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8 Tips for Decluttering Before a Big Move

Downsizing often means there’s no room for all that stuff

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Before Josephine Baird moved from a four-bedroom house in Bourbonnais, Illinois, to a two-bedroom townhouse in Wentzville, Missouri to be closer to her daughter, she sorted through furniture, clothing, tools and memorabilia. The decluttering took months and required some tough decisions, but Baird was ruthless.

“I took it one room at a time,” she recalls. “I asked, ‘Do I need it? Have I used it? Am I going to pay to have it moved?’ ”

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The process allowed Baird, 74, to scale down her possessions to the things she loved and wanted to use in her new home.

An estimated 22 million people moved in 2021 according to U.S. census data, packing up possessions and unpacking them in their new homes. Whether you’re moving across town, across the country or to the other side of the world, decluttering is an essential step. It can be especially difficult for older adults who are often moving from larger homes they may have lived in for a long time to smaller spaces.

“Older adults have had time to accumulate a vast amount of belongings,” says Jennifer Dwight, a Hawaii-based professional organizer with Ideal Organizing + Design.

Movers charge by weight, Dwight adds. So paring down your belongings before moving saves not only the effort of packing and unpacking items that you may not want (or need) in your new home, it also saves money.

Before you pack a single box, follow these eight tips to declutter:

1. Plan ahead

Your home is filled with kitchenware, linens, photos and tools that took a lifetime to accumulate. It’s going to take time to go through them and decide what to keep.

“If you start early, you can take it slow,” Dwight says. “Physically, it’s hard work but it’s also emotionally exhausting. It’s the equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes.”

Decluttering can take several weeks — or longer — and getting a head start will allow you to go through things carefully and decide what to pack and what to toss or donate.

2. Go room by room

Take an organized approach. It might be tempting to declutter a few drawers in the kitchen, a closet in the bedroom and a corner in the garage. But professional organizer Nicole Gabai, the founder of B. Organized and author of The Art of Organizing: An Artful Guide to an Organized Life, suggests finishing a single room before moving on to the next space.

“The benefit of tackling one room at a time is that you can better evaluate completion,” she says. “You can clearly look around that one room and double-check that you have gotten rid of everything you possibly can from that one room before moving on to the next.”

3. Make easy decisions first

Don’t start the decluttering process by going through photographs, collections or mementos. You’ll spend longer going through treasured items and it’ll be harder to make decisions about things that are linked to memories and strong emotions, which could lead to feeling overwhelmed. Instead, start with the easiest decisions.

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“This is the ‘first pass,’ ” Gabai says. “You’ll go through that same room one or two more times to honestly assess how much you need to bring to your next home.”

Getting rid of expired foods, old utility bills or stained, ill-fitting clothing will lead to a huge sense of accomplishment and provide the motivation to keep going.

4. Skip the ‘maybe’ pile

Establishing a “maybe” pile is a mistake, according to Mary Kay Buysse, co-executive director of the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers.

“Always, the maybe pile is the biggest pile — and all you’re doing is putting off a hard decision,” she explains. “Be brutal with yourself and make those decisions.”

Separate items into keep, donate, sell or toss piles. Some charities will pick up larger items and posting items for sale on Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor or Craigslist can help with decluttering.

5. Get a floor plan

Older adults are often moving to smaller spaces, Buysse says. Downsizing necessitates decluttering because there simply won’t be enough space for all of your things in the new home.

Ask the real estate agent or apartment manager for a floor plan (or have a professional measure the space before you move) and work with an interior designer or senior move manager to decide what’s going to fit in your new home and what needs to be tossed, donated or sold.

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6. Think about your lifestyle

Moving is about more than occupying a new space — it’s about creating a new life.

Baird knew that the homeowners association in her new community would handle lawn maintenance, gardening and snow removal so she sold or donated shovels, rakes, hoses and the lawn mower. She also donated her outdated end tables and lamps, reasoning, “It would’ve cost more to ship them than the stuff was worth and I was able to treat myself to something new.”

Decluttering can be difficult when it’s time to let go of once-meaningful items that are no longer needed. Consider snapping photos so you still have the memory, even when the item has been donated or sold.

“Our belongings can remind us of what we perceive as happier times,” Dwight says. “You’re not throwing away the memory, you’re just gifting or donating the item.”

7. Get your kids involved

Before packing your wedding china and vintage rocking horse to store to in your new home because your kids — or grandkids — may want them someday, ask for their input.

“Up until the last generation, it was always a given that things were going to be handed down,” Dwight says.

That’s changed with modern lifestyles. While your kids might not want 12-piece place settings or heavy antiques, you might be surprised at the things that they would like to keep. Buysse notes that children and grandchildren often want the things you least expected, such as a favorite holiday ornament or a knickknack that reminds them of a family trip.

8. Call in the pros

Decluttering can be hard to go at alone.

“When it all becomes too overwhelming, it might be time to bring in a professional organizer who specializes in move management,” says Gabai. “It can help you create a timeline with achievable goals to prepare you for the move day. They will hold you accountable and help you evaluate what to keep and what to toss or donate.”

The National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers can help you find a senior move specialist in your area. Volunteers with the AARP Speakers Bureau also lead workshops on decluttering and downsizing.

The more effort you put into decluttering before the movers arrive, the less stressful it will be to pack (and unpack) and get settled into your new home.​​​

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