20 Tips for Cleaning Out Your Parent’s Home and Preparing for Its Sale

by Michelle J. Lane

As a Realtor who is a Senior Real Estate specialist, my team specializes in helping families make sure the home is cleared out and ready to sell at the best price possible.  I have a long list of resources and good tips getting through this process.  For families that do not live near their parents’ home, we can even manage the whole process for you.  We take as much of this burden as possible off the family, knowing how difficult it is to make decisions during an emotional time.  Below are recommendations for those who want to and can take on these tasks on their own:

  1.  If at all possible, don’t wait until the last moment to clean things out.  I realize it can be difficult to go through your parent’s things with them while they are still living in the house.  They may resist.  But there is a lifetime of bank statements, insurance policies, and investment records l in that home, along with tons of paper that should have been tossed long ago.  At the time of their passing, your emotions will be raw and you will be overwhelmed with making arrangements, going through decades of paperwork will be the last thing you want to do.
  2. If it is too late to do it ahead of time, be thorough, you will need to have all their documents in hand to do the final tax return and to make sure no assets go undiscovered.  As tedious as it is to go through all their files, you never know what important documents you will uncover.
  3. Hire an estate attorney (if your parent’s didn’t already have one) who can help you transfer the assets to named beneficiaries.  You will also need to get a “license to sell” in order to put the home on the market.
  4. After talking to that attorney, consider hiring a shredding company or getting a good fire going with the paperwork you clearly do not need.  It is not a good idea to toss these papers in a dumpster as they may contain confidential information.
  5. Find out what everything is worth before you start giving it away or tossing it.  If you believe there are valuables in the home, hire an estate appraiser to value furniture, jewelry and antiques.  The appraiser will give you an estimate for each item, charging an hourly fee. The cost will depend on the type of appraisal you want.  You might pay $100 to $250 an hour for a general appraisal; $300 an hour for a fine arts appraisal or a fee per item for a written appraisal on high value pieces.   An appraiser can also tell you the best way to get top dollar for the property whether that is an estate sale, auction or having antique shop owners come and buy items.   If you are going to sell to the appraiser or an antique shop, be sure to speak to at least two so that you know you are getting a fair price.  The appraiser may also suggest a consignment shop, but my experience is that families just want to be done with it and not have to track items that are put up for sale in a consignment shop.
  6. Before dissolving the furniture and décor, let your Realtor walk through and tell you what should stay to stage the house for sale.  They may say nothing should stay if it is all dated and worn, but if the furniture has redeeming décor value, houses will typically show better with some furnishings than completely empty.
  7. To avoid any hard feelings, let family have the first choice of your parent’s belongings before selling them off or giving them away.  Have your siblings create a wish list of the items they’d like from the estate.  Do this as early in the process as possible so that siblings’ imaginations don’t run away with them thinking that the child taking the lead is walking out of the house with favorite items.  Balance out the requests by the value of the items, which you will know after having everything appraised.  This is a time of raw emotions. If items are given away that have sentimental value to a family member, it can cause hard feelings that could last a life time, sad to say.
  8. Hire physical labor or recruit younger family members.  If you are not local to your parent’s home, ask your Realtor to coordinate.  The job will be far more daunting than you think.  As you start pulling belongings out of closets, attics and basements, you will be stunned by the sheer volume of stuff.
  9. Be thorough!  In helping clients clear out their homes, my team has found jewelry in the pockets of coats, money inside books.  Older people tend to hide their valuables in the most creative places.  You will need to go through everything before you donate to charity or toss it out.  Look at the underside of drawers, backs of mirrors, in things that are tucked away at the back of closets.
  10. Unless your parents have designer clothes or vintage (before 1960) do not add to your workload by trying to sell them off.  Your time is worth more than used clothing could fetch.  Just donate to a worthy cause – but check all the pockets and inside pocket books first!!
  11. Sell furniture that is not valuable enough to interest an antique shop on Craigslist, via a Yard Sale, etc.  Be realistic.  Unless it is hundreds of years old, used furniture has very little value these days.  Same goes for China and stemware.  These have fallen out of fashion and it is very difficult to sell them in any forum.  Sometimes it is even difficult to give them away.  Some charities will only take it if it is modern enough to sell in their thrift shop.
  12. Consider asking the neighbors in to see if they want any of the stuff going to charity.  They may also have fond memories of your parent and may want to keep a memento.  And this way, you get some of the stuff carted away for you.  In some towns, you can even put items on the curb and people driving by will pick it up.
  13. I am a big believer in everything finding a home rather than winding up in a landfill.  If getting items to charities that can benefit from them is important to you, consider hiring high school or college kids with a driver’s license to drive the stuff to the charities for you.  Not all charities take everything.  And unfortunately, charities often don’t pick up.  Those that do can rarely accommodate the timeline you need to be on.  My team has driven books to the library (after checking with a book reseller for value), senior healthcare gear (walkers, etc.) to the senior center and clothes to the many charities that take them.
  14. Consider renting a dumpster.  This gives you the opportunity to look at each item you consider junk as you are tossing it.  It also helps you to clear out attics, basements and garages so you can see what remains that could potentially be valuable.  For about $500, you can typically keep a dumpster for a couple of weeks.
  15. Bring in a liquidator. This is someone who will clear out whatever’s left after you’ve decided what to keep, sell, give away or junk. Before hiring someone, however, you must comparison shop.  Some will charge you a fee, some will do it for free in exchange for keeping the stuff to sell what they can.
  16. Even liquidators may not take hazardous materials (fertilizer, chemicals, etc.) or may charge a high fee for doing so because they have to pay dumping fees.  Check with your local town hall to see if they have a drop off depot for these items. Do this early so you have time to properly dispose of these items.
  17. You will feel sentimental about many things as you are clearing out your parents’ possessions, but be wise and do not extend that sentimentality to giving the listing to a family friend who has never sold a house in the town your parents’ home is in.  I saw a listing (not mine, thank goodness) sell for $100,000 under market value because the family gave the listing to a family friend.  Not only did he not know the local market or have much selling experience, but when the family could not bear to make any changes to the house and left it just as it was when mom passed, he did not have the objectivity to tell them what they needed to hear – that the greeting cards she had decoupaged to the walls needed to come down, the carpeting needed to come up and the knick knacks had to go.   Ask yourself if the relationship with that family friend is worth tens of thousands to the family, because that is likely what you will be giving away.
  18. The same goes for selling to a family member or family friend.  My own mother, many years ago, sold my grandmother’s house to my cousin without checking with anyone, without consulting a Realtor (I was not a Realtor at the time) or an appraiser.  She sold that house at about half of its market value.  My mom was just too trusting and she wasn’t good at dealing with those big decisions during a time of stress.  More recently, I just sold a home in my market for $420,000 to a builder.  The house next door also sold to a builder who was a member of the seller’s family for $350,000 and that house was on a better lot.  Do my clients feel it was wise to hire a Realtor?  Yes they do.
  19. Take the advice of a Realtor experienced in estate sales before making any improvements to the home.  One of the biggest mistakes we see homeowners make is over-improving the home before putting it on the market.  While it makes the home show well, you are not likely to recoup all the money spent.   In some markets, builders are paying more for these homes than buyers who would occupy the home.  Since a builder will renovate or rebuild, any improvements would be a waste of money.   On the other hand, if your Realtor tells you reasonable improvements must be made to get top dollar, heed their advice.
  20. As much as you and the family may want to save money, I strongly suggest that you not try to do all the work yourself.  Your time is better spent taking care of your parent’s affairs.  There are plenty of resources available to cart out junk and charity items, to clean the house, to landscape the yard.  Odds are, you (and your siblings) have full-time jobs, families and your own houses to care for.  I have seen tensions rise when the children try to take all this work on themselves and all are not able to help equally because of distance or family obligations.

Contact Me if you are ready to talk about selling your parent’s home.


Michelle J. Lane
Century 21 Commonwealth

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