Pitch, pile or file?

You’ve done the reality check. You’ve taken stock and come to terms with it — you have to downsize. Maybe it’s to a one-bedroom condo in the city or a bungalow that’s retrofitted so you can age in place or to a retirement residence where you’ll have a single room. It doesn’t matter where you’re going — it’s going to be a momentous job to whittle down the contents of your home into a manageable and moveable collection of your most prized possessions. And anyone who has moved would probably agree that it’s fraught with emotions and financial stressors and takes a physical toll on even the toughest bodies. But if you haven’t moved in a while and you’ve got a house full of things you’ve collected over a lifetime, even the idea of going through your “stuff” or “treasures” — depending on how you view it — can send you right over the edge.

The greatest journey begins with a single shelf

For many people, the hardest part about downsizing is just getting started.

“Start small. Pick a drawer. Clear off a shelf,” advises Karen Shinn, The Downsizing Diva and a professional organizer in Etobicoke, Ont. And whether it’s you that’s moving or you’re helping a parent, schedule the purging sessions in two- to three-hour blocks.

“Two hours is enough but three is more productive,” says Gail Shields, a professional move organizer in Toronto who specializes in moving seniors. “Anything over that, and you are a blithering idiot having made decisions for three hours.”

Start in the corner of a room and work clockwise. That way you know where you left off at the end of the day and you can pick up exactly where you left off when you start again.

Here are some of Shields’ and Shinn’s expert tips to get you started.

• Collect three bins before you start and label them Give Away, Throw Away and Keep (but not in this space).

• Throw out anything that is broken and not worth fixing. If you wouldn’t go to Goodwill and pay $2 for it, chances are neither will anyone else. If you have lots of trash and you’re willing to spend the money to get rid of it, hire a company to come in and take it. It will cost you though. To fill a whole truck is about $500.

• Items to give away should never be taken to the Goodwill or Salvation Army depots or outlets if they are dirty, broken or in very shabby condition. “I will not take things in green garbage bags,” says Shinn. “It’s like saying it’s garbage.”

• Invest in clear bags for recycling items, orange bags for donations and green bags for garbage. At the end of the day, there is no confusion about what is being pitched and what is being given away.

• Canadian Diabetes Association will pick up your donations, which go to Value Village stores. If you live in rural areas, Goodwill and the Salvation Army will often pick up, but if you live in a city, call for the closest box or centre to drop off your items.

Find a home for furniture

Condensing a four-bedroom home into a one-bedroom means there are going to be some furniture casualties. Offer what you can’t take to family and friends. But don’t be insulted if you don’t get any takers.

“Boomers are the last of the guilt generation. They can be guilted into keeping stuff because it’s always been in the family,” says Shinn. “Younger generations could care less. If they aren’t going to use it, they don’t want it.”

If you can’t give your furniture to family, call a women’s shelter or ask local churches to see if they run refugee programs. “If someone is setting up house with nothing, they are very happy to get furniture,” says Shields. “You don’t get any money for it, but it does get a new life.”

For antiques, try local dealers, auction houses and consigners. “They can come and take a look at a piece and know instantly whether they can sell it,” says Shinn. But they are particular about what they take because they know their market very well, so don’t take their decisions personally. You may not get the price you think an item is worth, but don’t discount the value of someone coming to your home and taking it away.

“One thing that works for a lot of my clients are contents sales,” says Shinn. Once you’ve packed up everything you want to take and offered everything else to family and friends, a contents sale can be done on the remaining items in your house. Everything from your dining room table to shampoo bottles under the bathroom sink are up for sale with a percentage of the sale going to the company holding it. You get the rest.

“They come in, set up tables, price everything, advertise and get the staff to run the sale. It’s like an indoor garage sale with better prices.”

Put paper in its place

By far, the number 1 clutter culprit in any home has got to be paper. It’s coming in every day and we hoard it for way too long, always afraid that some day we may need that income tax return from 1979. “It’s the bane of most people’s existence, but the key to handling paper is to know what you need to keep,” says Shields. “The government website www.cra-arc.gc.ca gives you guidelines for how long you need to keep papers related to income tax.”

According to Shields, you should keep utility bills for no more than a year, but hardcore downsizers keep their bills only until the next month comes in. If you want to keep records so you can compare costs year to year, jot down the monthly bill amounts in a notebook or invest in a computer software system.

And with the rise in identity theft, every home should have a paper shredder. “Shred anything you are throwing away with personal financial information or a social insurance number,” advises Shields.

As for systems for filing your important papers once you’ve made your move, Shinn says keep it simple. “Have a box and every day throw your papers into it. Once a month — or more frequently — go into a room with lots of floor space and go through it. Sort it into piles and decide what you need to keep and what can go.”

Shields loves the single plastic file box on wheels that you get at any office supply store. “I drag it around with me from room to room. Usually, one file box is plenty for the paper we actually need to have.” Yep, that’s what she said, one box for the papers we actually need to keep.

Getting a handle on collections

Collections can be edited down to your most valued pieces. Then look for clever ways to exhibit them in your new space. If you can’t find a way to display everything, put out a few pieces and store the rest in a box so you can refresh your collection periodically. If you have the space, put it all together in one cabinet or install a plate rail up high to put it on view.

Purging pictures

Most of us who aren’t into scrapbooking have our photos shoved into a closet or a drawer somewhere. Or if you’ve been good enough to put them in albums, it’s probably rare that you take them out regularly to flip through them. “I clean out estates and photo albums 9 times out of 10 just get tossed,” says Shinn.

To help prevent that, she suggests you go through the house, gathering every picture you have into one laundry basket; then, on the next rainy day, sort through the pictures and toss anything that isn’t in focus or where there are duplicates. Write the year (or the date if you can remember it), who is in the picture and where it was taken on the back. Then get a picture box with a lid and put the name of each of your kids on the box (and make one for yourself). With coloured markers, put a dot on the back of each picture corresponding to each recipient. Then separate the photos into the appropriate box. At your next family holiday, present them. “It will create conversation. You will be the family historian, and everyone will be asking you about the pictures,” says Shinn.

Calling in the big guns

If the thought of tackling your mountains of “stuff” yourself is more than you can bear or if helping your parent just isn’t possible because of distance or the time it requires, hiring a professional is an option.

One of the biggest benefits of hiring a professional move organizer is they know who to call for help in getting things you don’t want or need out of there and they can organize and arrange the move itself. When it comes to doing the physical labour of sorting, pitching and packing everything, they can do that too.

“It’s impossible to have a stress-free move,” says Shinn. “But we will streamline it for you. We can hire movers and oversee the move day. We can have a person moved in, beds made and dinner in the oven if that’s what they want.”

Some organizers will also do the unpacking and re-organizing for you. “We put things away, leave a clutter-free environment that is safe and familiar to the client, which is really important, especially to older people,” says Shields.

As for what you can expect to pay, a good move organizer will provide a free consultation. Most organizers charge an hourly rate ranging from $50 to $80; others will have packages based on the labour involved, how long they estimate the job to take and how many people they will need to hire to get the move done.

“It’s not about the stuff,” says Shinn. “It’s the memories of the stuff that makes it hard for people.” If you get help or at least take the time to do it right, you can actually enjoy going through the things that have made your house a home and paring it down to the ones that mean the most and sharing the wealth with people who will really appreciate them as much as you do.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Pamela Moore