When the accountant decided to put her enormous six-bedroom Charles Village home up for sale last January, her realty agent gave her strong advice:
Clear out the clutter or the house won't sell, he said in so many words.
Like others in the realty field, the agent knew that accumulations of junk can be a big obstacle in marketing a property. A potential buyer has a hard time appreciating the architectural detail of a home if he can't see past piles of newspapers and rooms crammed with excess furniture, for example.
"Clutter is absolutely a liability because people don't perceive themselves as living in a junkyard and they perceive all your excess stuff as being junk," says Robert Fisher, president of RE/MAX International Inc., the realty chain.
De-junking your home is often an arduous and psychologically painful part of the selling process, realty specialists allow. But it can also be a cleansing process -- liberating you from the burden of unwanted baggage and clearing your way for the move to your new house. As you undertake the de-junking process, it's important to think how a prospective buyer would see your property.
"There's an old saying in real estate that you don't live in your house the same way that you sell your house," Mr. Fisher observes.
For instance, you may be very enamored of the sports trophies that stand on every level surface in your den, the toy bins in your living room or the portrait of Henry the VIII done by your fifth-grader, but the likelihood is that prospective buyers won't share your enthusiasm.
"One person's treasure is another person's junk, or so the old adage goes," Mr. Fisher says.
Take the accountant from Charles Village. For years, she's kept a copper fire extinguisher on the theory that one day it would make a nice lamp. Now that she's selling her property and moving to a smaller place in Rodgers Forge, the fire extinguisher is on her list as an item for disposal or giveaway.
"I'm a terrible pack rat. Now I'm trying very hard to change. I don't want to take my habits to my new house," she says.
De-junking a home shouldn't be as hard as brain surgery. But for several reasons, many people find it a very difficult process, says Stephanie Winston, author of "Getting Organized," published by Warner Books.
Those who lived through the Great Depression often find it especially hard to discard excess material items since they recall a time when old clothes or other tangibles were needed, Ms. Winston points out.
Many others feel desolate when they get rid of their things -- because psychologically their belongings give them a feeling of protection from the world, she contends.
With the task of clutter-clearing such an ordeal for many people, a new breed of consultant has emerged: the home organizer. For an hourly fee, an organizer will help you sort through belongings -- mak- in decisions on what goes in the trash, what goes in the giveaway and what stays. Organizers have even spawned their own professional organization, The National Association of Professional Organizers.
"I'm an objective bystander," says Bonnie Blas, who operates her own Pikesville firm, known as The Organizer, and helps people organize their belongings for a fee of $50 an hour. An independent organizer offers a fresh perspective on old accumulations and can take the blame for things being thrown out if someone in the family needs to point fingers.
Organizers and realty specialists offer these pointers for those needing to de-junk before their homes are put up for sale:
* Concentrate on conspicuous areas of the house -- including the living room and kitchen.
"Stacks of magazines or newspapers are an absolute turnoff to a potential buyer," says Mr. Fisher of RE/MAX. By the same token, a would-be buyer is likely to be put off if he sees an excess number of house plants or ash trays placed throughout the living areas. Cluttered kitchen counter tops also have a negative look about them, he says.
* Give yourself a lot of lead time.
If you've been living in an average-size three-bedroom house for several years and have not been weeding your possessions as you go, for instance, it could easily require three months' worth of weekends before you get your house ready to market, Ms. Winston says.
"Otherwise you'll be in hysterics right before you're scheduled to show the place," she says.
* Break your de-cluttering job into small pieces. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the process, it's wise to attack the task in half-hour increments, at least at the beginning, Ms. Winston says.
Work one room at a time, using a "round-the-clock" method, Ms. Winston suggests. The first day, work only on the "1 o'clock" segment of the room, sorting items one by one. The second day you can proceed to "2 o'clock" and so on.
* As you proceed, use the "three question test" to determine the disposition of each item.
The first question is "Have I used this in the last year?" If the answer is "yes" you'll probably want to keep the item.
If the answer is "no" you'll want to move on to the secon question: "Does it have any real value to me?" The item may be a scruffy leather bag with little monetary value. But if you carried it through the Amazon in 1968 and the trip was the adventure of your life, you may still want to keep it for sentimental reasons.
If, on the other hand, the answer to the second question is "no," move on to the third question. "Will the item come in handy in the near future?" This is where you have to be tough on yourself. Most everything could eventually be put to some use, but the question is whether the item will really be used in the immediate future. Anything else is best discarded, sold at a yard sale or given to a worthy cause.
Ms. Winston asks why save an ordinary rubber ball for yet-to-be-born grandchildren.