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Often, families and friends come together to clean out houses after the death of a loved one, sometimes traveling from out of town. To make the most of your time and volunteers, we advise planning carefully to keep this big house cleanout project on track.

We’ve compiled a list of the five steps we perform in our house cleanout service – but there is one important caveat. Our list does not address the emotional toll of dealing with cleaning out a parent or loved one’s house and personal effects, or the challenges of dividing up assets among family members. We’ll address that in a separate blog post.

Here are the five key steps for any DIY house cleanout project:

Assess the magnitude of your project

This begins with some basic volumetric equations. How many square feet of “stuff” is in the house, including all the furniture, everything in closets and drawers, and all of the boxes in the attic, basement and garage? We’ve found that it takes between 0.8 and 1.5 man-hours per cubic yard of material to completely clean out a house.

Consider this example: If the house left in an estate has 3,000 square feet total, and the average height of all the stuff (furniture, boxes, etc.) is about 2 feet, then you are working with 6,000 cubic feet of material. There are 27 cubic feet per cubic yard. Do that math and you are left with just over 222 cubic yards. That means that going through everything, removing it from the house and selling or distributing it properly could easily take more than 200 man hours and possibly more.

The more sorting and cleaning that needs to be done the longer it’s going to take. Too often, DIY estate managers seriously underestimate the amount of work that goes into a house cleanout. When that happens, the project can drag on for months or even years. Use our DIY estate cleanout calculator to determine how long yours might take.

Define success

What’s your endgame? Do you simply want to sell the house? Then you need to empty it out as quickly as possible without spending much time on evaluating the contents. The sooner you can get the house on the market, the lower the overall cost of carrying the property will be. Start by determining what’s realistic in terms of delivering the man-hours necessary to complete the project.

Or, is your priority to maximize the value of the house’s contents? If so, that could take a lot longer because to get the best price, you’ll have to sell items individually. For example, if there are valuable antiques, you’ll want to find the best market for each. Of course, that extra time will increase your carrying costs for the house, so you need to factor that in when determining the net return. Sometimes hiring a house clean-out service is more cost effective than doing it yourself.

Conduct a complete house inventory

Every item should be assigned to one of four categories: things going to family members; things to keep yourself; things to donate; and things to sell. Then you have to think through the logistics of getting everything where it’s supposed to go. If Cousin Billy is supposed to get the living room furniture, then he should come pick it up (at no charge to the estate) or pay for its delivery. If the symphony is going to get the antique violins, then they should arrange for pickup.

Identify your house clean-out team

Perhaps you want to enlist an estate sale company or realtor to help you manage specific portions of the project. If major repairs are needed before the house can pass an inspection you might need some contractors, and you’ll need to schedule that work around the other items on the list. Are there family members willing and able to assist you with some of the tasks, such as going through boxes or cleaning out closets? Assign specific tasks based on what’s going to happen with the items. For example, one sibling could manage the contractors while a cousin handles all of the donations.

Take out the trash

Not everything is worth keeping. No matter how sentimental something may seem to you, or the memories that touching an old apron can spark, at the end of the day a lot of the stuff you’ll be sorting through doesn’t have monetary value. That’s why even the most pristine houses yield truckloads of trash that families need to deal with. Not every family wants a dumpster parked out front through the duration of the clean-out (which is one reason we use our own dump trucks), but you will likely need one. We recommend calling a licensed, bonded company, such as 1-800-Got-Junk, to haul stuff away.

Of course, it’s difficult to not get caught up in the emotional aspects of a project like this, but our list should help you keep on track with the business end of things. The more you can separate yourself from the emotions and focus on the job at hand, the faster and easier the project will be.

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We provide our DIY information as a service to families settling estates or helping with a family member’s transition to assisted living. If your project is too large or complicated to manage yourself, give us a call anytime for a free consultation: 800-913-7747.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and we always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.