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‘I was drowning in stuff – how I learned to let go and declutter’

Millie Burnet
Millie Burnet and husband Freddie embarked on a ‘ruthless’ declutter - Christopher Pledger

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.

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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.

Millie Burnet
Millie Burnet started decluttering after deciding to sell her home - Christopher Pledger

The previous owners had also left behind furniture, plus a substantial collection of broken garden furniture and although small, their miniature dachshund, Hercule, has plenty of toys and bedding.

Once their daughter, Willow, now one, was born in 2022 she added endless baby equipment to the mix.

“We were drowning in baby stuff, nobody warns you how much of it there is,” said Millie.

“The house was so full that you couldn’t even really see all the work we had done to it.”

When Millie, 30, who works in marketing for a strategic risk advisory, returned to work after Willow’s birth, it rapidly became clear that the house no longer worked for the young family.

Freddie is an office manager, and they needed to be closer to the grandparents who were helping out with childcare.

Last year the couple decided to put the house on the market, and move to Wilton, near Salisbury. Before they did so, however, they embarked on a “ruthless” declutter.

Unwanted furniture was either resold or given away. Out also went items of sentimental value like crockery which had belonged to Millie’s grandparents. Freddie, meanwhile, gave up military memorabilia and childhood possessions.

Millie feels that a brutal approach is painful but necessary.

“If you never throw things away they become sentimentally valuable just because you’ve had them a long time,” she pointed out. “Then you have so much stuff that trying to deal with it is so daunting that you can’t move house. It’s something we’ve seen with relatives.”

The cottage, now looking immaculate, is on the market with a guide price of £495,000.

“And when we do move everything is so organised that packing will be easy,” said Millie.

From a financial point of view, estate and buying agents are in agreement that it is far better to declutter before attempting to sell.

A clean, clear space is more appealing to buyers than a scene of overcrowded chaos.

“We are at a crucial stage in a changing market,” said Charlie Warner, partner at Heaton & Partners. “Many purchasers are really quite concerned about houses that require a lot of work – instead they want homes they can already imagine themselves living in.”

On this basis he believes that an orderly home could fetch 5pc more than an “overstuffed space”.

In London, Joseph Bate, senior sales manager, Johns&Co, recently took on a home that had been languishing on the market for several months.

“After a good declutter and better photography, within five days we had four viewings and secured an offer at the client’s asking price,” he said. “We see a 20pc increase in traffic to more photogenic online listings that aren’t heavily cluttered and packed with too much furniture.”

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