Decluttered, depersonalized, and organized rooms demonstrate dimensions, architectural details, natural light, and views to buyers. Problem is, many sellers don’t see their homes through the same lens.

Many get used to living with organized chaos — a pile of mail or several years’ worth of magazines can easily become part of the décor, says Egypt Sherrod, CRS, saleswoman with Keller Williams Realty Cityside outside Atlanta, and host of HGTV’s “Property Virgins.” Others think that displaying possessions makes their home stand out and appear warmer and more inviting than the competition. Still others simply find parting with their stuff to be overwhelming.

Your job is to convince them otherwise. Many buyers equate clutter with messiness and disrepair, and they may quickly move on to the next listing. Here’s a four-step plan to get sellers to take actionbefore their home is listed.

Share Selling Basics

Your first conversation should be a straightforward lesson in sales transactions. It’s not about their impressing others with design lessons culled from websites such as Houzz or Remodelista, or showing off their family heirlooms. Aside from location, price, and condition, buyers usually make their decisions based on the home’s structure and features.

“Buyers today are different than even a few years ago and first look online to educate themselves,” says Jessica Edwards, salesperson with Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage in Wilmington, N.C. An elegant fireplace mantle can’t be appreciated when it’s crammed with candles and tchotchkes. The same goes for window treatments that block stunning views. In fact, Dakshi Anand, with John Greene, REALTOR®, in Naperville, Ill., tells those who resist such advice that they risk sellers who lose interest and suggests that they consider lowering their asking price.

You can also share an added bonus with sellers: Those who take the time to declutter before listing are usually far better prepared to move. The process also makes keeping the property clean for listing appointments and open houses much easier, particularly with those pesky last-minute viewing requests buyers often make.

Pro Shelf Tips
Why do some bookshelves look so professionally done? Because an owner—or stager—has taken time to arrange them neatly and decoratively. Here’s how to get the look. Choose books in good condition, and place hardbacks and paperbacks in separate groupings. Make sure the books stand upright with their spines aligned in a neat row and set the same distance from the front or back of the shelf. In another area, stack your largest books—art volumes work best for this—on their sides with titles visible and set the same distance from the front or back of the shelf. In between, place a few decorative accessories that provide a dash of color, shape, and variety; you might want to try out a vase, snow globe, or framed photo. Don’t forget to leave sufficient empty space so each grouping has room to“breathe.” Finally, take a step back to check your handiwork, tweak where necessary, and enjoy.

Be Specific

Because sellers may feel unsure just how decluttered and depersonalized rooms should look, be sure to explain your expectations in detail. Different professionals offer slightly different takes, from almost bare through minimal trappings to fully staged. Sherrod wants absolutely nothing on a kitchen counter; Edwards thinks a few essentials for daily living, such as a coffee maker and toaster, are fine. Others use numbers or percentages to guide them. Anand likes to keep a closet or bookshelf one-third empty, for example.

One way to make your point of view clear is by walking sellers through each room, pointing out the trouble spots.

  • Front entry: Here’s where buyers get that important first impression, often within the first 60 seconds, says Sherrod. Have sellers leave out only the most practical furnishings, such as a bench and side table, says Anand. Wall art and photos should be scaled back to three or four, says Nanette Plescia, sales manager for national home builder Lennar.
  • Kitchen: This hub of the house typically gets extra scrutiny. Anand recommends removing refrigerator door magnets, throwing out expired food, placing loose contents in containers, and leaving enough empty space so shelves can be viewed front to back. She also suggests sellers take the same approach with pantries, cabinets, drawers, and shelves.
  • Living spaces: Living, dining, and great rooms should reveal similarly slimmed-down contents rather than wall-to-wall furnishings and accessories. Remind home owners they’re selling their house, not their personal style, says Kathy Nielsen, executive vice president of the Real Estate Staging Association in Valley Springs, Calif.
  • Master bedrooms. This room should convey a sense of serenity, with all clothing and shoes put away and night tables cleared, except for a lamp or book. Also, advise sellers not to make secondary bedrooms a catch-all for storing unused items. This can be a particular problem for households where children no longer live at home, Nielsen says.
  • Closets. These should be dramatically emptied, by half or one-third, and shelves should be organized with uniform baskets, bins, and hangers. “Be sure there’s at least one-half inch in between hangers to convey roominess,” says Plescia. When it comes to closet floors it’s best to get rid of everything—even hampers—for the least cluttered look, says Nielsen.
  • Bathrooms. Besides telling sellers to clear counters and fixture surfaces, be sure they remove prescriptions for safety reasons. Loose items such as toothbrushes and hairstyling tools should be stored neatly. Towels should be put away unless sellers have new ones that they can keep neatly folded for showings.
  • Attics, basements, garages. Much like spare bedrooms, these spaces often become a dumping ground for seasonal and rarely used items. Advise sellers only to store what they need in clear, labeled bins—best to do so by category such as holiday decorations to make retrieval easier. “Otherwise, buyers may conclude the house itself doesn’t have enough storage,” says Barry Izsak, a professional organizer in Austin, Texas.
  • Outdoors. Most sellers know the importance of front-yard curb appeal, but they shouldn’t neglect side and back yards. Outdoor living spaces should be minimally furnished to convey the function—a patio looks more inviting with a table, a few chairs, and barbecue. Scattered children’s toys make the scene look disorganized; suggest they be stored in a colorful bin.

Find a Permanent Solution

Discourage sellers from taking the easy route of temporary off-site storage, which can become permanent and expensive. Suggest they work room by room and organize piles based on how they’ll part with items before the showing. There are many options, including these four favorites:

  • Give to family, friends, neighbors, or sharing nonprofits like The Freecycle Network.
  • Donate to a charity. Many organizations offer to pick up donations, but sellers should inquire first what they accept; some don’t need more china or won’t take used bedding. For taxable deductions, sellers must secure a written receipt for contributions of $250 or more.
  • Have it hauled away for free by a group like College Hunks Hauling Junkor 1-800-Got-Junk. Such groups will pick up unwanted belongings, but you won’t get credit for a donation.
  • Sell or auction items online at sites such as Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon, or at yard sales and flea markets. Sellers can also consign their items to a local shop, though, if they aren’t sold right away, prices may be lowered or items may be returned to the seller.

Welcome Buyers

After completing the decluttering process, take a moment to appreciate the work that went into your shared undertaking. Shortly before show time, walk through the house together again. Both you and sellers should try to imagine you’re seeing it for the first time through buyers’ eyes. Agree on final changes, then turn on the lights and greet house hunters with good cheer and confidence.

By following this plan, the listing will be easier to sell. But just as importantly, sellers will feel the joy that comes with living amid more simply furnished and orderly surroundings, spending less money and time to move what remains, and possibly leaving behind old habits once they’re settled in their new digs.