If there’s one thing I’ve learned after 16 years of wading through cluttered houses, it’s that efficiency is key when sorting your items. Even if you just have a small house to downsize or empty, it can still take several days per room, and even more if you don’t have a system. Not to mention the hidden costs of cleanouts. Fortunately – you guessed it – I have a system. It’s a foolproof method for how to clean out a house quickly.

I call it my Four Pile Sort Method. I divide everything into four giant piles: things to keep, to donate, to throw away, and to sell. Make a plan in advance for each individual pile, and then you know where everything is going.

For this method to work, you need a large, empty staging area. If you can clear a basement or garage, this can give you enough room to sort a day or two’s worth of stuff, which you will then have to clear out regularly. The more space you free up in the house, the more sorting area you have.

You can also spread out a few tarps in the yard if you expect the project to only take a day. Or rent temporary on-site storage units and a large dumpster. Once you have your staging site set up, here’s how to clean out the house using the Four Pile Sort.


“Keep” can mean anything from what someone personally keeps to what someone else may want. Friends, neighbors and family may have expressed interest in an item. Or perhaps the person downsizing (or the person’s will) specifies that someone should receive a certain item.Hold furniture, books, mementos and other items in the “keep” pile for a limited time, until the recipients have decided for sure they want them. Often, Grandma may have insisted that Elizabeth gets her antique sofa, but Elizabeth may not have room for it.

How do you clean out those items that people want? Family members should pick up the items by a specified date and time (be firm!). If the items need to be shipped, get an estimate and be clear about who pays for that. Also, consider how much of your time it will take to organize shipping – perhaps you can “batch” those shipping jobs.

I am strict about donating or trashing any items if recipients do not get them by the deadline.


Planning and holding an estate or garage sale can take several days, weeks, or even months. Taking items to consignment shops takes both time and gas for a small profit that isn’t guaranteed. Also, if you have collections or antiques, how do you identify the value?

Rather than schedule appraisers and list items online, I usually recommend selling large collections of items at online auctions. An auction house will remove the items from the house, photograph them, estimate a value, list them online, and sell them quickly.

If you only have a few items to sell, especially for larger things like furniture, antique cars or musical instruments, it may be worth your time to bring in a specialty appraiser who can not only estimate the value, but suggest a collector or organization that may be interested.




We find that a lot of our clients would rather donate items than throw them away. I respect that – nobody wants to add more to landfill. But the truth is that many charities receive so many unusable items that they actually end up dumping them into the trash.  For that reason, anything broken, stained, or otherwise damaged needs to be thrown away.

For items that can be donated, look for specialty donation centers, like a charity that gives suits to needy job seekers. I prefer to give to charities that help people in immediate need.

Charities will often pick up large items, like furniture, but make sure they can come when you need them to. Some only pick up on scheduled days, and may not be able to meet your time frame.


When I talk to families about how to clean out their houses, I warn everyone that even small, uncluttered houses generate a lot of trash. We use a dump truck that we empty each night, but for DIY jobs we recommend renting a small dumpster, or designating a pickup truck to be emptied daily.

If you plan to recycle, follow the guidelines for your area’s sorting and pickup. Some municipalities won’t pick up recycling that overflows from the official pickup containers, and you’ll have to find a local drop off center.

There are often hazardous items that need special attention. Sharp objects like diabetic syringes, lancets and other sharps must be discarded in FDA-approved sharps containers. Human or other biohazardous waste needs to be disposed of in purchasable red biohazard bags. Paint cans, fireworks and other hazards must also be disposed of carefully – check your municipality’s waste management website for guidelines.

Our Estate DIY series offers a lot more tips on how to clean out a house, and you can always give us a call for personalized guidance as well. It’s a tough job, but we’ve got your back.