Cleaning Out the House After a Death
Getting a house ready to sell after a loved one dies
Our mother knew her end of life was rapidly approaching, but she spared our family the details. The way we figured it out was when she asked us to help her prepare for a garage sale. This was the first step toward living more frugally, she said, and everything had to go.
That peony vase we gave her for Mother's Day many years ago? "You take it," she insisted, adding, "I'm too old to grow peonies anymore." And just like that, she donated walls of books, sold excess furniture and disposed of many belongings that took her decades to accumulate.
When she died a year later, we met up to clean out my mom's home. Even though mom had gotten rid of the bulk of her stuff, we still had a lot of decisions to make, separating the trash from the treasures. Here are tips that may help when that time comes for you:
Did the seller die in the house?
First, know that if the seller died in the house, you may be required to disclose this fact to a prospective buyer. Ask a real estate agent about seller disclosures for your state and whether a death in the home is considered a material fact. In California, for example, only deaths over the past 3 years require disclosure.
Change the Locks and Forward Mail
You may have no idea how many people have keys to the house -- friends, other family members, delivery people, house sitters -- you'll sleep better at night if the locks are changed.
Also, consider forwarding mail to your home or business address. Plan to annually update the forwarding address for a few years to keep it from expiring.
You never know who may contact the deceased, especially around the holidays. Then, you can let them know what happened.
Receiving the mail will help you figure out who creditors are, too, whether payments were current and if there are subscriptions you need to cancel.
Set Aside Financial Documents
Search every nook and cranny.
Sometimes people stash cash in the strangest places such as taped to the bottom of drawers, inside crawl spaces and, yes, under the mattress.
You might find these important documents in drawers, file cabinets, boxes under the bed or saved as files on the computer.
- Homeowner's policy. Keep the homeowner's policy effective until the day the home closes. Increase coverage if it is too low.
- Will. Look for updated Wills and copies.
- Insurance. This could be a private policy or purchased through an employer.
- Bank accounts. Carefully read the statements as many banks report all accounts on one statement.
- Letters from the homeowner's friends. You may want to write to them.
- Poems, articles, letters from the deceased. These will later bring you comfort.
- Bill receipts. Contact creditors. Consider notifying all three credit reporting agencies to freeze new charges.
- Stocks and bonds. They might be tucked into folders.
- Shred all sensitive documents, especially those containing a Social Security number.
Pay mortgage, utilities, maintenance
Contrary to popular belief, mortgage lenders still need to be paid. Keep the utilities turned on, and notify services such as gardeners or maintenance companies where to send invoices.
If the seller has a reverse mortgage, notify the mortgage company immediately and ask for time to settle the estate, beg them not to foreclose.
Sort personal belongings
This may be the most emotional aspect of cleaning out the house. Experts say it hastens the process if you sort belongings into three piles or tag them with color-coded stickers of three different colors:
- Items to keep
- Items to donate or sell
- Items to throw away
If family members squabble about distribution, set aside the disputed items until all the sorting is finished and emotions have settled. Then, try taking turns by each choosing an item or memento. Consider trading several items for a treasure you truly desire. Sentiment aside, get real valuables appraised to determine actual value.
Prepare House for Sale
We listed a home for a seller whose mother had died several years earlier.
He could not bear to change anything in the home. Much of the decor was old-fashioned. Looking at her things may have evoked memories of mom's spaghetti sauce, but buyers noticed a home just as his mother left it, filled with small ceramic figurines, gold-framed paintings from Italy and lace doilies. It took 10 months to sell.
- Furniture. If the furniture is old or worn, get rid of it. Don't leave it in the house because it will detract from the sale.
- Wall hangings. Remove them.
- Floor covering. Consider its condition. If there is carpeting over wood floors, expose the wood floors and, if necessary, refinish the floors. Replace cracked ceramic tiles. Clean carpet over plywood or buy new carpeting.
- Window coverings. If the window coverings are dated, throw them out. Most windows look better without heavy drapes or worn blinds.
- Walls. Some people paint once and never again. You may need to patch and repaint the walls.
- Ceilings. Replace dated light fixtures, patch cracks in the ceiling and paint.
- Remove all pet-related items. Take the outdoor dog house with you and donate it to a shelter. Selling with signs of pets in the home is a turnoff for many buyers.
- Clean from top to bottom. Wash windows, dust ceiling fan blades and wipe down the insides of cabinets.
Preparing a home for sale is time intensive, but done correctly, it will bring more money when the home is placed on the market.