By sorting through your belongings before you move, you’ll save time and money. Here’s how to streamline your stuff without losing your mind.

By Melinda Fulmer of MSN Real Estate

Admit it. Your open house is right around the corner and you’re tempted to just throw all of your belongings into boxes and sort them out after you move. That’s the easiest way to handle it, right?

Wrong. By decluttering before you pack a single box, you’ll not only save time, you’ll save money because you won’t be paying someone else to move or store those items.

“With most homes, you could get rid of 30% of its contents and never miss it for a second,” says Debra Gould, aka The Staging Diva. One family Gould worked with got rid of 6,000 pounds of clutter that they didn’t have to pay to move.

But how do you streamline your stuff without losing your mind? MSN Real Estate consulted a handful of the nation’s top organizers and clutter busters, as well as home stager Gould, to give our readers a guide to overcoming clutter inertia and shedding excess baggage before a move.

Have a plan, Stan
One thing that most of our professional declutterers suggest is to plot out a strategy.

Don’t try to tackle the entire place in one whirlwind weekend. Laura Leist, owner of Seattle-based Eliminate Chaos and president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, suggests sitting down and blocking out time to do it in two- or three-hour increments a couple of months before you put your house on the market.

“Scratch out all the dates on a calendar,” she says. That way, you don’t get panicked at the last minute before an open house.

Julie Morgenstern, author of “When Organizing Isn’t Enough: Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life,” takes this planning a step further. You should first pick a theme or vision for your future, she says. What feeling are you seeking in your home and your life? Freedom? Serenity? Fun?

“This is an opportunity to create a new chapter in your life,” she adds.

Keep this in mind when you sort through your things and ask if each item supports this feeling. Doing this, she says, makes the shedding process easier, especially if you are on the fence about getting rid of something.

Next, select some “points of entry” to put on your decluttering calendar. If the thought of focusing on an entire room makes you want to curl up in a fetal position on the couch, try tackling a series of small projects, such as one family member’s clothes, your bathroom toiletries, books or magazines, DVDs and CDs, your linen closet or that cluttered drawer of kitchen gadgets.

Morgenstern recommends starting with any area that has items that are stagnant, (i.e. not moving) or that is bursting at the seams — because clearing those will give you greater momentum for the rest of your decluttering.

“Start with the things that will give you the biggest payoffs,” Morgenstern says. “It will give you motivation to pack away less” in the rest of your house.

Choose six or eight areas to start, and by all means avoid emotionally fraught baggage such as memorabilia at first — or your efforts will quickly lose steam.

Trash or treasure?
You want to treat the decluttering before a move like you’re packing for a long trip, but instead of taking a swimsuit, shorts and T-shirts, you’re bringing only the most valuable belongings: things that are extremely meaningful or practical. (And of course, you want to remove anything that takes up too much space or detracts from the showing of your house.)

Reformed pack rat Erin Rooney Doland, who blogs about organization and who authored the forthcoming book “Unclutter Your Life in One Week,” says you must ask yourself these questions about your belongings as you sort through them:

  • Do I have something like this that fills the same purpose?
  • If this is a duplicate, which one is in the best condition, is of the best quality and will last the longest?
  • Does this item need repairs?
  • Does this item save me money or fulfill some essential need?
  • Why does this object live in my house and is this the best place for it?

(Some experts suggest if you are storing a “collection” of some sort out of sight, it might not be worth holding on to.)

  • Has the expiration date on this item passed?
  • Does it help me live the kind of life I want to lead?

Diving in
When you’re ready to start in an area, gather your supplies: trash bags, a shredder and bags or boxes for donations. Don’t make the mistake of going to the store first and getting fancy little shelving units, chic baskets and organization systems until after you’ve shed the clutter.

Read: Your moving checklist

“You won’t know how much you have to store or the quantity of stuff you will have left,” Leist says.

Set up a staging area or work surface to pile all of the things to be sorted. Identify bags for trash, donations (these should be decided in advance) and recycling and another bin for things that must be returned, given to a relative or repaired. Set a timer and go.

“Immediately put into a pile anything you don’t love, don’t use or haven’t worn in a year,” Gould says. That includes furniture that you’re not crazy about as well. “Ask yourself ‘Do I want to be looking at this stuff again in my new house?’”

Pointers for all of your stuff
Kitchen: Get rid of any cookbook that you don’t use regularly or that wasn’t recommended, Morgenstern suggests.

Try to eliminate “uni-taskers” — or gadgets that serve only one purpose — if you don’t use them regularly, Doland says. These would be things like that pickle fork or egg slicer or Shamrock cookie cutter you never use.

Set your table (and bar area) with as many plates, dishes, platters and glasses as you could for a dinner party and get rid of any that don’t fit.

Read: Pack your house like a pro

Haul the food and spices out of your cabinets. Chuck anything that’s expired, contaminated or moldy and consult Web sites such as www.stilltasty.com to see if your stash is still safe to eat.

Likewise, get rid of any excess food storage containers. Try this exercise: Pretend each one has food in it and figure out how many would fit into your refrigerator and freezer at one time. Ditch the rest.

Once you start putting things back, keep only the toaster, coffeemaker and maybe a couple of canisters on the counter, Gould advises.

Bathroom: This is an especially important area to declutter before you show your house, Gould says.

“People don’t want to look at your hairbrush, toothbrush or razor,” she says. And they don’t want to see shampoo and soaps lining the tub.

‘Think of it as a hotel bathroom. There you don’t think of the 7 million people who used it before you.” Shrink your supplies and stash your everyday items out of sight when you’re showing your home. Remember those shower caddies from dorm living?

Assume that people touring your place will look in your medicine cabinets, cosmetic drawers and cabinets, so make sure these items are clear of anything you don’t want seen or — gasp! — touched.

Living room: Go through your books, art objects, electronics and furniture and keep only the things that are especially useful, meaningful or beautiful. Get rid of DVDs you don’t watch and consider ditching your CDs if you have them backed up on your computer.

If you are having a hard time deciding what detracts from the space or what is visual clutter, take digital pictures of these rooms and let your eye take in the whole scene. What does your eye go to first? What is most distracting? If you’re not sure, ask a friend for a second opinion.

Clothes: Think of your clothes and accessories as your uniform and keep only the things that best represent your image and accommodate your lifestyle. Put each piece to these tests:

  • Does it represent my current style and the image I want to present to others?
  • Does it fit well and complement my body shape?
  • Does it work with at least two other items in my wardrobe?
  • Does it work with shoes I already own?
  • Do I like how it feels when I wear it?
  • Do I have an occasion to wear it in the next year?

Home office: Ditch crowded bulletin boards. Sort through your papers and group things into types of information and create a file for each type you encounter frequently, whether it’s ideas for your kitchen or bank statements. The most common mistake is keeping too many papers for tax purposes. IRS publication 552 will help you decide what to keep.

Create a separate folder for computer entry. This will have Web sites you want to check out and bookmark, contacts you need to add to your database, and things you want to add to online shopping or wish lists, etc.

Kid stuff: For those with babies: Ditch the changing table and keep changing supplies in a couple of covered baskets in different parts of your house while showing your home.

The same thing goes with toys. Have your kids sort through toys and pick out 10 to 12 items that they want to play with each week. Provide covered boxes in the living room and other common areas to stash them quickly when you have buyers arriving.

Put the rest in a couple of rubber bins in the basement or under the stairs, and in off-site storage. You may find that out of sight is truly out of mind for some of them, Gould says.

Ditch the discards
Once you’ve finished with each area, make sure you move these bags and boxes out within 48 hours of your decluttering session, Morgenstern advises, lest you derail your efforts.

For die-hard pack rats who are torn about getting rid of certain items, Gould advises a “maybe” box. Put them in, seal it up and give yourself a week (but no longer) to grab something back.

If you are too tired to sort your discards, you can also call a junk service to remove and deal with it for you. Just search on the Web for “junk removal” and the name of your city, and you’ll find a service that charges by volume to whisk it all away.

Read: How to move for $100

Keep it streamlined
Once you’re done shedding, our experts suggest grouping things and putting them back in the cabinets closest to the areas that you will actually use them.

Box up ahead of time anything that you can live without for a couple of months, Gould says. Put these items in storage or at a friend’s or relative’s house. Don’t just stuff the garage, basement or attic, because potential buyers always look in these places, and a cluttered space doesn’t let them imagine how they would use it.

This is also the time when you can go out shopping and buy those fancy baskets with lids and toy bins to keep everything in its place and out of sight.

But don’t go overboard. After most people declutter, Morgenstern says, there is “a moment of panic” when people question their identity without all of their stuff and frantically start buying replacements, many of which they aren’t so crazy about.

Ultimately, you want to have only things you love in your new house: It’s a new beginning, Morgenstern says, and you don’t want to spend all of your time unloading stuff you don’t love.

Embrace who you are, she says, without all of the stuff. “Don’t just refill.”

 

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