It’s not something I wanted to become an expert in, but I’ve got quite a wealth of experience in cleaning out houses. I’m the oldest in my generation and at this point quite a few elders who have passed before me. Unfortunately, none of them have been particularly organized. My family tends to stay put until the very end, leaving me to deal with a lifetime’s worth of accumulated stuff. If only our family was known for our organization! Alas, we are not. I’ve become organized by necessity. And, unfortunately, my home is now cluttered with the things I couldn’t bear to dispose of from everyone else’s homes. But, I digress.

Some people outline who gets what in their will. None of my relatives have done this, aside from the house itself or maybe a car if it still runs.

There are so many things that are treasures to one person, but not to their family. In the ideal world a single family member will want each item. Unfortunately, usually we all quibble over a handful of things (often of only sentimental value) and then quibble over who should haul the rest of it out to the curb.

If you’re worried about people disputing things, bring everyone in right at the start to say what they want. I’m not above having people draw straws over who gets what, but usually they can talk it out and come to an agreement.

I start clearing things out in the kitchen, because perishables have their own timelines. I’ll donate anything that isn’t expired to the local food pantry, which is always happy to take donations. The rest is easy to toss.

My first call is always to the local shelters to ask what they need. Sometimes their requests come as a surprise, but of course people need all sorts of things. Some shelters will take open containers, others won’t, so I always ask. Then as I go through the house I set these things aside. I get rid of tons of random (but useful!) things this way. Charities will take all the old clothes. It feels good to help people out and the estate gets to credit for the donations.

I tackle things one room at a time. I set up staging areas where I have piles to keep, donate, sell, and toss. Usually these piles start in the garage, because there’s room once you pull the car out. Sometimes I’ll have to wait for a few days of good weather so I can go through things and excavate the car first!

There are companies that do estate sales, but my family never has had the sorts of things that people pay you to take. Our houses are the kinds where we’d have to pay someone to empty out. Sometimes there are a few items that are worth listing on Craigslist, especially furniture and tools. Other times I’ll set aside things for a pretty big garage sale. As I go through it’s pretty obvious if there’s anything worth the time to actually hold a garage sale.

There might not be much value in selling things, but you never know where someone’s squirreled away valuables. Check pockets, turn over shoes, check the toilet tank. I haven’t found huge sums of money, but enough that I’m sure glad I didn’t accidentally throw it away. Finding the key to the safe deposit box and the ‘missing’ piece of heirloom jewelry is worth the trouble.

Don’t bother going through paperwork as you find it. Just take a quick look and put it all in one place. Sometimes I’ll sort it into three or four piles, but I don’t stop what I’m doing to try to unravel any financial mysteries. I clean the house until it’s on the market, then I deal with everything else. Of course, I’ll flip through to find any important paperwork that’s missing that I need right away. In the best case scenario, I have a cousin to hand the paperwork off to.

To make sure I actually make progress, I try to distance myself from the task at hand. If I think about the fact that this is my mother’s house and I’m throwing out her things because she’s gone forever and she’ll never undo the clasp of this notebook again I’ll spend the whole day crying and keep everything. I have to just be detached and ask myself if this is something I or anyone else would conceivably want. I want to keep things for sentimental reasons, but if I do it too much I’ll just end up in one of those hoarder houses you see on TV.

It’s funny, but the attic and the basement are usually the easiest to go through. We put these things away because we want to treasure them forever, but usually a lot of it is just crap. It’s either junk or treasure, so it’s easy to sort through. Just remember that if you stop to flip through every photo album and reminisce, you’ll never get done and you’ll go broke paying the mortgage and property taxes. Put it aside and reminisce when it’s safely in your own house or when you’re with the whole family next.

Sometimes it’s been tempting to stay in the house, especially when it’s a hike from my place. It’s a bad idea. I’ll stay up all night sorting and cleaning and be exhausted and cranky the next day. Either drive home or stay with someone nearby if it’s at all possible.

Just because something is in the keep pile for the first round doesn’t mean you have to keep it. This is the stuff you think someone wants. Maybe they don’t, that’s okay. It’ll get shifted to another pile.

Usually houses sell better when they’re furnished. Especially when things like carpets are a little worn. You’ll want to clear pretty much everything out, aside from a minimum amount of furniture. Then add a few knicknacks and things back in until it feels comfortable. Don’t put anything too personal on display, trophies and souvenirs and landscapes are better than family portraits. You just want it to look like a nice, tidy home. That’s when it’s ready to sell.

Once the house is sold, I’ll list all the furniture for sale, or whatever no one is keeping. Sometimes Goodwill or the Salvation Army will pick things up.

Don’t forget to set up mail forwarding. You’ll get all sorts of important tax documents that you might miss otherwise.

A. Smith