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If you took the time to count every item in the average American household at the rate of one item per second, you would be counting continuously for nearly three and a half days. And if you’re reading this article, the home you are looking to declutter and sell is at risk of being above the 300,000 item average.
Whether you’re selling the home you’ve been in for decades, or are facing an unexpected sale due to the death of a loved one, settling assets in a divorce, or getting out from underneath a mound of debt, the task of decluttering prior to a sale may feel daunting. But it doesn’t have to be.
Welcome to the ultimate guide for how to clean out your home before you list it for sale. We’ll break down the process into simple, tried-and-true steps based on our research, and the expertise of decluttering and staging expert Joy Metten, owner of The Joy Of Staging, and Stephanie Nash, a 25-year real estate veteran who sells homes 46% quicker than the average agent in her area.
Ground zero: getting started when you don’t know where to start
For the 1967 Apollo mission to the moon, it took about 55% of the total fuel for the entire mission to travel the first 0.03% of the journey. The remaining 45% of the fuel propelled the spacecraft over 230,000 miles (over 99% of the total distance) to safely land on the moon.
Literally, getting started was more than half the battle.
When you’re approaching a house full of stuff, the prospect of getting it to a clean, list-ready state may seem as unapproachable as reaching the moon. Before you embark on your decluttering journey, follow this prelaunch checklist:
1. Get clear on your timeframe
The first forward step is to identify the timeframe that you have to sell the home in order to work backward to set appropriate, manageable goals to tackle the work.
According to a report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR), as of December 2021, the average home was listed on the market for 19 days before going under contract, with ICE Mortgage Technology reporting an average of 51 days to close on a home purchase. Using this data for an example timeframe, if your goal is to sell the home in 90 days, you may only have a little less than three weeks to prepare your home for sale to meet this deadline.
2. Break the work into small, attainable chunks
Instead of approaching the task as a single, huge project to declutter the entire house, approach it as dozens of smaller, attainable tasks. Metten suggests, “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, focus on one room at a time, or even one space at a time. For example, in the master bathroom, start with just the walk-in closet and focus on that. Take it a small chunk at a time, instead of walking around the whole house and thinking it’s never going to get done.”
For example, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house could be broken down into 20 bite-sized chunks:
- 3 bedroom closets
- 3 bedrooms
- 2 bathrooms
- 1 linen closet
- 1 kitchen (pantry and drawers)
- 1 kitchen (cupboards and surfaces)
- 1 dining room
- 1 entry / coat closet
- 1 living room
- 1 family room
- 1 laundry area
- 1 utility closet
- 1 under-the-stairs storage closet
- 1 garage (storage areas)
- 1 garage (main area)
3. Write out a checklist that you can cross off
Now that you know your timeframe and you’ve broken the task into bite-sized chunks, you can create a time-bound checklist to guide you and keep you on track. For example, if you have 20 days to declutter the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in the example above, you can write out each of the 20 areas next to each day and accomplish one a day.
Research published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology shows that just the act of writing out and checking off goals can significantly increase productivity. Additionally, regularly and consistently checking off short-term goals has been shown to release dopamine, which increases the desire to keep going to check off more items on the list.
4. Manage your expectations: the home should be presentable, not perfect
Now that you’ve got a checklist and you’re ready to get to work, pause and take a quick breath. At this stage, too many eager sellers dive in with the hopes of getting the house to a like-new state. According to Nash, the goal is to “make the home presentable, first for photos, and then for showings.”
Similarly, Metten stresses that “buyers want to see a home that is comfortable and lived in, as opposed to being too empty or sterile.” Ultimately, this is good news that can help you stay focused on the goal.
The presale countdown: steps for decluttering any space
When you walk into the first area you’ve chosen to clean out, follow this systematic process to stay productive and efficient:
1. Create a strict sorting system for what to toss, donate, sell, or keep
As you enter the first room on your checklist, be prepared for an emotional experience. No matter the reason you’re selling the home, you’ve already got a lot on your emotional plate. Research and our experts agree that our emotional attachment to our stuff is one of the biggest barriers to successfully decluttering.
If you or other family members involved are struggling with this emotional attachment, you should consider hiring a professional to create an objective system that you can follow. According to Metten, “The nice thing about having a professional come in is that they can assess the situation without the emotional baggage.” Having a system you can follow helps remove emotions from the equation.
We recommend the following three-category sorting system:
- Trash — any item you haven’t used in over a year that no one would pay for or want
- Donate or sell — any item you haven’t used in over a year that someone would pay for
- Keep and box up — any item you have used in the last year, but not for three to six months
- Keep and stage — any item that you use on a daily or weekly basis
2. Trash or recycle what you don’t use and others won’t use
Depending on the amount of stuff and size of your project, you may need to do a bit of planning to throw away or recycle your unused, obsolete items responsibly.
For everyday items:
- Purchase large, durable trash bags to fill and place with your curbside trash
- Contact your waste management to ask about an extra pickup
For an excessive amount or large items:
- Rent a truck or trailer to haul items to your local dump
- Rent a temporary dumpster
- Consider hiring a junk removal service
For items that require special care:
- Make sure you know which items can’t go in the garbage, such as paint or batteries
- Check your city or state’s website for specialty recycling resources
- Take extra care for disposing of any hazardous waste
For items that can be recycled or need to be disposed of properly, you can find handy search tools online, such as earth911.com.
Be careful to NOT throw away the following items (especially when cleaning out for a deceased relative):
- Important documents
- Wills and trust documents
- Real estate deeds and titles
- Insurance policies
- Bank statements
- Stock certificates
- 401(k) or other retirement account records
- Tax returns and receipts
- Power of attorney documents
- Burial trusts
- Military service records
- Special sentimental items and family heirlooms (Consider asking if other family members want them)
- Vintage or antique items that may have unexpected value
3. Donate or sell what you haven’t used, but others will
Just because something has value, doesn’t mean it’s valuable for you to hang on to it. If you haven’t used it in a year, it might be time to let it go to someone else. This is also a great chance to get some extra cash or even tax write-offs for your donations.
There are many ways to find a new home for these items:
- Drop off items at your local thrift store
- Donate building materials to non-profits such as the Habitat for Humanity Store
- Donate or even sell gently used clothing
- Sell items on online marketplaces, such as Craigslist or other alternatives
- Host a garage or yard sale (approach this idea with caution)
- Host an estate sale (in the event of a deceased parent or family member)
4. Box up and remove what you have used, but not recently
Pack away items that you use infrequently and likely won’t need while your house sells. In this step, don’t overlook larger items or furniture that will make a big difference in making the space feel more spacious.
Items to consider boxing up and packing away include:
- Books and bookshelves
- Coffee tables and side tables
- Off-season clothing and extra dressers
- Extra dining chairs
- Specialty kitchen appliances, such as an ice-cream maker or waffle iron
- Personal decorations, especially if they are niche
- Family pictures and non-neutral artwork
- Infrequently-used entertainment items such as board games, toys, and movies
There are multiple options for storing these boxed-up items. You can consider a short-term storage facility, peer-to-peer storage options such as Neighbor, or even asking friends and family if they have extra space.
Although it may seem logical, resist the urge to store your boxes in your own storage spaces. “Buyers like to see that there is ample storage in the home so that there’s room for their stuff,” advises Metten.
The rapid launch: what to clean out when selling “as is”
In some cases, you may want to consider selling the home “as is”, especially in situations where you value timing and expending less energy and focus on the sale over getting a certain purchase price. In an “as is” sale, the seller clearly labels the home as such, and buyers come in with the expectation to purchase the home in its current condition.
In this situation, whether you clean out the home is a matter of negotiation between you and the potential buyer. You can choose to sell the home “as is” and not remove any of the belongings, and if the buyer agrees you can stipulate this in the purchase contract.
If you’re looking to sell your home as quickly as possible, you can request a cash offer through HomeLight’s Simple Sale platform. With Simple Sale, you could sell your home in as little as 10 days without making repairs, holding open houses or paying agent fees and listing costs.
If you’re curious what your home might be worth right now, try HomeLight’s Home Value Estimator to get a ballpark estimate in less than two minutes. Our home value estimator uses information from multiple sources to create a real-time home value estimate based on current market trends.
Frequently asked questions: answered by the experts
1. What’s the biggest mistake people make when cleaning out a home?
According to Nash, one of the biggest mistakes sellers make is underestimating the project and procrastinating. This leaves sellers scrambling and stressed when it comes time to take photos and show the home. “Sometimes, we’ve literally had to go room by room to help them box things up to even make them presentable for photos,” explains Nash.
2. How often is clutter a problem for someone selling their home?
“Probably 70% of the time,” Metten explains, “having too much stuff or clutter is an obstacle to selling the home.” Metten explains that in most cases, sellers are able to tackle the clutter in two to four weeks to get it clean enough to list. But in some cases, an immense amount of clutter in the home delayed sellers from listing their home for several months.
3. Where do you recommend starting when cleaning out a home?
Nash always recommends that sellers start in the kitchen and go from there. “That’s where you accumulate the most stuff that’s not in use,” Nash explains. “People have a lot of infrequently-used dishware and appliances in the kitchen and decorations on the counters and above the cabinets.“ Other experts recommend starting in the bathroom because it’s usually the smallest room in the house.
Ready for liftoff: get ready for a successful sale
Just as mankind has accomplished amazing feats, such as landing on the moon, you can get to the point where your home is ready to show off and attract potential buyers. You can overcome the hurdle of getting started by setting small and achievable goals within your time window. Once you get started, one area at a time, you’ll increase your motivation by seeing your progress along the way.
By following the tips in this guide, you can also potentially see up to a 3-5% increase in your home’s value when it comes time to sell. According to Nash, “By doing the work to declutter and stage your home well you’ll have a lot more showings by widening the interested buyer pool.”
Partnering with an experienced real estate agent will make the entire process easier. Use HomeLight’s Agent Match to find a top agent who can help you identify the best resources in your area to clean out your home and get the value that you deserve.
Header Image Source: (Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock)