Decluttering and minimizing a lifetime of possessions is a major component of any home downsizing project. It is probably the most grueling and difficult part of any downsizing. So, there will be a series of posts on this issue each geared to for particular phases of a clean out. In this post, I will suggest 4 simple decluttering hacks that are designed to jump-start the process. This first set of 4 home decluttering hacks was stumbled upon when I was cleaning out the family home following my mother’s death. I wish I could say I came by these tips because of my brilliant organizational skills. The truth is that I stumbled blindly over them during the process. Like most good advice on this topic, they are pretty much the product of trial and error…
Now I know that most people on this site are looking to downsize their homes and not liquidate everything in their home. But if you’ve been living in the same place for a number of years, and are moving to smaller quarters, the same basic principles and process will apply.
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Cleaning out my family home of three generations…
My first major clean-out happened when my mother passed away following a long illness. Even though she had been ill for several years, her death was sudden and a shock to us all. I was still bowled over by grief when I needed to start the cleanout. It was a large home with three generations of accumulated memories. The family home had over 65 years of accumulated memories and “stuff”, 85% of which was the product of the two notorious hoarders in the family, my mother, and my grandfather. Since I was an only child, the task of clearing everything out rested on my shoulders and mine alone.
4 very basic home decluttering hacks…
As stated in the introduction. These 4 decluttering hacks apply to the initial culling process. They may seem ridiculously basic, but downsizing is complicated, so keeping things simple is very important. These tips will help keep you on track and prevent you from getting bogged down.
Decluttering hack #1 – Your family is not interested in acquiring any more stuff…
The stuff that has accumulated in the family home is the problem of whoever is charged with clearing it out. You aren’t going to be able to “offload” items you don’t wish to say goodbye to with to other family members. They already have basements, garages, and attics crammed to the gunnels. No matter how much my family loved us, they had no interest in acquiring any of the accumulated stuff that was breaking my heart to discard.
When I began this journey, I was hoping that some family member would want some of our prized china or perhaps even my mother’s demitasse spoon collection. What about that special throw blanket my Grandmother knitted by hand? Wouldn’t someone be interested in my father’s massive collection of LP’s from the big band era? How about the cut glass bowls and the gold foil decorative centerpieces or the plethora of silver candlesticks that seemed to be just about everywhere? No, no, and no. There were no takers for any of that stuff.
This is more the rule than the exception. As famous lifestyle columnist Marni Jameson explains to downsizers in her definitive guide on this subject, Downsizing the Family Home: What to Keep and What to Let Go, “Your kids don’t want your stuff”.
It took me a long time to come around because I didn’t want to face the awful truth. But the answer had been crystal clear all along. If I couldn’t take it with me, it was going to have to be sold, tossed, or donated. Accepting that this is the way it’s going to be from the get-go will save you a lot of hand-wringing and time. Your family members are not going to “come around” and want that Grandfather clock you’ve been trying to push on them.
Decluttering hack #2 – Your “treasures” are not worth as much as you think…
I’ve seen so many clients fall into this trap and I understand it all too well because I fell down this rabbit hole all too many times myself.
My family had been collectors for years and some of the items in the home had acquired a status that was the stuff of legends. The family house was something of a museum, chock full of objet d’art. I knew that I had some valuables on my hands, but sorting out what was valuable and pricing it right turned out to be no easy task in those pre-email/pre-digital imaging days.
Among other things, I got assessments on a massive Saruk rug, 3 Favrile Tiffany vases, Stuben glass, and a couple of mine-cut diamond rings. They all had value, but nowhere near what I had been told to expect. There was also that “famous” micro-mosaic gold snuff box that supposedly was Napoleon’s (no, I’m not kidding – it was a family legend passed down in a letter that was kept with the box).
The estimates that came back to me seemed shockingly low. Just beneath the surface, was the gnawing feeling that I might be getting ripped off. But the pricing did seem to be remarkably consistent between all the dealers I contacted.
Special advice to people who do have more than a few valuable pieces to dispose of …
Later, as I moved into real estate sales more and more, I came to realize that the above scenario is the rule, not the exception. In her book on downsizing, Marni Jameson quotes Gary Sullivan – of Antiques Roadshow fame...
I’m forever hearing people say this is worth such and such and placing a value on an item far greater than what it would ever be sold for…I’m the bearer of bad news before I’m the bearer of good news. – Gary Sullivan
My advice to those who have several such objects in their homes is to have these items professionally evaluated. If the price seems low, get a second opinion. In some unusual situations, a third opinion might be in order. But bear in mind that all of this takes time. Husband your energies and don’t chase family urban legends of hidden treasure into the ground. If you get two opinions within a similar range, chances are, that’s what the article is worth.
There is an entire chapter devoted to the sale and pricing of valuables in Marni Jameson’s book, Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go. The stories she relates and the depth of information go way beyond the scope of this blog.
Decluttering hack #3 – Keep it simple – at least during the initial culling phase…
When I dove into the sorting process I decided to go room by room and created five piles for each room. They were:
- Not Sure
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was too many piles! I spent way too much time trying to differentiate between toss, sell, or donate. Within a few days I had revised my plan to a three-pile system:
- Not Sure
This was much better for phase 1. Ok, so the “Not Sure” pile in each room was always the biggest pile. But this was just phase 1. The point here is to make progress. The pile of things that you are going to get rid of is an important first step. The next steps do get harder, but the first steps are key to getting to those harder steps.
Later, after culling through the “Not Sure” pile a few more times, the “Discard” pile did get bigger. That’s when I split “Discard” up into the three original categories (“Toss”, “Donate”, “Sell”).
The point here is to obey the cardinal law of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). If you keep each step simple, you will make progress. Make it harder than it needs to be and you will get bogged down.
I wound up investing in packing boxes and had 3 working in each room at all times. When a box got filled, I added another. I used post-it notes (color coded) to label the boxes which were easily switched out as the need arose. This really helped in organizing the piles. I highly recommend that you do something of this nature because when I didn’t, it was chaos.
Decluttering Tip #4 – Do the easy stuff first…
This was the advice everyone gave me which I promptly ignored. There was something in my head that seemed to need the accomplishment of scoring a difficult room from day one. I stupidly started in the kitchen. The kitchen was literally crammed to the brim with so much stuff it would make almost anyone’s head spin. Tons of flatware from two separate households, stoneware, fine china, and enough pots and pans to fill a restaurant was only scratching the surface. There was also a massive pantry closet with so many things crammed in the back of it, that I was almost scared at what I might find. Then there were vases and centerpieces, platters and punchbowls. You name it, we had it.
Worse still, everything was literally everywhere. There was no organization beyond what was generally used for day-to-day meals. Beyond that, it was a wilderness of free association. So putting together the sets of flatware and china was sheer torture.
Don’t do this to yourself. Learn from my mistake and start with something easy. The sense of accomplishment will help you move on to the next task. I should have started with my own belongings. That would have cleared out a room in short order and I would have been able to say “One down, nine to go. I’m 10% there!”
Bonus decluttering tip – Marni Jameson’s book, Downsizing the Family Home…
If you are serious about downsizing your home, to a significantly smaller footprint, you might want to invest in Marni Jameson’s book, Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go.
Marni Jameson is well-known and loved lifestyle columnist who writes about the home. Besides this book and her columns, she has authored two other books about the home (House of Havoc and The House Always Wins). Both are all about creating a wonderful home space despite real-world constraints and limited budgets.
I’ve been reading Downsizing the Family Home, and find it a very down-to-earth guide on the realities of downsizing and clearing out a home that has been in the family for a decade or more. It is chock-o-block full of great anecdotes that humanize the process as well as information that can make the entire experience much easier. There are chapters on
- Estate Sales
- Pricing Valuables
- Tips from professionals
- And so much more…
I wish I had had this resource when I was tackling my mother’s house. There is also an accompanying workbook that can be purchased for those who want to work through the process in a more formal way.
I will be recommending other books on these topics, but for the initial stages of a home clean-out, this one really stood out.
Remember that this is a process and taking it step-by-step is the best way to make headway. This is a case of divide and conquer. The best way to think about it is in terms of a flow chart rather than multi-tasking. If you try to do too many things at once, you will accomplish nothing. I know that in some cases there is time pressure. This can be a good thing. Time constraints push us to complete tasks we don’t want to do. But that makes it all the more important to have an organized game plan. Even with time constraints, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
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