What To Do With Your Parent’s Stuff

A Step By Step Guide

Bringing up the topic of decluttering

Ideally, you can start talking to your parents about their stuff before anyone actually has to deal with it. Like all potentially sensitive conversations, tread lightly and even though you might initiate the conversation, let your parents lead the discussion. Some potential conversation starters:

“Janessa and Doug’s parents are moving to an apartment and they’ve been sorting through all of their belongings – a big job! Have you ever thought about going through your stuff?”

“Everyone is talking about decluttering these days. Are you thinking about it and can I help if you are?”

“I recently heard a statistic that 60% of seniors say that they have more things than they need. Is downsizing or decluttering something you’d want me to help you with?”

Once you open the discussion, follow their lead. Perhaps they say yes, and then you can move on to how to help them. If they say no, don’t despair; you’ve planted a seed. Bring the issue up again in a month or two.

Dealing with feelings

If you move ahead with decluttering, either because your parents took your lead or because they are downsizing to a new, smaller location, proceed with patience and compassion. Stuff isn’t ever just about stuff. That bread maker, still in its original packaging, represents an idea that was never followed up on, or a gift from a family member who has passed away. Those rusty bikes in the garage? They’re memories of a younger, happier, healthier time. That chipped coffee mug carries the essence of “home.”

Before you begin the process, ask your parents if they have any ideas about how to tackle the stuff – you don’t want to come in like a steamroller and wipe their place out. (Well, you might want to, but you really shouldn’t.) It’s better to know before downsizing day (or hour, or days…) that there are things they will absolutely not relinquish, or that they plan on gifting you with the entire contents of your childhood bedroom and every piece of elementary school art you ever created.

You also want to consider the best process for your parents. Are they willing to have you work without them? Do they want to be involved? Do they tire easily? Do they operate better in the morning or early afternoon? Decluttering is usually an emotional experience; set them (and you) up for success as best you can. Were they raised during the Great Depression or have other personal history that might make throwing things away a challenge for them?

And finally, be prepared that they may have a change of heart. If that happens, don’t despair. Give them a little time and then revisit the topic – gently.

Options for decluttering

It’s time to tackle the stuff! Maybe you got your parents to agree to start decluttering. Maybe they need to downsize. Or maybe, you are tackling this project on your own, after a move to memory care, or perhaps, after a parent passes away. Where to begin?

Estate Sales

Checkout: American Society of Estate Liquidators

Well, the most efficient place to start if you have the entire contents of a house to clean out, is with an estate sale expert. Hiring an estate sale company can save you time and stress. It may even make you or your parents some money, but unless you are dealing with a home full of expensive artwork, it’s best not to set your expectations too high for making money. Here’s why: 10,000 people turn 65 every day. As a result, there is a glut of older generations’ stuff going into consignment and thrift. Buying habits have changed and less expensive home furnishings are more appealing to younger buyers. So is less stuff. That means no one wants your parents’ Hummels, German beer steins, Beanie Baby collections, or Ethan Allen maple furniture. In fact, when I was trying to clean out my parents’ home, the exact items I was looking to offload to a thrift store were the items listed on the “We Do Not Take” list: twin beds, rocking chairs, and dry sinks. What is a dry sink anyway? But I digress.

If you do go the estate sale route, ask the following questions:

Do they sort, clean, and price, the merchandise?

Do they provide tables?

Do they take care of advertising and required permits?

Do they track and manage state sales tax?

Do they clean up and clear out the property after the sale ends? 

How do they charge – percentage of gross sales, flat rate, flat rate plus a percentage of sales?

How do they determine prices?

Do they have a professional appraiser on staff?

Are they insured?

When and how do they discount merchandise? 

Do they allow staff to make purchases? 

What is required of you? 

How will they advertise the sale? 

When and how do they pay you?

Are you allowed to attend the sale? (Best if you do not!)

Do they have a contract?

If you are going to tackle the stuff without professional help:

Start with things that have no, or at least very little, sentimental value. My Dad had piles of scrap metal in the basement. My mother saved take out containers. My aunt kept paper and plastic bags – tons of them. Find the items that have no story behind them and that there are enough of to make a small dent and get rid of them first. It’s good to have an easy win. You will see some small spaces opening up in the home and you should accomplish that drama-free.

Then, clear a staging area. Even if all you are doing at this point is moving stuff to another location, clear a room, or at least a large surface if you can. You will need a staging and sorting area.

Next, if appropriate, send a bulletin. Let family and close friends now you are downsizing (with your parents’ permission, of course). Ask them if there is anything they might be interested in. It can sometimes be easier to let things go when you know those items are going to someone you love and who will love your belongings. IMPORTANT: Give people a deadline for taking things. Before I made my parents’ second home my own, I told my sisters to take what they wanted, but they never did. Several years later they ask me about things I discarded long ago. And, I still have a section of the basement dedicated to things they say they are going to take…someday.

Next, choose either an area – a drawer, a closet, a room – to tackle, or choose a category – clothing, sporting equipment, books, etc. Take these items to your staging area. Create several areas in the staging room: things to donate, things people are going to pick up (see above), things to keep, things to sell, and the indecision pile.

Accept the indecision pile. The indecision pile is the pile of stuff (and it might be a big pile) that your parents, or maybe you, just can’t decide about. Maybe they know that large screen TV won’t fit in the assisted living apartment, or maybe they know they are never going to use the chainsaw again, but…..for reasons that might not feel rationale, they can’t part with them. Okay. Put those items in the maybe pile and move on. You will get back to them later. What you don’t want to do is fight about them at this stage in the process. At this stage in the process, you want to celebrate the wins – even if all you can celebrate so far is a trash bag full of crumpled tissues and receipts from 1984.

Now, categorize. In the sorting area start to place things into action-based categories. Those categories might include: Keep, Sell, Donate, Recycle, Gift. NOTE: If your parents really want you to have something, but you know the ceramic unicorn lamp from your childhood bedroom does not fit your farmhouse chic décor, take it anyway. Keep the peace and take some things. You can toss them later.

Once you’ve categorized, create subcategories. In the Keep pile, are there items that need repairs? Sort them – Drycleaner, Tailor, Cobbler, Drop off, etc. Are there missing parts? Make a list of actions based on the Keep – Repair category.

In the Sell category, categorize into collectibles, furniture, tools, etc. Make an action list for these subcategories too. Find a consignment shop. Research where to sell silver. Get referrals to reputable baseball card dealers. Schedule yard sale, etc. Do the same for the recycle category. Many towns host recycling days for electronics, hazardous waste, cardboard, textiles etc. Make this research a priority so you don’t miss an annual event. Consider a dumpster company that recycles – then you can toss with a clear conscience!

Get clear on what you value. People will tell you to go through every page of every book, and to check every pocket of every piece of clothing, lest you accidentally throw cash or a winning lottery ticket away. YOU decide if that’s what you want to do. My aunt, for example, had piles and piles and piles and piles of books. I had 2 hours per weekend to clean out her place and so I didn’t fan through every page of every book I boxed. Did I leave some treasure behind? I’m not going to worry about it. As a busy working daughter, and niece, time is as valuable a currency to me as money is. Of course, your parents may have different values then you do. Respect their point of view as best you can – these are their belongings after all.

Once you sort through these major categories, act on what you can. Deliver the gifts, or schedule pickups. Get repairs done. Donate what you can:

Libraries and schools take books

Thrift stores and Veterans organizations take clothing and many household items

Churches and other non-profits may take items, even cars

Consignment shops may take furniture, clothing and jewelry

Facebook marketplace is a great place to sell anything. So is eBay, but beware of fees!

Pet shelters need linens

Senior living facilities may take some items too. I sent my mother’s fine china to her assisted living so she and her neighbors could enjoy them for monthly tea.

If, after all of your sorting efforts, you still have items, it’s time to hire a junk hauler or rent a dumpster. Know you have done your best to reuse and recycle!