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How to declutter and downsize your home without stress

While some people have been seeking more space during the pandemic, plenty of others are moving in the other direction.

In a recent survey, first-time buyers are increasingly looking for smaller, centrally located homes — and 69% of respondents said the reason was to save money. Others are doing it because they can work remotely from anywhere.

But downsizing isn’t quite as simple as choosing a new place and renting a U-Haul. When you’re moving to a smaller space, you won’t have as much room for all the stuff you’ve accumulated throughout the years. You’ll need to declutter first.

Here are some tips for a stress-free downsize.

Side view portrait of young Asian woman packing cardboard boxes and smiling happily while moving to new home or apartment, copy space
(Photo: Getty Creative) (SeventyFour via Getty Images)

Set up a timeline, goal, and process

Like any project, you’ll have a better chance at success if you establish these three things:

  • Timeline: Figure out when you need to move, and work backward to set a timeline for sorting, selling and donating your items, and packing the rest.

  • Goal: Then commit to getting rid of a certain number of things each day, according to Alexis Haselberger, a productivity and time management coach. The items can be small or big, but “this can help with the overwhelm of trying to go through everything,” Haselberger said.

  • Process: Next, create a sorting system. For example, organize your belongings into piles labeled “keep,” “sell,” and “donate.” If you’re planning to rent a storage space, create a pile for “store,” too.

Sort through your items room by room

Stack of old clothes to discard (declutter) or keep. Recycle clothes, eco cotton.
(Photo: Getty Creative) (Andrii Zastrozhnov via Getty Images)

Throw away items you don’t need anymore, and invite friends and family over to see if they want anything from your home. Then, figure out what to do with the rest.

You can keep items that are useful in your daily life. For sentimental items you don’t want to get rid of, Haselberger suggested giving each family member a single large bin. They can only take what fits in the box.

For sell versus donate, create a set of criteria. “For instance, if it’s worth over $100 I sell it,” Haselberger said. Otherwise, donate it. She suggested bringing donated items to just one place “instead of having to spend time finding the ‘right home’ for everything.”

Seasonal items or things you might need later on should be put in storage.

Sell valuable items you can part with

(Photo: Getty Creative)
(Photo: Getty Creative) (David Sacks via Getty Images)

If you have just a few items to sell, Haselberger suggested hiring someone from TaskRabbit to manage the process. They can help you price the items, list them online, ship them out, and collect the money.

But if you’re planning an entire estate sale, you might be better off with a professional estate sale planner, said Tracy Duce, owner/president at Blue Moon Estate Sales. An estate sale is a method to liquidate a family or state's belongings. Generally larger than yard sales, estate sales are most commonly used when downsizing, moving, divorcing, filing for bankruptcy, or after a death.

They can “guarantee a huge crowd of shoppers and perfect pricing,” Duce said. They’ll also help you be realistic about the value of what you’d like to sell. “COVID has made a lot of people purge items, which is driving prices down,” Duce said.

Go digital when possible

As you go through your belongings, you’ll probably come across a bunch of paper clutter. You can convert old movies, music, and photos into digital files. As for sentimental items you don’t need but still have trouble parting with, Haselberger suggested taking a photo and throwing out the item.

You’ll need to keep some things for financial purposes, but you can take a picture, upload, and store these digitally:

  • Receipts for items you’ll deduct on next year’s taxes

  • Home improvement records

  • Medical expenses if you need proof of them

  • Paycheck stubs, unless your company stores them online for you

  • Investment and real estate records

  • Bank statements for the previous three years

  • Tax returns for three years

  • Loan payoff documents

  • Active contracts and insurance documents

Keep these paper documents forever, though:

  • Marriage license

  • Birth certificates

  • Wills

  • Adoption papers

  • Death certificates

  • Property records

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