How to declutter your home before you downsize

Clutter was overwhelming Claire Shirley’s life.

Her hallway was an assault course of boxes and her one-bedroom flat was full (almost literally) to the rafters.

Claire, 64, has lived in the same flat in Fulham, west London, for 34 years. During that time she had collected far too much stuff for the space. A fear of tackling decades of detritus is often cited by reluctant downsizers as the single biggest barrier to them moving house.

Claire, an English and maths tutor, didn’t want to move, but she did want order.

Her home was bursting at the seams with documents, craft equipment for the Brownie pack she runs, some 30 years’ worth of programmes from Crystal Palace Football Club matches, old birthday cards, photographs, paintings, and furniture inherited from her mother’s home.

To make matters worse, she was renting a storage unit at £320pcm that was also fully loaded.

“It was overwhelming and taking over my life,” she said. “I think the problem was that if I value something, like the football programmes, I can’t bring myself to throw it away.

“I can’t let go of things unless they are going to a good home. And if I felt something could be useful in the future I would squirrel it away.”

Then, last summer, things changed. Claire took a course with Helen Sanderson, clutter expert and author of The Secret Life of Clutter, to try to understand her addiction to chattels.

She then hired Helen to sort out her home.

Since then she has taken 110 bags for life to charity shops, pruned down her collection of souvenirs, digitised her collections of paintings, pictures and cards, and sold some furniture and paintings at auction.

The project is still a work in progress – Claire’s dining room remains full of boxes to be gone through – but so far she is thrilled. “When it is finished it is going to look really fantastic, and it is such a weight off my mind,” she said.

Inherited clutter raised £200,000 at auction

For Peter Moore Dutton, clutter was an inherited issue. From the age of 12 to 73 he lived at Tushingham Hall in Cheshire.

The glorious white-stucco property had been purchased by his great, great, great grandfather Daniel Vawdrey in 1814 and mementoes, from family portraits, to books, tribal artefacts and hefty pieces of mahogany furniture filled its rooms.

Two years ago, Peter, now 74 and his wife Valerie, 82, realised that the financial and physical strain of managing the seven-bedroom, three-bathroom home, plus circa 100 acres, was too much for them.

None of Peter’s grown-up children was interested in taking the hall on and so it was put on the market for £1.95m with estate agents Jackson-Stops. The sale completed last summer and Peter and Valerie now own a three-bedroom bungalow near Malpas, four miles away.

Leaving the property was, of course, a wrench. But trying to decide what to bring with them to their much smaller new home was almost worse.

Most books were either sold or donated. They took a few pieces of furniture with them, including an 18th-century cupboard and a grandfather clock, and Peter’s three children also claimed a few mementoes.

Eventually more than 700 pieces went under the hammer with Trevanion Auctioneers. In total the sale raised some £200,000.

“It was sad to lose the stuff, but we had to be realistic,” Peter said. “We had to bite the bullet but it means we have not left it for my children to deal with, which they are relieved about, and we have money if we need to pay for care or anything else.”

‘We were drowning in stuff, you couldn’t even see the house’

When Millie and Freddie Burnet bought their three-bedroom cottage in Fyfield, Hampshire, in 2021 it was in need of a thorough renovation.

Short of cash for furnishings, the couple were initially grateful for donations from family members, and they filled in the gaps by buying second hand on Facebook Marketplace.

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