Cleaning out: the slightly traumatic upside of moving

Usually at this time of year I’m starting veggies and dreaming about the next garden. But this year I’m getting rid of stuff and reorganizing what’s left as we prepare to put the house on the market later this month.

It’s all bringing back memories of putting our starter home in New Jersey on the market back in the summer of 2002. We had done a lot of painting and carpeting and such when we first purchased it, especially to the former smoker’s apartment upstairs. We also covered up ugly old asbestos shingles with new siding, and I landscaped with a passion.

But we didn’t really do anything with the cranky little kitchen. We didn’t take out the moldy carpet in the basement or even dump all the junk that had come with the house, like the cabinets from the one-time upstairs kitchen — not until the real estate agent told us we should.

Then when it was done and everything looked better, we wondered why we hadn’t done it earlier. We could have done a great deal to make life in that little bungalow more pleasant while we were still living there, and not all of it would have required big bucks.

The truth is that I’m just not HGTV material. Once things become so much of a part of everyday life that I am no longer actively annoyed by them – even clearly unacceptable  things like the white poster board we used to cover gaping holes from a burst pipe in the kitchen ceiling — I can live with them for just about forever.

I think of this as I check Zillow periodically to see what’s selling in our area. I can often guess just how old the sellers are (or were, in the case of estate sales), by the decor in their homes. A lot of the houses in my price range clearly haven’t been touched since the 70’s or 80’s.

And I can relate.

(This is also something I have in common with Mary in The Awful Mess, obviously. She  fails to redecorate her tiny little house. Later, Winslow shows what a sweetheart he is by taking charge. In real life, I suspect I’d be totally annoyed by that.)

In late 2002 when we moved into this lovely house, it had just been freshly painted almost wall-to-wall in Baltic White. And until last month, it still was. I finally bought paint with some personality back in 2006, but I never got around to doing anything except the downstairs bathroom, which had suffered from a leak from the upstairs toilet and therefore had to be done. I told myself I’d get the rest of the house painted every summer. I never did.

Now we’ve been forced to paint by the necessity of moving, and it’s amazing what clean, freshly painted walls can do for a room. (We hired a guy – it would never have gotten done otherwise.) The paint I’d bought in 2006 was still good (here’s a shout-out for Sherwin Williams Duration paint in plastic cans), but few of the colors were safely neutral enough for a house about to be put on the market.

And then there’s all the clutter we’ve been living with, like…

  • The kitchen cabinets I somehow managed to over-stuff even in a dream kitchen that has more cabinet space than I will ever have again for the rest of my life. I’m talking dishes used twice a year, uni-purpose kitchen appliances, enough wine glasses for a wedding reception, and bulk-buy pantry goods that not only filled the cabinets but spilled over into the dining room and the basement.
  • That basket of menus and phone books. Who even uses phone books anymore?.
  • Binders and binders of gardening articles and notes from lectures and such that I spent hours neatly tearing out of magazines and organizing and then never looked at again because googling that stuff is way easier.
  • The workbench in the basement so piled with miscellaneous tools and junk that no one can ever actually work on it.
  • At least three large boxes of electrical supplies, cables, chargers, extension cords and power strips – enough to electrify a village. And at least half of these were probably purchased only because we couldn’t find the ones we already had.
  • Boxes and drawers and shelves of gardening crap. Yes, I did use a lot of it — but did I really need ALL those recycled yogurt containers, newspapers for mulch, panty hose to tie up tomatoes, blankets to cover plants, old milk cartons for winter seed sowing, plastic produce containers and pie pans for drip trays, and old feed bags once used to haul horse manure? (No, clearly I did not.)
  • Scores of Tidy Cats yellow plastic kitty litter buckets, enough to fill multiple station wagons with free wood mulch from the town. A dozen of these buckets: Handy. Thirty: Obsessive-compulsive.
  • Bathroom detritus: I thought I was keeping things pretty neat, until I tallied up all those old toothpaste and dental floss samples from the dentist, make-up I’d never wear again (never even wore twice, in many cases), expired medicine, band-aids that fell out of their ancient wrappers when I touched them, weird medical devices I hope none of us will ever require again, and enough ivory soap bars to last a decade.
  • The chest freezer that I’m still too afraid to empty out. Yes, it allows me to save my tomatoes for winter cooking, and put away meat when it’s on sale. But the good buy I got on Price Chopper butter did not turn out to be very cost-effective two years later when it happened to taste just like freezer.
  • Clothing. My husband hoards clothes. Our basement is full of them. It doesn’t help that my friends at the thrift store save ugly Hawaiian shirts for him for the sheer joy of hearing my reaction later.
  • Art, photos, and photo albums. I still have old negatives and slides from when I first started using my dad’s old Miranda SLR at the age of ten. Jaime and I managed to take apart a few old albums that needed to be divided between us, but that still leaves three boxes of neatly organized albums for me to lug around, plus two more boxes of loose photographs. It’s ridiculous, really. Let’s not even discuss all the framed and unframed art.
  • CDs and DVDs. At least changing formats made it easy to decide to dump ALL the old VCR tapes and record albums. Yes, I could probably scan all of what’s left into digital files that I could carry around in a purse. I’m sure it would only take a year or two of my life to get it done. (I did at least get rid of a ton of old books because they are now free for downloading off the Internet.)
  • Writing stuff. In a way, foreseeing this day helped me make the decision to publish. I figured it was a way to not have to lug around piles of manuscripts anymore. But I still have the urge to lug them around, if only because I know that famous authors sometimes make big bucks selling their papers. Of course, my chances of ever being famous are probably right up there with pigs flying, but a girl can dream. When I’m in a more practical mood I use old drafts to mulch the garden.
  • Other files. Ugh. I still have six file cabinet drawers to go through, and that’s AFTER weeding through my teaching materials and office supplies. Then there are the boxes of records in the basement…
  • Baskets. They are everywhere. What is it with me and baskets? I’ve managed to let go of about half of them at this point. That still leaves at least twenty, only half of which are actually in use. And I’m still tempted when I see new ones at the thrift store.

As we clear each room of excess furniture and stuff, it becomes so much more pleasant. Check out the difference in just one room:


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Probably we should do more. I’d hang the art over the sofa back up, but it’s heavy and I don’t want to make a hole in the new paint. And that tall shelf perhaps should go, too. But I hope this shows how clearing stuff out of a room can help make it more appealing. Which is why moving is very useful, really. Even if I manage to stay put in the next house, I think it would be a good idea to pretend I’m moving every five years or so, just to keep the place in good condition.

Jaime is doing even better at divesting than I am, since he’s moving to an island. Anything he takes either has to fit in his luggage or has to be mailed over, and then he has to find a place to put it on the other end. Sometimes I think I should pretend I’m moving to an island, too.

Are you in control of your clutter? If so, what are your secrets?