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How to clean out a house (hint: Start now)

Key Points
  • Sorting through a home chock full of stuff can be overwhelming, so it's best to start as soon as possible.
  • The simplest way is to classify your belongings into four separate categories: keep, donate, dispose and sell.
  • Honor the memories, but don't keep the stuff.
Clutter reduction

Empty nesters often face cruel irony: The kids are gone, yet the house full of stuff remains.

After half a lifetime of accumulating furniture, artwork, books, china, crystal, flatware, jewelry, clothing, sports equipment and so on, facing a home filled to capacity can be overwhelming.

And the task of sorting and selling is only made worse by leaving it for the next generation to tackle.

"It's a horrible thing to put your family through, especially at a time of loss," said Jennifer Pickett, associate executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

The stuff that you have just weighs you down.
Jennifer Pickett
National Association of Senior Move Managers

Rather than wait, Amanda McCollum, a certified financial planner and founder of the site, recommends going through your house every few of years. "Not just your closets," she said. "Everything."

Tackle one room at time and purge the things you don't use anymore "so it's not overwhelming," she said.

Moving boxes sit stacked outside of a home in Princeton, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The simplest way is to classify your belongings into four separate categories: keep, donate, dispose and sell, according to Pickett. "That starts to crystallize the process," she said.

She cautions those cleaning house to lower their expectations of what items might be worth, like the wedding china, for example. "The kids won't want it and it won't be worth anything," Pickett said. "You'd be better off donating it."

The same goes for big oak cabinets or other once-pricey pieces of furniture that don't hold a candle to the current preference toward Ikea.

As far as reaping some return, jewelry or mid-century modern furniture are your best bets, Pickett said.

And when it comes to the items that are particularly hard to part with, Pickett suggests taking a photo and filing it away. At the end of the day, "honor the history of the possessions," but don't feel like you need to keep the objects themselves, she said.

"The stuff that you have just weighs you down," Pickett said.

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