How to Clean Out a House
Simply decluttering a home can be a massive chore. When it involves cleaning out a house after a death, a family member moving to assisted living or addressing hoarding tendencies, it can take more effort, stress and time to work through this emotional experience.
“As with everything in organizing, it's really important to remember that cleaning and organizing after someone passes away or moves to assisted living is an emotional process,” says Shantae Duckworth, professional organizer and founder of Shantaeize Your Space.
“Often people associate items with emotions, moments, events and feelings, so something as little as donating a mug or tossing a piece of paper can bring up a lot of emotions for people,” she explains.
Here are some tips to help you get started.
Have a Plan
Cleaning out a house, especially after a difficult situation like the passing of a loved one, transitioning to assisted living or dealing with excessive clutter, is a monumental task. Before you begin, you need a home cleanout plan with a clearly defined goal.
“Going straight into decluttering without working out which areas to prioritize or the best order to do it in will more than likely result in you feeling overwhelmed and giving up,” says Laura Price, founder and director of The Home Organisation in London. “It’s important to look at decluttering a whole home as a series of small achievable tasks to keep motivation high.”
Price recommends writing down smaller tasks you need to do and ticking them off as you work your way through the list. You can also sort these tasks into categories, such as items to keep, donate, sell or toss.
If you don’t have family or friends who can help, consider hiring professionals. “I highly recommend if you are in this process, working with a professional organizer who has experience with these difficult times,” Duckworth says.
You can also hire movers, an estate cleanout company or a junk removal service to help lift, transport and dispose of unwanted or heavy items. According to HomeAdvisor, removing a full truckload of junk costs between $400 and $800, but it can save you time and you may be able to sell items and recoup part of the cost.
Also, set realistic expectations and give yourself plenty of time. “Even something as small as cleaning out a medicine cabinet can take hours when the client needs time to process emotions,” Duckworth adds.
“Working out what materials you need requires looking at the end result,” Price says. “Once you’ve collected everything being thrown away, where is it going? What are you going to do with all the clothes you need to donate? Once you’ve decluttered, how are you cleaning? Do you need refuse bags or cardboard boxes? What cleaning products do you need?”
Answering these questions will give you a better idea of what materials you need.
Because most items probably won’t be going back into the house, Duckworth recommends gathering packing materials. “Boxes of all sizes, sturdy tape, bubble wrap and tissue paper,” Duckworth says. “Of course, you will also need garbage bags, and I also recommend having large plastic bins to pack anything for storage.”
If there’s a lot to throw away, consider renting a dumpster. Costs vary depending on the company and size of the dumpster, but most charge $200 to $800 per week.
Dispose of Unwanted Items
Not every home cleanup is the same, and the cleaning and decluttering process is different for everyone, Price says.
“For some people, it can be really systematic, sticking to one task until it’s finished and then moving on. For others, it can be going back and forth between different tasks to help keep them motivated and engaged,” Price explains. “Find which process works for you and make sure to write down all the small tasks you need to do to clear the whole house so you stay on track.”
But before you can start organizing, you need to focus on trash. “I always like to start by throwing away any garbage,” Duckworth says. However, you’ll need to tread lightly, she adds, and go through items before throwing them out. The last thing you want to do is throw away something special or an important document.
In some situations, like the home of someone with hoarding tendencies, you may run into hazardous material. Before discarding it, wear disposable gloves, heavy work shoes, eye protection and a mask.
Check with a local waste management company or the municipal transfer station/recycling center for how to safely dispose of materials that should not be discarded with everyday trash, like computer monitors and kerosene. A pharmacy or fire station may accept unused or expired medications.
Sort and Organize
Marla Mock, president of home cleaning company Molly Maid, recommends decluttering first. “Going room by room, start with the spaces/rooms that are the most high-traffic and work your way down to the low-traffic areas.”
As you sort through everything, organize items into four categories: keep, donate, sell or toss. Price highly recommends using labels to stay organized. “Make sure you write clear labels – a sharpie and masking tape can work really well – that you can stick next to the pile and see at a glance. It’s easy to get confused between what items are going where, etc., so make it easier for yourself,” she says.
Duckworth uses clearly marked storage bins to hold items from the keep pile. Some of these items may go back into the home, be put into storage or given to family members.
You can use labeled boxes to store items to donate, which Price says are items that are of good quality that could be used again. Research charities and nonprofits in your area, like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Keep in mind that not all charities accept every kind of donation. For example, you may need to find local food banks and pantries if you wish to donate food, and some charities may reject specific types of medical equipment.
You can sell items of value, but Price advises donating instead. “Avoid trying to sell items, especially if you have lots to get rid of,” she says. “It slows down the process and items have to be stored until they're sold, which defeats the whole objective of decluttering.”
If you wish to sell items, consider using Facebook Marketplace or having a garage sale. Before you start advertising your sale, contact your county recorder’s office or your town’s city manager. Depending on where you live, you may need a permit.
Final Deep Clean
When everything is organized and out of the way, go room by room and do a deep clean. This is more than just decluttering; it’s clearing out a house for a blank slate or a fresh start. Dust, scrub and wipe every nook and cranny, from the ceiling all the way to the floors.
If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can always hire help. “We recommend hiring a professional cleaning service when tackling a home cleanout project once you’ve decluttered and organized your space,” Mock says.