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Cleaning Up The Estate

Updated on June 12, 2016


When a family member dies, they leave behind a legacy. To most of us, that legacy is the collected memories, good and bad, that defined who that person was. This is both good and bad, depending on the relationship you had with that person.

Sometimes, when that family member passes on, they leave behind property or money. We call it The Inheritance. Many of us might think of an inheritance in the same way we think of a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Some look forward to the riches they will inherit, and the hopes that they will live happily ever after some distant relative dies. That rarely happens, at least, I've never known anyone who has had that happen. It is a dream.

The reality is often much more mundane.

After my father died, it fell to the eldest of his heirs to settle his affairs and distribute The Inheritance. It was no pot of gold. The one hope for an inheritance of any sort came with the notion of selling the house, and perhaps selling the property inside. Thus began a process:

  • Clean out the house
  • Sell It

Sounds simple, but cleaning out the house is no simple task when the house has been filled with collected collectibles and mementos from over fifty years.

Before First Removal

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Before First Removal

Years of 'collecting' yield lots of items. When the last of my parents died, it fell to the children to clean out the house. Trouble was, we had all been out of the house for years, and no longer knew which items were worth keeping and which were not. So cleaning out the house included a lot of sorting through the items. When Mom had died, items had been collected in all bedrooms, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and the garage. Mom died in 2009, and Dad began that long and arduous task of cleaning out the things that were not worth keeping. Dad died in 2015, and now his children continue the task.

Progress had been made. Two of the bedrooms were mostly clear. In fact, they had been cleared enough so that the occasional temporary helper was able to have their own room. Except that, the helpers eventually became residents too, and began their own version of collecting.

The pictures show some of what is involved when children take on the task.

First, we found we were not all able to set aside dedicated time to remove things from the house. So we had to come up with a way to share information about what to keep and what to throw away. Lists and writing help, but can be confusing. So ... we decided to try pictures.

Sis had a camera, and had an idea of what was worth keeping, what could be donated, and what needed to be trashed. So she took pictures. To show which to keep and which to trash, she marked the pictures. A little red 'x' on a picture means it is trash. A 'D' means it is to be demoted. Items not marked on a picture get decided on later.

After First Removal

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After First Removal

After the first round of removing items, we took a second set of pictures. This began a process of removing items, then taking pictures. With the enormous amount of collectibles in the house, removing one item is similar to peeling an onion - there is a second layer of onion, (I mean items of course) underneath.

Actually, I forgot to mention the cats. For years my parents kept cats. Lots of cats. All house cats. All not so well-trained cats. Up to seventy house cats at a time. Removing items from the house is truly like peeling an onion. It makes you want to cry. Not the memories, and not the material, but, the aroma. I don't think it is possible to describe the aroma that is developed by decades of legions of house-cats.

Fortunately, pictures do not convey aroma. Yet. However, pictures are a convenient way to share what items are ok to remove, and which ones are not. Pictures also provide a mechanism for conveying to police any loss of items due to break-ins, or gain of items from break-ins. The house was so full of stuff that you can't tell what happened unless you have pictures to refer back to.

Sometimes the mundane reality is smelly too.

Smelly cat.

How The City Helps
On the first work day after I gathered up the trash in the house, I called the city to ask them what I needed to do to arrange a bulk pickup. It was a morning call. The first person that answered (a number I was given by a helpful collector) said it should be no trouble, and transferred me to the main number that is normally given out for arranging bulk pickup. When I spoke with the second person, I explained the situation: bags next to the street, death of a father, from out of town, trying to clean out the house, what should I be doing, The second person indicated they would put in a call for a pickup, and that the bags would be picked up that Friday. They then wondered why the first person who had answered the phone did not make those arrangements. I had no clue, so we indicated we would try to make arrangements to get folks out there to put trash dispensers out on the specific days that the city wants,

The rest of the story came in the mail the next Saturday, and is pictured above. Norfolk has really specific regulations regarding which days trash can be put out. It seems they really appreciate the phone calls to ask for help about putting the trash out. You see, they don't have time to send someone to pick up the trash after a call for help, and might even transfer the call for help, but they do have time to send out a waste management inspector so that they can warn you that about violating a section of the Code of the City of Norfolk, Virginia. They even take a picture and send it with the warning. Thank you for the picture, it is now included as part of this article.

Instances like this are why many people snort out the phrase: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help".

Also, Norfolk is rife with frauds of various sorts (as is any large city), so it is also possible that someone is imitating an official city action in hopes of eventually collecting for themselves. I can say here that my face-to-face and phone contacts with any Norfolk police or government folks has been supportive rather than adversarial.

Nevertheless, they did collect the trash, and I thank them. However, the additional help is being added to the list of reasons why no one in the family would be interested in taking over the house.

Who wants to live in a place where the response to a call for help looks like a formal violation warning?

Round Two - Boxing?

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Round Two

For round two, we continued the same process. Sis has the call on what to do with the items, and we are finding that sharing marked up pictures is workable. While there is lots of trash, there is also lots of things that can be re-used. The items that can be re-used are being notionally separated into four categories:

  • Auction

  • Craigslist

  • Box for donation

Early in the 'what in the world are we going to do with all this stuff' phase of the project, we had suggestions to call an auctioneer. After that first discussion, we all realized what we were going to be facing in terms of effort. There seemed to be a few items in the house that were worth the effort to take to auction, so we began the effort to identify those items.

Some things might be sellable. For example, those old Bionic Man series of toys from the 80's that we found in their original boxes. These are the sort of thing that only a few people might be interested in. If we could somehow connect up with those folks, then ... as the politicians say ... we might be able to negotiate a mutually beneficial solution. For this particular application this concept is more often relayed with the well-known catch phrase "One man's trash is another man’s treasure". With that in mind, Sis suggested we could try to sell them on Craigslist.

The other option is to simply box things up and donate them to the appropriate places. For this first phase it looks like that is what Sis wants to do with all those books. And ... we still have things we've not been able to get eyes on yet. Certain things ... you know ... the sort of things that if we can find them in the midst of all this other stuff, it will make settling the estate a bit easier.

Continuing The Clean Up

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Empty Wall where Revere Ware used to be.  One sister says this had been a continuing anniversary gift.Musicians of the 60's and70's collected albums.Lots of Albums.
Empty Wall where Revere Ware used to be.  One sister says this had been a continuing anniversary gift.
Empty Wall where Revere Ware used to be. One sister says this had been a continuing anniversary gift.
Musicians of the 60's and70's collected albums.
Musicians of the 60's and70's collected albums.
Lots of Albums.
Lots of Albums.

Round 2 (second part)

This phase actually took more than two efforts. The effort is to box up or trash various items in the house, or group them with other items of same type and destination.

This article will be added to as we go. If all goes well, all of the rooms will eventually be clean.

As we progressed, some rooms became clear, and we began to use them as staging areas for items that were being boxed for removal. This meant the once cleared rooms filled up again, as some of the other rooms and closets got cleared. We also had other complications in the process that led to taking lots and lots of pictures.


Click thumbnail to view full-size


Click thumbnail to view full-size

Round Two (A break in?)

The visit in February (13th) was notable because of signs of another break-in to the house. A quick review of the house indicated nothing was taken, but rather, that things appeared to have been left behind. The two items I noted were:

  1. A piece to a door frame, the long piece that holds the latch that a door catch would catch on when the door closes. I'm not a carpenter, so I'm sure they have names for such things. This piece of wood had been left next to an interior door which had been left open. A quick review of all the doors in the house indicated that it had not come from any doors inside the house.
  2. An overdue bill. When I checked, this was of no relevance with respect to keeping up with the bills. Most bills had required numerous time consuming phone calls to figure out how to close accounts, where to send the closeout bill (or refund), or how to transfer the bill so service could be maintained while the estate was being settled. This is not as easy as it sounds. All those called required identity verification, and verifying to some of these was difficult. In the end, the least time-consuming path was to find out who to write a letter to so that they could be formally informed by mail of the death of my father.

In any case, the break-in occurred (this was the second at the house), so that meant calling the police to let them know. The first break-in actually had stuff taken, but nothing of significant value. The reports are mostly a formality, and perhaps more beneficial to those in the area (who might be more reluctant to call the police). It is also really difficult to identify things taken, especially when the whole point to resolving the estate is to be cleaning out the house anyway.

I'm not familiar with the activities of those who steal, however, I have heard that much of that stuff gets pawned, usually at local pawn shops. Because of that, pictures, both before and after this particular visit are added here, in case anything additional is taken, and gets recovered that is identifiable as coming from the house. It turns out that regular pictures while going through cleaning an estate has uses other than coordinating the answer to the question "what are we going to do with all this stuff"?.

April & May

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More Cleaning in April & May

The cleaning continued, and continued, and sometimes it seems like it will never end.

During these time, we brought in a dumpster, and got rid of a lot of stuff. But, at the end, there was still more work to do. Sixteen boxes of books were donated. Some potentially sellable items were moved to an e-bay store. And the process continued.

While continuing the clean-out in May, a letter arrive in the mail indicating that the house had been listed for foreclosure sale. The folks who sent the letter had assumed that we wanted to keep the house, and were offering FREE representation if we wanted to declare bankruptcy. I'm guessing free offers are a good sales gimmick in the Hampton Roads area. We'll not be taking them up on that.

The the good news was: Yay! At last, this may all be coming to conclusion soon

At The End

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2nd Bedroom - At StopMaster Bedroom - At StopMaster Bedroom - At Stop2nd Bedroom - At StopBathroom - At Stop3rd Bedroom - At stopKitchen - At StopDining Room - at StopGarage toward frontGarage toward backFront of HouseGas MeterElectric MeterIn Case of Emergency Notice on DoorPaintings for e-bay. Trashcans back in place.
2nd Bedroom - At Stop
2nd Bedroom - At Stop | Source
Master Bedroom - At Stop
Master Bedroom - At Stop | Source
Master Bedroom - At Stop
Master Bedroom - At Stop | Source
2nd Bedroom - At Stop
2nd Bedroom - At Stop | Source
Bathroom - At Stop
Bathroom - At Stop | Source
3rd Bedroom - At stop
3rd Bedroom - At stop | Source
Kitchen - At Stop
Kitchen - At Stop | Source
Dining Room - at Stop
Dining Room - at Stop | Source
Garage toward front
Garage toward front | Source
Garage toward back
Garage toward back | Source
Front of House
Front of House | Source
Gas Meter
Gas Meter | Source
Electric Meter
Electric Meter | Source
In Case of Emergency Notice on Door
In Case of Emergency Notice on Door | Source
Paintings for e-bay. Trashcans back in place.
Paintings for e-bay. Trashcans back in place. | Source

The End

After much work, the house foreclosed in June.

Many of the more sentimental items went to family. The more valuable items went out to be sold or auction on e-bay. We recovered what value we could.

Items left in the house at time of foreclosure were donated to Salvation Army. The donation filled up a 24 foot moving truck, with some items left over.

The final pictures are shown here. The effort was a lot of work, slowed by searching for the few items that held more than sentimental value, and by sharing memories.

We also took pictures of the outside of the house, when returning to ensure the trash can was not left near the street. We did not want to leave an excuse to be issued a violation.

Dad bought this house in the early 1960's. He raised his family here. He called Norfolk home.


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