How to Clean Out a Loved One’s Home After Their Death

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After someone you love dies, the prospect of sorting through their possessions can feel unbearable. “Cleaning out the home after the loss of a loved one is a hard, emotional process,” says Debra Johnson, a home cleaning expert at Merry Maids. “In many ways, it’s like a walk down memory lane.” To make the situation even more challenging, there are often time constraints involvedespecially if the home has recently been sold, a landlord wants it emptied quickly, or if you’re only in town for a short amount of time.

This step-by-step guide will hopefully make the process a little easier. Here, some strategies experts recommend for cleaning out a home from top to bottom.

Establish a project manager

This is particularly important in situations where multiple siblings are emptying a parent’s home together, says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director at the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASSM), a membership organization for professionals that help relocate older adults. Even if the physical work will be done as a group, “there should be one main point person.”

This person can lead the effort by coordinating with third parties and establishing a timeline. He or she may also help defuse potential conflicts that might arise between siblings or other family members, such as who gets to keep which beloved heirlooms. In some families, disagreements about who gets what can become contentious, and experts suggest addressing it from the very beginning to avoid hurt feelings later on.

“Each family and situation is unique,” says Johnson. “But when it comes to cleaning the home, we find it’s often good for the family to walk through the home, talk about special contents, and discuss items that anyone may want to keep, especially those that offer sentimental value.” She adds that this is a good time for family members to discuss next steps together, such as whether or not they want to tackle the project themselves or hire outside help.

Choose your starting room carefully

Was the basement your late father’s “man cave” where he’d read books, relax in his favorite chair, and display sports memorabilia? Consider saving that room for later: Though your instinct may be to immediately tackle significant spaces, “I recommend starting with a room that isn’t so emotional,” says Buysse.

The reason? By the time you’re done purging the bathroom, linen closet, or outdoor shed, you’ll be emotionally ready to enter a room that contains more sentimental memories.

Decide what to keepand what to toss

Room by room, sort items into piles: Sell, donate, keep, discard. To make it easier, keep work concentrated to one space at a time and create separate zones for packing. “As you go through the home and work through every closet, cabinet, and drawer, make it a point to touch each item no more than once,” she adds.

During this process, it’s a good idea to think about utility, adds Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in New York City and author of Your Next Big Thing. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this useful for me?’”

If you need a new dining room table, for example, keeping your late mother’s makes sense. Nostalgic items, especially those you’ll want to pass down to future generations, such as high school yearbooks or family photo albums, might be worth bringing with you too, Michaelis says. But give yourself a take-home limit, and do your best to stick to it.

Hang on to important documents

While you clean, keep an eye out for important documents such as insurance policies, bank account information, homeowner’s policy, stocks or bonds, or any other sensitive documents that could be needed at some time in the future, says Johnson. “I recommend scanning each document to have in an electronic file.”

Sell what you can…

For bigger items or if you’re putting the house up for sale, you might consider working with an appraiser. For a fee, they’ll go through the home and help your family identify what’s truly valuable, such as antiques. Craigslist, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and garage sales can help you offload smaller household items that are still in good condition. Also handy: smartphone apps like Poshmark, which let you snap photos of unwanted clothing, upload an image and description to your profile, and set your price; if someone makes a purchase, you’ll receive a prepaid printable shipping label in your inbox and a direct deposit into your bank account.

…And donate what you can’t

Buysse recommends giving gently used items to Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, or another local charity. A plastic garbage bag works best for transporting non-fragile donations, she says. Especially if you are donating clothes and linen, trash bags fit more than a box and are easy to throw in the back of a car or truck.

“Think beyond your closet for donations,” says Johnson. “Many charities also accept books, kitchen utensils, knickknacks, and furniture.” For larger items like beds and sofas, she adds, you can often call and schedule a pickup.

One thing to note: As more and more baby boomers are getting older and leaving their homes, many charitable organizations such as Goodwill are finding that they actually have too much inventory, Buysse says. Before you bring over a carload of donations, call to see what they currently need (and what they don’t).

Consider hiring help

Whether you’re on a tight schedule or simply overwhelmed by the enormous task of emptying a home, you might consider working with a local clean-out service to lend a hand. If an older adult is still living in the house, an organization like NASSM can be invaluable in helping to sort and dispose of household items, prepare the house for sale, and transition your family member to their next home.

And no, you don’t need to have a huge estate in order to hire help. “There’s a misconception that these services are a luxury for people with really big homes, sort of like a wedding planner,” says Buysse. “But that’s not true.”

You can browse clean-out services and senior move managers in your area using our service finder:

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