It's beyond junk mail and magazines, though paper is the chief culprit.
It's the stuff you bought, saved, collected, clipped, meant to read, had no place for, never opened but kept who-knows-why, thought would come in handy, considered regifting, hoped would become stylish again and just didn't know what to do with. In the meantime, it's stashed in piles, closets, drawers, basement or attic.
The volume overwhelms you. You'd like to move. Or reclaim your space. Maybe you identify with the National Association of Professional Organizers statistic that says Americans spend an average of 55 minutes a day looking for things they own but can't find.
Clutter is stress-inducing to live with and so daunting to deal with that managing it is an industry.
It so scares potential buyers that experts say if you expect your house to sell, especially in today's market, you must declutter.
That often means half of what you've got should go. Rebecca Lang, owner of Delaware-based Clutter Organizers, which includes clients in Maryland, advises removing as much as 80 percent of what's in the public areas.
Houses sell faster and for more money when pared down and orderly, as buyers envision their belongings -- not yours -- in spacious homes, said Patti DiMiceli of Organizing Made Simple in Annapolis.
"The way you live in a house is not the way you sell a house," said Paula A. Henry of Simply Put Interiors in Baltimore. "There are things you can live without."
She stresses that crammed closets create a sense of insufficient storage, appliance-laden countertops a sense of scarce kitchen space and crowded pathways a sense of smallness. The photo shrine to your kin, the refrigerator art gallery and doorway disorder distract buyers on a first date with the house.
"This property has not been maintained, that is what will jump through the buyer's mind, or that it is too hard to keep up," she said. Too much personal stuff tells buyers there's no room for them in the house.
That's why on Henry's advice, Judy Walters took two-thirds of the books off her shelves and cleared out everything that wouldn't be worn or used pre-move, excess furniture included. Walters also painted before putting the family's Timonium house on the market for a price just below similar ones.
"It sold in two days," Walters said, with this bonus: much packing was already done.
Beth Incorvati, a Long & Foster agent in Bel Air who also stages homes for sale, had sellers Greg and Nigel York limit their children to active-duty toys and one playroom instead of toys throughout the house; the couple then added toy shelves.
"The kids have to learn to clean up anyway," said Dr. Greg York, who did a little cleanup of his own, parting with medical journals untouched in eons in preparation for listing the Bel Air home later this month.
Not moving? Consider the less extreme form of decluttering -- spring cleaning. Either way, there may be benefits beyond freeing up space.
Last year, a man died in a Canton rowhouse fire, and city firefighters blamed clutter for hampering rescue efforts. Also, 31 percent of respondents to an IKEA survey said cleaning their closet was more satisfying than sex. And, TLC's Clean Sweep organizational consultant Peter Walsh has noted that weight loss often accompanies decluttering.
Clutter can happen unintentionally.
"It takes more energy to think about 'is it ever going to have any meaning for me,' " said psychologist Jonathan Kandell, who heads the counseling service at the University of Maryland, College Park. "A lot of people, they just don't want to deal with it."
That's why some people turn to the equivalent of a personal trainer to sort through what to keep and how to organize it.
"It's a feeling of enlightenment when you don't have all that clutter hanging around," said Linda Standiford, whose Clean, Change and Rearrange business in Hunt Valley incorporates Asian feng shui principles in unburdening homeowners.
According to Standiford, a homeowner can't welcome fresh energy, like buyers, when the area around the front door has shoes, umbrellas, skateboards and more. One mess saps an entire room's energy, she says.
Newly married, Marnie and Patrick Kenefick moved into an Annapolis townhouse four years ago. But soon they stacked cartons in a shower, had a lifetime supply of binder clips and covered every flat surface with things they hadn't addressed. A year and a half ago, the urge to move led to a realization that they had to purge and organize for their growing family as well as to show the house.
They sought out Cindy Bernstein of Aim 4 Order in Baltimore. Working with the couple off and on for a year and half, Bernstein brought an organizer's criteria: Use it? Love it? Need it? Did you ever? The goal: List the house this spring.
"At first, I was a little bit embarrassed," Marnie Kenefick acknowledged.
"The funniest thing was finding my son's birth announcements," Kenefick said, recalling that she was pregnant with her next child when she and Bernstein unearthed them. "They didn't get mailed because I wanted to personally write a little note in each one. Then I had to do an update for his first year."
Now, she said, the paper tiger has been caged in two file cabinet drawers. The couple has new habits. They put things away or throw them out. No stashing; every item has a home. They say no to hand-me-downs their two kids won't wear for years.
And they have three closets left to do.
MANAGING THE MESS
Social worker Ann Saunders of S.O.S. Simple Organizing Solutions in Baltimore, advises starting the process with a plan, beginning in a small area.
Schedule decluttering time. Base it on how long you can focus on the task and your available block of time. If you can't go it alone, do it with someone who is nonjudgmental.
Set positive criteria for things to keep. They make you smile, you will use them, they're in good shape, etc.
Corral paper. Contact an accountant or do an online search for "document retention" to learn what papers to save.
Clear space. Pros advise sellers to think spacious. Closets, pantries and drawers should be no more than three-quarters full. If you haven't used something in a year, consider getting rid of it.
Store it. Rent temporary storage space if needed only for what's going with you. Although, nearly one in 10 Americans rent a storage space for excess stuff, don't get addicted to the unit.
ANDREA F. SIEGEL
MAKING SENSE OF CLUTTER
Want to know how to declutter a linen closet? Social worker Ann Saunders, who owns S.O.S. Simple Organizing Solutions in Baltimore, says these steps can be followed to organize other places, too:
Empty the closet, putting the contents on a flat surface; make sure the closet is clean.
Sort the items, so that bath towels are in one pile, washcloths in another, etc. Evaluate what you have.
Go through each pile, placing items in one of six categories: discard, give away, sell/consign, store to move, put elsewhere, return to closet.
Clear out the return-to-closet box first. Put the linens back neatly; leave empty space.
Pack what you will take when you move. Label boxes.
Discard and sell/consign items can be boxed and labeled.
Go around your house with the put-elsewhere box and put those items where they belong.
Decide who gets giveaways. Sort, box and label for each recipient.
Take outward-bound boxes to a designated place. Throw out discards.
Here are some tips for making clutter-centers buyer-friendly:
Closets: Remove and pack off-season clothes and everything you don't wear. Organize in a useful way -- by similarities, color, sleeve length, etc.
Bedroom: It won't exude "restful" if the 10-speed, ironing board and treadmill are in it. A bureau tray with a few generic items is fine, personal hygiene items are not.
Kitchen: Counters should have an everyday appliance or two. Eliminate multiples of dishes, utensils, etc. Have one calendar only. Remove everything but essentials from kitchen desk.
Living/family and dining rooms: Remove extra furniture. Limit tabletop groupings to three items -- no paper. Clear walls of all but one framed item. Put away electronic toys.
Here are some ideas for getting clutter out of the house for good.
Give it away. Post the stuff you want to give away online at Freecycle.org. The online community has 44 groups in Maryland. Also, your neighborhood listserve or newsletter may permit giveaway postings.
Donate it. Don't know who will want your stuff? Look online for organizations, shelters, religious groups and local nonprofits to learn who takes what. Ask if they'll pick up. Keep receipts for tax deductions.
Give it a second life. Recycle/reuse. See mdrecycles.org for lists of charities, recyclers and e-cyclers (electronics recyclers).
Sell it. Yard sales, consignment shops, online auctions. Make a few bucks.
Dump it. For a fee, services such as 1-800-gotjunk? and College Hunks Hauling Junk will take it away if your garbage hauler won't.
[ Andrea F. Siegel]