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It’s a really tough job, both physically and emotionally, clearing out a house after a relative has died.

When a relative dies, it can be a daunting task to sort through years of accumulated possessions. Something as simple as an old hat or box of photos can spark memories. But if you want to sell the house, it needs to be emptied. Here are a few tips to help you get the job done.

Clearing out a house
Clearing out a house

Wait for the will to be read

Make sure you know who has an interest in the deceased’s estate before you start giving items away or throwing stuff in skips. The reading of the will should happen soon after the funeral and may include specific bequests, for example items of jewellery to named individuals. If you’re unsure, consult a legal professional, such as a solicitor.

Set a target date

Set a realistic time limit for completing the clearout rather than let it drag on for many months or even years.  Let all the family know that you want to empty the property by a target date. The house is usually the biggest asset and once it is sold the proceeds can be divided between the heirs.

Get a professional appraisal

Some items may be valuable and could be sold, for example old books, china or paintings. Most of us haven’t got the specialist knowledge to know which objects are valuable and worth selling. It may be a good idea to hire a qualifed appraiser who can tell you whether that ceremonial sword hanging over the fireplace is a rare antique or simply a treasured family possession. Alternatively, you can take items to your local auction house for expert valuation. If your relative had a lot of valuable possessions, it may be worth organising an estate sale of these things.

Have a system

Now the really hard work begins. It’s sorting all the rest of the house contents that takes time. If you have siblings enlist their help.  Go through each room and do a rough sort into two piles: things that are still usable or have sentimental value and stuff to bin. “I started at the top of the house and worked my way down,” said Christine Brown, a nurse, who recently cleared out her late mother’s house before putting it up for sale. “I cleaned out upstairs first, getting rid of all the rubbish, like old shoes that nobody would want and then moved anything I wasn’t sure about to one room downstairs, so it was all clear upstairs.”

Take photos and be kind to yourself

Part of de-cluttering a relative’s house is learning to deal with your own grieving process. Take photos of the property before you start the clear-out. It could help you sort items that have no monetary value and you don’t want to keep but find hard to let go. Christine said: “It can be difficult to throw some things away. For example, my mum always had a vase of plastic flowers. I hate plastic flowers but they were on the landing all my life. Put those things to one side, and come back the next week and think about what to do with them later. If you try to sort everything straight away it’s tough as you’re still attached but as time goes on, it gets a little easier. I still have four or five boxes of my mum’s possessions in my attic and will go through them again in a year or so.”

Set aside anything your family wants to keep.

Ask the immediate family to put sticky notes with their names on the items they want to keep.  If more than one person wants the same thing, try and find a way to sort it out without major disagreements. Emotions can run high after the death of a loved-one and it’s easy to squabble over something as silly as favourite china milk jug. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak up and claim the items they would like to have. You may also want to give friends, neighbours or carers a few possessions as a momentos.

Donate to charity

If there are items left over in good condition after everyone has made a claim, consider donating them to a charity.  Christine said: “If you fill out a Gift Aid form the charity can get an extra 25 per cent and will let you know how much your donated items have raised. I took quite a few clothes to the Salvation Army, including my mum’s best coat and they told me they sold them for £300. I found it satisfying to know I had raised money for charity.” She also contacted her local hospice to organise a pick-up of the furniture. The charity was only interested in items with fire retardant labels.  “They took away sofas, tables and chairs which was very handy. It made the rooms a lot emptier and the estate agent was then able to take photos.”

Consider hiring a skip or a man with a van

After you’ve sorted everything to be sold, given to family and donated to charity, it may be worth renting a skip to dump what’s left.  Alternatively, you can hire a ‘man with a van’ or just a van to haul away unwanted objects to your local household recycling centre. Items, such as old electrical appliances or garden tools, may be recycalable. Remember to check inside all boxes and bags. It’s not unheard of for people to hide their most valuable posessions in old shoeboxes or handbags. Keep any official documents you find – they could be vital, for example the paper deeds to the property.

Get help from the professionals.

It can be a huge task to clear out an entire property. If you are faced with a tight deadline or live far away, hiring a house clearance specialist may make it easier. But make sure you remove any valuable items or treasured family heirlooms first. Once you have nearly emptied the property, an estate agent can advise you if anything else need to be done before it’s put on the market – the same as they would for any home seller. The property may have dated décor or be in need of a deep clean, for example. A solicitor can give you expert advice on the legal and tax issues.