Going Minimal – Tips to Declutter for Real Estate and for Your Life

Sometimes tips for selling a property turn out to be valuable in our daily lives as well. For many, that’s very true of decluttering. One common mistake sellers make when listing their home is to try to sell it in the same condition they currently live in. While that may work well for a highly organized, minimalist seller, it is not a great strategy for about 99.9% of the rest of us. Most of us live with too much stuff! When a buyer walks into a cluttered home, it can be an instant turn-off. Some homeowners see trying to declutter as a chore. In fact, doing a great job decluttering can not only feel extremely liberating, it can also be financially rewarding with a quick sale and a strong sales price. Read on, and I will help get you started with optimizing your real estate sale and maybe your sanity in the same process.

declutter after
A pretty ideal declutter job – tasteful furniture, a few decorative color accents and nice open and bright spaces

Before You Declutter – Plan

Let’s start with the basics. Although you can imagine dozens of perfect destinations for your excess goods, trying to designate the ideal recipient for each item can quickly make decluttering unrealistic, overwhelming and intensely time consuming. Instead, keep it simple. Determine three to four separate categories for everything you are not keeping and set aside space for each in your home (or if they are hard to move, label them):

1) Trash / Recycle – For anything broken, worn out, expired and of no use to you or anyone else, discard it.
2) Donate – Ideally, you’ll want a single charity that will accept most or all of what you want to donate. Some will even pick it all up for you.
3) Sell – Selling can be a hassle and time-consuming. Whether it’s via garage sale, ebay or Craigslist, I would recommend this option only if you have extra time and if it won’t derail you from the task at hand. Even if you do a yard sale, you will probably have a bunch of things left over.
4) Storage – Depending on your circumstances, storing some of your belongings might make sense. This is especially true if you have valuable items you don’t want to donate and don’t have the time or inclination to sell. Storage can also be in the house. . . if it’s something you need while living there, try tucking it out of the way neatly in a drawer or cupboard (only after determining if you really still need it). Consider choosing paid storage carefully – you don’t want storage to be a way to procrastinate decisions you’ll need to make in the near future anyway.

The Declutter Cut List – How to Evaluate What Stays and What Goes

Even a mess like this can be tackled with a plan

You will want to keep a couple things in mind here. First, if you are a skilled interior designer, home stager or just have amazing taste, then you MAY be qualified to determine what should stay and what should go. However, even if any of those descriptions apply to you, it’s possible you’re too emotionally invested to determine what might help or hinder your declutter efforts. I recommend consulting with your real estate agent and/or a designer / home stager to help you determine what should go. Although I will focus on smaller items in much of this article, it’s often the largest furniture or the quantity of furniture that can impact how your home shows to potential buyers. Less is more when it comes to the furniture (and the declutter process in general). Chances are you’ll want to remove several pieces just to open up the flow of the space. However don’t go completely vacant either – you want some furniture to provide a sense of scale and to make the space feel welcoming. Furniture can help define spaces as well. If you prefer to maximize appeal, you may want to read and watch my article and video on staged vs unstaged homes.

Once you have a plan for the furniture, it’s time to start the declutter process for everything else. I recently watched a documentary called Minimalism, focused on two guys that call themselves The Minimalists. One takeaway from that film was the concept that if something doesn’t bring you joy, to get rid of it. That’s a great guideline, however chances are there are things that bring you joy that probably should still be put away while you are selling your home. Sorry!

Get Rid of Anything That’s Not Decor

There will likely be exceptions to this, but as a general rule everything that isn’t actually furniture or decor should go. Toiletries, paper towel rolls, kitchen implements, mail, dishes, office supplies, books/magazines, clothing, trash bins, personal electronics, and toys should all be tucked away somewhere neatly.

decluttering with kids
If you have kids, neatly arranged bins are your new friend to help declutter toys

If you have young children, consider coming up with a storage bin solution for at least keeping toys out of sight. Parents seeking to declutter face special challenges. I periodically ask my daughters if they have any toys they feel like another needy child might appreciate. Occasionally they say yes and we’re able to donate some of the toy surplus.

Now, Cut Some of the Decor Too

Just when you thought all your decorations were safe, I’ll suggest you’ll likely want to remove much of your decor too. If you have more than one decoration on any normal-sized wall, there’s a good chance you’ll want to remove all but the most visually appealing wall decor item on that wall. If you have more than one or two decorations on any single flat surface like a counter, table, fireplace mantle, etc. it’s time to designate them to the trash / donate / sell or storage piles. I also recommend removing family photos, decor with religious themes and anything edgy enough to offend potential buyers. You want buyers imagining themselves in your home, not being distracted figuring out who currently owns the home from your photos, how your religious views might differ, etc.

Closets

declutter closet
Declutter does not have to equal getting rid of everything. Despite a lot of clothing, this closet still impresses thanks to a clutter-free approach

Do you think buyers will respect your privacy and not look in closed closets? Think again! Storage is important to people, so whether it’s a cupboard, coat closet or a walk-in, expect buyers to open and inspect them. Chances are if you were a buyer, you would want to know closet sizes as well. For that reason, even your storage should look good. My rule of thumb (courtesy of my brilliant wife) is if I haven’t worn it in the last year, it gets donated. That applies to shoes, shirts, jackets – everything in the closet. This task will be easier for some than others. As you clear out space, make sure to group like items together for a neater appearance (shirts with shirts, pants with pants, shoes with shoes, etc). Matching hangers help, along with neat folding of anything not hanging in the closet. If you manage to whittle down your closet to the point where everything has some breathing room, congrats! If you are looking to maintain that level of neatness long term, the policy I use is that anytime I purchase new clothing, I need to donate an equal amount of clothing. Assuming you periodically shop for clothes, this has the added benefit of keeping your wardrobe and style relatively fresh.

Declutter Pro Tip – Cut the Duplicates

If you have duplicates of things you never use to begin with, those are easy declutter targets

Another thing to consider throughout your decluttering process is what you have duplicates of. For me, I realized I had about 30 pens in various places. I now have one pen on my home office desk, one pen at my office and one pen in my briefcase (along with a spare for times when two people might be signing documents at the same time). The result, a much more tidy desk and desk drawers. For another client of mine, the duplicates were audio, video and power cables. He literally had a full-sized trash can filled with nothing but cables. For you it might be shoes, or kitchen knives, or t-shirts. Take a mental inventory of what you own. For anything you have more than a half dozen of, ask yourself how many you truly need.

Still not Ready to Declutter?

If things still sound overwhelming, here are a couple more tips to get you moving. Start small. Pick a single room or even a closet and tackle that first. You may find the process so rewarding that you will be energized to continue on to other spaces in your home. If all else fails, there are actually decluttering pros that can help you with this process. They range from organizational specialists to interior designers. Do a Google search for “declutter” in your city and you’ll likely find several experts to consider.

Although it’s one success to declutter, staying that way is a whole new challenge. Being mindful about what you allow into your home can help. Think carefully about purchases and whether they will solve a problem for you or if they will truly bring you joy. Finally, keep in mind, clutter begins with just one thing. While you’re selling your home (and maybe in general), a good mantra might be a place for everything, and everything in its place. Staying disciplined with minimizing clutter can translate to financial benefits in a home sale, and peace of mind even after you sell a home.

marc lyman san diego realtor

About Marc Lyman

Marc Lyman grew up in Silicon Valley where he was exposed to the nuances of the real estate business at a young age. He graduated from UC San Diego in 1995 with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Psychology. His studies were followed by the launch of multiple businesses, including a popular online home publication. The latter has made Marc a sought-after media personality and home expert.