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The Complete Guide to Decluttering

Spending a lot of time at home? What better time to get organized?

The urge to purge our homes of clutter comes naturally in springtime, and we may feel it more urgently this year, as we hunker down and shelter in place. Tackling a decluttering project doesn’t just clear your closets, basement or garage of stuff you no longer need and let you check off a major item on your to-do list. In times like these, when the world is full of uncertainty and anxiety, decluttering can also give you a sense of control—and even help reduce stress. In a 2019 spring-cleaning survey sponsored by OfferUp, a resale website, almost two-thirds of respondents said they felt de-stressed after decluttering.

“We bring things into our world to enrich our quality of life, until one day we realize that the multitude of possessions is actually detracting from our life,” says Mindy Godding, a professional organizer in Richmond, Va.

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If you subscribe to the philosophy of Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying guru, decluttering can also bring life changes and joy. People who have followed the KonMari Method say they have not only dramatically reorganized their homes but also quit jobs, launched businesses, increased their sales at work, avoided a divorce (or obtained one) and even shed excess weight (see Can Tidying Up Change Your Life?). Still, no single organizing strategy will work for everyone.

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Decluttering requires a lot of decision-making. For each item, you must decide: Should I keep it or not? If I keep it, where should it go? If I don’t keep it, will I hand it down, or should I sell, donate, recycle or trash it? Below are tips from three pros on how to stay on track and avoid getting overwhelmed.

Some of the usual methods for disposing of unwanted stuff may be unavailable or require workarounds for now. Most municipalities, businesses and charitable organizations have prominently displayed COVID updates on their websites. You can use the down time to research and tentatively schedule options for help and disposal.

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Waste collection companies have faced a surge in the volume of trash, as residential customers spend more time at home, declutter and catch up on yardwork. Republic Services, which operates in 41 states, said that in some communities it would limit the amount of trash and recycling it picks up, and would suspend yard or bulk waste pickups. Before you toss stuff to the curb, check with your municipality or trash collector.

If you must hang on to discards until better times come again, Amy Tokos, of Freshly Organized, in Omaha, Neb., recommends choosing a spot in your home that’s accessible and infrequently used, but not so hidden away that you’ll forget about it. Godding suggests setting a to-do reminder on your phone or calendar for a few months from now.

Stashing stuff in a self-storage unit somewhere else often kicks the can of decision-making down the road, and rent can add up. However, a mobile storage unit delivered to your property may be a good, in-your-face alternative. For example, a container from PODS in Northern Virginia cost from $179 to $209 per month, depending on size.

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If you anticipate a move, or you’re preparing an elderly parent’s house for sale, the sooner you start winnowing belongings, the better. “However long people think it will take [to sort through a whole house of possessions], they should quadruple the time, especially if they’ve lived there for longer than 10 years,” says senior move manager Marty Stevens-Heebner, of Clear Home Solutions, in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Waiting until the last minute or, worse, a crisis (Mom needs to move to assisted living now) makes for hasty—and wasteful—decisions.

Sell Your Stuff

“If the price is right, anything can be sold,” says Julie Hall, director of the American Society of Estate Liquidators and owner of The Estate Lady, in Charlotte, N.C. But your stuff probably isn’t worth what you imagine, nor what you originally paid for it—even if you carefully tended it over the years. The resale market is glutted with stuff from previous generations and will become more so as baby boomers age.

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To see what items may be worth, look at recent “sold” listings of the same or similar items on online auction site eBay.com. Or hire a personal property appraiser to assess items you think may be valuable and identify others you overlooked. Search for accredited personal-property appraisers by location and specialty at www.appraisers.org. Fees may range from $200 to $400 per hour, depending on expertise and location. Ask appraisers about their credentials (such as accreditation from the American Society of Appraisers, the International Society of Appraisers or the Appraisers Association of America) and how long they’ve conducted appraisals.

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Facebook members can create a public listing on Facebook Marketplace or join or create a yard sale group that’s exclusive to neighbors or town residents. Local marketplace websites and free apps for Android and iPhone include 5Miles.com, Letgo.com, Nextdoor.com and OfferUp.com. If you can, use person-to-person payment methods, such as PayPal or Venmo.

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If you have old tech devices or media lying around, get a free, instant valuation at Decluttr.com. It will even pay you for Legos by the pound. Box your stuff and ship it with a prepaid label. You’ll be paid within a day of the warehouse receiving and processing your items.

To sell clothing, shoes and accessories, try Poshmark.com (it charges a flat fee of $2.95 for listings under $15 and 20% of the sale on orders of $15 or more) or Tradesy.com (a flat fee of $7.50 for sold items less than $50; a commission of 19.8% on sold items of $50 or more). Both provide a prepaid shipping label; Tradesy provides a box, too.

Because of the coronavirus, online sales sites may give sellers more time to ship their items to buyers. You can schedule a home pickup from the U.S. Postal Service for free or from UPS for a small surcharge, but UPS suspended its money-back service guarantee.

Use a Middleman

Most consignment shops have closed temporarily. Some owners are using the time to launch online stores, says Bonnie Kallenberg, owner of Finders Keepers Consignments, in suburban Atlanta, and former president of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (click on “Listing of NARTS Member Stores”).

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When consignment shops reopen, they’ll typically sell your items in return for 30% to 40% of the sale price. With the glut of supply, they’re pickier than ever about what merchandise they will accept. So bring your best stuff, in season and in great condition, says Kallenberg. Most shops set a maximum number of items they will consider at one time. They generally mark down unsold items after 30 days and donate them after 60 days unless you pick them up.

In the clothing category, Kallenberg says jeans and T-shirts are hot, as is designer workout wear, such as from Lululemon. Antiques don’t sell as well as they once did, and buyers expect to pay used-furniture prices for them. Furniture in the Midcentury Modern style, as well as from retailers such as Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware and West Elm, are popular. Kallenberg says she can’t give away 1980s furniture, huge sofas, china cabinets, entertainment armoires, or china or crystal. But Christmas is huge in resale, and Kallenberg begins taking those items after Labor Day.

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At thredUP.com you can consign good-quality clothing, shoes and accessories without leaving home. It will send you a prepaid “clean-out bag” to ship your items for consideration. Use its “Payout Estimator” to see what your items may earn. You’ll receive 5% to 15% of sold items that fetch $5 to $20 and as much as 80% for sold items of $200 or more. ThredUP typically accepts less than 40% of the clothing it receives. Unless you pay for the site to return your unsold items, thredUP will sell them to third parties, or donate or recycle them.

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To sell a houseful of belongings quickly, an estate sale is the way to go. “What took you decades to put together, we’ll undo in 10 days or less,” says Hall, with a week to set up and two or three days for the sale. Most companies set a minimum estimated sale of $3,000 to $10,000 and charge between 30% to 40% of the proceeds. To find a liquidator, visit the website of the American Society of Estate Liquidators or ask for a referral from your real estate agent, professional organizer, senior move manager or estate-planning attorney. In early April, ASEL suggested its members postpone estate sales but said they must make their own decisions based on state laws.

Donate, Recycle or Toss

Most nonprofit thrift shops that accept donations, such as those operated by Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and the Salvation Army, stopped accepting used goods for now. The Purple Heart Foundation and Vietnam Veterans of America temporarily discontinued all home pickups. (The Salvation Army said some of its locations would still accept drop-off donations.) In early April, Planet Aid, which sponsors 19,000 bright yellow bins, mostly in the East, announced that it was temporarily suspending its operations in selected states.

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Nonprofits request that your donated items be gently used, clean and in working order. Check a thrift shop’s website, or call for guidance on what they will accept. In the meantime, don’t leave boxes or bags of donated items outside a store or bin without checking that goods will be collected.

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Not all street-side bins are sponsored by a nonprofit organization. Goodwill says the following information should be posted on the bin: the name and logo of the benefiting organization, a mission statement, a description of how the sale of donations will fund the mission and the percentage of sales that are contributed, and contact details for questions and a tax receipt. (For rules on deducting donations on your tax return, see below.)

If you have items that are too far gone for donation, recycle them. To find a recipient for just about anything, visit Earth911.com. Call or check websites to verify that recycling facilities are accepting deliveries. (Best Buy, which ordinarily accepts outdated or broken electronics and small appliances, has suspended its recycling program.)

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If worse comes to worst, junk haulers are still haulin’. In early April, 1-800-Got-Junk offered “No Contact Junk Removal Service,” which allows it to provide an estimate, remove junk and receive payment without any direct contact with customers. Or, you can buy a Bagster, a “dumpster in a bag” ($30 from Amazon.com, HomeDepot.com and Bedbathandbeyond.com). It holds 3 cubic yards and up to 3,300 pounds of nonhazardous waste. Schedule pickup online at www.thebagster.com/products/collection_service.aspx, where you can search by zip code to find out what collection will cost. In Northern Virginia, one Bagster costs $175 for pickup.

Take a Tax Deduction

If you itemize deductions on your federal tax return, make a detailed list of donated items and attach it to a receipt from the organization. You can estimate the fair market value of your donated items, on which tax deductions for noncash donations are based, by using prices on resale sites (such as eBay’s listing of sold items), the Salvation Army’s “Donation Value Guide” or Intuit’s “ItsDeductible” program or app (for Apple devices only). You must provide a description of noncash donations that exceed $500 in value on Form 8283. Items worth more than $5,000 require an appraisal.

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Even in uncertain times, nonprofits still strive to continue their mission, and even if they can’t accept your goods, they’ll welcome your cash contribution. Plus, the federal stimulus legislation includes two tax provisions that reward people who donate to charity (see How the Stimulus Package Could Help Your Finances).

Hire Help?

If decluttering all by your lonesome won’t work, consider hiring a professional organizer or a senior move manager. They’ll help you set goals, create a plan, keep you focused, provide a team of helpers and even deal with discards.

To find a professional organizer, visit the website of the National Association of Professional Productivity and Organizing Professionals (click on “Find a Pro”). Download a copy of “A Hiring Guide.” Professional organizers may charge $30 to $80 an hour or by the project or package of services.

Most NAPO members have suspended in-home services, although many members work with movers to provide such services as packing up and setting up homes. Those members may still be working, even in stay-at-home states.

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Some professional organizers are working virtually with clients. However, you must be willing and able to do your homework without someone literally standing in the room with you, says Mindy Godding, a professional organizer in Richmond, Va.

If you or your parents are down-sizing or anticipating a move, or you just want help decluttering, a senior move manager can help, with emphasis on the needs of older clients and their adult children. Look for a member of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM). Download the “Guide to Rightsizing and Relocation,” which includes advice on hiring and working with a senior move manager. You’ll typically pay $40 to $125 an hour.

Although many senior move managers in stay-at-home states weren’t working in early April, some were still on the job because a move is considered an essential service in many states, says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of NASMM.

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