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If you know you own a piano but just can't remember where you put it, you may be ready for both a cathartic experience and popular design trend: decluttering your home.

The need is more urgent if you're planning to put your house or condominium up for sale.

Elli Davis of Royal LePage Real Estate Services Ltd., for example, says she won't hammer a sign into the lawn until the junk is carted away and the clutter is packed up.

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"I will not put a home on the market that's not in a nice, neat condition," she says. "I think I'm hired to do a job and that includes suggesting what you can do to increase the value."

In the past, Ms. Davis says, some agents were reluctant to suggest a makeover to prospective clients for fear of insulting them. But an increasing number are coming around to the view that house hunters are more likely to buy a house when they can imagine their own belongings sliding into place.

"Generally people find it easier to look at a home when they're not distracted," says Ms. Davis.

Agents don't have firm numbers on how much higher the selling price will climb when a backyard is cleared of broken lawnmowers, but increasingly they are calling in specialty services to help people get organized.

At the same time, an astounding number of television shows, web sites and specialty magazines are also telling people how to make over their homes for sale, organize their lives, or simply clean out their closets.

On The Learning Channel, Clean Sweep attracts 10-million viewers a week in the United States.

Peter Walsh, the Clean Sweep organizer who coaches people through the trauma of confronting the detritus of a lifetime, says the program also draws high numbers of Canadian viewers.

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"The people who come on the show are people who desperately need a helping hand," he says. "It's such a strong intervention."

One Clean Sweep subject threw open a door to a spare room to reveal possessions piled three-and-a-half feet deep. She told Mr. Walsh there was a piano in there but she hadn't seen it in 17 years.

The participants on Clean Sweep are people whose lives have gotten out of control, no doubt, but Mr. Walsh says the show receives 200 applications a day from folks who want the Clean Sweep team to help them restore order.

Mr. Walsh recently talked with visitors to the National Home Show in Toronto about solving their own organizing dilemmas.

We all land somewhere on the clutter scale, he points out, and that's why the show strikes such a chord with people.

Mr. Walsh, who grew up in Australia and has a Masters degree in educational psychology from the University of Melbourne, says the show and his private practice as a consultant have given him some insight into how people have become so swamped with stuff - and so desperate to unload it.

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He looks at the economic prosperity that the United States and Canada have enjoyed for the past 50 years or so, and speculates that that affluence made it easy for people to become materialistic.

"For many years people believed that acquiring stuff would make them happy."

But he believes that increasing uncertainty and conflict in the world after the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks and the start of the U.S. war with Iraq may be behind a collective soul-searching.

Many North Americans are looking for a way to lead a richer life, Mr. Walsh believes, and clutter gets in the way of that.

"People are interested in trying to get a bit of control back into their lives. The idea that more is better is not true."

Mr. Walsh's role is not about the items and how to organize them, Mr. Walsh says, but about why people can't divorce themselves from the emotions they attach to their possessions. He helps people to get perspective.

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"[Clutter]keeps you in the past or it keeps you in the future," he says. As a result, people give up enjoying their homes today.

"It isolates people from their friends because they're afraid to have people over. It's suffocating."

Besides pointing out the emotional toll, Mr. Walsh also does another calculation for homeowners: If a home is worth $300,000 and people are using a 10- by 10-foot room purely for storage, that's the equivalent of having a $20,000 storage room.

"The cost is huge."

People will also diminish the value of their homes if they try to sell a property that hasn't seen the benefits of a thorough decluttering. Clearing out the junk makes a home look cleaner, more spacious and more appealing.

Mr. Walsh says more real estate agents, home staging services and homeowners who are coming to market are realizing the same thing.

"I think it's something whose time has come."

Lenni Jabour of Simplified Living Professional Organizing Services in Toronto says she receives many referrals from real estate agents who "call in the heavies" to help people sort through years of accumulation.

She thinks that people have become so busy with the proliferation of email, Blackberry pagers and cell phones that they don't have time to file important documents, let alone organize the spice rack.

"The open house is fairly painless and quite short after we've done the work that we've done."

She adds that lots of clients are downsizing from a house to a condo, for example, and they need help in making the move.

Ms. Jabour also helps people who just want to lead a calmer existence or get their out-of-control lives back on track.

The organizer says society and technology today can make people feel that they constantly need to buy new things and upgrade the items they already have. The Internet has given people easy access to online auction and shopping sites.

"Shopping can be a way of emotionally dealing with hard times," she says. "Managing your home environment is form of managing your life effectively."

She says getting rid of items is not always the solution -- sometimes people need better systems for restoring order to the spaces they have.

She urges some clients to spend 10 minutes at the end of each day tidying up a problem space, for example.

"It could be boring but it's only boring for 10 minutes a day."

Ms. Jabour says home buyers seem to be attracted to spaces that appear lived-in but serene.

"They're sort of coveting a very simple space because that's what is in all of the magazines."

cleitch@globeandmail.ca

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