- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

With the last day of summer just around the corner, it’s a good time for homeowners to organize and declutter their homes as they prepare to spend more time indoors. For homeowners considering putting their homes up for sale, organizing efforts can pay off big.

With so many homes on the market, Realtors say a messy house will not sell quickly if potential buyers think it will require too much effort to clean. Buyers simply are not interested in buying homes that appear chaotic or have too many personal items that are not arranged in any logical order.

“It’s a much different market,” says Jane Quill, past president of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and an associate broker with RE/MAX in Fairfax. “There are so many other issues on people’s minds - they don’t know if they will have jobs, and they worry about their debt - that a house must be in totally marketable [move-in-ready] condition.”

Ms. Quill says part of her responsibility is to give her sellers a different perspective so they can distance themselves from their home and view it through a prospective buyer’s eyes. If a home is not organized and neat, buyers may lose confidence in a house and wonder about the maintenance.

The mantra when preparing to put a house on the market is “light, bright, neutral and clutter-free,” says Ron Sitrin, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in the District.

“It’s always important, but especially in a market like this, that you do everything you can to tilt things in your favor,” he says.

Mr. Sitrin often provides guidance about what sellers should throw out and what they should keep. However, if they need major assistance, he recommends hiring a professional organizer.

Many people aren’t sure what to do with out-of-season items such as goggles, bathing suits, sand-and-beach toys, outdoor furniture and other summer items. Professional organizers provide motivation, focus and basic steps to follow when sorting through belongings.

The first step is “zoning,” or grouping together all similar items. Caitlin Shear, a professional organizer with A Sorted Affair LLC in Fairfax, says this is the only way her clients can make informed decisions about what to keep. (Some people don’t realize they have multiples of one item.) If clients have a tough time deciding what to toss, she suggests they put “expiration dates” on boxes. If the items are not used within the allotted time, the items in the box should be donated.

Another strategy is to calculate the cost to store a box, based on the square footage and the effort it will require.

“You must determine what deserves prime real estate in the house for storage,” Mrs. Shear says.

Many summer toys and outdoor equipment (such as water slides, rafts and floats) are meant to last only one season, as they will crack and deteriorate if not placed in a climate-controlled area.

She asks, “If you have $2 water wings, are you really going to take the time to deflate them and buy a plastic bin for them?”

When it comes to summer clothing, Mrs. Shear’s tip is to move every hanger in the closet backward and change the hanger to the forward position each time you wear it. By the end of the exercise, you have a visual of what you wear and what pieces can be donated.

After zoning and purging, homeowners should choose the proper way to store the items they keep. Rather than running out and buying a big toy box and storage trunk, Mrs. Shear says to stick with smaller, clear bins that are more manageable and enable you to find what you need. Containers don’t have to be expensive; homeowners can use giant Ziploc bags, for example, to store porch cushions and snorkeling equipment. Ziploc Big Bags come in three sizes, up to 2 feet by 2.7 feet.

Mrs. Shear encourages her clients to find creative ways to use basic items. In her shed, she attached a plastic shoe holder to the wall to store her gardening items (such as feed packets, small tools, hoses and nozzles). She uses the same shoe holder in her front closet to store sunglasses and sunscreen in the summer. In the winter, it can hold mittens, scarves and hats.

Betsy Fein, president of Rockville-based Clutterbusters, says she tells her clients to keep it simple in the beginning so they don’t get overwhelmed when sorting through all of their possessions. She recommends sorting through small areas at a time. Some homeowners get so complicated with labeling and color-coding that it is impossible to maintain the new system.

“People are disorganized because they think they have to be perfectionists about it,” Ms. Fein says. “Stage one is to keep it simple, and we can tweak it later.”

Depending on how much people want to reuse, whether or not they have children and how imaginative they want to be, Ms. Fein often works on a “green” organizing program with her clients. It’s easy to clean out a large peanut-butter jar, let the children draw a colorful design on the outside of the jar and reuse it for keeping smaller items. Ms. Fein recommends donating all unwanted items through www.Earth911.com, which provides a list of local places that accept donations for specific items, including bikes, clothes and furniture.

In addition to professional organizers, homeowners can turn to interior decorators for direction on managing their space and paring down to the essentials. Rachel James, principal with Rachel James Interiors in Vienna, says the critical aspect of good design is ensuring that it incorporates negative space, which means there must be ample room between pieces.

“Editing is part of good design,” Ms. James says. She recently worked with a client who wanted to arrange a living room that could be half playroom, half adult space. To accomplish this goal, it was important that she include accessible areas for arranging personal items. In the adult area, Ms. James recommended a storage ottoman, and in the children’s section, she incorporated a bookshelf.

“Furniture that serves a dual purpose and can be used as storage is important,” she says.

Lynne Gottleib, design and training manager for Belfort Furniture in Dulles, Va., says all of its showrooms have items that are useful for storage and that clients want furniture that shows well and enables them to make the most of their space.

“It has to be attractive - but functional,” she says.

Ms. Gottleib says she can suggest functional furnishings for each room in the house, including a tree-bench combo for the front hall so owners can store items in the bench and hang up clothes; an old-fashioned cedar chest to place by the back door; storage ottomans for the family room; and a furniture system for the children’s rooms that will grow with them.

The Maxtrix Kids furniture system (www.maxtrixkids.com) starts with a bed, a loft or a bunk. The system can be expanded with a selection of extensions, storage units and accessories that help parents continuously re-create a child’s room.

Ms. Gottleib says that furnishings that serve a dual purpose - and help homeowners better sort and put away items - will continue to grow in popularity.

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