Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
What to Do With All That Stuff
Decluttering makes staging, selling, and moving easier—and less costly. As selling and spring cleaning seasons kick into high gear, create a toolbox of local solutions to help clients shed their unnecessary stuff.
April 2, 2018
Learn how you can help clients who have deeper issues related to clutter, such as hoarding.
It seems everywhere you turn, there’s a new message on the many benefits of decluttering. One of the trend’s best-known spokespersons is Marie Kondo, whose first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, extolls the virtues of having fewer belongings and more space to showcase the things that spark joy.
A more sobering aspect of this movement has been revealed more recently in the form of “Swedish Death Cleaning,” which involves getting rid of anything you don’t need any more so as to relieve others of the task of discarding it after you’ve passed on. Margareta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives More Pleasant, says the practice offers a soft underlying message of care for one’s heirs.
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.
Start small. Izsak suggests starting with a single room, closet, or drawer that 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. Working this way will give them joy right away,” he says. Becker loves starting with “that little kitchen drawer” where homeowners have crammed takeout menus, rubber bands, twist ties, plastic cutlery, and sugar packets. “Only put back what you really will use,” she says.
Tackle a whole 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.
Think in terms of categories. If clients are overwhelmed by tackling an entire closet, tell them to start with one category. Pair up all your shoes, then purge the ones that need repair, are worn out, aren’t in style, or that you are simply tired of, Becker says. Then, move on to a new category such as belts, scarves, socks, or ties.
Love your thrift shop. Becker recommends keeping a box or large sturdy bag in a convenient place and adding items to it that you’re ready to part with. As soon as the box or bag is filled, take it to a local shop. You might also consider a second receptacle in a linen closet for your local animal shelter, since they often need used towels and bedding.
Wear it or ditch it. If you haven't worn something in a year or two, give it away, Becker says. If it’s vintage and valuable, it can instead become a candidate for an estate sale or auction.
Forget repairing broken stuff. If you have stuff around the house 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 very valuable or of great sentimental value.
Truly effective—and lasting—decluttering is a multistep process. The elements will vary depending on each client’s situation, but here are tips on how you as a real estate pro can help them reduce the stress of the task. You may even find them helpful for your own space.
1. Consider the downsizers. Whether you’re helping them buy or sell, clients who are hoping to reduce the amount of living space they require may look to you as a cheerleader and adviser. They may find it tempting to put off those difficult decisions about what to keep and what to ditch until after the move, but if you can help them focus on what realistically can fit in their new home, that could save them significant money in moving costs, according to Barry Izsak, an organizer and moving expert based in Austin, Texas. This is an especially important factor for those moving long distances. Such clients may also need to be reminded to think about the climate they’re relocating to. Snowbirds are not likely to need an extensive winter wardrobe and should retain only a few items for visits back North or travel to cold-weather locations.
2. Know when to suggest professional help. Homeowners who can’t handle the task on their own should consider bringing on a certified member of the National Association of Professional Organizers or someone with many years of experience, says Izsak. As the former president of NAPO, he says the national hourly rate typically charged by members hovers between $50 and $100. 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.
3. Assemble a toolbox of local resources to share. Whether or not 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. While clients may be able to deposit a fair amount of stuff in their garbage cans for pick-up or take unwanted items directly to their local dump, they may save themselves some work by calling a local trash-hauling company or 1-800-GOT-JUNK, which operates nationwide. You can be a resource for clients by noting how much junk haulers charge and if there’s any products they won’t take. 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 also allow homeowners to leave stuff by the curb with a sign “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. Because the self-storage industry is growing, most neighborhoods or towns offer multiple choices. In fact, 84 percent of all U.S. counties have at least one self-storage facility, according to the Self-Storage Association. Suggest clients pick one that offers locked, insured, climate-controlled cubicles, which they can access whenever they want. Prices can vary widely. A storage facility in Staatsburg, N.Y. offers a 5-foot-square cubicle for $45 with a discount for college students. Michael McAlhany’s Units Moving and Portable Storage, headquartered in Charleston, S.C., charges an average of $140 a month for an 8-foot-by-16-foot unit in 14 states across the country. His company will bring a portable storage unit to a home or apartment, so owners can pack there rather than transport everything to the facility. However, remind clients that this isn’t a great long-term solution, as months can easily extend into years and even decades. “Often storage is a matter of postponing the inevitable. It’s better to get rid of whatever you don’t need,” Izsak says.