When a loved one dies, it’s not always possible to allow yourself time to grieve before buckling down to clean out their house and divide the estate. Whether they lived in a rental property and the landlord wants it emptied within 30 days, or you can’t afford to continue paying taxes and utilities on the property, an ever-increasing number of people find themselves forced to undertake an estate cleanout on a tight deadline.

While the process of cleaning out a relative’s house may seem overwhelming at first, it becomes easier when you break it down into some common sense steps, allowing you to get the job done quickly even while dealing with difficult emotions.

Step 1: Set a Time Limit

Rather than using a vague timeline for completing your estate cleanout, you should select a specific date and inform the entire family. Knowing that you must empty your relative’s house by X month on Y date creates a greater sense of urgency than saying that the work must be complete “within a month.” Setting a firm end date will also help you get the house on the market faster. As Julie Hall of The Estate Lady, explains: “This boundary should be respected by everyone in the family, as the house is usually the biggest asset and, once sold, the proceeds can be divided.”

Julie Hall gives estate cleanout tips.“In each family, there is usually one relative that wants to take their time and cherish each memento they come across. The key is to strike a moderate compromise. It is not fair for a relative to drag their feet for many months and sometimes even years.”

Julie Hall | The Estate Lady

How to Clean Out Your Parents’ Estate in 30 Days or Less

Step 2: Get an Appraisal

When you’re faced with a tight deadline for cleaning out a relative’s house, hiring an appraiser will make it much easier to determine which items are valuable enough to be sold and which should be divided among the family. Most of us aren’t equipped to determine what counts as a valuable asset on our own. Hall makes it clear that the value of an item is “NOT a price you see on the internet, as that is just an asking price that came out of someone’s mind.” A qualified appraiser can tell you whether that vase on the mantle is a rare antique or simply old.

Julie Hall gives estate cleanout tips.“Much is taken into consideration when arriving at values, including what the item is and whether it is desirable in today’s strong buyer’s market. Sentimentality has nothing to do with monetary value and just because an item is old does not at all mean it is valuable.”

Julie Hall | The Estate Lady

How to Clean Out Your Parents’ Estate in 30 Days or Less

Step 3: Work in Stages

Once an appraiser has gone through the house, remove all of the valuable items so that they can be sold later. Now the real work begins. Dividing up the remaining property is the most challenging aspect of any estate cleanout—and the one that can most seriously slow the process down. To minimize friction and keep the process on track, tackle this step in stages.

Stage 1:

Don’t let the whole family loose on the house right off the bat. First go through each room and do a rough sort. Dayna Steele, Chief Caring Expert at Caring.com and author of Surviving Alzheimer’s With Facebook, Friends, And A Really Big Glass of Wine, used this strategy when moving her mother out of her home and into a care facility. “I divided it into two piles: things that are probably worth something or have some sort of memory value and things that appear to be crap.”

Stage 2:

Now it’s time to bring the family in to claim what they want. If your relatives generally get along and there haven’t been any major disagreements about the estate or the home cleanout process, you might choose a day to have everyone come in at once. This way, if multiple people want the same item, they can hash things out right away, keeping the process moving forward.

On the other hand, if there are tensions in the family, bringing in smaller groups of relatives at a time can make the process less fraught. Start with the deceased’s immediate family, then those relatives and friends they were closest to, and then everyone else. Let each group go through the house placing sticky notes with their names on whatever items they want. Put those who chose the same items in contact with each other—reminding them that they have to come to an agreement by the target date you established for the estate cleanout.

Dayna Steele offers advice on how to clean out a relative's house.“Communication is the bottom line. Ask for what you want because no one can read your mind.”

Dayna Steele | Chief Caring Expert, Caring.com

Surviving Alzheimer’s With Facebook, Friends, and a Really Big Glass of Wine

Stage 3:

If there are usable items in good condition left over after everyone has made their claims, choose an appropriate charity and contact them to arrange a pickup. If your relative lived in a care facility, Steele suggests offering items to facility employees. “I invited the caregivers, who are probably all making minimum wage, to come in and take anything they thought they might want.”

Cleaning Out a Relative’s House While Grieving

Part of figuring out how to clean out a relative’s house quickly is learning how to work through your own grieving process. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for coping with these emotions. Be kind to yourself in whatever ways you can, allow yourself to take breaks as often as you need and lean on your support system as much as possible.

Dayna Steele offers advice on how to clean out a relative's house.“I have absolutely no tips whatsoever. You just have to cry. You’re losing your mom or your dad or your loved one, and it’s such a metaphor as you lose their stuff.”

Dayna Steele | Chief Caring Expert, Caring.com

Surviving Alzheimer’s With Facebook, Friends, and a Really Big Glass of Wine

Step 4: Remove Unwanted Items

Once you’ve removed everything to be sold, kept by the family or given to charity, it’s time to rent a dumpster to haul away what’s left. When you’re cleaning out a relative’s house on a time limit, this is the quickest and simplest way to complete the job. If this feels overwhelming, remind yourself that the items you’re putting in that dumpster aren’t the things your relative cared about or the objects you associate fond memories with. They’re the regular old junk that your relative likely would have been happy to be rid of.

Step 5: Hire an Estate Liquidator

The final step in your estate cleanout is to sell the valuable items. If you have a large number of items to sell, hiring an estate liquidator is your best bet to get the job done quickly. As Hall explains, “They know the market, the values and the right way to sell personal property.” If you have a smaller number of valuables to sell, Hall suggests taking the items to a consignment shop or contacting an estate buy-out person.

Prepare Your Heirs for Your Own Estate Cleanout

Cleaning out a relative’s house is much simpler when that relative has left clear instructions on what to do with their belongings. After moving her mother six times while she was an Alzheimer’s patient, paring down her belongings each time, Dayna Steele has become a major advocate for talking about your wishes with your children or other relatives as soon as possible. “Have the conversation long before you need to think about these things. If you have the conversation now, they won’t have these worries later.” Steele now has regular conversations with her children about what she’d like done with her belongings after her death, as well as her other wishes.

Dayna Steele offers advice on how to clean out a relative's house.“Nobody wants to talk about death. But unless you’ve found a way out and haven’t told the rest of us, it’s something that’s going to happen. Have the uncomfortable conversations until it’s no longer uncomfortable having them.”

Dayna Steele | Chief Caring Expert, Caring.com

Surviving Alzheimer’s With Facebook, Friends, and a Really Big Glass of Wine

Have you had to clean out a relative’s house on a time limit? Share your story in the comments.