How to Clean Out a Home in 5 Steps — And What to Do With All That Stuff

A daughter hugs her elderly mother as they tenderly look at a photo with moving boxes all around them.
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Cleaning out a home is a major undertaking. The sheer amount of stuff can be overwhelming. 

Whether you’re moving to a smaller place in retirement or helping your siblings clean out the family home after your parents die, the process is never easy.

You might be up against a tight deadline because the house needs to be sold. Or maybe you’ve been putting this off for a long time but now you’re ready to tackle it.

Here’s how to get started.

How to Downsize a Home in 5 Steps

In this guide, we discuss what items to keep, toss, sell and donate when clearing out a house.

We’ll also pass along some practical solutions to save you time and money, like nonprofit organizations that pick up donations.

Step 1: Create a Plan of Action

There is a seemingly monumental task before you: cleaning out an entire house.

Where — and how — do you start?

First, create a plan of action and a realistic timeline. Consider your resources and deadlines.

For example, if you need to clean out your parents’ four-bedroom house by yourself, it’s going to take longer than a single weekend. In fact, it will probably take days — or even weeks or months — to get everything organized.

Look at the time you have available outside of work and other responsibilities. Does the house need to be sold by a certain date? Can your siblings fly in to help?

Try to account for breaks and moments with sentimental items as you plan your timeline. Cleaning out a family home is more emotionally taxing than packing up for a normal move.

If you have help, assign everyone a task or a room to declutter before you start. Have each family member make a list of items they want from the house to avoid confusion and conflict down the road.

If you’re downsizing after the death of a loved one, it’s important to locate the will first if there is one. Carefully read through it with a lawyer before you start clearing out the house. 

This legally binding document will decide who gets what and how to proceed with dividing the estate.

Remember: If the house is in probate, you can’t start selling items or getting rid of property until the estate is settled.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before You Start

Asking yourself these questions can help you solidify your action plan and timeline.

  • Do you have a hard deadline? Or do you need one? If your timeline is short, you may need to donate more items instead of selling them or put things into storage until you can sort through them. If you’ve been putting this off for a while, create a hard deadline to start the task and stick to it.
  • Do you have close friends or immediate family who can help? Lining up extra hands may help you stay on track, make decisions and feel supported.
  • How large is the property? A larger space will take more time, whether you’re downsizing to an apartment or liquidating an estate.
  • What’s your budget? Consider things like cleaning supplies, a dumpster rental, professional help, gas to transport donations, etc.
  • Do you have the equipment you need? Things like boxes, tape, plastic tubs, a flashlight, a dolly to move furniture, etc.
  • Do you have transportation to help you donate, discard and relocate large items? You may need to rent or borrow a truck to move furniture or appliances.
  • Where is the nearest trash and recycling center? What are their hours and what do they accept?

Consider Hiring Help

If the house is large or you don’t have family members who can assist, consider hiring professionals.

Help can take the form of:

  • Professional organizers
  • An hourly handyman
  • Movers who can transport items
  • An estate cleanout company or junk removal service

The cost of these services varies, but expect to pay at least $200 for a couple hours of help.

It may seem pricy, but you can sell items from the house to recoup some of the cost.

Hiring help is a smart idea if you need to clear out a home in two weeks or less.

It’s also hard to put a price on your mental health. Professionals can alleviate stress by doing the heavy lifting and helping you get organized.

Step 2: Start Sorting Through Items and Clearing Out Rooms

Working in one room at a time, in a clockwise motion around each room, is one way to start the task of clearing out a house.

“Staying in one area of the home and moving on to another area usually makes the most sense,” said Vickie Dellaquila, a Pittsburgh-based professional organizer and founder of Organization Rules Inc. “It’s good to finish one room at a time.”

Dellaquila suggests tackling a spare bedroom first, especially if you aren’t sure where to start.

“This way you can use the room as a staging area” to sort items, Dellaquila told The Penny Hoarder.

Another option? Attics, basements and garages.

“These areas contain things like empty boxes and broken items that are often easier for people to deal with,” Dellaquila said.

Other experts recommend starting with the bathroom since it’s small and usually has few, if any, sentimental items.

As you make your way through each room, sort items into these basic categories:

  • Trash
  • Keep
  • Sell
  • Donate

Prepare to open every box, empty every pocket and look in every drawer. Otherwise, you might discard important items and regret it later.

Step 3: Decide What to Keep

So what do you actually do with everything?

The answer depends on the type of items and how much time you have.

It also depends on how many items you want to sell or if you simply want things out of the house as quickly as possible.

How to Handle Sentimental Items

Sentimental items are invaluable, but sorting through them is incredibly emotional and time consuming.

To save time — and avoid tossing memories in the trash — place things like family photos, sentimental paperwork, invitations, cards and letters in plastic storage containers and sort through them later.

Don’t attempt to go through each photo or family memento now. It will only slow you down and make an emotional task harder.

Deciding what to do with other, larger items can be trickier.

While you want to honor your loved one’s legacy and keep things that remind you of them, Dellaquila says it’s important to put limits on how much stuff you keep.

“I’ve seen a lot of people keep much more than they really want because they can’t decide,” she said.

Dellaquila suggests creating boundaries and limits on the things you save, especially if you’re downsizing a home after a loved one has died.

For example, if your mom had a collection of figurines that really remind you of her, just keep one or two that best represent her memory.

“Remember, you don’t have to be a curator of a museum of your mother’s stuff,” Dellaquila said.

Make sure to ask family members what sentimental items they want to keep before selling, donating or throwing things away.

Never assume you know what is important to other people.

Step 4: Decide What to Discard

You might encounter more trash than you ever imagined possible when cleaning out a house.

Good first steps: Empty the wastebaskets and shred piles of unimportant papers. Get rid of stacks of junk mail, old receipts and coupons.

The same goes for damaged, broken or stained items. Your local Goodwill doesn’t want that rusty, wobbly patio table any more than you do. (You could try a curb alert though.)

In fact, Goodwill and other thrift stores generally won’t accept these items:

  • Tube TVs (You may be able to recycle it.)
  • Sleeper sofas
  • Bed pillows, mattresses and box springs
  • Severely damaged or stained clothing (Some thrift stores sell damaged clothing to recyclers to bring in some extra cash. You can ask ahead of time, then put those items in separate bags.)
  • Bean bag chairs
  • Any chemicals (Look for hazardous waste disposal near you.)
  • Building materials (Donate to the Habitat ReStore.)

Other items to trash: expired or used makeup and stale perfume, carryout menus, socks without mates, broken belts, dead plants and old day planners.

Need to get rid of hazardous items or chemicals, like paint? The Environmental Protection Agency suggests contacting your local health or solid waste agency for information about proper disposal.

You’re likely to find old electronics — phones, computers, TVs — and cords that no one remembers what they go to anymore, too. You may be able to recycle those items. Check the EPA’s list of retailers and what they accept or use the recycling center locator from the National Center for Electronics Recycling.

Decide if You Need Trash or Cleanout Services

If you have more junk than your local trash pickup service can handle, you may want to rent a small dumpster that can easily fit in the driveway.

Dumpster rentals can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 a week, depending on the size and where you live. The average national weekly rental costs around $360.

Alternatively, you can hire an all-inclusive estate cleanout service to quickly clear out the house. These companies usually provide yard cleanup, too.

Costs range widely, from $400 to $2,000, depending on the company, the size of the job and the location.

To find the best rate, get at least two to three junk removal quotes before hiring a company.

Step 5: Decide What to Sell

Items of value left unclaimed by family can be sold for cash.

If you need to sell only a few items, consider using Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp or Craigslist to arrange fast pickup.

Not sure how to sell things online? Check out our complete guide for tips on writing item descriptions and taking the best photos. 

Here are some other suggestions:

If you’re looking to sell several high-value items such as fine jewelry, art or antiques, hiring an appraiser can help you determine the right pricing. They can also help with marketing efforts if you hold an estate sale.

You can find a collectibles appraiser in your area through the Appraisers Association of America.

Looking for other places to sell things online? We compare 14 sites, including eBay, Amazon and Postmark.

How to Donate 5 Things Goodwill Doesn’t Accept or Want

You can help give possessions a second life by donating items to charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

However, thrift stores don’t accept everything.

Here are ways to donate five things you might encounter while clearing out a house.

1. Old Magazines and Newspapers

You can always put non-glossy magazines and newspapers in the recycling bin.

Local libraries, hospitals, doctors’ offices and nursing homes may also accept magazine donations, assuming the publications are recent and in good condition.

You can also reuse old newspapers to wrap fragile items as you pack up the house.

2. Unused Medical Equipment and Supplies

You might come across lots of unused medical items and equipment, especially after the death of an elderly parent.

Thrift stores usually accept things like crutches, canes and walkers, but not power wheelchairs or unopened boxes of bandages and syringes.

You can try to sell (or just give away) medical equipment on sites like Craigslist. Some of it is worth a lot of money. However, the more specific and specialized the device, the harder it might be to find a buyer — or get the price you want.

National organizations like Project C.U.R.E. and MedShare accept donated medical supplies from members of the public.

Common items these organizations accept include traditional wheelchairs, hospital beds, lift chairs, rotators and wound care supplies.

You can also search for medical equipment charities in your area on Google.

Local nursing homes and Area Agencies on Aging are other good places to check and see if medical supply donations are needed.

You can also donate gently used working CPAP or Bi-PAP machine that are less than 4 years old to the American Sleep Association. They’ll even send you a prepaid shipping label.

Nonprofit organizations focused on specific diseases or disabilities may also accept equipment donations.

For example, the ALS Association’s Florida chapter accepts donated power scooters, transfer boards, toiletry items and Talk to Me devices. They contract with durable medical equipment companies that can pick up items from the house.

3. Food

Good first steps: Toss out expired food and ask friends or neighbors if they want anything, especially perishables or food preserved at home that a food pantry can’t accept.

You can find local food banks and pantries in your area through Feeding America or Second Harvest Food Bank.

It also never hurts to Google “food pantries near me.”

4. Linens, Towels and Rags

Animal rescues and pet shelters are always in need of supplies.

Water bowls, leashes and toys are obvious items to donate, but you might not think of donating blankets, bedsheets, towels and other linens.

Animal shelters can use these items to line beds and cages and after baths.

Give your local animal shelter a call and see if they need these items. They can probably use trash bags, paper towels, gloves and other cleaning supplies, too.

5. Books, CDs and DVDs

Aside from Goodwill, you can donate gently used books — and sometimes CDs and DVDs — to your local library.

Libraries usually sell these donations in a Friends of the Library bookstore or fundraiser.

Many libraries let you drop off one to four boxes of books at a specific location without an appointment. However, they probably won’t take hundreds of books, or you may need to make an appointment first.

The Little Free Library program is another option. These small “take a book, return a book” exchange boxes have sprouted up all over the country.

You can find a Little Free Library near you by using this map finder.

How to Get Rid of Everything Else Without Leaving the House

Still have stuff to give away?

You can ask friends and neighbors if they want anything. You can also hold a garage sale to clear out smaller miscellaneous items.

Here are a few nonprofit organizations that accept donations, many of which offer pickup services.

  • Tech for Troops: Accepts old cell phones, monitors, laptops, tablets and computer parts. For $20, you can order a Give Back Box and mail your donation to the charity.
  • Habitat ReStore: Accepts furniture, appliances, building materials and more. You can find your nearest location and schedule a home pickup on the organization’s website.
  • The Arc: Supports individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities with 600 chapters throughout the U.S. — many of which pick up donations. You can learn more online or by calling 800-283-2721.

Looking for other organizations that pick up donations?

You can try Donation Town, an online directory that connects donors with charities across the country that offer free donation pickup services.

Another option is Pick Up My Donation, which either connects you to local nonprofits or a partner pickup provider. You can also request priority pickup for an additional fee.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. She focuses on retirement, investing, life insurance and taxes.