Get Organized: Turn Piles Into Files

Clearing clutter will improve your production and decrease your stress.

April 1, 2004

“Don’t blame yourself for being disorganized. I know of no formal course in school that teaches organizing skills. You don’t have to be organized to the same degree as someone else; you only have to be organized to a degree that helps you work efficiently and productively.”
Lisa Kanarek, author of Organizing Your Home Office for Success (Blakely Press, 1998)

The paperless office that soothsayers predicted never materialized as personal computers became commonplace. In fact, some people keep so much paper that observers might think that clutter has become a chic design style.

It hasn’t. Working in a cluttered environment cuts your productivity, revenue, and profits—and greatly increases your stress. Who hasn’t made a frantic search for a buried listing agreement or misplaced a form on the PC after failing to properly name the file or folder?

Susan L. Fares, CRB, GRI, a broker-associate with Baird & Warner in Olympia Fields, Ill., who considers herself very organized, lays some blame on the industry itself because there’s more documentation needed to buy or sell a house than was previously the case.

“The length of the standard contract has doubled during my 19 years in business, from four to eight pages,” she says. “And that’s just the beginning. Contracts often require riders for disclosures. And once a property is under contract, you’ve got the attorneys’ paperwork, the village or town’s inspection paperwork, environmental reports, the buyers’ home inspection report, which may run 20 pages, and a termite inspection.”

When does all that paperwork become clutter? Not when you have one project spread over your desk but when you have numerous unrelated documents that you’ve mixed together, explains Odette Pollar, author of Organizing Your Workspace (Crisp Publications, 1999) and founder of Smart Ways to Work, a management consulting and professional organization company in Oakland, Calif.

Whether you’re the proverbial pack rat or a doyen of details, you can increase your productivity through better organization. With April being Tackle Your Clutter Month, according to “Chase’s Calendar of Events 2004” (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2003), now’s a great time to start. No one system will be the magic bullet, especially in a mobile profession such as real estate, says Julie Morgenstern, who writes a monthly organizing column for O, The Oprah Magazine. But the following tips will help you streamline your files.

Physical files

Start by scrutinizing every paper before you file it. Too many people file documents that they never look at or need again, says Michelle Passoff, author of Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter (Perennial, 1998). Organize those you must keep so they correspond with how you transact business. For instance, arrange papers by prospect or neighborhood. Make one file each for maps, expense reports, and legal documents.

Make files for repetitive tasks, such as bills to be paid, calls to be returned, and notes to be written, Passoff says. Put these in a stair-step file on your desk or at the front of a file cabinet for visibility and easy access.

Labels are important for easy retrieval, too, says Barry J. Izsak, an organizer in Austin, Texas, and president of the National Association of Professional Organizers ( in Glenview, Ill. He suggests using a software program such as Taming the Paper Tiger (, which creates a computer index to track physical files through keyword searches. “You might not remember where you filed your office insurance—whether under ‘o’ for office or ‘i’ for insurance. But if you type in office insurance it tells you,” says Barbara Hemphill, Paper Tiger’s co-creator.

Using different color folders or tabs—for example, blue for administrative paperwork—will help you avoid putting bills in a green client folder, Morgenstern says.

She also advises purging files “consistently and continuously” to stay organized. If you’re just getting organized, discard from this point forward. “That will give you a greater sense of control and satisfaction,” she says. “On a quiet day, tackle the backlog.”

Before you toss, however, be sure you understand the legal and business reasons for keeping certain documents. Consult your accountant on tax matters. For guidance on documents to retain for other business or legal reasons, consult your office policy or state real estate commission rules. Also, review our list of critical documents for listing agents and buyers’ agents.

Computer files

If you don’t have a lot of space in your office, scan papers to store them electronically.

There are software programs to help get you organized. SR Enterprise was designed for real estate practitioners to have a central location to file documents relating to a single transaction, from the purchase agreement to the disclosure forms to e-mail correspondence, says Celeste Starchild, vice president of SettlementRoom Systems Inc. ( in Vienna, Va. The program can be customized and allows everyone involved, including homeowners, to access the same information.

A system available through the Realtor VIP® Alliance Program—Transaction Point from FNIS Real Estate Division ( )—performs the same function and also allows your transaction documents to integrate with information from the MLS, lenders, and title companies. For commercial practitioners, there’s NetDocuments (, another REALTOR VIP® Alliance partner. It’s an online management service to help you store, organize, and share information on commercial transactions.

The more you use your computer to store documents, however, the more important it is to have your computer files as organized as your physical files. When possible, name and arrange computer files to duplicate your physical files, Passoff says.

She also suggests using subfolders. For instance, you might have gasoline, transportation, and meals as subfolders of your entertainment expense folder. Set aside time each week to review and clean up your files—and back them up regularly, too.

In your car

Most real estate practitioners spend part of their day in the car and, therefore, may be transporting papers. The passenger seat or trunk of your car is a precarious place to keep documents.

Passoff suggests keeping papers in a plastic file case with handles. Such a case makes papers easier to tote—and your important documents won’t be forgotten, blown around when the car door opens, or damaged by on-the-go eating. Morgenstern also suggests toting a lap desk, and keeping an envelope for business-related expenses in your driver’s side door pocket. “Write on receipts what they were for before you stick them in,” she says. “At the end of a week, total up the money you spent and file the envelopes in one big folder. It helps you account for cash spent at the end of the year.”

At home

Even if you don’t work primarily from a home office, you should have an area or desk where you can work and pay bills.

Organize your home files just as you do your work files, with color folders or tabs to keep categories distinct—for example, red for bills, blue for appliance warranties and instructions, and green for important documents, such as your marriage license and Social Security information.

If you use your home office space for both personal and business work, it’s important not to mix your files. If you’re moving files regularly between your home and brokerage office, Morgenstern advises putting work-related folders immediately back in a briefcase after you’ve finished with them.

There’s no rocket science to getting organized. Good organization, like healthy eating, comes down to making a commitment. Do so, and you’ll never have to ask yourself, “Where’s that file?” again.

How did I get here?

Clutter happens gradually. A few papers left here, a few there, and before you can say, “Oscar Madison was a slob,” your piles resemble an architectural wonder.

Clutter occurs for a variety of reasons. Some people don’t place getting organized high on their to-do list. Others are afraid to discard anything, and still others worry that being too organized will rob them of creativity and connote rigidity. Then there are the perfectionists, who think files work only if they’re perfectly arranged. Why bother trying an impossible feat?

Organization may be a team issue, too. “I’m pretty organized,” says Susan L. Fares, a broker-associate with Baird & Warner in Olympia Fields, Ill., “but someone else in my office may get their hands on my files and undo what I’ve done. We all have different ways of working.”

Exacerbating these issues is the fact that many papers can’t be handled just once, as anticlutter lore advises. They need to be handled, read, and moved multiple times to complete a transaction.

That’s why it’s important to have a filing system and to make sure everyone who works on your files understands it. Then, when somebody asks for that property condition disclosure form on the Maple Street property, you’ll be able to retrieve it in no time flat.

Felix Unger would be proud.

What’s your organization I.Q.?

Take this quiz to find out whether your organizational challenges are typical or troubling. Print this page and circle yes or no.

My desk is clear at the end of each day. YES NO

I deal with the mail on a daily basis. YES NO

I can locate active files in 10 seconds or less. YES NO

I regularly purge closed and inactive files. YES NO

I respond to all voice mail and e-mail I receive within 24 hours. YES NO

I have a calendar system, paper or electronic, to schedule appointments. YES NO

I have an effective method to track and manage my hot action projects. YES NO

I have a functional marketing program to stay in touch with prospects. YES NO

All my contact information for prospects and service vendors is in a contact database. YES NO

I have an efficient system to follow up with prospective buyers, sellers, or tenants. YES NO

Total how many times you marked yes.

9–10. You’re the envy of your office. Keep up the good work.

7–8. With a few simple changes, you’ll sell more houses.

4–6. You can become better organized. Take one step at a time.

3 or fewer. You need to get organized. You’ll cut back on mistakes and reduce your liability risk.

Quiz by Barry J. Izsak, founder of Arranging It All in Austin, Texas

Barbara Ballinger

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).

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