Cleaning Out the House

Your parents have moved to long-term care or perhaps passed away, the funerals have taken place and with thank you cards written it’s time to take a deep breath and tackle the job of cleaning out the family home. At first it may feel like a relatively simple task but once you and your siblings start to work, you quickly realize that every drawer, every little box and every photo album is a minefield of memories. Add to that potential disagreements about who gets what and this ‘simple task’ quickly turns into an emotional ordeal that nothing in life has prepared anyone for.

Some families get lucky with parents who have taken on the task of downsizing over the years, perhaps moving from the family home to a smaller condo and ultimately an apartment as they’ve aged. Other families have not been as fortunate, their parents choosing to stay in the home they walked into right after marriage which means every nook and cranny is full.

Whatever your situation, these tips may help you negotiate the stress of dismantling the family home:

  • Keep the end goal in mind – the house is costing the estate money in taxes and utilities every month it isn’t sold
  • Don’t try to do it all in one fell swoop – not only will the work be physically tiring but the emotional highs and lows can be exhausting, so give yourself time to breathe and recover before moving forward but set a goal to have it all done by an agreed upon date
  • Have a plan going in – agree on how to value keepsake items to avoid resentments, decide which charities can best handle household items, choose an estate appraiser to deal with antiques, art and jewelry, decide if anything is suited to consignment and who will handle it, find out if your local hospital auxiliary runs an annual rummage sale and the schedule of events for your local estate auctioneers
  • Gather up all of the important documents related to the house, wills, insurance, passports, credit cards, banking information and so on first to ensure they won’t be thrown away or given away accidentally
  • Decide which items each sibling wants to keep apart from items left to specific people in the will
  • Tackle big things that make a serious dent in the job first – box up clothing, dishes, pots and pans and other items that your parents may have stashed but not used frequently – put them in boxes and label them clearly
  • Consider donating all those mismatched bed linens and towels to a pet rescue
  • Discipline yourselves to handle each item only once
  • Consider taking pictures of paintings, instruments, furniture or other items that your parents treasured but none of the siblings really want and then give them to a home that will appreciate them
  • Don’t feel guilty about throwing things out – that collection of birthday cards, mismatched dishes, jars of buttons or old catalogues probably don’t have a place in any of your homes
  • Use technology like scanners to copy old family slides or Blurb to make keepsake copies of your parent’s love letters or perhaps favourite family recipes
  • In the event that you get down to some pieces of furniture or other items that you just can’t make a decision about, rent a small storage unit for six months and store them so that the house sale can progress – the emotional attachments may lessen with time