Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about personal finance but also covers real estate, home improvement, travel, careers, small business, and even weddings. His work has been published by AARP The Magazine, Consumer Reports, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Fortune, and the National Association of REALTORS®’ HouseLogic website, among others. He’s also a licensed real estate agent. Connect with him via LinkedIn, Twitter, or email.
Spring Clean Your Business
How decluttering your listings, your business practices, and your life can help you leap forward.
March - April
Unless you’ve been living under a rock—or a pile of clothes from the eighties—you’ve noticed decluttering gospel is everywhere. You can thank (or blame) home organizing superstar and best-selling author Marie Kondo, whose Netflix reality show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” preaches that people can improve their lives by getting rid of all the things they own that don’t “spark joy.”
Naturally, some folks find the decluttering craze annoying, but real estate practitioners know the value of reducing clutter, especially when selling a house. “A lot of home buyers simply can’t see through a cluttered home,” says Nancy Newquist-Nolan, SRES, with Coldwell Banker in Santa Barbara, Calif., who specializes in helping people downsize. “They just can’t visualize themselves living in a seller’s house if it’s a total mess.”
Getting your own surroundings in shape is just as important as staging your listings. “Clutter in our homes can affect us in surprising ways,” says Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Australia. Having too much clutter can harm our ability to focus, disrupt sleep, and increase anxiety levels.
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who studies the impact of clutter on emotional well-being, agrees. “What we’ve found in our research is that the more clutter a person has, the less life satisfaction they have and the more emotional distress they have,” Ferrari says. “A lot of us have been sold this notion that ‘more is better,’ but it’s just not true,” he adds.
As the spring selling season gets underway, now’s a great time to consider the benefits of decluttering from several angles. Whether you’re dealing with sellers resistant to removing clutter, an overflowing inbox, superfluous tech hardware taking up space, or other clutter slowing you down and impeding your success, now is the time to take action.
A few smart tips can help your clients start to get their home in order or help you tidy up your own business and personal life so you can operate more efficiently and achieve better work-life balance. Let’s get started (before the producers of “Hoarders” show up at your clients’ front door—or yours).
How to Get a Home Decluttered and Ready to List
Guiding sellers through the task of purging or hiding away their stuff may make you feel uncomfortable, but agents have to be honest with their clients, says Regina Lark, an organizing and productivity specialist based in Los Angeles who coaches real estate agents. “You can’t sugarcoat things,” Lark says. “If someone’s house is a complete mess, you don’t tell the person that decluttering their home is going to be a piece of cake, because it won’t be.”
The first step is to establish realistic expectations with your client, and motivate them by pointing out the payoff of decluttering their house before they put it on the market. (In other words, less clutter will help the person fetch a bigger offer.) After that, it’s time to go from room to room with your client to help them decide what they’re going to do with all of their belongings.
“The more clutter a person has, the less life satisfaction they have and the more emotional distress they have. A lot of us have been sold this notion that ‘more is better,’ but it’s just not true.” — Joseph Ferrari
Julie Morgenstern, productivity consultant and author of SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck, recommends this tactic: “I often tell people to label every single item with a Post-it note, and they should have four colors of Post-it notes: One color is for belongings the sellers are taking to their new home; the second is for things they’re going to sell; the third is for things they’re going to donate; and the fourth is for things they’re going to throw out.”
Your best approach? “Be ruthless,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness. “You don’t want your client to schlep stuff to their new house that they won’t need, won’t use, or don’t love.”
This is particularly important for home sellers who are downsizing—and we’re not just talking about baby boomers. “Downsizing isn’t just for empty nesters anymore. Many millennials, in search of a minimalist lifestyle, are downsizing to smaller homes, often because they want reduce their carbon footprint and conserve energy,” says Sheri Koones, author of Downsize: Living Large in a Small House.
When working with sellers who are downsizing, you’ll want to have your clients compare the floor plan of their new home to that of their current home. This’ll help them focus on the areas where they need to reduce. If they’re moving to a home with a smaller kitchen, for instance, it’s time to get rid of that fondue maker they haven’t used in years.
Depending on how many belongings your clients decide to keep, you may need to recommend they rent a storage unit for the short term. “I often encourage clients to rent one while they’re selling their house,” says Chris Dossman, an agent with Century 21 Scheetz in Indianapolis.
In extreme cases, you may have to call in professional help. “I worked with a home seller recently, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much stuff,” Dossman says. “Even their bathroom closets were overflowing with bottles of lotion and toiletries.” Her solution? “I had my client hire a professional organizer to come in and help her declutter the whole house,” she says.
Personal organizers typically charge between $55 and $100 per hour, according to HomeAdvisor, a website that connects homeowners with service pros. To find a professional in your area, Ferrari recommends searching for a certified organizer using the Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
How to Reduce Clutter in Your Business
In an ideal world, your business would run like a well-oiled machine entirely on its own. But let’s face it: Clutter has a way of creeping into our professional lives in a way that derails our productivity. The upshot? Look into a system to make your business and make your processes more efficient.
For some agents, this entails going paperless by digitizing physical documents and storing them on a secure cloud-based account like DocuSign, a REALTOR Benefits® Program partner, or on an online real estate transaction management system, like zipLogix, another REALTOR Benefits® Program partner.
Newquist-Nolan is big on digitizing. “I keep all of my documents in Dropbox,” she says, “and I convert everything into a digital file that I possibly can—representation agreements, closing documents for clients, home inspection reports.”
But doing away with paper isn’t the right move for everyone. “I think digital solutions are like fad diets—you don’t stick to them over the long run,” says Seth Lejeune, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Homepoint in Royersford, Pa. “I use a 4-by-7-inch Moleskine notebook to write down all of my ideas and my to-do lists.”
Something we can all agree on, though, is that reading and responding to emails eats up a huge portion of our time. In other words, we’re slaves to our inboxes. And, according to Sharon Lowenheim, a professional organizer based in New York City, our email management habits are rife with inefficiencies.
“One thing that plagues a lot of business owners is they don’t know how to sort their emails,” Lowenheim says. “I recommend people create folders, where they can better organize their emails.” How you choose to label folders is up to you—for example, you could create a folder for emails pertaining to clients that are under contract on a house, and create a separate folder for emails related to closed transactions. “You have to figure out what works best for you,” says Lowenheim.
To prevent your inbox from clogging up with dozens, or even hundreds, of unread messages, Robert Pozen, a lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, recommends “touching” every email that you receive just once by replying, filing, or trashing it. “You don’t want to read an email and then come back to it later,” Pozen says.
Also, don’t be afraid to set ground rules for your own availability. “Time blocking is big in the real estate industry because it works,” says Peggy Yee, supervising broker at Frankly, REALTORS®, in Vienna, Va. “When I’m working, I’m working, and when I’m not working, my clients know that I’m not available,” Yee says. “I have two kids, and I focus on them completely from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., no interruptions.”
Still, some people will step over the line no matter what boundaries you set (like that seller who texted you at 2 a.m. every night). As a result, you should not have qualms about jettisoning clients if the relationship is unhealthy or a bad fit. “Trying to force a relationship is extremely time-consuming and unproductive and creates a lot of negativity,” says Dossman, who added that she’s not afraid to “declutter” her business by removing some past clients from her monthly mailers and client appreciation events.
Lejeune is even more systematic in his database decluttering. “Monthly, I go through my clients to ensure they’re a means to my goals. Be sure you’re not allowing certain clients to suck the fun—or money—out of your business. A good litmus test is if you’re bringing your drama home with you to the family. I have almost never regretted letting a client go. If you can’t refer them out but you must terminate, I suggest letting them go digitally, but always giving them the courtesy of hopping on a phone call to follow up.”
How to Cut Clutter in Your Personal Life
“Clutter can steal time away from us that we need to recharge and enjoy our lives,” says Morgenstern, adding that there are a few main culprits. “Household logistics really get in the way for a lot of people,” says Morgenstern, “specifically laundry, cooking, and cleaning.” Her advice is to find shortcuts or hacks that let you streamline these tasks. For instance, instead of spending time shopping at the grocery store, consider ordering groceries online and having them delivered to your front door or ordering meal kits, like Plated or Blue Apron, that provide only the right portion of ingredients that you need for each meal.
Are your closets jam-packed with clothes? Rubin recommends what she calls the “ex factor”: “If you were walking down the street and ran into your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, would you be glad that you’re wearing that sweater, or that pair of jeans? If the answer is no, it needs to go.” If you have trouble letting go of things, find someone who can hold you accountable.
Moreover, unsubscribing from unwanted retailer solicitations can be a game changer. Pro tip: Sign up for Unroll.Me, a tool that also allows you to consolidate the subscription emails that you want to keep into a single daily email.
Speaking of junk mail: You can stop receiving those pesky postal mail offers from credit card and insurance companies for five years by visiting www.optoutprescreen.com.
Can Decluttering Go Too Far?
Though there are undeniable benefits to weeding your belongings and streamlining business processes, be careful about taking it to extremes. Nancy Newquist-Nolan, SRES, with Coldwell Banker in Santa Barbara, Calif., recalls viewing a listing with a buyer who seemed to be a good fit. “The home was so perfect she could not see herself living there,” Newquist-Nolan says. “It looked more like a museum.” And it lacked storage, places to put paperwork, or even TV remotes. Even the kitchen had such clean lines, it looked as if it was not used. The morale? “We often tell our selling clients to remove personal photos and memorabilia from the home so the buyer can see themselves in the home, but this house went too far,” says Newquist-Nolan. “It lacked the human touch.”
Moreover, says Chris Dossman, a real estate agent with Century 21 Scheetz in Indianapolis, she took things too far a few years ago when she started digitizing paperwork and, after storing the documents on Dropbox, began tossing out the physical documents. “Only once did I get rid of a document that I needed, and that was enough to reinforce my decision to use both electronic and paper files,” says Dossman.
Similarly, Kirk Friedlander, GRI, managing broker at Mattco, REALTORS®, in Moultrie, Ga., shuns digital solutions and embraces a little clutter. “Everyone is trying to adopt cutting-edge technology and stop using paper, but I still use the same skill sets that I learned 20 years ago,” Friedlander says. “I write out my schedule by hand every day.” Friedlander also keeps stacks of paperwork on his desk, but he has a system that helps him stay organized. “The left-hand stack has the most important things I’m working on for the day, the middle stack has things that I have several days to work on, and the stack on the right-hand side of my desk has things that are for long-term projects,” says Friedlander.