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How To Clean Out a Loved One’s Home

Tips for Planning an Estate Cleanout

Whether a death was sudden or followed a slow decline, dealing with the loss of a loved one is a painful process. It’s important to take time to grieve and avoid putting too much on your plate at one time.  

If you’re left of clean out the home of a loved one, you may not even know where to start. We hope to help you navigate through the cleanout process so you hold onto the items and memories most important to you. 

What to Do Before You Start Cleaning Out a Loved One's Home

  1. Forward the Mail - Important documents, billing statements and other information should be forwarded to a different address. Choose a primary caretaker, whether that’s you or someone else, to receive the mail and handle any issues that arise. 
  2. Find Financial Information - Locate the will, insurance policies, bank account information, homeowner’s policy, bills and similar documents. You’ll need the account numbers on hand when you communicate with these organizations. 
  3. Change the Locks - This is especially important if your loved one lived alone and gave house keys to neighbors or outside caretakers. 
  4. Manage the Mortgage and Utilities - If there’s a mortgage on the house, someone will still need to make those payments in addition to the utility bills. 

Steps to Manage an Estate Cleanout

1. Take a Tour and Process Everything

While it may be tempting to dive in and start cleaning out a room or finding those special items you want to keep, it’s important to start slow. 

“There’s a lot of pressure when cleaning out a loved one’s home, and the instinct is just to get to work. Skipping the step of pressing pause and touring a space just to see what’s there before anything is permanently touched is important.” 
Maeve Richmond | Founder and Coach at Maeve's Method

Taking an initial tour of the house or apartment will help you process and defuse your emotions. Take your time with this. Matt Paxton, Founder of Legacy Navigator explains that “there is no firm timeline on this entire process. Grief does not start, does not end at any time. Period. There’s no right way to do this.”

When a loved one passes away, it’s important to recognize the connection they had to their space and belongings. Take pictures as you walk through each room, and make a note if you find valuable or sentimental items.

2. Start Cleaning Things Out

Once you have an idea of what’s in each room, it’s time to start the actual estate cleanout process. 

“Do what is easiest for you first. A list can be very overwhelming for some people, so empower yourself and think ‘What is easiest for me to tackle? Or what can I handle first?’”
Maeve Richmond | Founder and Coach at Maeve's Method

It’s often simplest to start with the pantry or refrigerator. Toss out any expired food, and put what’s usable in a cooler to take home. If you cannot take what’s left, call a food rescue organization to pick it up. Picking an unemotional area with black-and-white answers for what’s no longer needed helps get the ball rolling. 

3. Divide Up the Work

Once you’ve started the main job of cleaning out the house, invite other relatives to help ease the process for you. But because emotions are high, be cautious of how many people are in the house at one time.

“Bring help into the rooms that are difficult. There’s nothing wrong with bringing a friend in to help for an afternoon. Limit that to two hours. It should not be every night – you have to take a break.”
Matt Paxton | Founder, Legacy Navigator

Ask a few close family members or friends first, and keep other relatives in the loop about what you are doing. In the largest open area, designate zones for items to donate, sell and toss. You should also set up a zone or room for sentimental items that either you or your relatives would like to keep. 

“When someone passes and there’s a relative who hasn’t been involved, they often will want to feel connected. It’s important to hear them and say that you will keep an eye out for items that they might like to have. That’s always a good place to start.”
Maeve Richmond | Founder and Coach at Maeve's Method

Assign each family member a specific room or closet, and make sure they understand all the sorting zones. 

4. Go Through Everything

Commit to opening every box, emptying every pocket and looking in every cabinet. Many sentimental items, including valuable ones, are often hidden in a safe space. If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a break and come back to it a little later. You don’t want to miss something important and regret it down the road. 

As you find photos, place them in a marked storage bin or box to preserve them. These are irreplaceable items. 

5. Deal With Unclaimed Items

Items left unclaimed by family members can either be sold or donated as long as they’re in good condition. If you are looking to sell anything valuable such as jewelry and art, hire an appraiser to ensure you get the item’s full value. 

Organizations to Consider When Donating Items:

Matt Paxton recommends the following charities when you have extra belongings to donate. 

  • Tech for Troops will accept old cell phones, monitors, laptops, tablets and computer parts. 
  • Dress for Success takes professional women's clothing. 
  • Catholic Charities has programs that account for a range of items from vehicles to clothing. 
  • Donation Town will accept jewelry, antiques, vinyl records, sports equipment, office supplies, tools and books.
  • Habitat ReStore takes furniture and appliances, and often schedules pickup at the home so you don't have to load up your vehicle or rent a truck. 

Anything that can’t be sold or donated should be recycled or thrown away. Depending on how much is left, it may be necessary to rent a roll off dumpster to quickly clear out the house. This step in the process can be emotional, but remember these items weren’t the most important to your loved one. 

6. Clean and Do a Final Walkthrough

After everything is removed, deep clean the entire house and do a final walkthrough. Open up the closets and cabinets to make sure nothing was left behind, and take the time you need to say goodbye. 

Reaching Out for Help

These tips should give you an idea of where to get started, but you don’t have to go it alone. There are organizations and resources available to help every step of the way, including professional organizers or life coaches.

“I think having a neutral party is a great step in the cleaning process,” explains Maeve. “It all depends on how much time you have and the speed at which you need to make decisions in the moment. If you are someone whose head keeps spinning with emotions, then have a professional come in and ease the process.”

Have you cleaned out a home after the death of a loved one? Please feel free to share your story or any advice in the comments.