Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

The Post-COVID Home Sale: How to Help Your Relatives

To the great frustration of would-be homebuyers, popular neighborhoods everywhere are now extremely short of available properties.

“This constitutes a significant housing crisis,” says Merrill Ottwein, a realty company owner who’s long focused his business on buyers.

Through much of 2020, one major factor constraining inventories was that many potential sellers were sitting on the sidelines, fearing COVID exposure during public showings of their homes.

But as the nation starts to enter the post-COVID period, housing analysts foresee gradual improvement on the supply side.

“We expect that the vaccine rollout will likely boost inventory as sellers become increasingly willing to move despite COVID-19, resulting in greater numbers of new listings beginning this spring,” says Chris Glynn, the principal economist at Zillow, the national real estate firm.

Yet many owners who’ve long resided in their property face a daunting challenge to prep their place for sale.

Joan Doyle, a real estate agent for Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, has worked with numerous sellers making major housing transitions. And she’s consulted with many relatives who want to pitch in.

“The most important thing relatives can do for the sale is to help clear the house of clutter,” Doyle says.

Granted, in inventory-tight markets many buyers continue to face multiple bidding situations. Yet they’ll still pay less for a property that’s crowded with accumulations, or they’ll rule it out altogether.

“If your stuff is everywhere, some buyers will never be interested. When they walk in and see all that clutter, they’ll just turn around and walk out immediately,” Doyle says.

The problem is that buyers who see a home in chaotic shape can’t picture themselves living there. Also, they assume the untidy owners have neglected upkeep and that the place is in bad condition.

“Today’s buyers are more sensitive to everything. They’re hesitant about the economy and their financial situation,” Doyle says.

For sellers who’ve long struggled with organizational challenges, the prospect of getting their property cleared out and ready for sale can seem overwhelming.

“I’ve worked with people who are crying and shaking when I come in,” says Susan Pinsky, a professional organizer who specializes in helping disorganized people get through difficult transitions, like the involuntary sale of their property.

Pinsky, author of “The Fast and Furious 5 Step Organizing Solution,” says that when a financial or medical problem necessitates a home sale, owners often need relatives to help them mobilize.

Here are a few tips for family members who wish to assist:

-- Consider hiring a professional organizer.

Many longtime owners resist the notion of paying for help from an organizer, believing it’s a waste of money for work that shouldn’t require outside assistance. But Pinsky says a professional can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure in the residential decluttering process.

“Too often, family members are very subjective about all the stuff in the house and fail to see the big picture the way a professional can,” she says.

Of course, not everyone can afford a professional to slog step-by-step through decluttering. If funds are limited, one possibility is to pay solely for the organizer’s services at the front end in order to create a roadmap that relatives can then follow.

To locate a professional organizer in your local area, Pinsky cites the website of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals ( as one source of names. Or sellers can ask trusted friends, neighbors or colleagues for this type of help. Alternatively, real estate agents can be a good source of referrals.

-- Break up the tasks among several family members.

What if no funds are available to pay a professional organizer? In that case, Pinsky recommends the relatives choose a project manager within the family who can then delegate tasks on a room-by-room basis.

“Divvy up the activities. One family member could help the homeowner go through all the dishware and china in the kitchen. Another could help with clothes in the bedrooms. And a third could tackle tools in the garage,” she says.

However, Pinsky cautions that no purging project goes forward smoothly unless the homeowners are consulted when decisions are made about which items will be kept, sold, thrown out or donated.

“If the owners aren’t the decision-makers, you’re just wasting your time trying to help. You can’t make decisions about other people’s things without meeting major resistance,” Pinsky says.

-- Ease your way through the disposal process.

All too often, Pinsky arrives at the home of clients who want organizational help but aren’t set up to make the process flow efficiently.

“The pathways in and out of the house are crowded, and there are just a few tiny wastebaskets for the collection of discards,” she says.

Pinsky arranges for the use of large trash bins, along with trash bags of different colors to make sure, for example, that items for charity don’t mingle with those destined for the landfill. Then she clears pathways to the doors to make sure it’s easy to remove anything that won’t be kept.

“The idea is to make the removal system as streamlined as possible,” Pinsky says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at