Whether selling or staying put, most homeowners could benefit from a little decluttering.
Garage full of trash, old things and clutter

©Andreas Coerper Mainz / Getty

Key Takeaways:

  • Share with sellers the financial advantage of only taking with them what they’ll use.
  • Explain how breaking down the process into smaller tasks can lighten the stress load.
  • Offer ideas on how to dispose of belongings by selling, donating or sharing.

Decluttering makes moving easier for everyone—and less costly, too. It is also helpful for those who want to live simpler in their current residence. In fact, having less clutter and being more intentional about what homeowners bring into their space is a positive for mental health and financial health.

Many saw the wisdom of doing so during the pandemic when they were stuck at home, looked around, and wondered: Why do I have all this stuff that I never use?

Now, in the dead of winter when many again are indoors for long stretches can be a good time to encourage clients to begin. Advise them to think of it as an adventure they pursue gradually rather than feel pressure to tackle all at once.

Truly effective—and lasting—decluttering represents a multistep process that varies according to each person’s situation. Those who’ve inherited a roomful of “brown” furniture from the 1950s and ‘60s, stacks of books, photo albums, crystal, and more may feel overwhelmed if they don’t want or can’t fit these furnishings in their home or apartment or find consignment shops interested in selling pieces, often because they have so much that’s similar from others hoping to unload possessions.

The following toolbox is offered up as a resource so that anyone can get started on their decluttering journey.

Share What Experts Advise

Marie Kondo became a world-touted expert on the benefits of decluttering with her first book, "The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up." It extolled the virtues of owning fewer belongings to have more space to display things that spark joy. Kondo went on to write more books, including one for children, and developed two Netflix series: "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" and "Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo." She also opened an online store, KonMari, and started a certified-consultant training business.

If the Marie Kondo method doesn't quite spark joy, there are alternatives. The “Swedish Death Cleaning,” which involves getting rid of anything not needed to relieve others of the task to discard a loved one's possessions after they’ve died. Margareta Magnusson, author of "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives More Pleasant," says the practice offers an underlying message of caring for our heirs.

For those who want more than decluttering and are interested in a minimalist lifestyle, resources abound as well.

Cheer On the Downsizers

Decluttering, even if moving isn't on the immediate radar, is a great idea for many reasons. First, you never know when a move might be necessary. An intentional approach to decluttering well before moving ever becomes a questions takes a lot of stress out of the moving process. Doing so can save time in packing up later, slash moving costs and help reduce the amount of new living space someone might require. Even before it's time to move, there's the listing process to think about. Decluttered settings help present a better visual, which helps maximize sales, says Christopher Matos-Rogers, associate broker, Coldwell Banker Realty in Atlanta. 

While many find it tempting to put off the difficult decisions about what to keep and what to toss until after they move, gently explain the wisdom of being realistic about what can fit in their new home, says Barry Izsak, an Austin, Texas-based move/relocation expert and founder of PackingMovingUnpacking, an online service that helps those moving find movers in their area. “This is especially important for those moving long distances.," he says. "Remind these clients about their new climate. They might be able to ditch most of their winter clothing and that snow blower, too,” he says.

Know When to Suggest Professional Help

Homeowners who can’t handle the task on their own should consider hiring a certified member of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) or the National Association of Specialty and Senior Move Managers (NASMM) or even someone with years of experience, says Izsak. As a former president of NAPO, Izsak says the national hourly rate professionals typically charged hovers between $50 and $100, depending in part on their locale.

Rhea Becker—who, as the Clutter Queen, offers organizing services for homes and offices in Boston—says many of her clients appreciate how professionals speed up the process by keeping them focused on maximizing profits and avoiding digressions over each object’s history. “With a professional, you have the best chance to cut the time and get some money on the table since they know what will sell,” she says.

Group Items Into Categories

Whether your clients decide to bring in a professional, it helps to categorize each item in a given area into one of five groupings: keep, store, sell, donate or toss. Izsak says the litmus test he uses and shares with clients is to save an object only if it fits one of these three criteria: It’s useful, beautiful, or loved. Becker suggests homeowners snap photos of favorite items that are difficult to part with to give them a visual memory they can retain rather than keeping the item itself. Here’s specific help you can offer them for each pile:

Sell

Midcentury modern furniture and contemporary art both appeal widely to buyers of all ages, especially if they’re good quality and in decent condition. Create a list of estate sales specialists and consignment shops in your area that are known for fair dealing. However, be aware that many services that do the work of selling take a big cut, often half the sales price. If your clients are inclined to try to sell items themselves, suggest they try eBay for the best prices. However, if they’re not willing to go through the trouble of shipping sold items, encourage them to post goods on hyperlocal online sites, such as neighborhood Facebook groups or Craigslist.

Donate

Remember the adage, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” Suggest to older clients that they first ask their children to claim beloved items from their childhood. Becker says it’s important to set a time limit for those who are interested to pick up what they want. Donations is another area where you can be a hero by compiling a list of trustworthy sources in your neighborhood for your clients. Take note of what charities will accept and when, and even which ones will pick up donations, saving your clients time and hassle. Some charities have gotten choosier about what they accept. For instance, many won’t take mattresses, box springs, pillow cases, or sheets. Real estate salesperson Christopher Flores with Keller Williams Larchmont in Los Angeles suggests a local halfway house that helps troubled young adults stabilize their lives as a great destination for used goods. “That way they provide furniture and clothing they don’t need to those who may have nothing,” he says. Remind sellers that they may be able to secure a tax donation from the IRS if they contribute to a qualified tax-exempt organization. Because of recent changes in the tax code, it’s best for clients to keep detailed notes of what they donate and to consult their tax adviser for the exact percentages they will be able to write off.

Toss

Clients may save themselves some work by calling a local trash-hauling company or 1-800-GOT-JUNK, which operates nationwide. Have information on pricing and what haulers won't take on hand. Homeowners can also consult HomeAdvisor’s list of trash-hauling service providers by ZIP code. Also, it’s important to be aware of laws governing trash. Some municipalities allow homeowners to leave stuff by the curb with a sign that reads, “please take me,” while others levy fines for such activity. A more organized version of this idea comes in the form of local Freecycle chapters, part of a grassroots nonprofit where local people post stuff for free pickup in their own towns to help keep usable goods out of landfills.

Store Off-Site

It may be tempting to store certain household items off-site, and one in three Americans do, according to StorageCafe. There are numerous reasons why. Aside from apartments getting smaller, people are unwilling to part with stuff permanently. The pandemic required a bit of a shuffle as well, requiring work-from-home space that didn't exist previously. Some families moved in with one another and needed a place for the extra stuff.

Picking self-storage requires homework. Advise clients to consider units that are locked, insured, climate-controlled, and offer access whenever they want. Prices can vary widely. Also remind clients that self-storage isn’t a great long-term solution, as months can extend into years and beyond. “Often storage is a matter of postponing the inevitable. It’s better to get rid of whatever you don’t need,” Izsak says. “If you know you’re storing something for a granddaughter who will use it in a year that makes sense. Otherwise, get rid of it now!”

Tips to Declutter

Share the following six tips from professional organizers Rhea Becker of The Clutter Queen in Boston and Barry Izsak of PackingMoving Unpacking.com in Austin to help keep your clients from feeling overwhelmed. Whichever tactics they choose, remind them that playing upbeat music can also help get the job done.

Tackle a room in a methodical way. Head to a corner, work on that area, and move clockwise until the room is completed. This might take several hours or days. “Keep at it,” Becker advises, noting that the feeling of elation upon completing an entire room will offer the adrenalin necessary to move onto tougher spots.

Work small. In any room, Izsak suggests thinking of bite-sized pieces--a single closet or drawer, which will offer immediate gratification once cleaned. “For most, that means not starting in a garage or attic since there’s usually so much stuff there, but in a smaller space that’s used daily. Becker loves starting with “that little kitchen drawer” where homeowners have crammed takeout menus, rubber bands, plastic cutlery, and sugar packets. “Only put back what you really will use,” she says.

Think in categories. If clients are overwhelmed by tackling an entire closet, tell them to start with one category. Pair up all shoes, then purge the ones that need repair, are worn out, aren’t in style, or that they are simply tired of, Becker says. Move on next to a new category such as belts, scarves, socks, ties.

Love those thrift shops. Becker recommends keeping a box or large sturdy bag (or bags) in a convenient place and adding items to it that you are ready to part with. As soon as the box or bags are filled, it goes to a local shop.  

Wear or lose. If you haven't worn something in a few years, give it away, Becker says. If it’s vintage and valuable, it can become a candidate for an estate sale or auction. Or maybe your grown children may now think that ‘80s bag is so cool.

Don’t repair broken stuff. If you have stuff that’s broken, torn, or missing a part, get rid of it, Becker urges. Most people never get around to fixing things they think they will unless it’s valuable monetarily or sentimentally.

Slow down when selling. When you try to downsize in a month, you hurry and may end up giving away too much, Izsak says. “Try to sell what you can slowly and you’re more likely to get more money when not in a rush,” he says. Find the right seller—an art gallery that represents a certain artist or genre.

Ditch the cardboard boxes. When all’s done and clients say they may re-use all the cardboard boxes that accumulated from ordering online, suggest they give those a heave-ho unless they can use a few for their move, Baker says. Some stores may like having them for customers, so ask.

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