Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

De-cluttering for a Quicker Sale

Tom Early, a veteran real estate broker, has a cautionary note for those seeking to sell their property in coming weeks: Make sure the place is clutter-free or expect it to languish unsold for an indefinite period.

“These days, buyers are much fussier than before,” says Early, who works solely with buyers and takes no listings.

Though all real estate trends are local, he urges sellers to take notice of the big picture, as reflected in current economic statistics. Across the nation, home sales dipped slightly in April, the latest month for which numbers are available. Meanwhile, inventories of unsold homes are increasing, especially at the upper end of the price spectrum.

At the National Association of Realtors (, chief economist Lawrence Yun warns sellers against excessively high expectations.

“When placing their home on the market, home sellers need to be very realistic and aware of the current conditions,” Yun says.

It costs relatively little to declutter a property. But professional organizers report that many homeowners struggle with the critical need to reduce their accumulations to prep for a sale.

“One key problem is that as Americans, we’re a nation of addicted shoppers,” says Barbara Hemphill, a past president of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (

Ironically, many people embark on an anti-clutter campaign with a shopping spree involving the purchase of many storage containers. But all those big plastic bins prove more of a hindrance than a help, according to Hemphill, who’s worked in the organizational field for more than three decades.

“Almost inevitably, those containers just get in your way,” she says.

Judith Rough, a professional organizer who runs a small firm called Carefree Transitions, urges people planning to sell their homes to halt all but the most necessary shopping.

“Remember that you’re not in the accumulating stage. You’re clearing out. That’s an entirely different frame of mind,” Rough says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Try to assemble a team to help with the clearing process.

To fully declutter an average-sized house typically takes at least four weeks of concentrated effort. And to avoid getting bogged down with the feelings the process arouses, many people need help, Rough says.

To gain momentum, people often turn to relatives. But Rough says you’re better off with an objective third party -- ideally a professional organizer. One source for referrals is the real estate agent who will list your property.

Unfortunately, many sellers can’t afford to pay a professional organizer for numerous hours of assistance. If this is true for you, Rough suggests you limit the organizer’s help to just a few hours of planning time. Then also pay the person for a few one-hour “check-ins” on a weekly basis, during which you’ll receive a “homework” assignment for the following week.

-- Query family members on which items they wish to claim.

Many parents of grown children hang onto things they believe their offspring will wish to claim in the future. But as Rough says, “your kids will want far less of your stuff than you expect.” She suggests you ask them directly what they want to keep.

For example, she tells the true story of a client who’d retained her wedding gown for decades on the assumption that her teenage daughter would one day want to use it.

“But when the mom asked the girl if she ever planned to wear the gown, she replied that she ‘wouldn’t be caught dead in it’,” Rough recalls.

-- Take photos of valuable items that are too large or awkward to keep.

When working with clients, Hemphill often photographs entire rooms in a house she’s helping declutter -- thereby creating compact memories of these spaces.

Besides taking photos, she also recommends you retain a small box of special items from your children’s early lives --- such as clothing and toys. Still other mementos, including drawings or small pieces of sculpture, were framed or placed on display in shadow boxes.

Converting some symbolic items from your kids’ early years into art or photographs allows you to integrate them more easily into your new environment, Hemphill says.

-- Safeguard keepsakes and valuable documents.

Those who embark on a clutter control campaign are often relieved to encounter items so valuable that they cannot -- and should not -- discard them. These include birth certificates, passports and high school diplomas.

Rough suggests you encase such valuables in clear plastic sheet protectors and place them in a three-ring binder. Alternatively, you may wish to buy a storage item designed for vital records.

-- Give away extra items that are useful.

As you sift through memorabilia from your children’s lives as well as your own mementos, you’re bound to encounter many items you no longer want or need. Do you truly wish to haul all those books, toys and pieces of sports gear to the new house?

Whenever possible, Hemphill encourages you to donate serviceable items to a reputable charity you want to help. Through the years, for example, she’s taken many of her own discards to a shelter for battered women.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that your excess inventory will be put to good use by people who really need it,” Hemphill says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at