Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tips on Cleaning a Home Office

A few days ago, when Ashley Richardson staged an open house to market a 1930s stucco colonial with 3,000 square feet of living space, the event attracted an unusual number of prospects. The lure? The place features six bedrooms plus a den -- all rooms suitable for a home office.

One family especially interested in the property is contemplating its use for three home offices: one for the husband, one for the wife and one for their 10-year-old daughter.

“During the open house, I overheard the little girl declaring she needs her own office. She wants a quiet room where she can get her homework done quickly, and her parents like the idea,” says Richardson, a seasoned agent for the Long & Foster realty company in suburban Maryland.

According to Gallup Inc., a data analytics company, more than 40 percent of U.S. employees now work from home at least one day per week, and that percentage is growing.

“Having at least one home-office space is now huge, huge, huge with buyers,” she says.

But Richardson cautions sellers that it’s not enough to simply offer would-be purchasers an extra room or two for use as a home office. These spaces must be light, bright and clutter-free.

“Before any house goes on the market, you have to clean up the home office so buyers can envision themselves working comfortably there. This can take many hours of decluttering,” says Richardson, who’s affiliated with the Residential Real Estate Council (

Professional organizers, such as Susan Pinsky, author of “The Fast and Furious 5 Step Organizing Solution,” say many sellers who operate a home-based business find the chore of decluttering especially intimidating.

“They have to figure out how to keep the company running while the house is on the market, which is extremely hard,” Pinsky says.

If you're a prospective seller who occasionally works from home, these few pointers could prove helpful:

-- Elevate paper culling to a priority.

Many people who have home offices are plagued with boxes and bags filled with unsorted papers. These include business reports, computer print-outs, junk mail, utility bills, credit card statements and clippings from magazines and newspapers.

Ironically, very few of the papers that people keep have value to their business ventures or careers, says Pierrette Ashcroft, a productivity consultant who operates her own home-based business.

“More than 80 percent of the papers people save are never referred to again,” she says.

The problem for home sellers is that any kind of clutter, including papers, makes a home look untidy. That can cause visitors to conclude that the house has more problems than meet the eye, says Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and author of “1001 Tips for Buying & Selling a Home.”

“Less is always more when it comes to selling your home,” Nash says.

Unfortunately, it can take more time and energy to go through papers than just about any other kind of clutter, he says.

“You have to go through papers one at a time and make decisions. You can’t just throw it all out, because that box filled with junk mail might also hold your passport or the deed to your house,” he says.

-- Use a scanner to store papers, rather than filing cabinets.

Ashcroft urges those trying to declutter a home office to scan many of their documents into their computer rather than trying to store them in filing cabinets.

“I’m practically paper-free in my own home office. I use a rapid scanner and can scan up to 200 papers in two minutes,” Ashcroft says.

-- Drastically reduce the size of your book collections.

Many people from all types of professional backgrounds maintain bigger libraries than they ever need or use for reference.

“People have an emotional attachment to books,” Ashcroft says, noting that overflowing bookshelves are often found throughout a home, not only in the office area.

The problem for bibliophiles preparing to sell their home is that shelves crammed with books make a property seem smaller than it truly is. What’s more, it can be costly to pay a moving company to transport your books -- especially if you’re making a long-distance move.

Ashcroft says sellers with substantial book collections are wise to sort through them before their property goes on the market -- dispensing with any books they no longer use. Remember, too, that many books can now be quickly and easily accessed from an e-reader such as the Kindle sold by Amazon.

“Anymore, you don’t have to cling to conventional books to keep many volumes you value. Let technology spare you,” she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at