Don't Let Tiny Closets Shut Out Buyers

Experts in home staging and closet organization share their best tips on how to make the most of sparse storage space.

December 1, 2005

Walk-in closets and roomy pantries are a necessity for many of today’s home buyers, who have lots of stuff and need a place to store it. So when your listing is lacking in storage space, you have a big challenge to overcome in order to maximize buyer appeal.

You’re most likely to encounter small storage areas in older homes, condominiums, and lofts. In many cases, the problem is compounded by cluttered living areas, as items that would normally be kept out of view become part of the décor.

“We’re a consumer society, and we have more stuff than ever before,” says professional organizer Barry Izsak, owner of Arranging It All in Austin, Texas. “Twenty or 30 years ago, people lived with less. They didn’t have three sets of dishes and 15 pairs of black shoes.”

But even tiny closets and other storage problems are surmountable after you get the sellers’ cooperation. Start by explaining to your sellers that all of their hard work purging and organizing will give them a head start on packing for the move — and will go a long way in winning over potential buyers, says Izsak, a former president of the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Izsak suggests telling sellers: “If a closet is packed to the gills, it’s only going to draw attention to how small it is. The smartest thing you can do is weed through what you have so the closets look ample, not overflowing.”

Apply the Two-Thirds Rule

Whether you’re facing a jam-packed closet in the bedroom, bathroom, or kitchen, you should ask sellers to sift through their belongings and clean out everything that’s not used regularly. “A rule of thumb is to have closets no more than two-thirds full,” says Terrylynn Fisher, CRS®, GRI, a broker with Diablo Realty in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Fisher, who’s also a trained staging expert, says prospective buyers should be able to look inside a closet and think: “I have more stuff than this. But there is extra room in the closet, so surely my things will fit.”

Bedroom closets, which can make or break a sale, need special attention when they’re on the small side. That means removing clothes, shoes, and bulky jackets that are out of season or worn only on formal occasions. “It’s a fact that most people wear 20 percent of their clothes 80 percent of the time,” Izsak says.

But sometimes it’s not just clothes and shoes clogging up a closet. Ramona Creel — a professional organizer in the Washington, D.C., area who has worked with home owners and real estate practitioners to get homes in shape for sale — says purses, hats, and sports equipment also are commonly misplaced in bedroom closets — making the space seem smaller than it really is.

Box It Up, Move It Out

If the extra items can’t be moved to an emptier closet in the home, they should be packed away in labeled storage boxes, which can be neatly stored under the bed, in the garage, or in a basement. But if these options aren’t feasible, which often is the case in condos, consider doing what Fisher encourages her sellers to do: rent storage space.

The cost of storage is usually well worth the improved appearance of closets and other cluttered areas of the home, she says.

What if sellers have weeded out clothes they don’t wear and closets are still packed? Make sure drawer space, hanger space, and shelving in the bedroom are being used wisely, Izsak says. Jeans and tee-shirts that are hanging in the closet are prime candidates for moving to the drawers — if there’s space.

Sellers also can consider buying an inexpensive closet organizer that can double a closet’s capacity. Many discount stores and online retailers sell rods for less than $20 that hang from the existing closet rod and create a second level of hanging space.

Declutter Kitchens, Baths, and Beyond

You can encounter closet challenges in virtually any room of a house. In each instance, follow the same advice given for bedroom closets: clear out the items that aren’t used often and box them up for storage, either on-site or off-site.

In the kitchen, have sellers pack up their little-used pots, pans, and other cooking utensils that fill up valuable cabinet space. Non-perishables can be donated to a local food bank or stored in boxes in a less conspicuous part of the house. Pot racks are a viable option for some, but not for all. “You have to have nice-looking pots,” Fisher says. Otherwise, they can work against you.

For overstuffed bathroom closets and shelves, sellers should remove extra towels and toiletries. If a bathroom lacks a closet or shelf space, you must find innovative ways to make sure sparse storage isn’t the first thing a potential buyer notices. Fisher has placed rolled-up towels in iron wine racks, while Iszak relies heavily on decorative baskets to group small items.

“It looks pretty to the eye, but it serves a very functional purpose,” Izsak says.

An excess of toys can be a big problem in kids’ closets. Under-the-bed trundles can store toys out of sight, as can attractive storage bins and toy chests — which can double as benches or tables in the bedroom or playroom. Parents can work with their kids to cut down on the number of toys in the room by donating them to charity or boxing them up.

Details That Make a Great Impression

Your next task is to attend to details that make a storage area go beyond looking ample to truly shine. Experts say it helps to paint the inside of closets a bright, neutral color and to clean the lighting fixtures so the space won’t appear dark and dingy.

Creel, who runs the Web site, says quality hangers also improve the look. “It’s amazing what a difference consistently sized and shaped hangers can make,” she says.

Toss out the wire hangers and put those big bulky suit hangers in storage, Creel says. Instead, use plastic tubular hangers, which can be purchased in bulk from almost any discount retailer. Izsak suggests taking it a step further by grouping similar clothing items together and facing the same direction.

If a seller decides to empty out closets entirely before showings, it’s smart to add a few decorative touches by hanging a dress and placing a hat box on the top shelf, Fisher says. Just as it’s smart to make sure closets are no more than two-thirds full, it’s also important that they’re not completely barren.

Always Think Creatively

With every home you list, you will face a unique situation that calls for a unique response. You’ll find that what works for one closet may not work for another closet. And some sellers surely will be harder to motivate than others.

One thing is certain: it’s always better to show off a home’s closets in their best light — even if they’re small — than it is to act as if the storage space is a downside of a property. As popular as walk-in closets are, some buyers may not be put off by smaller storage spaces.

As is the case in any other room of the house, if a small closet is “too cluttered and too personalized, buyers won’t be able to picture their belongings in your space,” Fisher says.

But by putting the best face on any small space, you should be on track for a successful home showing.

Kelly Quigley

Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.

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