A professional organizer's advice for spring cleaning

For Baltimore at Home

Soon it'll be time to open the windows, let in the fresh air and start spring cleaning — except that pile of school papers in the kitchen keeps getting in the way. So do the stack of books in the living room and the mound of shoes and jackets in the hallway.

It's easy for this kind of clutter to accumulate in today's busy households, says Jacquie Ross, owner of Ellicott City-based CastAway the Clutter, a professional organizing service.

Decluttering can open up space and even reduce stress in the home, she says. "It's all about organizing space and maximizing storage."

Ross talked with Baltimore at Home about identifying clutter-prone areas and suggested simple ways to keep them clear.

What are some strategies homeowners can use to declutter?

Focus on decluttering before organizing. Get the majority of the stuff out, or at least get it all in one area and go through it. If you can't do that, just take a corner of the room. Don't scatter. Work on one pile or one area at a time until you're done.

Also, as soon as you get up, make your bed. It doesn't take that long, and it doesn't have to be perfect. But it makes a huge difference in the room.

Think about charities and organizations that may mean a lot to you, or if you don't have any idea, do some research and find ones that you feel good about giving your stuff to.

Have a little bit of a budget for products or shelving, depending on what you want to do with the space. Realize you're going to have to spend a little bit of money to organize the space. Once you've put that investment in and you know where everything is, you won't have to do it again.

Then schedule time to maintain. It can be whenever makes sense to you or you have the energy to do it. Maybe before you sit down, do a few things. Or do some things during the commercial breaks. It's amazing what you can do in five minutes, or even three minutes, sometimes.

What are some of the most common types of clutter you see in homes?

Probably the most common is paper. Everyone struggles with that. Also things like outerwear, jackets, bags and shoes. That can create a lot of clutter in the hallway.

And people who like to collect free stuff and bargain shop — if they don't … set limits for themselves, they end up with too much. I say: Always ask yourself, "Do you need it?" "Are you going to use it?" or "Are you going to read it?" Also, think about if it needs to be maintained, and where is it going to go? That's the big one. It's not really a deal if it's in your way…

[Another] big one is computers…. Everyone's got a box of cables and wires or a drawer "just in case."

What are some common areas where clutter collects?

It depends on the homeowner and their lifestyle. If they come in and the kitchen is one of the first rooms, then people tend to drop stuff there. It's the hub of the home, especially when you have a family.

Other spaces include spare bedrooms, attics… and the garage, particularly in the springtime. It's the place where people store their outdoor equipment, sporting goods, large toys and anything that's big that doesn't fit in the house. Sometimes they become dumping grounds and they don't get straightened up. Also the bathrooms — people have way too many toiletries. It's unbelievable… You've got the under-the-sink cabinets, which are just this big black hole, and you've got to set up your own systems in there.

Clutter culprits

Ross recommends divesting of these four items to instantly open up space:

Books

Many bookshelves are crammed with more than necessary. The common culprits? Cookbooks, old textbooks and books for children who are now adults. "Taking off 25 percent would open up some space and actually make it look better," Ross says.

Lawn tools

Do you really need the lawn tiller and snow blower taking up space in the garage when your neighbor has the same equipment? Ross recommends coming to an agreement with the neighbor, and then getting rid of duplicate equipment.

Sports equipment

Give the golf clubs collecting dust to someone who can use them, or take them to shops like Play It Again Sports, Ross says.

Collectibles

Many homeowners collect items near and dear to their hearts. But they don't need to be displayed throughout the home. "I encourage people to put them together as a collection," Ross says. "Now you've freed up a whole bunch of surface space in other areas."

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