Clearing out a lifetime’s possessions

When an elderly relative who has lived in the ‘family’ home for many years dies, sorting out their belongings can seem overwhelming. Recently, my mother-in-law passed away and left her four-bedroom home of the past 20 years packed to the gunnels. Like many of her generation who lived through the Depression and World War II, she found it very difficult to throw anything out. After all, who knows when one will need 15 rolls of upholstery fabric?

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as hiring a skip (we needed three) and chucking everything in it. There may be something of financial or sentimental value amongst all the ‘stuff’. Money tucked in the pages of books is a particular favourite of that generation. The possibility of finding it is a sure way to get the kids involved helping you clear out.

At a time when landfill is an increasing environmental problem, it is really important to recycle, re-use and donate as many items as practical.

A number of the charities have collection services – but be warned, they can be quite selective about what they will take and they definitely won’t take mattresses.  Most councils will have a mattress recycling depot you can use, as well as an electronic recycling centre for old computers and the like.

There will be items you want to, or believe you can, sell. Be prepared for the fact that ‘collectibles’ such as Lladro or stamps no longer hold their value as the number of collectors dwindles and demand drops.  Check out similar items on eBay to get an idea of their real value and then factor in the time it will take to photograph, list, sell and send it before going online.

There are companies who offer a ‘clearance’ service.  Be very careful when selecting one of these firms. Ideally, you want a company who will take all the remaining items (post clean up and charity) regardless of value; you will probably get a slightly lower return on the valuable items but the effort and time it saves is well worth it.  Get two or three companies to quote and do not be afraid to ask for references.

If there are some items you believe to be truly valuable, it is worth getting one of the reputable auction houses involved, however, they will charge a fee of up to a $1000 depending on how much there is to check.  Before they come, make sure you have all the items separated and identified so the valuation can be as quick as possible.

In some families there can be a dispute about what something is worth. Don’t do all the legwork yourself; take photos and then ask them to get two independent valuations.  It is not surprising how often people lose interest in an item when there’s some work involved in obtaining it.

You will need lots of garbage bags and packing boxes. You can buy second hand packing boxes from storage companies and they will buy them back when you are done (depending on the condition). They also sell butcher paper and bubble wrap for breakables and tape for boxes.

Related articles:
20 most common estate planning mistakes
Is this on your end-of-life wishlist?
Take an estate planning self-assessment

YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices Writers
YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.
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