Sarah Mikhitarian, a senior economist at Zillow, which tracks housing markets throughout the country.

She says “evolving workplace norms” have reduced the length of time that young adults spend in any given job. For those who own their homes, that typically also means a shorter ownership tenure.

Martha Webb, a home-selling expert and author of “Dress Your House for Success,” says that in terms of clutter, the younger and the older generations accumulate different types of belongings.

“Young adults live more casually and own more technology, including the latest gadgets. They also have a lot of activity gear; for instance, they might have multiple bikes. In contrast, older home sellers have more memorabilia and collections they’ve hung on to for years,” Webb says.

But sellers from all generations share one thing in common. They face the laborious issue of decluttering their home to make it appealing to buyers. Any sellers who fail to clear their property usually suffer a financial penalty.

“A cluttered house doesn’t sell well because it feels chaotic, and buyers don’t want your chaos. They can create their own chaos,” says Webb, a real estate agent in Minnesota who specializes in luxury home sales.

Are you selling a home in the near future and feel intimidated by the volume of decluttering you must do? If so, these few pointers could prove helpful:

-- Consider throwing a party to affirm your clutter-busting project.

Stephanie Calahan, a longtime professional organizer, says the decluttering process can be more tolerable if it incorporates occasional amusement.

Calahan tells of one former client, an insurance company manager, whose many boxes of unsorted personal papers included countless old paid bills, medical statements and nearly every greeting card she’d ever received. After several weeks of tedious sorting, she announced a celebratory party to reward herself.

“Eight of my client’s friends came over for what we call a ‘shredding party.’ She asked each friend to bring along a paper shredder. She served wine and brunch and then everyone helped shred her excess papers. It was so much fun that later all her friends had their own shredding parties,” Calahan recalls.

-- Hasten your campaign with creative ideas.

Professional organizers routinely advise those involved in decluttering to take a break every few hours. That helps prevent the beleaguered feeling that comes from trying to take on a big job all at once.

Calahan recommends preparing a comprehensive written plan that spells out a step-by-step approach. Or you could start with a single part of one room, using a flashlight to define how large an area you’ll tackle at a given time.

“In the midst of a big decluttering project, the flashlight allows you to focus mentally on a single area,” she says.

Once your units of work have been defined, Calahan suggests you allocate a fixed amount of time to declutter each area and then, with the help of a stopwatch, see if you can “beat the clock.”

“Of course, what’s fun for one person may not be for another. ‘Beat-the-clock’ might not work for you, but another game you invent could do the trick. So be creative,” Calahan says.

-- Infuse your work with motivating music.

No matter your musical taste, the use of music during an organizational project can help enliven your spirit and increase the intensity of your work. Compare this with the impact music has during, say, an aerobic dance class.

“Anything that gets rhythm going adds momentum,” Calahan says.

Though popular music is most often played in a fitness center or gym, classical music may be the most appropriate for decluttering, she says. For her, Mozart is a favorite.

Calahan takes special note of a series of books and audio collections by the late musicologist Don Campbell, known as “The Mozart Effect.” He sought to classify the composer’s work in terms of what it awakens in listeners. She recommends Campbell’s CD compilation Volume 4, “Focus & Clarity."

-- Think about doing a clutter-busting blitz if time is short.

If your house is too messy or disorganized for you to tackle, professional organizer Vicki Norris ( suggests adding extra hands to the task and then conducting an all-out blitz. Many organizing firms can mobilize a team on short notice. You can find one in your area through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (

Alternatively, you may be able to recruit a team of friends or relatives to help you. Whether you hire organizers or seek out volunteers, Norris says you should bring in no more than four to five people and designate a leader.

"The only difference with a blitz is that you blast through the house faster. This is basically decluttering on steroids,” Norris says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at