Tips for Emptying Out a Loved One’s Home

senior couple embracing and looking at their partly-packed up home
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Emptying out a loved one’s home is never quick or easy.

Based on my experiences, plus watching various friends and relatives go through similar processes of “de-domiciling,” here are some suggestions to think about that may make the process go more smoothly. There are many opportunities to recycle, upcycle, and recirculate when cleaning out a house — the tips focus on finding what you need to deal with, the sustainability will come from passing along useful things for reuse and handling recyclables responsibly.

The Main Goal: Get It Over With

You won’t find good new homes or the best prices for every single item in the home. You may not be able to keep all of the memorabilia you want. You’re likely to spend more money than you’d expected in the process of emptying out the home. If you finish the project with minimal arguing and physical injuries, you’ve done well!

You Can Optimize for Speed, Details, or Cost

With a houseful of possessions to go through, consider three ways of prioritizing your task.

  • Speed: If time is of the essence, you can’t agonize over each table, chair, painting, or old overcoat. There’s just too much to deal with. And if you have emotional attachments to the stuff, be prepared to let go of those attachments. 
  • Details: If cataloging and accounting for every item is your priority, you’re going to need a lot of time — and patience.
  • Cost: If you or other family members don’t want to, or can’t, go through the house and decide what to do with the contents, consider hiring a local service to help. It can be costly, so if cost is an issue, you may want to hire a service to handle part of it and do the rest yourself.

Identify & Focus on What’s Important

Start by identifying items of personal or financial value, and gathering (or labeling) them. Such items may include:

  • Family memorabilia: photos (prints, negatives, slides), paintings, dishes, war medals, souvenirs, letters, and the like
  • Paperwork: bills, mortgages, property deeds and titles, birth certificates, passports
  • Valuables and semi-valuables: jewelry, clothing, furniture, antiques, artwork, collectibles
  • Digital information: personal and account information on hard drives, external media, online accounts, and cloud drives

Inventory: What’s There & Who Wants What

Walk around with clipboard and paper, or table computer, and inventory items throughout the home. Take plenty of pictures and video to help you remember what’s there and to share with other family members who can’t be there in person. Use sticky notes to label items people want to keep, items to sell, and items to donate.

Don’t forget to check the basement, attic, crawl spaces, sheds, storage spaces (in apartments), garage, yard, and possibly a rental storage space.

Moving Stuff: Outside Services Can Be Helpful

If a lot of items have resale value, but the family doesn’t want or can’t take many of them, an estate sale company can save everyone a lot of hassle. Check with friends and online ratings for a reputable company.

Local religious and charitable organizations often can use many items that are still in good shape — and many will come to the house to pick them up.

If there are a lot of items that can’t be reused, recycled, or upcycled, you may need to rent a dumpster. The service should include delivery and pickup when filled, but you’ll need a driveway or other space where the dumpster can be parked. To save time (and your back), consider hiring a junk removal service.

If you have just a few bulky items destined for the landfill, check with City Hall or your waste removal service website — the city may pick up large items and haul them to the dump for you.

Some companies specialize in home cleanout services. You pay them to pack and ship items as well as haul items you’re not keeping to donation, recycling, and trash destinations.

If you are working with a realtor to sell the property, odds are they have great, reliable sources for most of the services you need — and good advice on how to go about emptying out the home.

Beyond Regular Trash: Specialists

There will be a few categories of stuff no one wants to keep, but can’t simply go to the junkyard.

This includes household hazardous waste. Contact your local recycling service provider if you’re not sure what is considered hazardous or where/how to dispose of it.

Also, you may have found sensitive documents that should be shredded before recycling. If there’s more than you can shred yourself, look for companies that offer secure document shredding services. Be sure and check that they recycle the shredded fibers.

 

Be Willing To Give Away Unwanted Valuables

If you end up with useful items after family members have selected their choices and the estate sale is done, be willing to donate them — even if you know they’re valuable. The family piano might be just what the community music center or local elementary school needs. Working power tools that no one purchased will be welcomed by a neighborhood tool exchange. The silver platter that no one seems to want to polish could be the dream wedding gift for someone on a low budget. Placing ads on Craig’s List may seem like a hassle, but if you advertise the item as “free, you pick up,” chances are useful items will get snapped up quickly.

The Best Advice

Emptying out a dwelling place will take more time, energy, resources, and money than you think. Be ready for it to be exhausting and frustrating. Take breaks and try not to overdo it. Drink plenty of water and find good local sources for coffee, sandwiches, and pizza. And keep track of expenses.

The best lesson here for all of us: Keep only what you need. Help your loved ones start decluttering before the quantity of unneeded possessions gets out of control. And do the same for yourself.

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Daniel Dern

Freelance Writer at Trying Technology
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.