Smart Moves

For well over a decade, imported goods have flooded into America from abroad: clothing, shoes, hardware, electronics and home furnishings. Such items stuff the shelves at Walmart, Ikea, dollar stores and other outlets -- constantly tempting a materialistic population with amazingly low prices.

"The problem is getting far worse. People keep acquiring more and more stuff and let go of very little. It's super stressful to be so encumbered," says Vickie Dellaquila, a professional organizer and author who's worked with downsizing clients since 2003.

The widespread desire to battle clutter is illustrated by the extraordinary popularity of "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," a book by an organizer named Marie Kondo, whose lessons on the Japanese art of spiritual purging are now also running as a Netflix series.

For harried homeowners wishing to sell their property, the need to declutter is of paramount concern. That's because a place filled with clutter shows very poorly.

"Homebuyers can't picture themselves living in any home that's overfilled. They've had their own struggles with excess and want a fresh start after they move. So you'll never be highly successful in selling until you liberate your house of all that extra stuff," says Stacy Berman, a veteran realty company manager.

Here are a few pointers for time-stretched homeowners who wish to sell:

-- Commit your organizing plan to paper.

Lee Silber, author of "Time Management for the Creative Person," says too few people embark on projects with a written plan in hand.

Many home sellers mistakenly believe they can proceed as efficiently with a mental plan as with a written one, according to Silber. "In fact, what you have in your head is clutter unless you put it down on paper," he says.

Are you unsure which tasks need to be done to get your home ready for market -- whether, for instance, these should include cleaning closets or painting bedrooms? If so, Silber suggests you ask your listing agent to draft a step-by-step list. Then go down the list, circling steps with the highest impact.

"People short on time -- and that's most of us -- need to concentrate first on activities with the greatest potential return for the time spent," he says. For instance, replacing a stained living room carpet could make a significant difference in the salability of your place. But fixing the stains on your concrete walkways may not.

-- Position your to-do list in a highly visible place.

Not only do sellers need to make a comprehensive list of tasks, but they should keep that list in full view, says Rita Emmett, a time-management specialist and author.

"Type it in a large font and put it up in the kitchen or wherever you spend a lot of time. Drawing from this list, work in one-hour increments. Each day, try to do at least three small tasks -- such as going to the store for the cardboard boxes you'll use to declutter," she says.

-- Delegate, delegate, delegate.

It may seem obvious, but many busy people with the means to hire help to prepare their homes for sale decline to do so.

"Every busy person needs help with such a huge project as preparing the family home for market. This is especially true if you have zillions of things to sort through. If you can't afford to hire help, go to your church or synagogue and ask for volunteers," Emmett says.

-- Weave some fun into your home-sale prep work.

You'll gain more momentum in your quest to ready your home for market if you can make an otherwise boring project more interesting.

For instance, Silber suggests you consider what he calls "the fishbowl game." Take a copy of your to-do list and cut the paper into pieces, one task per piece. Then, when you have a block of time to move forward (on a Saturday morning, for instance), place all the pieces in a bowl and pick out one at random to start your day. After that task is done, reach into the bowl for the next one.

Another of Silber's ideas is to stage a "pre-sale party." Just as you're launching into home prep, send out invitations to friends for a fest scheduled to occur right before your home is listed.

-- Don't fault yourself for your hectic schedule.

Cramming the calendars of many are longer commutes -- due to mounting traffic congestion -- and more demanding work schedules. Moreover, many boomers face dual responsibilities for the care of both elders and children.

"People in this 'sandwich generation' are hard hit with obligations. They're running to keep up with their children and then their parents get sick, too," Emmett says.

If you're caught in this maelstrom -- and determined to tackle the job of prepping your home for sale -- Emmett suggests you make a list of discretionary activities that could be cut from your schedule, if only temporarily.

"The No. 1 family activity in the United States is shopping. At least until you get your place ready for sale, all that extra shopping simply has to go," she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at

More like Smart Moves