Americans have been buying homes and moving in record numbers over the past two years, and Max Paxton is one of the few people who knows how difficult this process is.
Paxton has been helping people declutter their homes for years, both on A&E’s “Hoarders” and the Emmy-nominated PBS show “Legacy List with Matt Paxton.” He’s also the author of the new book, “Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff,” packed with lists and advice for anyone looking to get rid of the many foreign possessions that fill their attics, basements, and beyond. .
This native of Richmond, Va., recently had to practice what he preaches when moving to Atlanta. In fact, he moved while he was in the middle of writing his book – and had to rewrite large sections of it because he had learned so much by doing.
Curious to learn more about why decluttering is so hard to do, especially when it comes to your own business, we chatted with Paxton about what he learned during his own move. He also provided plenty of advice on what to purge, as well as what few things to keep, whether you’re downsizing, moving, or lightening your load.
How did you become a decluttering expert?
I got into this industry because when I was 24, my father, stepfather, and both of my grandfathers passed away in the same year. So I had to clean all their houses. It was the beginning. I’ve learned a lot since then, especially recently when I had to deal with a lot of their stuff that went to my attic.
When decluttering a home, you suggest making a heirloom list. What is it exactly ?
You pick five or six things that are most important and tell your family’s story. I really encourage you to do this upfront and early on, because it allows you to start letting go of things that are a little more mundane and don’t matter as much.
Where it really pays off is when you enter the garage. you find stuff [and], you think “this is my grandfather’s car charger”. But you don’t care, because you’ve already told Grandpa’s big story. You have already celebrated it.
What kinds of things do you suggest we put on our legacy list?
Legacy list items are rarely expensive; they are usually very emotional. Once we were walking through the house of a family whose mother had opened the first Mexican restaurant in Richmond. They put their mother’s cookbook on their heirloom list. She had written down all her recipes on her way to America. This restaurant eventually became a Hispanic cultural center. The cookbook told his story.
So you pick a few things that tell their story and get rid of the rest?
That’s right. I like to say, “You don’t miss things; you miss the people attached to that stuff.
Is there one thing people should never throw away?
Yes, keep important documents like wills, financial records, seven years of tax records and the last two years of medical records. But when it comes to possessions, nobody’s ever said to me, “Man, I’d like to keep…”
What about collections that might be valuable?
Baseball cards and “Star Wars” collections are the things people talk about the most: “My mom threw away my baseball card collection! But you really don’t want the stuff; you just want the money. You don’t miss anything; you miss people.
How about items you should always throw away?
The China you can always get rid of. Nobody wants porcelain. It pisses people off, but most people don’t have a dining room anymore. Ask the family if anyone wants it, and if not, sell it or give it away. Table linen, silverware, everything in the dining room. Nobody wants it. Even the dining room furniture. It was a big problem when our parents and grandparents arrived, but not for the next generation.
I was coming out of a divorce when I moved out, and we were both like, “No, I want you have porcelain! We never used it. Also, always get rid of clothes that are two sizes too small in which you continue to hope to lose weight and get comfortable again. You do not go.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve come across while helping someone clean their house?
We found a bazooka once – a rocket launcher in the trunk of a 1967 Corvette Stingray. The car was nice, candy red, and I opened the trunk, trying to find the papers, and voila: a launcher – rockets!
The people I helped were like, “Oh, dad! It looked so much like him! And I’m like, “I have to call the bomb squad!” But we had a military expert there, and he told us it was just the launcher. There was no rocket in it.
What do you think is the most valuable thing you have ever found?
A guy, he knew there was a picasso paint somewhere in the house. It wasn’t a $20 million painting, it was just a sketch that Picasso had done for a friend, the guy’s father. We knew he was in the house, and we found him. But just below we found two Salvador Dali paintings. It was legit!
Wow! Were these paintings sold rather than put on a heirloom list?
Oh yes. And the product has dramatically changed the life of this family.
Why do people feel the need to cling to so many things that have no sentimental or financial value?
Guilt is a big reason. Someone left you something 50 years ago, and you didn’t like it, your mom made you take it, you didn’t want it then, so now you’re trying to make your daughter take it. These objects have been guilty for three generations.
When people move, they are often tempted to put everything in boxes and say, “I’ll see about that later, after we’re there”. How to convince them to do it as soon as possible?
That’s fine in theory, until they have to pay for those boxes and the people to move them. So I tell them to check out the calculator I’ve created on my website that lets people see how much time and money it will take to pack up their house.
When they pass by, they say to themselves “it’s going to take a month and a half” or “it’s going to cost me $25,000!” Then they say, “OK, I have to downsize.” The spreadsheet speaks louder than the spouse, no offense. Let the math decide.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when trying to downsize?
The biggest mistake people make is that they try to do too much. Don’t try to cover everything in one weekend. You really have to take a small step. Start simple and don’t try to do too much too soon or you’ll quit and never finish. Don’t try to tackle the garage or attic in one day. Going the other way around, start small, like a drawer or a shelf. Or the junk mail on the dining room table that you haven’t used since last Thanksgiving.
What to do with all the personal effects you have decided to throw away?
I’m really big on giving, giving, giving. In all honesty, I’m Goodwill International’s decluttering expert. You can drive straight and people will take it straight out of your car. It’s good because you don’t throw it away. It is recycled.
What’s your best advice for relocating/downsizing?
I would just say that you value your time more than your stuff. Don’t spend all that time sorting it out and selling it. You’ll never get what you think it’s worth, ever. Beanie Babies are worth nothing. Longaberger baskets, they’re worth nothing. Give it up and go on with your life. You’ll be happier without the stuff.
How do you deal with these concepts in your own life now that you live in Atlanta?
We are practical minimalists. We have things, we just don’t have many. As corny as it is, there’s a lot more to life with less. Everyone finds that getting out of the [COVID-19] pandemic.