Home Economics: Attacking the clutter

Most people seem to keep things they no longer use on the assumption that they or someone else might have need of it someday. (Shutterstock)
Most people seem to keep things they no longer use on the assumption that they or someone else might have need of it someday. (Shutterstock)
Posted: June 16, 2012

"What a dump!"

If Bette Davis' perpetually parodied line from Beyond the Forest (1949) describes any room in your house, you know you have a problem.

With clutter, of course.

No matter how much storage a house has, the supply of stuff always seems to exceed demand by at least two bays of a one-car garage.

We buy new without tossing old. When we do try to cull, we often find that no one wants the old stuff, except, perhaps, for the scavengers who troll the streets the night before trash collection to cart off perceived treasures.

We are not talking about 40-year-old Billy's first-grade papers or similar bits of nostalgia. We're referring to 30-year-old microwaves, deceased air conditioners and 1990s magazines we were planning to read someday.

In other words, junk.

Clutter comes in a variety of flavors. The bitterest is what Realtor Donald Sepety deals with when he lists bank-owned repossessions of foreclosed houses in the Pennsylvania suburbs.

Before he can even begin to list these houses, Sepety, of Prudential Fox & Roach in Collegeville, oftens spends thousands of dollars to have accumulated clutter removed and loaded into Dumpster after Dumpster.

Looking at the quality of what is being removed, Sepety said he remains baffled why these homeowners were able to spend huge amounts of money on things and not be able to make their monthly mortgage payments.

Many mental-health experts suggest that there is a link between depression and clutter, that some people try to create a wall of junk to hide behind.

Most people, however, seem to keep things they no longer use on the assumption that they or someone else might have need of it someday. And those somedays tends to pile up in garages, basements and attics.

Getting rid of a percentage of collected possessions, even if it means filling a Dumpster, is a crucial first step to getting organized, the experts say.

It is hard to do, but it must be done, not only when you are getting ready to sell your house but if you are looking for additional space and cannot afford to add on.

"I tell my sellers that ‘less is more,' and if they don't have immediate need for something, I advise them to store it away," said John B. Badalamenti of Prudential Fox & Roach in Collegeville.

"If they don't have use for something anymore, I advise them to toss it," he said. "I do this by going through each room of the home and suggesting what should stay and what should be put away or removed altogether."

Badalamenti acknowledged that this isn't always easy because sometime there are emotional attachments to certain items, especially if the seller has lived in a home for a number of years.”

In certain cases, he recommends professional organizers who specialize in working with the seller "to help them strategize the process of removing, boxing, discarding and selling or donating their stuff."

A professional organizer can cost $45 to $100 an hour for small businesses and residential clients.

Leslie Robison, principal in Mastery Coaching & Consulting of Harleysville, is a professional organizer, among other things, and she devotes much of her time hand-holding and offering guidance to "the chronically disorganized."

Her services are sought by people preparing to move or remodel their houses, as well as those "who have endured a lot of criticism about the clutter in their lives and are ready to make a change," she said.

It isn't really their fault, said Robison, who charges $80 an hour, adding that it is hard to charge by the job for "interactive organizing because there are too many client variables."

Clutter "is all about boundaries," Robison said. "If everything that drives our economy is about buying, then you have a lot of people who have a hard time controlling their impulse to buy."

Impulse buying feels good, she said. Echoing Sepety's observation about foreclosures, Robison believes that many people "spend themselves broke on impulse."

There is always a life-change involved in a request for her services, Robison said.

"Sometimes you don't learn what it is until four sessions in, when they announce that they are thinking about divorcing their spouse and want to pare down possessions," she said.

Robison calls this a "by the way …."

Children move out or come home, baby on the way, a spouse dies, and similar life-changing events turn thoughts to reducing possessions.

In addition, television shows like The Hoarders "have raised awareness of the degrees of ownership of stuff," she said.

"People call me, say they've watched the show, and they say they are concerned that they are heading that way," Robison said.

She acknowledges that she operates somewhat differently from other organizers.

"My focus is the person behind the clutter," she said, "and the first step is a telephone interview. If someone just wants a garage decluttered, I can do it, but the person has to be involved."

Step Two is the half-hour she calls the "vent visit," when she allows the prospective client to let it all out "to provide insight into what the person is dealing with — marital issues, space needs or building bookcases."

Often, her recommendation is hiring a decorator or closet builders, or seeing a marriage counselor.

Robison recommends starting in closets, garages and attics "where stuff has ripened and is easier to let go."

Children tend to let things go more easily than parents. She won't let parents into the room "because they tend to remind the kids that the sweater was a gift from an aunt."

If developing a strategy for organization is what is needed, Robison determines whether she and the client can work together and how many sessions it might take.

"It depends on the amount of time they can devote to it and how often they can meet," she said.

Sometimes it can take a year, even if there are two sessions a week.

"It depends on how emotional they are," she said.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or@alheavens at Twitter.

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