How to Clean Out a House After a Death: 9 Steps Explained

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When a loved one passes, handling their belongings can be a challenge. Not only might this process evoke waves of grief, but you might also wonder what to do with everything. When we die, we can’t take our things with us. These mementos and everyday items remain behind as a reminder of our memory. 

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Whether you’re cleaning out a parent’s house after a death or helping a friend after a loss, this can be a painful process. You want to balance the time needed to take care of yourself with the practical steps. Most importantly, remember that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to clean out a house after a loss. 

In this guide, we’ll share clear steps to guide you through this process. Depending on your timeline, you might skip around or start at the first one. Again, this is entirely up to you and how you choose to honor the deceased. 

Who’s Typically Responsible for Cleaning Out a Loved One’s House After a Death?

There are no hard and fast rules about who is responsible for cleaning out a loved one’s house after a death. The responsibility falls on the family members, typically the next-of-kin. This could be a spouse, domestic partner, parent, child, or sibling. In some cases, it might even be a close friend or extended relative. 

Because this can be a challenging process, it’s also common for families to hire someone to clean out a loved one’s home. This could be a professional cleaning crew, estate specialist, or organizer. It depends on the family’s personal wishes. 

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What Items or Tools Will You Need to Clean Out a Loved One’s House?

You don’t usually need anything special to clean out a loved one’s house. Unless the loved one died at home and special cleanup is required, you only need basic cleaning and organizational tools. Some helpful items are:

  • Trash bags: You’ll need trash bags for anything you’ve decided to throw away. 
  • Organizational bins: Bins are a way to keep organized, helping you identify what you’d like to keep, donate, and throw away. 
  • Document organizer: You’re likely to run into important documents along the way. A special document organizer keeps all of these papers and items safe. 
  • Photo album: If you’re going through photos, you might want to keep the majority of them. Photo albums or bins keep them safe and organized. 
  • Cleaning supplies: Basic cleaning supplies like multipurpose spray, paper towels, rags, and so on could be useful, especially if you’re planning to sell the house. 
  • Packing materials: Lastly, if you’re packing their belongings to take elsewhere, bring packing materials like bubble wrap, boxes, and tape. 

It can be helpful to visit the home of the deceased before you decide what you need. You might not know its cleanliness level, as well as how much you’ll have to go through. A visit in person is the best way to learn what tools you’ll need. 

Steps for Cleaning Out a Loved One’s House After a Death

When you’re ready to clean out a loved one’s home, follow the steps below. Knowing what to do when someone dies isn’t always easy, but it’s an act of compassion. Following basic steps keeps you focused and on track. 

1. Secure the home

Before you begin, make sure your loved one’s home is secure. Ideally, this would be done soon after a loss, but it might have been skipped in the chaos. Because you never know who might have spare keys to the house or who might be keeping a close eye on it, take a few steps to protect their space:

  • Locks: Change the locks for all doors of the house. Give a spare pair of keys to a trusted loved one or neighbor just in case. 
  • Mail: Arrange for any incoming mail to be forwarded to another address. 
  • Yardwork: Take care of any important yard work, like mowing the grass, to give the house the appearance of being occupied. 
  • Utilities: Make sure all of the utilities are transferred into a new name and that you continue paying for electricity and water as long as is needed. 
  • Extreme weather: If you live in an area prone to harsh weather, like rain or cold, take preventative measures to keep the home safe. 
  • Indoors: Bring anything left outside indoors, like garden decorations, seating, or signage. 

If your loved one owned their home, you can handle these steps yourself. Otherwise, if they were renting, contact their landlord to see how they’d like to handle securing the property. 

2. Find key documents

Before you begin going through any of your loved one’s personal belongings, locate all of their important documents. These are things you will need sooner rather than later. More importantly, you don’t want them to get lost in all of the confusion of cleaning out their home. 

What do you need to keep? While this differs based on their situation, you should locate:

  • ID documents
  • Insurance policies
  • Final will and trust
  • Bank statements
  • Utility bills
  • Invoices or paperwork
  • Tax forms
  • Mortgage payments
  • Car registrations
  • Property deeds
  • Social security card
  • Passwords or usernames for accounts

If you can’t find all of these things, that’s okay. Just do your best to locate what you can. These are usually found in drawers, file folders, safes, or near an office space. Talk to your loved one’s friends and family about where they might have kept important information. 

3. Tour their space

Next, take a moment to tour their space. Again, there is no rush. Take the time you need to sort through your own feelings before you begin digging through someone’s belongings. When you take the time to go through things slowly and process your emotions, you can recognize your loved one’s connection to their home. 

Not only will this help you determine what to keep after someone dies, but it can also help you create a plan. Now that you have a clear idea of how much stuff they had, you can inventory the different spaces. Create a plan to move through things steadily. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from trusted loved ones, tackling this project together as a team. 

4. Check the will

If you’ve already familiarized yourself with your loved one’s will, you can skip this step. However, you should carefully read over the will to know if anything has been designated to someone in particular. For example, your loved one might have wished for their favorite quilt to go to a grandchild. 

While most wills are straightforward processes, some are more complicated. These wills might require a probate attorney, so take time to learn if this applies to you. Lastly, if your loved one passed without a will, the laws depend on the state. 

5. Sort through everything

When you’re ready, sort through your loved one’s things. It’s a good idea to not let the entire family into the home at once. This process will be much faster (and less stressful) when 1-3 people handle the initial sorting of the belongings. 

You can start with a specific room or tackle the entire home at once. Again, consider your own timeline and deadlines. Set aside anything that might be of high value, like jewelry, fine art, or antique furniture. 

For smaller things, like personal possessions, consider what you want to keep, donate, and throw away. Having three organizational bins keeps this process moving quickly. Any sentimental things can be kept in their own pile to be shared amongst the family. 

6. Dispose of things properly

Some things will be easy to throw away, like damaged furniture or old clothes. But it’s not always easy to know how to get rid of old furniture. Before you begin, consider a dump removal service or donation service in your area. You might benefit from having a roll-off dumpster in the home’s driveway to remove things quickly. 

For things you wish to donate, make sure they’re in fair condition. You might need to call around to several donation centers to see who can take a larger quantity of things, depending on your area. 

7. Bring in the family

For any items you’ve chosen to keep (sentimental or high-value), bring in the family. For high-value items, you might need a professional appraiser to determine how much some special things are worth. These might be sold as part of the estate. 

Otherwise, bring in groups of relatives to go through the remaining items. If there are any disagreements, let them know your deadline for cleaning out the home. Distribute all belongings to their beneficiaries, and donate anything that remains. 

8. Hire a liquidator

If you’re left with any remaining valuables, you might wish to hire a liquidator who specializes in estates. These are the people who can quickly sell things like antiques, furniture, and fine art. Because they’re familiar with the market, you’ll get the best value quickly. 

Another option if you feel comfortable is to hold an estate sale. This is when you invite collectors and community members to the home to buy any remaining valuables. You could pocket a pretty sum from the sale, and these funds go towards the estate. 

9. Finalize home arrangements

Last but not least, finalize the home’s arrangements. Depending on whether you’re selling the home, returning it to the landlord, or keeping it in the family, there are some final things you will need to do:

  • Clean: Clean the home yourself or hire professionals. It’s best to save most of the cleaning until after the home has been fully emptied of belongings. 
  • Deposit: If your loved one rented their home, return the keys and do a final walkthrough with the landlord. If they had a deposit, ask about it at this time. 
  • Real estate agent: Alternatively, if you’re selling the home, talk to a local real estate agent about how to place it on the market. 
  • Transfer: Lastly, if you’re keeping the home in your family, talk to your estate agent about transferring the property into the new name. 

When in doubt, reach out for help. Nobody should have to handle this full list alone. Asking specific loved ones to handle tasks takes the weight off of your own shoulders. Remember, this is a time for grief and reflection. Give yourself the space you need. 

Handling an Estate Cleanout

Ultimately, cleaning a loved one’s home can be a therapeutic process. Not only do you get to explore their legacy in a new way, but you can also pass down important belongings to family. Though this is a time-consuming process, know that you’re doing something meaningful. 

The things we leave behind help tell our story. By cleaning your loved one’s home, you’re telling this story for them. This is a beautiful way to express your love and share a new legacy together.

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