Emptying out a house sounds easy until it’s you who has to do it. Recently, my parents moved permanently to Florida after being snowbirds for many years. What that really meant is that, outside of clothes, they had two of everything and didn’t really need (or want) to move anything. It was almost as if they had passed away since very little was actually going with them. I was told that I could take anything that I wanted. We often hear older adults say “my children can have all this when I’m gone,” without realizing that their styles and tastes are very different from ours. For the most part, we really don’t have the desire (or storage space) to keep their household belongings. The duty to take care of all that “stuff” can be extremely overwhelming for their heirs. Perhaps they thought they were saving us from emotional or financial stress by not moving to a smaller home or retirement community, or not doing any of this themselves, when in reality it just delayed the inevitability of emptying the home of its contents.

The task of purging the home is much more manageable with helpful hands and a systematic approach. The first thing I learned was don’t do it yourself. You need someone else there to help, both physically and emotionally. A technique I found helpful was to separate belongings by their next destination. Scan the home and separate according to the following categories:

Keepsakes — things which have emotional value to you or another family member;
Resale — items which have potential monetary value in resale or as scrap;
Donate — items worthy of donation;
Trash — items which have no ability to be re-purposed (i.e. everything else).

Hardcopy photographs which were stored away in albums or boxes may not have been viewed in many years. Although not the cheapest, they can all be scanned and digitalized. Order and distribute copies of the resulting digital archive to family members to preserve memories. Then get rid of the boxes of photo albums. Books, hand crafted and hobby items, military mementos, or other keepsakes can be easily crated, stored and/or delivered to out of town family members. Dividing the boxed items up between family keeps the storage space reasonable.

With only a few exceptions, the market for used and even antique furnishings has become saturated. The Baby Boomer generation is beginning to sell off their accumulated possessions as they downsize and has flooded the market with furniture, china, porcelain collectibles, outdated electronics, and all kinds of household goods. Most of this stuff is in much better shape than the stuff my parents had. It is a buyer’s market, but any monetary return is usually better than none. I found that many of the items that I thought were re-sellable ended up as donations or trash.

Time and potential return should factor into your selling decision. Auctioneers and liquidators can usually work quickly, but will sell for whatever they are offered. Good estate sale or tag sale companies should have a regular following of buyers, but on-site sales often need to be scheduled months in advance. You also need enough items for you to have these types of sales. Consignment shops will accept fine furnishings, collectibles, or clothing at their discretion for a set time period and split the proceeds with you if the items sell. Online sales such as eBay are a convenient option for smaller or lighter items.

It is natural for you to want someone to pay the emotional price of parting with these possessions by at least getting some money out of the deal. Although situations vary greatly, the sad reality is that you may only receive pennies on the dollar when compared to the original purchase price of many everyday items. Often a better, quicker and simpler method for this heartache is simply donating the items. Clergy members can make excellent referrals to organizations which will distribute your family’s belongings to people in need. Some charities will haul away larger items at no cost. Call ahead, as charities are sometimes selective about items they accept. Also check with some of the senior move manager companies. They usually know which charities are still accepting donations and which have stockpiles up to the rooftops.

A word of warning: we “Sandwich Generation” children need to balance the pressure we feel from time and our own family and career responsibilities with the desire to honor our loved ones by finding a proper disposition for their belongings. Keeping something because someone may be able to use it in the future is not a good enough reason to keep it. When the grandkids get their own place, they can buy their own furniture or pots and pans. In simpler terms, if you can’t keep and use it, get rid of it! If you can’t sell or donate it, trash it! On top of that, often times the home’s contents stand in the way of repairs needed to make it presentable and sellable. Of course this then raises the temptation to “dump and run,” a decision family members may later regret. Nonetheless, household goods with no physical or intrinsic value can be, and should be, easily hauled away by local or national companies in their own trucks. Remember, there is typically a cost for this service.

Although many of the decisions you need to make in a home clean-out are very personal and require family consensus, the help of a compassionate yet unbiased third party can keep your project moving and give you the advice and physical and emotional support you need during a tough time. Asking for help is difficult, but well worth it. My best advice is don’t put it off and don’t put items to the side to decide later. Whether the item is an old can opener or a full bedroom set, put them into a category and move on to the next item.