Real estate agents, advising clients on how best to showcase their homes, often suggest that clutter be removed to create a clean, open look. So where do all the excess end tables, 10-year-old winter coats, lacrosse sticks, broken plastic toys, and unloved Christmas presents end up?
“Some people take all the stuff from living spaces, and throw it into non-living spaces,” says Steven Serradilla, a professional organizer whose Hamilton-based business is called Clear Your Space (www.clearyourspace.net). This is not a smart strategy, because, he points out, the final places that prospective home buyers visit are the basement, garage, and attic. “You’ve just ruined your last impression,” he says.
Serradilla is a former bond fund accountant for Merrill Lynch who had a problem with organization early on in his 11-year stint with that company. Dealing with mountains of information had thrown him off track enough to put his job at risk, but he quickly came to terms with his inner-clutterer and rose to the position of assistant vice president. Some years later his entire department was abolished, and when he began to think about starting his professional life from scratch, he went back to his early work problem, and turned it into a business.
“I was in my mid-30s when I was laid off,” says the 1988 graduate of Rowan University, who lives with his life partner, a neat, well-organized Mercer County Board of Social Services employee named William Ulmer, in Hamilton. “I talked to head hunters, and they told me that lay-offs tend to go in 15 year cycles.” The accounting major quickly did the math, and realized that he could well face another lay-off when he was nearing 50. “I decided to take my destiny into my own hands,” he says.
He went back to Merrill Lynch, taking a position well below that at which he had left, and, with his salary and benefits as a cushion, began to build his business part time. Three years ago he was ready to take the “scary” move of cutting his corporate ties and going out on his own.
“At first I took any work that came my way,” he says. In addition to helping people clean out attics and basements, he organized paperwork for busy professionals, helped individuals with attention deficit disorder to work on time management, and put home offices to rights. After a year or so, he knew that he needed to narrow his focus. “One day I was showing up to work in blue jeans to purge a garage,” he says, “and the next day I was showing up in a suit to organize an office.”
He turned to the Entrepreneurial Training Institute (ETI), a program run by the state’s Economic Development Authority (www.njeda.com), for help. “Most people go to ETI for funding, but I went for focus,” he says. He wrote a business plan for the first time, and decided to focus on just two areas, working on the physical tasks involved in settling estates — everything from finding important papers to discarding accumulated junk — and organizing homes, including home offices.
In organizing a home, whether to prepare it for sale or to make it more livable, he always encounters the same basic problem — and its name is clutter.
To tame the clutter, he uses a system developed by organization guru Julie Morgenstern (www.juliemorgenstern), author of “Organizing from the Inside Out” and a number of other books. Her system goes by the acronym S.P.A.C.E.
Serradilla explains that this stands for “sort, purge, assign a new home, containerize, and evaluate.” He says that, after sorting, homeowners will find that, on average, 25 percent of everything in a non-living space should be purged. “But getting rid of it doesn’t mean trashing,” he adds. “You can donate, hand off to family members, or sell, either through eBay or consignment shops or auctions.” And anything borrowed should be returned.
As far as donating goes, Serradilla stresses that a number of groups badly need cast-offs, but that the needs vary by group — and also by season. “Always call first,” he says.
He recommends freecycle, a website (www.freecycle.org) through which people with stuff they no longer want can give it to someone who does. The closest freecycle group is in Middlesex County (www.freecylcemiddlesexnj.org). Recently, freecyle members were trying to find homes for everything from bags of boy’s toddler clothes to a large brown tweed coach. People who want the castoffs must pick them up.
Serradilla says that the Vietnam Vets organization (www.clothingdonations.org) will accept “almost everything except furniture” from Mercer County residents, but will not make pick-ups in nearby counties. Meanwhile, the Salvation Army (www.newjerseysalvationarmy.org), is “dying for dorm-type furniture.” That group, which houses some clients in temporary group spaces, is often in need of twin beds and small night stands, but generally does not need king size beds or eight-foot-tall armoires. Another charity with which Serradilla works is the Trenton Rescue Mission, at www.rescuemissiontrenton.org.
Serradilla knows of an area resident, Peter Fuhrman (609-631-8448), who runs a private charity, “Bats, Balls, Gloves, and Kids,” that collects all kinds of used sporting goods and distributes it to needy people. Recent recipients have been children in New Orleans, Luthuania, and Africa.
Whatever the charity, its needs are apt to change every six months, making research a necessity. And some perfectly good clutter may have trouble finding a home anywhere. “I had one client who was trying to get rid of a big refrigerator,” says Serradilla. “It took a while, but I found a food bank willing to take it. Persistence is important.”
After the sorting is done and persistence has reduced the clutter piles, it is time to assign new homes to items the family wants to keep. Perhaps flower pots could move to shelves in the shed in the backyard and grandma’s dishes could come out of boxes on the floor and go into the hope chest in the corner. Next comes containerization. Lay in some storage bins, shelves, and containers, and organize out-of-season items, holiday decorations, baby equipment awaiting the birth of a little brother or sister, and anything else that the family wants to keep for future use.
The goal of this exercise, says Serradilla, is to keep absolutely everything in sight and within easy reach. “It’s like an ace in a deck of cards,” he says. “If it’s at the bottom, you have to go through the whole deck to get it.” Rifling through 52 cards pales next to the effort required to dig a string of Christmas lights out from under a tangle of ice skates, home brewing kits, hand tools, and year books.
Stow everything in see-through or clearly-marked storage devices, and then move onto the final step — evaluation. Step back and see “whether an item is working in its space,” says Serradilla. This is a good exercise in non-living spaces, but is even more important on the home’s main floors.
In those living spaces, the biggest problem for homeowners getting ready to sell is closet clutter. Closet space is high on every home hunter’s wish list, and a closet that looks like it has room for many more dresses, sweaters, and pairs of shoes will always appear larger than a jam-packed closet, no matter what its size. Cleaning out closets makes sense whether or not a sale is imminent. It’s never fun to spend 15 minutes of precious pre-work time hunting for a belt or a blue sweater.
In tackling closets, Serradilla advises clients that if it’s out of style, doesn’t fit, or is a duplicate, it should probably go. He then moves on tier two — the perfectly good clothes that simply don’t fit into the closet. In his opinion, 50 little black dresses are a few dozen too many. Ditto with black shoes. He suggests that clients choose by using quality and wear criteria. “Maybe eliminate the synthetic sweaters and keep the wool and cotton,” he says. “Turn over the black shoes, and look at the soles. Keep only the least worn.”
Serradilla does not do closet construction work, but will help a client by providing portable storage devices. If more help is needed, a closet installer may be called in. “One installer told a client ‘you need to purge before I can even take measurements,’” he says. In another case, “we hired a closet installer, but then the client couldn’t get everything back in.” She had obviously not purged enough. “You can’t put 10 pounds of sugar into a 5-pound bag,” is how Serradilla sums up the situation.
If clothes appear to multiply entirely on their own, paper is even more wildly prolific. Serradilla, a daily mail sorter himself, has trouble understanding how people can let letters, catalogs, and equity proxy statements grow into monumental piles, yet he sees these paper mountains all the time. His advice is to — at a minimum — group like with like every single day. There are all sorts of inexpensive wicker baskets available. Use them, he suggests. Put magazines in one and store circulars in another. Collect bills in one spot and put a rubber band around them. Put bank and brokerage correspondence in one spot, and insurance policies in another.
While most household paper comes through the mail slot, a fair amount also makes its way in via backpack. By all means, display the children’s artwork and good behavior citations, but limit the exhibit time. After a week or so, everything goes into a big plastic storage container, perhaps of the long, slim variety that can slide under a bed. Then, twice a year, sort through each child’s output, and keep only his finest — or most endearing — work. “Let memory do the sorting,” is how Serradilla puts it.
Serradilla says that he is unable to say how long a thorough de-cluttering will take — or, therefore, how much it will cost. “You can have two houses side-by-side,” he says, “and each one can have the exact same amount of clutter.” But one house will take far more work than the other. He does not discuss his fee with homeowners until he has talked with them on the phone to guage the extent of their clutter.
The variable lies in each homeowner’s ability to make decisions quickly and also in each’s degree of attachment to physical objects. A person who can decide to vacation in Maui rather than the Bahamas in two seconds is likely to move through the process quickly. If, on the other hand, the client is a person who is capable of standing in front of a refrigerator for half an hour asking “what do I want to eat?” the de-cluttering is likely to take much longer.
The home of a hoarder is generally a huge project, no matter what its size. But the home of a busy professional who simply has not been able to focus on de-cluttering, but who badly wants to do so, can often be put to rights in a short time.
No matter what the size of the job, Serradilla says that he requires the client’s undivided attention at first, but as the process gets rolling, he needs only scattered attention. “We can’t throw away anything without permission,” he says of his profession. But after he gets a feel for a client’s preferences, he can move along on his own. As he does so, he generally tries to keep a client from touching or reminiscing about an object. Seeing the yellowed baby clothes is one thing, he says, but holding them is another.
Throw away the grass-stained size three blue-and-white striped Oshkosh overalls, or keep them? The question becomes more difficult when the play clothes are held long enough to conjure up a mental picture of the toddler who wore them. Actually, all de-cluttering involves decisions, even if all are not as emotional as this one.
“All clutter,” Serradilla declares, “is the result of postponed decisions.” The imminent approach of a moving van can be the event that ends indecision and pushes de-cluttering into overdrive.
Clear Your Space Hamilton. Steven Serradilla, owner. 609-587-2626; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.clearyourspace.net