Professional organizer Jackie Kelley, of Clearing House in Bethesda, joined the weekly chat.

Aug 11, 2011

Professional organizer Jackie Kelley, of Clearing House in Bethesda, joined Jura Koncius and Terri Sapienza for their weekly Home Front chat. Together, they gave advice on interior decorating and home improvement.

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Are you thinking of back to school yet? If you have a teen in high school, we have a great story today in Local Living  where Bethesda professional organizer Jackie Kelley takes you through the process of how to help your kid get organized. Lots of good ideas for shopping and communicating ideas to your teen. Jackie is here with us today, and she can talk about that and of course about organizing just about anything in your life. Let's get our questions going. Thanks for being with us today, Jackie.

Hi Jackie - How can one learn to organize without enlisting the help of a professional organizer like yourself?

Hi!  There are many quality self-help organizing books that you can read to help set yourself in the right direction.  A few recommendations are Julie Morgenstern's Organizing from the Inside Out, and Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau's ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.  Another good resource is, our professional association, for more information on becoming organized.

I'm certain that you'll get hundreds of questions about having too many clothes - and here's anothe! I am retired and living in jeans/turtlenecks in winter, and shorts/tshirts in summer. Almost never wear the skirts, pretty shirts, dresses I had while working. But, I hate to give away everything. How do I decide what to keep? Will I miss the things I give away? Ack!

Hi!  Making decisions is the hardest challenge in any organizing project, I understand!  Ask yourself what your goals are for your space and stick to that answer as you make cuts relevant to your life now.  Many organizations are happy for your donations, such as Goodwill and Amvets.  When you let go of items that represented your past it is very empowering, many don't believe that!  Good luck.

Is it possible to minimize a "campy" aesthetic my simply repainting and furnishing in another style? There's an interesting home we're looking at, but while I can appreciate campy in someone else's house, I don't think I could live in it.

I think you can "de-camp" the place. Definitely by putting different paint on the walls, new light fixtures, different floor coverings and furniture, you can make the place your own. See beyond the funk.

Thanks for taking my question! I currently rent an apartment that has 2 small walk-in closets in the one bedroom. I currently use one of the closets for my clothing (my linens and miscellaneous household items have more than enough space in my hallway linen closet). I would like to do something low-cost and creative with my second extra closet. Do you have any suggestions?

Lucky you for having a space closet! How about turning it into an office/desk space? You could find a small desk that fits inside and hang shelves above. Take the door off or keep it on to keep office stuff out of sight when you're not working.  

but people always comment on how many i have. i would like to reduce by a few shelves but am not sure how to begin. also what is the best thing to do with the books when done, donate? sell? will area school libraries take them?

Donating books is one of the easiest ways to reduce your collection.  Stone Ridge school in Bethesda takes them year-round and if you are in Mo County, Friends of the Library bookstores will take your donations - all tax deductible.  

I live in a condo with tall ceilings and exposed ductwork. There is a good deal of space above the kitchen wall cabinets -- debating if I need to fill the space or leave empty. On the one hand, it would be a prime spot for displaying something, but on the other hand, who can even reach it? Ideas for a unique display without looking cluttered or messy? I've considered clear jars or vases with fruit/other objects or a monochromatic display with white pottery, etc.

The white pottery sounds like a nice idea, but unless you have a special collection that you really want to display, I would opt for keeping the space empty. You're right - it can look cluttered and you're just drawing attention to the fact that your cabinets dont go all the way to the ceiling.

My family of five has moved from a 3,200 sf house to a 1,700 sf house. Though we are loving the charm and location, I am stuck on organizing in a way that doesn't just stuff things where they will fit. We have elfa'd the master closet and pantry but there is such an overload of household items that I really don't know where to begin. We pared down before moving and continue to do so (books, toys, clothes, etc) but the piles remain. There is an unfinished basement that will be finished at some point but which does not currently stay dry enough or critter-free enough to be of much use for storage. Can you provide any resources (books, videos, etc.) which can help direct us in getting our house in order? At this point, hiring a professional organizer would be fabulous but doesn't fit the budget. Thanks in advance for any thoughts.

I've suggested a few books in my previous post, which will offer a framework for getting started.  To reduce overwhelm, pick one area or category of item to focus on each week/month.  Sort items by category, purge or keep depending on use and space constraints and try to support what you keep with appropriate storage at point of use.  If there are duplicates or items seldom used, reducing by donating  is a great way to offload collections.

How do you clear information and get rid of old computer stuff everytime you upgrade? For non-tech people such as myself-it is creating a lot of big clutter! But much of it still works.

Consider donating working technology to local schools or non-profits (but ask before you drop).  Also look for electronic recycling locations near you.  In Mo County, the Recycling center at the Transfer station takes most old electronics for recycling.  Turtlewings in DC will clean your hard drive for you and recycle.

I will be needing a large sectional for my new huge great room. Do you know of any stores in the DMV where I could find a very large sectional (hopefully not too budget busting). Alternatively, is there any place where you can 'design' your own sectional. Pick size and design of arms and feet ect.? Thanks for your help!

I would try Belfort Furniture in Sterling, Arhaus in one of their locations here, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Ikea

from a larger perspective, what does decoration "do" for us; what is its purpose? is it just aesthetic, or is it also somehow utllity? thanks, terry

Well, I will speak for myself and say that having a room, and my house decorated in a way that reflects me and my family and our lifestyle adds so much personality, comfort and warmth to a space - it makes me feel good to spend time there. It sounds cliched, but I truly believe decorating makes a house feel more like a home.

Do you have any organization tips to promote successful studying for college students living in a dorm? My son has organizational "issues' and I'd like to pass on a couple helpful hints. I am guilty of over-talking these things with him, so what I need are a couple soundbites that he might actually digest!

Hi! Based on personal experience I think the library is the best place for studying as opposed to the dorm! I would recommend scheduling time (30-60 min) for focused work, prioritizing needs/deadlines and using a calendar as much as possible to help reduce overwhelm when many projects are due at once.  Reducing distractions is key.

Submitting early to tell anyone on the fence about hiring a professional organizer that my experience was fabulous. I had a basement crammed full of 15 years' accumulated life detritus and in the course of 4 hours with Scott & his assistant Nina (Solutions by Scott), we got it all sorted for the mother of all yard sales (happening this weekend). I had been putting off that horrific pile for -- well, since the day I moved in the house. There was no judgment, just someone to keep me moving forward, helpful guidance when I dithered, and extra hands to keep it from being just a differently-shaped blob in another spot. Worth every penny and every minute. Plus, I got contact info for hauling services and shredding services for things that I can't or won't sell but still need to dispose of properly. For a person who agonizes over every scrap of paper and bit of housewares, of course it will be a slower process, but for someone like me who just doesn't tackle these chores regularly and doesn't like to work alone, it's a fabulous and totally worthwhile way to spend money.

Hi!  So great to hear you had a good and successful experience with one of my colleagues.  I recommend the Washington DC chapter of NAPO to find a qualified organizer: (there is a search function by zipcode).  Great job!

Hello! You always give great local suggestions, so I was hoping you could suggest a few local upholstery shops. I know of Calico Corners, but that is all. I live in NW Washington.

Please everyone, share with us your names. People like Urban Castle Solutions  in Rockville,  and Yi's in Rockville and Upholstery Restoration and Select Fabrics in Kensington. 

For the retiree who is reluctant to get rid of her work clothes: I know of two organizations that will put them to good use. First is Dress for Success. ( They will give them to a needful woman so she can have good clothing for interviews or daily work. The other is the House of Ruth thrift store ( They take mostly designer clothing to help abused women. Knowing that the clothing is going to a worthy cause where women are directly helped might make it easier to let go.

That is so helpful. Thank you so much.

It depends on the books. The schools don't want outdated editions of reference books. I volunteered at a school in DC and the library was full of outdated donated materials that were just useless. The librarian complained that the school hated to turn down donations because there was such a limited budget, but then the library ends up being a storage place for junk.

Ugh. I hate it when people try and unload their junk to charities.

As mentioned in the home article, to warm up a room paint it grey. I find grey a cool color. We just painted our family room Navajo White by Behr. Very warm and also adds a level of brightness to a lower level family room.

Thanks for that suggestion.

Hi. I have a small townhouse with limited storage space. Can you suggest good uses of the under the bed space, as well as an attic space for storage? My bed has a bed skirt, and I've got some stuff under the bed but it's not in containers and is such a mess I'm not even sure what is under there at this point. I tried using some boxes that were supposively made for under the bed, but they were a tad too tall and would not easily go under the bed, so I ditched them. My attic does not have floorboards, but I could lay some plywood. I'm just not sure what items to put up there and what types of containers to use. It's also hard to get up there (I have to fetch a ladder from the basement), so I don't want to put anything up there that I would need too often. Thanks for any ideas.

The space underneath a bed is prime storage real estate in a small space, so I think you need to take advantage. Two suggestions: Go to Target and look at the options they have for Rubbermaid plastic lidded bins - you should be able to find a size that fits under your bed. You could also put your bed on risers, which will give you even more space beneath. You may have to get a longer bedskirt, but I think the cost is worth have more storage space. Once you get everything under your bed organized and in containers, you will be so happy.

So I have just moved with my boyfriend to a new apartment in our ideal area. One downside of this move was giving up my previous, beautifully large closet for a much smaller one. There is the typical rod/shelf for hanging items and nothing else. What should I do to maximize the space I do have without having to install anything that I will fix when we eventually move out of this rental.

Hi!  The old closets are tough but you can try to maximize the vertical space from the floor  up by using either a roll in cart (Elfa style) with drawers - depending on depth of closet.  Also use some of the rod space for a hanging sweater organizer, they have fabric shelves that are very versitile for handbags, tops, and other items.

Hello! I have multiple storage closets where I stash things and most of it gets completely lost in there and never used again. But some things I do use and need to get to. I want to clean them out and don't know where to begin. I have a hard time letting go of things I never use but feel like I need to keep for some reason (wedding gift, might use in future, etc). Can you please give me some advice on cleaning out a very packed and unorganized storage closet, and putting things back where I can actually find them?

Hi!  Sometimes with multiple storage areas we don't remember where we put specific items.  I recommend planning a bit first before you tackle the stuff.  Map out where things are now (digging a bit at first!).  Decide what category of items fit best in which storage area, and what items you tend to use the most.  As you declutter, sort by like category and inventory what you are keeping (crafts, travel accessories, seasonal clothing).  Designate each storage space for a particular function and you will be more apt to put things back and find them again easily.

Thanks so much for today's articles on back-to-school. What suggestions do you have for organizing elementary-school age kids for back to school and homework?

Hi!  Elementary school kids will benefit as well from the resources mentioned in the article, like a desktop file for subject papers and expandable file binder.  For parents, be sure to have an incoming paper landing zone where you can stash directories, papers to be signed and other reference information.  I like using magazine files to collect papers for each child/school, they sit on a counter without taking too much space and easy in/out.

The American Library Assocation has some suggestions on where to donate books:

Fantastic. Thanks.


I watch an episode of Hoarders. Sad, sad, sad. But, it motivates me to reinstate the "one in, two out rule" for clothes, books, everything.

SOOOOO good!

I decided to clean out my closet of everything that was frayed, stained, didn't fit, or didn't conform to the lifestyle I want. As a result, I have a closet full of fancy cocktail dresses, but nothing to wear 80% of the time. On the bright side, my closet is clean and looks fantastic. I think I went overboard, though...any suggestions?

Schedule a cocktail party every month from now until the end of the year!

I would call a professional stylist or call the professional shopper at  a department store. Make an appointment and buy yourself a basic black wardrobe - skirt, pants, jacket and some tops. Start building from there!!!

After working for years in an office, I'm now a freelancer. Someone posted about needing to get rid of professional clothes--there are several DC organizations (Bottomless Closet, for one) that are targeted to getting unemployed women into jobs and they need suits and other professional clothes for interviews. Consider donating to one of those organizations--they would really appreciate it. Also, over the past year, I've gotten rid of over twenty garbage bags full of clothing and can attest that it is possible to do. Good luck!

Thanks for the tip!

There is a freeware package called Darik's Boot and Nuke (aka, DBAN) that you can find via Google. This will clear a hard drive of data using a 3-pass method that will clear your personal data from the disk. Once you copy the software to a CD, then just put the CD into the CD drive and follow the directions. Then take the hardware to a recycling center. There is a good one in Columbia called "A Better Way Recycling". You can also donate 2 items per day at any local Best Buy. Also, most local communities/towns have once or twice per year an electronics recycling day where you can bring electronic equipment to discard/recycle. Look on your county and/or local government's web-site and you'll probably find either the advertisement for the last one or the next one.

I have no idea what you are talking about - but it sounds great!

The old tried and true. Take a box and pack up anything that you have not worn in 6 months. Put the box in the corner of your room or in the bottom of your closet. If you need/want something in that box during that time, take it out. At the end of the second 6 months, anything left in the box gets donated. This works for those of us packrats who hate to get rid of things. It helped make it obvious to me that after a year that I really didn't need/want those things. Actually it was closer to 16 months because I just waited for the next donation group to call saying "We will have a truck in your you have anything to donate?" and I just put it out on the front porch and they took it away.

I love this suggestion! I'm going to try it myself! And my professional organizer friends always tell me - every time a non profit calls to say they are in your area - always agree to put out a few bags. Keep a spot in your basement or attic or in a closet where you always keep a bag going of stuff you don't want. Get a bad birthday gift or useless hostess gift? Pop it right in there before it clutters up your life.

Lower end price-wise: Ikea has a large sectional called the Karlstad. Higher end: We got a custom made one at Bassett which we love. We were able to customize the size of the pieces to make it fit the space and had a wide selection of level of padding, size (which included the size of the seat and the size of the back support), material.

I'm going to look this one up. Thanks.

I remind myself that someone should be appreciating it. It's a waste to sit in my closet unused. It's disrespectful to the item and those who made it to keep it unappreciated. I envision someone really appreciating it and giving it purpose and then it's easier to get rid of it.

Good visualization tip. Go for it.

Love Looney & Sons over in Merrifield. They've done several chairs and completely rerfurbed two antique sofas for me.

Love their name...

For the poster who asked about donating books, I would also recommend Books for America. I've donated books to them several times, and if you have enough, they will come and pick them up.

Yes. They are good.

Another option is to donate them to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, VA. What they can't sell in their fundraising book sales, they donate to an organization that ships them overseas. They are willing to take books that no one else wants like those old college tomes!

Wow. Amazing. Good resource. Thanks.

Not really on today's topic, but I have a 100 + year old victorian living room with a straight wall -baywindow and straight wall - would a sectional sofa look strange?

Really difficult to say without seeing the space. But I think it could work, it just depends on the size of the room and the size, style and shape of the sectional.

Good morning! I'd bet that my six-year-old daughter has more toys in the house right now than I had in my entire childhood. Her style of play is to get everything out and make up a game with all of the toys--Barbies vs. Knights vs. Dinosaurs vs. horses vs. Star Wars vs. Thomas Trains. The biggest issue we have is getting everything put away. Do you have any organization tips for the kid who doesn't feel like she's playing unless everything is out? We've tried rotating toys but they all seem to get back out eventually.

Hi!  This may not be a popular answer but I'm a big supporter of  minimizing active toys in any play room or common space.  I can appreciate that you've tried rotating toys and it would be helpful to try that again.  Also this is a great time to talk to your child about responsible play, such as always putting things back after she's done.  At her age, she will need a buddy to help her, a babysitter or mom/dad.  You can make it easier and more fun by working side-by-side with her for a short burst of time at designated intervals (before lunch, before dinner) and be very encouraging.  This routine will establish good patterns for future.  Also be sure the toy receptacles are easy to use and labeled for ease of use.  Hope that helps!  Good luck!

For us, it is a combination of aethestics and functionality. And it seriously matters. I've had rooms that were not decorated well that I wasn't comfortable in that I never used (like before I moved). What good is having a fancy decorated living room if you never use it? It's a big waste of space to have that just for show. But, now I do classy and tasteful, BUT functional and I actually use my living room. In my old living room, the couch looked good but wasn't very comfortable. The new living has a good looking couch that is also comfortable. The old room had poor lighting (but the lamps looked good!). The new room has good lighting. All of which encourages me to use the room.

Well said. Thanks for sharing.

Grey's that lean towards the beige are warmer. Grey's that lean towards the blues are cooler. Believe me, there are MANY shades of grey and they can give very different effects.

Yes. When you look at all the gray paint chips, you can't believe its varied colorations.

DiBari - Stonestreet Rockville MD 240-447-5140 - did an amazing job, slipcovers for outdoor furniture, matched up mix and match fabrics for me Beautiful job, good price.

Thanks for suggestion.

Have you checked out LoveSac at Tyson's Corner? Not only can you order them customized, you can reconfigure ad infinitum once you have it. Love mine, it's the coolest thing ever. It goes from movie style seating to sleepover extra beds to sofa to... whatever!

I keep meaning to check that place out! Thanks for reminding me. Cool stuff.

For anyone who wants to get rid of books: donate them to your local Borders store. They have a staff fully trained to figure out how to get rid of all books by the end of the month. And they really could use the money.


Ms. Kelley- Do you have any suggestions for synching-up mismatched organization styles? My dear husband's organization method is "I know where I left it," and any attempts to corral his clutter have been defeated. I have tried mail baskets (overflowing), bookshelves (stuffed), file cabinets (unused), closet organizers (hopeless). The only time he cannot find something is when I "have organized it." Help!

Hi!  Many family members have different styles of learning and organizing.  Communication is key here too, since you have common spaces where items land.  Address your goals for the space in conversation, and compromise on a plan.  Maybe his papers can be relocated to one zone (not common) so that he is in control of what happens to items.  Maybe further delineate roles/tasks to keep paper flowing more effectively.  I also suggest weekly maintenance to reduce overflow, purge mail, move like items to a designated zone.

Yes, you can find good under bed containers from many business: Container Store, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, Ikea, and even Lowe's and Home Depot (although your options are more limited there). First, measure the height under your bed. Also think about the floor surface. If you have carpet, use plastic (not cardboard, wood or other paper/wood based products). If you have hardwoods, lean towards the cardboard or wood-based products, even if you need to add the self-adhesive felt furniture pads on the bottom. Sliding plastic on hardwoods is not good for the wood flooring. Items to consider putting under the bed, wrapping paper. Out of season bedding (e.g. the warm down quilt/comforter during the warm months), the leaves to the dining room table that you don't use (you can get a felt or velour bag for these so that they slide under the bed easily on hardwoods--put them in the same bag, but then put that bag inside a large plastic lawn/yard bag to put them under the bed on carpeting). Just a few ideas, but anything that you only use seasonally works well.

Wow. Lots of good ideas here. Thanks for all your suggestions.

Hi--I've gotten a handle on my daughter's desk space and organized where she does homework, etc. Tips for doing the same to her room, so that she can keep it semi-organized - to minimize the "where's my XYZ?" questions 2 minutes before we need to leave the house with that very thing?

Hi!  I like thinking about bedroom spaces in terms of the classroom - zones for each type of item (books, dolls, building pieces, etc).  This model of organization works well for any space.  A bit of training on where to put things (labeled, contained, shelved, stored) will ease kids in developing the habit.

We have open storage bins in our play area so that items can easily be thrown into them when we need to pick up quickly. I'm thinking of putting a photo on each container to show what should go in each one. We also have a canvas tote bag in our living room for toy storage. Everything can be thrown in it quickly, and we stash it in a closet when guests are over.

These are real life suggestions! I can see how they would work really well. Thank you!

Advice on how to help young kids learn to organize their things? And how about figuring out when it is time to get rid of the parts and pieces that collect, and what to weed out?

Hi!  I think kids are ready at any age to take responsibility for their toys and things.  A good rule of thumb is to work together on a space monthly to weed out items not used.  Setting expectations or limits on the quantity of toys in a space before new ones come in is useful too.  Organizing by category is the easiest way for kids to learn a new routine.

But aren't they closing?

I take it that was a trick question...

I searched your past chats and couldn't find a reference to furniture painters. I have a mahogany Henkel Harris queen anne style desk and bedside table from the 70s that I would like to have painted white in a high gloss enamel for my teenage daugher's bedroom, but have been unable to locate a good painter. Do you have any recommendations of someone in the area? I live in Alexandria. Thank you!

Have you considered painting the pieces yourself? It would cost a lot less and is a fairly easy process.

The one thing we have trouble organizing is boxes and instruciton manuals for bigger-ticket items. So, when we purchase something new, say a leaf blower or a TV or a cell phone, we feel compelled to save the box and the paperwork. These end up cluttering closets and the basement. Any tips on what is worth retaining, for how long, etc.?

Hi!  I love to give clients the "ok" to get rid of that equipment box!  The paperwork is best saved in a household file for future reference.  I like using clear string envelopes by category of household items: kitchen appliances, sports gear, electronics (lg), small electronics, etc.  These clear files can be stored in a bankers box in the basement/closet, or in a file drawer for handy reference (or on a lower kitchen shelf).

I'm moving into a new house with three male roommates and the hall closet (which they use for kitchen and household misc. storage) is already giving me agida. How can I get this space organized without offending them, since they've clearly been living with it as is for 3 years?

Hi!  Get everyone's input before you roll forward, set expectations and some goals for the space.  I think if you make the effort, they will follow!

Lots of good questions today and great responses by Jackie. So armed with all this info, let's make an effort to declutter our lives and show and teach our kids how to declutter theirs. Onward!

Thanks for having me! --Jackie

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius uses her years of experience as a home expert and her network of well-placed sources to help you choose everything from paint type and colors to how to de-shed sofas from pet hair to where to find the best designer fabrics at a discount.

Home Q&A archive
Terri Sapienza
Terri Sapienza is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
Jackie Kelley
Jackie Kelley is a professional organizer and owns Clearing House in Bethesda. Clearing House has provided professional organizing services to residential and small business clients in the Washington D.C. region since 2004. Kelley holds membership in the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
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