If you’re like many of today’s young retirees, you may feel sandwiched between the needs of your adult children and your aging parents. Just as you’re beginning to enjoy your retirement, you may find yourself tasked with clearing out a parent’s home. Whether your parent is moving into an independent living apartment, into a nursing home, or moving in with you, you’re going to have to deal with sorting, organizing and packing up their home.
“Downsizing or liquidating a home can be a tremendously stressful situation, whether it is parents moving after many years, or adult children clearing out the home after their parents’ deaths,” says Pam Hoepner, a Florida-based professional organizer and owner of The Economical Organizer. “So many of the items have sentimental value, and the children are afraid of getting rid of very valuable items for too small of a price.”
It’s emotional, and it can include sorting through decades of “stuff” that will need to be donated, sold, or given away.
As parents live longer, it’s a task that often falls to their adult children—who are themselves, in or approaching retirement. (According to the most recent U.S. census projections, by 2030, people aged 65 and over will make up 20% of the population.)
When the time comes, use these steps to manage and organize the clear out as efficiently—and diplomatically—as possible.
1. Set a Goal
Not everyone who clears out a family home has the same goal. In many cases, a property will be sold when a parent dies or moves into a nursing home or retirement residence. In other cases, you or another family member may inherit the property and choose to live in it.
Identifying the goal of the clear out will help you work more efficiently. For example, if the property will be sold, there may be furniture and decorative items that should be stored in moving boxes to reuse for staging once the home is painted or updated.
Clearly stating the goal—even if it’s only to yourself—will help you focus your activities as you move through the stages of clearing out your parent’s house. Identifying and listing specific decisions as you make them will help you create a plan and a time line.
Is the Home Staying in the Family?
If you or a family member is moving into the home, it’s important to have conversations that include everyone who has a stake in determining what happens to the home and its contents. If your parent has left you the home in their will, talk to other family members—before you start clearing items out to sell or donate. There may be things they’d like to have. As Hoepner says, getting an objective opinion on the value of those items can help avoid future family arguments.
“After [family members] spend the day looking through the items, I recommend they contact an appraiser to come in and evaluate the items members want to keep,” she says. “A good place to start is the American Society of Appraisers. The appraiser will give monetary value to those items in an unbiased manner, and family members can plan any distribution accordingly.”
Will You Be Selling the Home?
If the property will be sold, the process is slightly different, although you’ll still want to speak with everyone involved before taking actions. Before removing any household items, decide if any of the furniture, art, or decorations should remain in place for the real estate listing period. Then you can start clearing out items in the home to donate, sell, keep, store, move, or throw away.
2. Talk with Family Members
Sorting, organizing, and removing things from the home may progress more efficiently if family members aren’t stalling or arguing over every single item/thing to clear out, especially once a parent has passed away.
“There can be strong undercurrents of emotion from family members who haven’t seen each other for years,” says Hoepner, “plus the pressure of having an equitable distribution of items among heirs.” Take the time to address the emotional issues surrounding clearing out a parent’s home before you start the job, even if your parents are simply downsizing.
Listen to Your Parents and Siblings
Arrange a meeting with your parent(s) and/or sibling(s) to discuss what needs to be done. Instead of jumping right into the logistics of sorting and removing items, begin with discussing the emotional impact of the clear out and possible home sale. Hoepner says to remember that downsizing can be very emotional for the parent.
“It can be a huge reminder that they are getting older, that they can no longer do what they used to, and their lives are about to become radically different,” she says. “Even if they are excited about moving, it can still be a very emotional time, full of difficult decisions on what they can keep and what must go.”
Hoepner says that when she’s working with a family to clear out an aging parent’s home, she tries to remind them to “give each other grace” as they work on going through the home together. “Tempers and past hurts can rise quickly,” she says. And, if the parent has passed away, everyone in the family is hurting and emotional. “I remind them to simply try to be kind to one another. It will all get done and will be much better for everyone involved if everyone works together.”
Share Your Feelings
Talking about your shared history may help each family member acknowledge the importance the home played in his or her life.
Prepare to share your feelings first. Was this your family home growing up? If so, you may feel sad to let it go. Say so. For example, you could say something like, “I have such great memories of living here. We had some fun times, didn’t we?” Or, “What a good family home this is. It will make a great place for a young couple to raise their kids. I’m so glad I got to grow up here.”
Give your parent and/or siblings a chance to talk as well. Let them know that you realize this may be a difficult and emotional time. Use phrases like, “I appreciate how you feel. I feel the same way,” or, “I understand what you’re saying. I have mixed feelings, too.”
Empathize with your family members. Be honest about your feelings and the reasons why you feel that clearing out the home now is the best option to move forward.
Pro tip: Take photos. Many people may hang on to things because of the memories, not because of the item itself. “For the children,” says Hoepner, “it can seem as if they’re losing their childhood memories.” If you, your parent, brothers and sisters, or other family members are letting emotions get in the way of moving forward with clearing out the home, preserve the memories by taking photos. “I am a big proponent of taking photographs instead of holding on to items,” she says.
Hoepner recommends taking photos of each room and around the outside of the home, as well as close-up photos of special pieces like “grandma’s gravy boat, the old upright piano that no one wants, the growth chart marks Dad put on the doorjamb in the kitchen, [and] the big tree in the backyard, so it can be compared to the picture of it being planted 40 years ago.”
Take snapshots of favorite items, rooms, and even outdoor spots where your family enjoyed special times. Then create a photo album so you can enjoy reliving the happy memories. Hoepner suggests uploading these images to the cloud or saving them to several USB flash drives to share with family members.
3. Budget Your Time and Money
No one wants to spend weeks (or even months) to clear out a home when a parent will no longer live there. Yet, as Hoepner points out, clearing out the home is a monumental task for adult children, particularly when the parent has died.
“It can seem totally overwhelming to realize they have to clean out the entire home, [when] they don’t know where to begin, what to keep, how to discard items, and they are also dealing with the fresh loss of their parent.” The length of time it will take to complete the clear out will vary from situation to situation.
Arrange a time to take stock of what’s in your parent’s home. Use a tablet or a pen and paper to make notes. Take pictures with your smartphone or digital camera to make a quick inventory and get an idea of how big of a job this will be. This will help you schedule time to complete it. And this is important: Set a completion date. Working with a time limit will help keep you focused on getting the job done.
Hire a Senior Move Manager
If you don’t have the time or desire to do it yourself, engage some professional help. If your parent is moving to another home, consider hiring a Senior Move Manager: Accredited members of the National Association of Senior Move Managers offer assistance to older adults and their families with both the emotional and physical issues of moving. This can lessen the burden on other family members. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of clearing out your parent’s home after they’ve passed away, Hopener recommends hiring a company to run an estate sale.
“These professionals can organize and advertise a sale of the entire house contents, and many also provide the service of liquidating the rest of the items that were not sold during the sale,” she explains. “Oftentimes, estate sale companies have their own cleaning service as well, who can come in after the sale and clean the house thoroughly so it is ready to be sold.” Hoepner suggests checking with your local Better Business Bureau to find an estate sale company in your area.
Use Professional Organizers or Junk Removal Services
Search online for local professional organizers and/or junk removal companies that can provide assistance in decluttering, sorting, and removing the contents of the home. Professional organizers may charge anywhere from $50 to $200 per hour for their services, or they may offer project-based pricing. HomeAdvisor calculates the national average cost for junk removal in 2018 at $234; depending on location, the average costs range from $134 to $357.
According to Hoepner, getting professional help can both save time and reduce the stress of clearing out a parent’s home. “I highly recommend that families consider bringing in professionals to help them at this time,” she says. “Professional appraisers and estate liquidators can help the family get the job done in a timely manner, efficiently, and with the peace of mind that they can help guide decision-making. This is especially true if the family members live out of town.”
4. Sort Items in Your Parent’s Home
Depending on the size of your parent’s home, how long they’ve lived there, their lifestyle, and their household management habits—and whether you have professionals to support you—this step can take days or even weeks to complete. Yet successfully completing the first three steps can save time and reduce stress when it comes to sorting your parent’s household contents and personal belongings.
What You’ll Need:
Before starting the sorting step, gather your supplies. These may include:
- Moving boxes
- Garbage bags
- Large plastic totes
- Package tape
- Smaller sticky labels and markers
Colorful labels help. Use different color labels to identify and sort items being distributed among family members. For example, Bill gets the blue labeled items; Rochelle gets the red.
Questions to Ask When Sorting
Think of this step as a form of extreme decluttering. Consider using a method such as KonMari, where you only “surround yourself with items that spark joy.” Or, try a variation of the four box method, which actually uses three boxes and a garbage bag (or dumpster). For each item (or groups of items; for example, cutlery), sort into one of four categories:
- Keep (either keep it yourself, your parent takes it with them, or it gets stored to use for staging the home for selling)
- Donate to a local thrift store or give away (gift) to friends or family members (you may have to confirm with your parent or refer to the will to ensure their wishes are followed)
- Trash (don’t forget to separate recyclables or material to be shredded)
If your parent takes part in sorting and removing items, he or she may find it difficult to make decisions about what to keep and what to trash, donate, sell, or gift. Use these questions to help you both decide:
- When was the last time you wore this? Would I wear it?
- Does this still work?
- Will you need it? Will I need it?
- Should we photograph this for the “good memory” photo album?
- Is this something special you’d like to gift to a family member or friend?
- Is there room for this in your new place?
Start neutral. Begin with the least personal rooms, such as the spare bedroom, cleaning closet, or laundry room. This lets you and your family member ease into the process of sorting and clearing with things that are less likely to evoke strong emotions or memories.
5. Remove the Contents from Your Parent’s Home
Once you’ve succeeded in organizing and sorting the household contents, actually removing them should go quickly. If you’re using professionals, arrange for junk removal and the moving company at least two to three weeks prior to the move date. However, avoid scheduling this before you have a realistic idea of how long the sorting could take, or you may find yourself having to reschedule.
Setting your goal, and then creating and following an organized plan and timeline, can help everyone work more efficiently when it comes to clearing out a parent’s home. Yet, no matter how well you plan, issues will still arise: Be patient—with yourself, with your parent(s), and with other family members, as necessary.