Experience has shown me nothing breaks the back of a house cleanout like starting in the wrong place. Getting bogged down for a month sifting through stacks of dirty boxes in Grandpa’s dim and musty garage can devastate even the most committed family’s morale. But standing in the doorway of an empty room after your first weekend on the job? That’s like wind in your sails. It builds confidence and momentum for the tougher rooms to come.
To get that early win, I always start a house cleanout with something easy. Here, I’ll teach you how to make a ‘scorecard’ to evaluate rooms, and how to rank them from easiest to hardest. The results will tell us where to strike first.
Create a House Cleanout Scorecard
Using a single piece of paper, start by listing all the rooms in the house. If rooms are connected, split them into individual units. For instance, if Mom’s bedroom suite has a walk-in closet, vanity room, bathroom, and sleeping area, that makes four separate entries.
I use five main factors to gauge how easy or hard a room is going to be: Emotional Significance, Room Size, Volume of Objects, Open Space, and Resources. List these across the top of the page as column headers, with the word “Total” as your final heading.
With your scorecard in hand, evaluate the rooms one at a time, assigning them a score of 1 - 3 for each factor. A score of 1 spells ideal conditions, 3 the worst.
If your relative died at home, or if a significant life event happened in a particular room, then that is probably the last place you want to start. You’re grieving, and the wound is still fresh. Every object you touch is going to trigger a memory and remind you of the recent death. That room scores an automatic 3 in this category.
On the other hand, say Mom in her later years hated cooking and almost always ate out or warmed up convenience foods. Her kitchen was more utilitarian than warm. That scores a 1 here.
I learned the hard way about starting house cleanouts in garages. They’re big, cluttered, store dangerous materials like gas or paint thinner, are full of grease and dirt and grime, and can take forever to clean out. Ditto for unfinished basements. Both are classic “room size” examples of a 3.
Now, let’s say that when Uncle Buster retired, Aunt Peg converted the guest room into a little home office with a desk. It’s pretty likely the small office is a 1 on room size.
Volume of Objects
Ideally, you want to start with a room that isn’t too messy and has a low volume of stuff. For instance, let’s go back to Mom’s unused kitchen. It may be a large room, but if she had already pared down to a few simple cooking and eating utensils, cleaning products, and a nearly empty pantry, that scores a 1 in this category.
But what about her den? If she spent two decades filling it with old photographs, craft supplies and leftover toys and books from grandkid visits, you’re looking at a 2 or 3.
During a house cleanout, working in a room where you can move around, sort things out, and have a spot to sit can be like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert. Surprisingly, a cluttered basement with some open floor space is actually easier to clean out than a small office crammed to the ceiling with old clothes and dusty boxes.
When evaluating space, if you can’t see the floor, or the room has little more than a walkway, that’s a challenging 3 for this category. A room with a good open floor space scores a 1.
If you’re working with a group of five family members or other volunteers, then teaming up on Mom’s packed walk-in closet is more efficient than taking on even smaller, less cluttered spaces alone. Together, you’ll make visible progress faster, keeping spirits high and building momentum for the entire house cleanout. Plus, if Ronnie finds Dad’s long-lost Rolex, Aunt Jill can share a story about the watch and help diffuse the grief.
The point is, scoring for this factor depends on how much help you have. If it’s just you and your husband, Dad’s 10 by 10 office scores a 3 here. However, if you have three full-grown sons to help out that day, that same room gets a 1.
Low Scores Lead the Way
With your scorecard completed, tally the scores for each room. The room with the lowest score is your win — that’s where you want to start on your house cleanout.
From there, list the remaining rooms in order from easiest to hardest. Post the list on the wall in a visible location and attack the rooms in order, crossing them out as you finish. A series of early wins will help you build confidence and momentum for the long road ahead.