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Emptying the Family Home Without Battling Siblings

The ‘Moving On’ authors share tips for getting the job done and keeping the peace

By Jill Yanish

Keep? Sell? Toss? These three options are ammo for the battle when clearing the family home after a parent leaves it.

Emptying a house full of memories and items takes an emotional and physical toll — especially if mom kept every one of her kids' finger paintings and Valentine’s cards. Maintaining family peace is a challenge when one sibling views dad’s record collection as a family heirloom, while another sees it as cash for a plane ticket to Florida.

Then there’s the inevitable clash between the throwers and the keepers.

Janet Hulstrand and her siblings had 35 years’ worth of stuff to sort through when it came time for their father to downsize. “There were just so many areas of expertise I wished I had some inkling about — everything from antiques appraisal to the preservation of old letters and photos, to how to get rid
of toxic household products,” she says.

She was disappointed by a lack of resources to answer her questions. To fill the void, she paired with Linda Hetzer, who had gone through a similar experience, to write a one-stop-shop book on how to get the job done. Moving On was first published in 2004 and just recently released as an e-book.

It covers everything from preserving home videos to handling sibling rivalry. The authors even get down to the nitty-gritty, like hiring the right estate planner.

Next Avenue talked with the authors about the do's and don’ts of clearing a home and how to make the process enjoyable (yes, it can actually be fun).

Next Avenue: What’s the most useful piece of advice you have for emptying a house?

Hetzer: The best advice, and the phrase we now use as our mantra, is 'Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff.'

Honor the items that belong to your family — talk about them, take photos, write down your memories, tape record family members sharing stories. Then let go of the item. Studies have shown that people are able to let go of their possessions more easily if they have been given the opportunity to talk about them first.

What do most people do wrong in this situation?

Hulstrand: Many people start too late, and then have to rush through it. That’s when mistakes are made and that can lead to regrets.

Hetzer: Most people approach downsizing as one big project … rather than approaching it as a series of small efforts.
So, where should you begin?

Hetzer: The first step is to agree that it’s time to let go of the house (no one should feel pushed into it) and then to create a timetable that works for everyone involved. Once that has been established, you can start by sorting through one area of the house or one category of items and divide them into piles designated: Keep, Toss or Donate.

What if family members disagree on what to keep, toss or donate?

Hetzer: For downsizing to be successful, each family has to come up with a plan or approach that works for each member. Conflict may be inevitable, but planning ahead can help.

(MORE: Giving Things Away Can Make a Life Transition Easier)

For items the family agrees to sell, what are some sales methods and how do you choose what’s best?

Hetzer: The first step may be to hire an appraiser to go through the entire house (called a 'look-see') to tell you which pieces may be valuable. Those items can be sold at auction.


If the entire contents of the house are to be sold, you may want to have an estate sale.

For individual items, there are online auctions, resale shops and yard sales. Often families use a combination of these methods.
How do you avoid a power struggle?

Hulstrand: Ideally, the person or people who lived in the home should be the ones in charge. Unfortunately, sometimes the move is being made under duress of illness or after a death in the family, and then the decision-making shifts to others. 

One of the most important things is to make sure that no one rushes the process or leaves out people who should be involved in the decisionmaking. If there has been a death in the family, there are also legal issues to consider before taking things out of the house.

What are some items that are frequently mistaken for junk but are actually worth something or are historically valuable?

Hulstrand: One of the most surprising things we learned in writing our book was that some things that absolutely seem like junk — for example, empty perfume bottles — are actually collector's items.

When I asked a curator at a local historical society what sort of things she wished people would not throw out, she said, 'Ephemera.' Things such as old greeting cards, matchbook covers, road maps, that sort of thing. Some of these things may be welcome in museum collections.
You point out that there’s concern whether digital documentation — emails, photographs, video, sound recordings — will be accessible in the future because technology changes so rapidly. What can people do to ensure that items are preserved and can be accessed by future generations?

Hulstrand: The main thing people need to know is that there is a danger in thinking we can solve the problem of preserving archival material by digitizing everything.

Special emails and favorite photos should be printed out and saved that way as a backup. Video and sound recording is a more complicated problem. The Library of Congress is a great resource, and they have very specific guidance on how to organize and store digital material at their website

(MORE: How to Give Away Your Digital Fortune)
How can families make this process fun and memorable?

Hulstrand: By taking their time. If you can build in the time for family members to reminisce and just enjoy being together, as well as going through what can be a pretty tedious task, it actually can be fun.

Telling each other stories along the way can also make it easier to let go of some of the objects, because for most people the memories connected to the objects are more important than the objects. 

Jill Yanish is the assistant editor of Next Avenue.

Jill Yanishwas formerly the associate editor for Next Avenue.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University and has written for various Twin Cities publications. Read More
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