In twenty years of helping people settle their estates, one glaring fact always stands out: we have way too much stuff! Just start poking around your closets, under the beds, up in the attics or your garage, and you\’ll agree. We have overstuffed and cluttered homes, and garages that can\’t hold our cars. Let\’s not forget the good reason why all of these storage companies keep going up across our city: People can\’t seem to let go of their stuff.

Don\’t organize your junk — get rid of it! If not for yourself, then do it for your children. Whether you are trying to help your parents clear out their clutter or attacking your own bulging closets, here are some basic principles to make the job easier.

Think “Three Piles.”

Create three piles labeled “Sell”, “Donate”, and “Discard”. Then as you go through the house, determine what you want to do with everything you find. Things of value that you don\’t need anymore should be set aside for an estate sale. First, find out their true worth. They may be less valuable than you were told, or you may be in store for a pleasant surprise. Things that might be useful to others, such as clothes, coats, shoes, or small appliances can be donated to the charity of your choice.

Things that have just accumulated for no apparent reason should be discarded. This is the category where you need to be brutally honest with yourself. Do you really need to keep forty years of National Geographic or all those Cool Whip containers and pie tins? Every one of us has boxes and secret stashes of things we\’ve saved, thinking they will come in handy some day. They probably won\’t. Here\’s a good rule of thumb: If you haven\’t seen or used it in one year, chances are excellent you never will. Let them go and lighten your load!

Start at the Top

You\’ll accomplish things a lot quicker if you have an orderly plan, and the best place to start is in the attic. Why? The attic is usually the hardest. Having a specific “road map” keeps you focused and provides encouragement and motivation as each level of the house gets de-cluttered. Make sure you have several helpers to work as an “assembly line” and then decide what should be done with all the items you have brought down. Over 90% of items in attics are usually discarded due to exposure to hot and cold, or items that are no longer useful.

Be Prepared

You will be far more successful clearing things out if you have what you need to do the job. A good pair of gloves and a dust mask will protect you from common hazards in every attic and basement. Keep a ladder or step-stool handy or you\’ll never get to that top shelf where most of the clutter seems to end up. Other things to help you do the job efficiently: heavy-duty trash bags, a flashlight, masking tape and a marker to identify items going to family members, empty boxes for the hundreds of small items you\’ll eventually want to sort, and bug spray (hornets have discouraged many well-intentioned attic cleaners).

Think Green

If you\’re like most people, your “discard” pile will be among the largest. Don\’t just haul it off to the landfill. Take a little extra time to separate things like paper, plastics, glass, etc., and take those things to a local recycling center. If you have a large amount of metal on your “discard” pile (old lawn furniture, non-working appliances, lawn mowers), there are companies who will pay you to haul them away, thanks to the price of scrap metal. You will also likely find dozens of half-used cans of paint and other solvents that need to be discarded, so call your refuse company for instructions on how to dispose of these chemicals safely.

The Family “Jewels”

One of the biggest areas that create ill-feelings among family members are the “valuables” – items of either monetary or sentimental value that someone wants. This could be anything from a pricey piece of art to your mother\’s hand mirror. If you\’re clearing out your parents\’ home after they have deceased, first find out if they left any documents to determine who gets what. For items not mentioned in the document, or if a document was never written, invite your siblings to go through the house with you, taking turns to select an item each would like to keep. Then, create a wish list, and have an appraiser assign a value to those items to keep it financially fair.

If you\’re downsizing your own home, now is the time to talk with your children about those special things they would like to inherit. One important point to consider: if you or your parents have several items of value — paintings, art, collectibles, precious metals and jewelry — consider hiring a professional appraiser to determine the fair market value of those items.

Most of us know we have too much stuff lying around. The thought of trying to sort through our stuff is so daunting, we just try to cope with drawers that won\’t close and closets you don\’t dare open. Many people don\’t clean out anything, and eventually leave it for their children. If you are overwhelmed, imagine how your children will feel, especially if they have to clean your house out in the midst of a crisis or grief.
Should your children offer to help you clean it out, let them. This is their way of telling you they don\’t want to deal with it after you\’re gone; they do want to help you now.

Here\’s the challenge: set a goal to clean out just one room. You will notice a difference immediately in how you feel in your home, and your children will be truly appreciative!

copyright 2010, The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, known as The Estate Lady®, is a professional estate liquidator and certified personal property appraiser. With more than eighteen years experience, she has assisted thousands of individuals in the daunting and often painful process of managing their deceased parents\’ affairs. She is a best-selling author and speaker to Boomers and their parents.