Organizing and Decluttering

Liz Seymour and Caitlin Shear
Deputy Editor, The Washington Post Home Section and Professional Organizer
Thursday, May 15, 2008; 1:00 PM

Got an attic abandoned to clutter and chaos? For the next 11 weeks, Home staffer Liz Seymour and professional organizer Caitlin Shear will be sorting through, tossing out and tidying up the space -- one step at a time. They invite you to submit questions and share your own experiences as they embark on reclaiming Liz's attic. They were online Thursday, May 15, at 1 p.m. ET.


Liz Seymour: Good Afternoon! I'm Liz Seymour, deputy editor of The Washington Post Home section and the writer of a new online diary, "Organizing the Attic." I'm here with Caitlin Shear, the very wonderful and kind professional organizer who's helping me with my attic. We're gonna start answering questions right now.


Colchester, CT: No question, just a "High-Five." I'm right there with you; I inherited a lot of my grandmother's stuff, I too have two young kids and all their excess stuff, I sew, and I hit yard sales as a hobby. My hardest roadblocks are dealing with the grief and finding the time to go through it all. I am slowly attaining "attic org" with many dozens of 18 gallon "toughtote" containers lining the attic walls and a thick marker to label them. I wish you the best of luck!

Liz Seymour: Thanks very much. Let me assure you I need all the good wishes I can get!


Washington, D.C.: What type of boxes are good for a hot attic.

Cardboard or plastic. Some say plastic doesn't


How do you keep dirt and dust out of the attic?

Liz Seymour: Caitlin says it depends on what you're storing. For clothes, for example, she likes canvas zipper boxes or hanging wardrobes. But in general, she prefers plastic boxes because they protect from moisture and pests.


Rockville, Md.: How long do I have to save canceled checks? I have boxes of them from the 1980s. Apart from the "WOW Factor" derived when I wave about the $7.89 electric bill I paid in 1982 for my one bedroom apartment, why am I keeping all this paper? How about the tax returns for my deceased in-laws? Can I toss the 1990s?

Liz Seymour: Caitlin says IRS regulations say you should keep all banking and tax documents for seven years at least. If you're self-employed or have some kind of extenuating circumstance, you should keep them longer.


Boston, Mass.: I am trying to move house from a childhood home and am confounded because it is an archaeological dig of memories. What do I do?

Liz Seymour: Oh this is very painful, I realize. When Caitlin and I first started "zoning," which I write about next week, I found several sweaters my mother knitted back in the 1960s and '70s and almost burst into tears on the spot. But sometimes the memories are so great that you are delighted to find things you haven't seen in so long. Lost treasures, Caitlin calls them, and I think she's right. She recommends you take a photo of everything you have that you cannot keep so even if the item is no longer around, you will always remember it.


Season?: It's interesting that you chose to clear out the attic during the summer months -- isn't it hot up there?!? I always thought purging the attic was a fall/winter activity.

Liz Seymour: The fall/winter was the time I realized I could no longer live like this!!!! It's taken a few months to actually get the project going. Caitlin says you're right. Organizers recommend you do things seasonally.


Vienna, Va.: Hi,

I want to thank Caitlin for her help with de-cluttering and

re-organizing our child's room, the family room and the

living room. I am working on our small, narrow hall entry

area and have a question regarding whether or not to have a

small table with storage baskets available for guests.

Thank you very much.


Liz Seymour: I think Caitlin is fantastic too!!! As for your specific question, Caitlin doesn't think you need baskets for guests. Not enough room for people who aren't in your house everyday. Save the prime real estate for people who live there all the time. And she says you're a great client!!!!


Alexandria, Va.: How much does a professional organizer cost? I have always thought help getting organized was a luxury I couldn't afford, but then again I pay $130 a month for a storage unit to house all our excess "stuff." If an organizer could help me get rid of the storage unit once and for all, then it would be money well spent!

Liz Seymour: This is a good question. In the D.C. area, an organizer costs anywhere between $40 and $200 an hour, depending on the organizer's level of experience. You want someone who belongs to the National Association of Professional Organizers. Search its site by zip code.


Welcome, N.C.: I don't have an attic but the clutter I have is the same that's in your attic.

Can you recommend some good filing system methods for papers? Websites with filing plans would be okay, too.


Liz Seymour: Caitlin says there is a new product called freedom filer, an all-in-one filing system that force you to archive and file properly. That's a good way to start from scratch. It's about $50.

I will say that my attic is overrun with paper and I am saving that for LAST because I know cleaning it out will be excruciating.


Silver Spring, Md.: This article and online chat is so timely as I just declared this morning my plans to finally clean out our attic. My question is how and where do I start? What defines a keepsake?

Liz Seymour: Start by zoning, which I write about in next week's installment, and remove the obvious trash and empty boxes. You'd be amazed at how much floor space you'll gain!

What defines a keepsake? Caitlin says these are the things you would grab in a fire. Things so important to your family's history and story--photos, baby stuff, etc.--that they are irreplaceable to YOU.


Closet organizer: Do all those fancy closet organizing systems really work for the average person who isn't going to be extremely tidy? I'm not a slob, but I can't be bothered to carefully place my frequently worn shoes back on shoe racks every day, nor keep my sweaters, etc., tidily folded in neat piles. Should I even bother, given that organizers are pretty expensive?

Liz Seymour: Caitlin says you have to develop a system that works with your natural tendencies. It sounds like for you, the simpler, the better. Frequently worn shoes, for example, may be better in a basket instead of a hanging shoe bag. Putting them away is an extra step you may not take, but you may throw them in a nice basket.


Washington, D.C.: What is the best way to keep magazines? I refer to old ones and I'm failing to find an easy way to keep them on a shelf. It is easy to access the shelf in my reading room, but I don't know what would easily hold the magazines so that I can reach them in one touch off the shelf without piling them on top of each other!

Liz Seymour: Caitlin says don't keep them; you can find anything on the Internet. If you must, use upright plastic magazine files labeled by title and year. As someone in the news business, I say keep them all and buy more!!!!


Textiles and pillows: Hi, what's a good way to store soft bulky items, such as blankets and pillows, as well as sweaters, etc., in a small space? All the vacuum bags I've tried leaked, so there was no space saving. Currently they are stored in breathable plastic bags and bins, shoved in closets or bedroom corners, but it's taking a lot of space in my small condo. They are mostly for guests, so I need them, but relatively infrequently.


Liz Seymour: This is a good question. Caitlin agrees that the vacuum bags leak so she wonders if you can pare down the number of blankets and comforters you're storing. Do you need more than one? Don't forget you may have space under your bed. Caitlin also likes the idea of storage ottomans for guest linens.


Norfolk, Va.: My attic is very hot in the summer months. Will this destroy photographs if they are stored there?

Liz Seymour: Caitlin says a hot attic will cause photos to discolor and stick together and melt the negatives. It largely affects the colors.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Liz, thanks for sharing your de-cluttering journey with us. I look forward to reading about the transformation. Caitlin, I was wondering if you have any advice on how to address de-cluttering with someone else. My mom has a terribly cluttered home, filled with things that cannot possibly have any meaning to her: flower pots filled with dirt and nothing else are a common theme, as are closets stuffed to the brim with clothes she never wears, cheap knick knacks, candles, etc. I would love to help her get rid of or organize some these things and create some space and openness in both her home and her life but she gets defensive when I bring it up. Should I just butt out or is there something I can do to help?

Liz Seymour: This is a very tough question. Caitlin the wise one says you can only help people who want help. You can suggest that there are professional organizers who can help because often, people are more self-conscious with a family member. You need a neutral party here. You can express concern for their safety. Good luck.


Silver Spring, Md.: One year ago I retired after 26 years as a computer programmer. I have a large unfinished basement full of stuff. What should I do with my collection of old outdated PCs and computer manuals? I really don't want to throw them away.

Liz Seymour: Keep a representative sample. You feel like you're throwing away your whole career and you're not. You have to recycle them or see if second-hand computer places need them for parts.


St. Louis, Missouri: What about heirlooms that have been passed along in deteriorated condition? I inherited an old family bookcase full of books and documents that are literally falling apart. As a result, it's not really something I would display in my home. The wishes of the giver are that everything in the bookcase stays in the bookcase and gets passed down.

Short of putting it all in storage to deteriorate further, any suggestions for dealing with the stipulations that go with heirlooms?

Liz Seymour: This is truly a curse when people hold on to things and don't care for them and then you get them in terrible condition. As the curator of the family collection, it's your job to make the determination of what's kept, what's repaired and what to get rid of. Then do some online searching for how to restore some of the valuable items that are in bad shape. Archival Methods is a company that sells all sorts of storage materials that would work for you.


Virginia: Hi Liz and Caitlin,

We do not have an attic currently but hopefully will have one when we move within the next year or so. What are some guidelines to remember so we don't junk it up?

Liz Seymour: You mean so you don't end up like me????!!!!

Caitlin says purge as much as you can before you move and set up zones for each type of item you're storing and stick to those boundaries. Take advantage of vertical space when storing things in the attic.


What should be stored in an attic?: Hi,

That may seem a basic question, but I mean it in all seriousness! Since attics get hot, what is safe to store there (both from a fire hazard and so the items aren't destroyed)?

Liz Seymour: Here's what not to store: photos, negatives, record albums, and anything that would be affected by extreme temperature or moisture.


Fairfax, Va.: Hi -- Do you ever recommend renting a storage space, or is

that just putting off the inevitable? I know it ain't cheap. but we have virtually no storage space.

Liz Seymour: Caitlin never ever ever recommends getting a storage unit. Clutter is a symptom of unmade decisions. (Liz thinks this is very profound.)Either incorporate it into your life or get rid of it.


Fairfax, Va. I have six linear feet of old (15-20 years old) National Geographics. Does any organization want these?

Liz Seymour: No. Unless you have stored them in mylar sleeves and are in perfect condition, they don't have much value. Check eBay for specifics.


Re: keeping magazines: I've taken to just clipping out those specific articles or things I think I'll refer to again. I'm hoping to go to a system of scanning them and saving them on a computer, but I'm not quite there yet.

Liz Seymour: Good for you!!! Lots of people keep scrapbooks. I got several letter-size boxes that I put magazine clippings and recipes in and it works for me.


Vienna, Va.: When I was going through my mother's stuff, I found a card from her college archivist asking for any memorabilia. When I called the archivist to ask if he really wanted various papers, he said that most definitely he wanted what I would have thought was junk.

Liz Seymour: How interesting. Caitlin says it's always good to check with institutions who may have an interest. Her father taught architecture for 40 years. His slides and papers now reside in the university library.


Burke, Va.: As we declutter our homes, what do we do with old electronic equipment (TVs, stereos, computers)? I want to recycle them but am having a hard time determining where to do this? Thanks for your help.

Liz Seymour: The dump will take them but you have to pay. There are often schools that have electronics recycling drives, too.


Imagine the space: Liz,

Good luck with your decluttering escapade. Might I suggest that you literally draw up your plans on how you're going to use the space once it's decluttered? You mention that you envision adequate storage and using it as your home office, perhaps with a flat screen. Use some graph paper and draw as best you can your vision. Doing this will help motivate you to get this job done quickly so you can build your "dream space." It's all about visualization of goals!

Liz Seymour: I think that's an excellent idea and if my husband, Bob, is reading this, please go buy some graph paper. Caitlin agrees that it does keep you motivated during the process of cleaning out to imagine how great the space could be.


DC bibliophile: Just curious: Does Caitlin believe there is such a thing as too many books? If so -- how many is too many?

Liz Seymour: No she does not and again that's one of the reasons I love her!!! She says she would line every wall in her house with books if she had that many. Just make sure you go through your collection often. Paperbacks don't last as long as hardcovers, obviously. She recommends a thinning every year and also recommends using bookplates if you share your books with others.


How do I start?: I read somewhere that people keep things because 20 percent of what they have is worth something but can't identify what the 20 percent is from the total.

Until this last move (8 moves in 16 years), I was pretty good at clearing out. This last one involved my mother's stuff after she died. The smell reminds me that she is dead. (No, it's not a bad smell, just the smell of her house now in a storage unit).

I know I want to get rid of much of this stuff but can't bear to throw it away (I already filled 4 dumpsters). I think I have more than 20 percent worthwhile stuff. eBay would be good, if I could get someone else to take care of the mechanics. Who does?

Liz Seymour: You should hire a professional organizer to handle the mechanics, make you do it and give an unbiased opinion of what something is worth. They can also help you define what things truly are keepsakes to you.


Takoma Park, Md.: We consolidated households when we bought our house 3 years ago and used the opportunity to eliminate duplicates and things that seemed like they should be saved, but really shouldn't. It wasn't easy to decide who had the better can opener, but we worked it out.

Now we take advantage of the non-profits that periodically come through the neighborhood (Purple Heart for example) for collections to keep whittling away at the buildup. We try hard to make sure there's a respectable amount of stuff in the giveaway pile.

Liz Seymour: Well good for you!!!!!! That's great. The Lupus Foundation sends bags out and also will come around.


Arlington, Va.: My "block" that keeps me from decluttering the house/attic is sports collectibles. I have tons of items that I know are e-Bay worthy, I just don't have the time to prepare and manage auctions. Do e-Bay sellers take a big cut of the "profits"?

Liz Seymour: eBay sellers generally take about 30 percent of the profit, according to Caitlin. If your collection is substantial, it might be worth it to you because of all the time you'll have to spend cataloguing, photographing, packing and mailing it all.


Washington, D.C.: Hi ladies,

Kudos to you for deciding to clear the attic!

Will you be separating things into piles like keep, donate, toss? Any other designations?

Related to the cancelled checks question--retirement account statements--I have every quarterly statement on two accounts for the past six years. I am drowning in paper. Can I toss some of them?

Thank you!

Liz Seymour: Caitlin would keep the end of year statement for the retirement funds, but ask your accountant to be sure.

We are doing the keep-toss-donate method within the zones.


West Hartford, Conn.: This is such a timely task. My attic is just as cluttered if not more so and the clutter is overwhelming my ability to get other things done in the house. I would love to start organizing it (despite the rising heat). Which "zone" should I start in when there is no space even to walk? I literally have to climb over boxes to get to things.

Liz Seymour: That is exactly what my attic looked like and it was amazing after the first 20 minutes when I saw the attic floor for the first time in four years. Basically, Caitlin just started moving stuff around in the zone nearest the stairs and gradually we began grouping like things together. When we were finally done, there was not just floor space, there was an actual pathway!!!


Non-attic: My condo has a relatively small storage room off of the balcony. It's about 4 x 7 and not insulated. Is it safe to store things like books or papers out there if they are in plastic storage bins? Any other ideas for using that space? Thanks!

Liz Seymour: Yes those will work if they are in plastic. Extra bedding and off-season clothes can also go in plastic bins as long as they are waterproof.


Washington, D.C.:

You mentioned record albums. I have hundreds in my attic, and I'm worried about them. So, sparing me any sermons about the modern merits of digital storage, what's the best way to preserve and store my vinyl so I can listen to them for the next 50 years regardless of this season's newest gizmo? Should they be stored flat or standing? In paper sleeves or plastic? In air-tight containers or open/slotted cartons? Thanks so much.

Liz Seymour: Ok, let's be frank. When was the last time you played any of these albums? Are you sure they are not already warped? If you really want to keep and use them, you should move them out of the attic. My husband and I have many albums and Caitlin suggested we frame a few of the covers because both our children really like music and we think it would look cool in some rooms in our house.


Re "thinning out" books: What does Caitlin mean about paperbacks "not lasting"? Are we supposed to throw them away after X number of years? And what else does she suggest one look for when "thinning" the book collection?

Liz Seymour: Caitlin's husband has a huge collection of science fiction novels from the 1980s. The pages are the color of a lunch bag, the spines have disintegrated and they are essentially unreadable. That's what she means by "not lasting." Just keep the books that mean something to you. I just got rid of two autobiographies: Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.


Appraisals: You told "don't know where to start" chatter that organizers can tell you what your stuff is worth! I had no idea!! Is this true of all organizers? or are some trained as appraisers, too? Does the per-hour depend on dual credentials?

Liz Seymour: They are not appraisers but they can give you a good idea based on their experience. If something is particularly unique and valuable, you should call in an appraiser to help.


Silver Spring, Md.: My biggest clutter problem is mail. It is both a curse and a blessing to have a table in the foyer. I have been forced to put an ugly brown paper bag next to it so I can immediately dump the junk mail for recycling. The other stuff still piles up.

Liz Seymour: Actually your ugly brown paper bag is one of the smartest things you can do, Caitlin says. You can also open your mail over the trash can to immediately dump the envelopes and filler.


Columbia, S.C.: My mother-in-law loved books. Really loved them. When she passed away, we picked what we really wanted, then took the rest (at least 20 boxes) of books to the library to donate. Helps the library, and you get a nice tax benefit. The moral: don't hang on to anything you won't look at; it's just more to collect dust!

Liz Seymour: Yes that's true. We donated a bunch of my books to a public library in Fairfax.


Recycling electronics: I recently discovered two free ways to recycle electronics. I haven't tried either yet, but will once I start my own purge/reorg this summer.

The Post Office is starting a pilot mail-in recycling program. Select post offices will have prepaid mailing envelopes for small electronics (cameras, PDAs, cellphones, etc). DC is supposedly one of the pilot areas so I keep checking each time I'm at the post office.

Potentially even better is Costco's Tradein/Recycling program. Like the USPS, they give you prepaid shipping labels, but you can even get cash back on some items (my 3-year old desktop is worth $17, better than paying the county to accept!)

Liz Seymour: Great to know so we're sharing with others out there. Thanks for that!


Bowie, Md.: How do you move past the anxiety and paralysis created by the clutter? I just can't get started because I don't believe I'll ever be finished. The papers appear to be reproducing on their own in my home office!

Liz Seymour: This is very difficult I realize. My attic got worse and worse and worse in the last few years. For me, it was searching for some papers that I knew were up there but could not find. I was mortified things had gotten this out of hand. That's when I knew I had to do something and it took me another three months or so to actually start doing it.

Making an appointment with a professional organizer forces you to set aside time in small doses and tackle it.


Westminster, Md.: Great article and discussion! I would just like to remind everyone to make a good effort to pass things along to others who may want them, if at all possible. Some things that seem like junk to us are useful to others. For instance, animal shelters can use old towels and blankets. A mental health institution I know of accepts unused greeting cards and stationery to help patients stay in touch with friends and family. Many recycling centers now have textile recycling, so that old clothes don't go into the landfill. Some old clothes may be useful to the costume depts of college drama depts or theatres. And you can always post items you don't want to Freecycle.

Liz Seymour: Yes this is all absolutely true and a great reminder. By holding on to your stuff you may be depriving someone of something they might actually need.


Madison, N.C.: Have a 1,200 sq. foot attic that is filled with my family's accumulation of over 33 years.There's not even walking space. Should I just throw everything out and start over? Do you have any better suggestions?

Liz Seymour: No don't throw anything out yet. If you take the time to zone the room, you'll have a much better sense of what's up there. Maybe hire a professional organizer to help you decide what to do.


Rockville, Md.: What type of containers are recommended for archival purposes -- family records, newspapers, etc? Also, what type of labeling system -- colors or stickers? How can you rodent-proof items?

Liz Seymour: For archival purposes, you need acid-free archival boxes and mylar sleeves and dessicant canisters. There are lots of different online purveyors of this stuff, including exposures and archival methods. Caitlin loves her labeler but she says the key is to create a system that you can actually maintain. Color-coding can be time-intensive where the label maker is just easier.


Recycling cellphones: Whole Foods has a bin for used phones; these phones are then recycled. I'm not sure about this WF program but I know there are others out there who take donated phones and reprogram them (or whatever else they do) and give them to women in domestic violence programs so they have a phone to call 911.

Liz Seymour: Yes that's exactly right. State Police and fire used to take them sometimes but I'm not sure if they do anymore.


Fairfax, Va.: Long story short, after I got married (3 1/2 years ago) my husband and I bought a much bigger house which was mostly empty for a few months. Shortly after we bought the house he gave up his apartment in New Jersey and also his mom passed away. We moved his stuff down as well as many items he kept at his mother's and many things she owned that he was sentimentally attached to. Now, our huge house has only one empty room. Oh, I forgot to mention, we also just had a baby, and bought/received lots of stuff for her, too! How do I convince my husband to let go some (if not all) of the inherited items that he is still sentimentally tied to? Our basement has a huge room filled with boxes. I want to turn it into my daughter's play room. Your help is greatly appreciated!

Liz Seymour: This will take time. When my parents died, I got rid of almost nothing. I never wanted to regret that I didn't keep something. I also had a newborn so I know what you're going through. But now, five years later, I can be much less sentimental about what I'm keeping. Caitlin says it's good to set a goal, say, a year from now, to look at everything again and see if there are things he's willing to part with.


Atlanta, Ga.: After living overseas for a decade, our household goods in deep storage will be delivered to our Atlanta home in July. The thought of 17,000 pounds, most of which could be tossed, arriving on our front door step is making me ill and sleepless with anxiety. For example, our daughter's toddler bed is in the shipment and she's now 13! Unfortunately, I'm a pack rat, but I don't want to live amid chaos any longer. Where can I get professional help to deal with the tsunami of unwanted moving boxes, ancient appliances, outgrown clothes, etc. that is heading ominously our way. Without help, it could be years before we dig ourselves out.

Liz Seymour: Call a professional organizer pronto! Go to the National Association of Professional Organizers Web site and plug in your zip code to find folks near where you live. Also go to the National Study Group on Chronic Organization Web site. The founder of this group, Caitlin says, is based in Atlanta.


Help! Please!: I understand that one of the benefits of getting organized with clutter is WEIGHT LOSS. So I'm looking forward to getting my life together. My question. What do you do with old bills? How long do you keep them? Should you organize by year or by creditor? Please please help me. I know if I can overcome this I will realize my potential as an otherwise smart, middle-aged married woman.

Liz Seymour: Caitlin says the simpler, the better. She keeps the last year of bills from her own house and shreds the rest. The files you keep should be organized by year. Good luck.


Washington, D.C.: My 88-year-old mother lives alone in a house where she has been since 1950. Her house is FAIRLY neat and organized. She has lots of stuff in her attic, which is FAIRLY neat and organized but she doesn't need most of the things that are there.

I was in her attic recently and she pointed out a trunk that had belonged to her father--who died in 1943. Also a trunk that had belonged to my father--who died in 1992.

She also has a huge wooden box--not exactly a trunk with miscellaneous items--gifts she has been given over the years and items she has purchased but never used. There are also a couple of file cabinets with, I think, office supplies from pre-1970.

I want to go through the things with her while she is still able to review the things with her and also while I am still able.

Neither she nor I would be able to carry the trunks from the attic. We would need help. There are bedrooms where the items might be temporarily stored but then those places would be (temporarily?) cluttered.

How to handle this??? I once spoke to a professional organizer who said she does not work with elderly people because they don't want to throw things away.

My mother has an "office" where she has computer and lots of folders. Much of it is in fairly good order--maybe better than mine--but she keeps saying and I agree that things could be better organized. I have told her about professional organizers but I feel that IF I'm able to convince her to hire one of the orgnizers who's willing to work with seniors, I will have to be present AND she will be one of those reluctant to throw stuff away.

Any advice???

Liz Seymour: Go to the NAPO Web site and find an organizer who enjoys working with seniors, unlike the person you found. Ugh. Caitlin is currently working with a couple (wife is 94 and husband is 91) who are downsizing and she says they are a total delight!


Philadelphia, Pa.: This question is for Caitlin:

I have a bad habit of allowing horizontal space clutter. If it's a table or dresser (or even bed or floor, for that matter) it becomes a landing space for all manner of books, papers, clothes and whatever else I tend to drop off there. Any tips for curbing this habit?

P.S. Liz: That is a BEAUTIFUL hardwood floor in that attic. I hope we get to see more of it!

Liz Seymour: You're a piler, not a filer, Caitlin says. Take advantage of vertical space by hanging file pockets on the walls. People like them because you can see your piles and still have a work surface.


Liz Seymour: Thanks so much for all your great questions! Remember to read week 2 of Organizing the Attic next Thursday at and e-mail us at


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