Downsize Me

Declutter your basement or garage, clear your conscience and maybe make a few bucks.

Parting with your old possessions is hard enough. But often it’s more difficult to decide where to send your castoffs, says professional organizer Barry Izsak, of Austin, Tex. Paralyzed by inertia, people turn their garages (or basements or attics) into a purgatory for stuff that awaits a future garage sale, donation, or trip to the recycling center or landfill—but never quite gets to a final resting place. Lest your garage morph into a hoarding hell, we tell you how to declutter successfully, and even hire service providers who will do the heavy lifting for you.

Sell It

If you’re serious about downsizing, goal number one is to get rid of your stuff; making money is secondary. You probably won’t get as much as you think your stuff is worth anyway, says Izsak, and if you donate it, you may be able to take a tax deduction. Place a free classified ad that will run for a week in many large cities and 45 days everywhere else.

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Timesaving tip: Before you bother, see how much competition you have in your category. (For advice on avoiding scams, see Conduct your own online auction for a listing (insertion) fee of up to $2 per item—depending on the starting or reserve price—and, if it sells, 9% of the sale price, up to $50.

Timesaving tip: To see how much buyers will really pay, check “completed listings” for similar items using the advanced search function. EBay can be labor-intensive, and it isn’t a sure thing. Laura Leist, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, says bidders may avoid you if you haven’t earned a rating from other buyers.

EBay trading assistants. Services such as iSold It will help you avoid the hassle of photographing, listing, shipping and arranging payment for your items. It’s free to list an item, but if it sells you pay 33% to 40% of the sale price (with a minimum of $5), as well as related eBay and payment-processing fees (charges vary by location).

Timesaving tip: If you have a houseful of stuff, iSold It will visit your home to help identify the items that are most likely to sell.

Consignment shops. They’re best for clothing, household furnishings and decorative items. You typically get half of the final sale price. The shop will set the price and reduce it over time to move the merchandise.

Timesaving tip: Make sure your stuff is seasonally appropriate and call ahead before you lug it in. Expect shops to be picky because they’re as overrun with castoffs as you are. In Seattle, Leist says, clothing consignment shops typically take only designer-label clothes that are a year or two old and in mint condition.

Garage sales. You’ll have to knock yourself out gathering, sorting and pricing the merchandise, as well as advertising and setting up the sale. How much bric-a-brac and clothing must you sell just to pay for a dinner out?

Timesaving tip: Don’t bother with a garage sale unless you have numerous big-ticket items, says Izsak. You also need to find out whether your homeowners association will allow it (see Garage Sale Tips for Success).

Estate-sale companies. These are best if you have a tight deadline to dispose of a houseful of stuff. They will do the work, including having staff on hand to handle the sale. The usual fee is 40% of the take, although 50% is becoming more common.

Timesaving tip: To find a reputable company, ask for referrals—from a real estate agent or professional organizer—then ask the company for references. It should have a valid business license and provide a detailed contract with a simple explanation of charges and a marketing plan. To clear out a house very quickly, look for a company that will move the goods and sell them at their own location.

Your belongings get a new home, and you get a warm, fuzzy feeling. Plus, you get a tax deduction if you itemize; the IRS lets you deduct the fair market value of donated items. (If your deduction for donated property for the year exceeds $500, you must file Form 8283. Also, you need a receipt from the organization for every batch of items you donate.) Don’t forget to make an itemized list of donated items; you can value them for tax purposes later with Goodwill’s Valuation Guide or “It’s Deductible” (free at

Timesaving tip: Contact a charitable organization that will pick up your stuff (it’ll leave a tax receipt) and put it to work in thrift stores. Two major players that will accept almost anything are Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Veterans organizations that provide a similar service include Amvets, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Junk It

When you have too much debris or waste for trash bags—or for the municipal bulk-pickup serv­ice—but not enough to justify paying for a Dumpster, the Bagster by Waste Management might do the trick. Buy the bag at home-improvement stores (it’s $29.95 at Home Depot). Set it up (it measures 8 feet by 4 feet by 2 feet), fill it to a limit of 3,300 pounds and schedule a pickup. Waste Management will collect the Bagster within three days. You can get an estimate of the collection fee by zip code at; the range of fees nationally is $79 to $159.If you will gladly pay someone to simply cart it away, call a service such as 1-800-Got-Junk or Junk King. They will take almost anything (except hazardous waste) and donate or recycle much of it. You pay by the fraction of a truckload that your junk occupies. You can get an online estimate of cost by zip code, but you’ll need a home visit to confirm. (In northern Virginia, 1-800-Got-Junk would charge $365 for half a truckload, $598 for a full load.)

Timesaving tip: Let the junk companies remove stuff from your home’s hard-to-reach locations, such as the attic or basement.

Recycle It

If you can’t think of someone who might want your stuff, sign up with your local Freecycle group. Once you’ve got a taker, just put it on your front stoop for pickup.

Timesaving tip: On the site, choose the “daily digest” or “Web only” options so your in-box isn’t inundated with members’ offers.

Patricia Mertz Esswein
Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Esswein joined Kiplinger in May 1984 as director of special publications and managing editor of Kiplinger Books. In 2004, she began covering real estate for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, writing about the housing market, buying and selling a home, getting a mortgage, and home improvement. Prior to joining Kiplinger, Esswein wrote and edited for Empire Sports, a monthly magazine covering sports and recreation in upstate New York. She holds a BA degree from Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., and an MA in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.