Most people at some stage in their lives will have the duty of having to clear out somebody else’s home. A relative may have passed away, or has moved into a nursing home, or simply the homeowner is physically, or mentally, incapable of doing the hard yards themselves. Every few months Secret Design Studio gets a phone call for help from a distressed person who has this duty, but doesn’t know how, or where to start, so this posting is for anybody who finds themselves in this situation.
There is one thing harder than organising a funeral for a relative, and that is cleaning out their home after their death. Invariably this is an emotional and difficult time with so much family history and many memories tied up with even the most mundane, household objects. The amount of work and the emotions are much the same if an elderly relative is moving into a nursing home and is physically incapable of clearing a home out. For some people this sorting and revisiting the past is too painful and they either delay the process, sometimes for years, or just get some burly blokes to put everything into a skip, and off to landfill, much to their later regret.
This posting is to help people who are still coping with grief, make a start on this difficult process, and to help them make some decisions about (re)moving a household of somebody else’s stuff. The worst thing to do is to box it all up and store it somewhere until the grief has passed in the hope that the boxes can be sorted at some indefinite stage in the future. There is an emotional and financial cost to storage, and if the boxes are not stored in a suitable secure and dry environment the contents can deteriorate. It is possible to waste thousands of dollars on storage fees to eventually discover that the boxes of items that have been stored away have little value.
Whatever work needs to be done should be completed in conjunction with the executor of the estate in case the will has left particular items to individual family members, or left to a charity. A careful, ongoing tally should be made for any expenses, such as removalist fees, auction fees, cleaning products, tip fees, as well as any sale prices so that the process is completely transparent to the executor of the estate and all family members. There may also be tax implications to an estate so this should be considered.
WHAT GOAL IS THE MOST IMPORTANT?
The process of clearing out a relatives’ home is physically and emotionally tough, and should not be the responsibility of a single person. There are a million decisions to be made along the way so all that are involved should work out a primary goal beforehand about what they are trying to achieve, and how it can be done, while sharing the load. Often there is a deadline involved, such as the house going on the market, or new tenants moving in, which just adds to the pressure cooker situation.
Whoever will be doing the hard yards will need as much support as possible, but before the process commences it is worthwhile to do some basic housekeeping. Jobs like cleaning out old food from the fridge, disposing of any perishable foods, ensuring that the electricity is not disconnected and making sure there is coffee and tea available (or more) available for anybody working in the house.
The family should decide on the key goal to work towards, as some goals exclude other goals, so not all goals can be achieved. Suggested goals to be considered:
Goal 1 – the property must be completely clear in a very short time frame. (fast and expensive option)
Goal 2 – to maximise the value of items sold. (slow and cheap option)
Goal 3 – to minimise the amount going to landfill. (slowest and cheapest option)
Goal 4 – to get the property cleared without a huge time commitment from the family. (fastest and most expensive option)
Goal 5 – to minimise potential disharmony within the family.(usually excludes goals 1 and 4)
DECEASED ESTATE JEWELLERY, WAR MEDALS, COIN COLLECTIONS AND WATCHES
Estate jewellery can be a minefield for a family due to its emotional and financial value, and its small size. Some jewellery can look like junk, and actually be quite valuable, and the reverse is also true. In the ideal situation the original owner would have left instructions for what should happen to any jewellery (including watches) but this rarely happens.
Quite often older generations passed down jewellery, so great, great grandmothers wedding ring may be in the jewellery box, but has never been worn in contemporary times. One of the first jobs is to photograph and catalogue all of the jewellery so that it is easier to keep track of it, to work out which pieces are passed on to family members, and to start to get valuations if it is to be sold. Don’t leave estate jewellery in an empty house, especially if there are people such as removalists, cleaners, valuers, tradesmen, who are outside the family who are visiting the home. Until the value is ascertained it should be stored securely off-site.
While some older pieces would probably not be worn today due to their old-fashioned style, it is sometimes possible to get a piece remodelled. The diamond from great, great grandmother’s wedding ring could see new life with a family member if the setting was remodelled. Remodelling of estate jewellery to remain in the family can be a better compromise then selling it to somebody outside the family who will profit from buying it cheaply.
After confirming with the executor of the estate, if the family does decide to sell some estate jewellery there are a couple of auction houses in Melbourne that can assist such as Abbeys Auctions of Box Hill, Philips Auctions in Malvern, and Leonard Joel, who has an online valuation service. Due to the competitive nature of the auction process the prices will generally be better than that offered by a single jewellery buyer.
Art, sculpture and collections.
Like jewellery the value of art is really a specialist field, but before you go to the trouble of getting valuations there are a few guidelines to consider.
Most framed pictures that end up in auction houses from deceased estates are not worth much, unless they are by well known artists. There is quite a lot of amateur art in this category, where somebody has dabbled in art as a hobby and resulted in pieces that may have a high sentimental value, but low financial value.
Due to the increase in value of Australian contemporary art it is possible that a passionate person with modest means could collect art that has substantially increased in value since it was purchased. Signatures to watch out for may include Albert Tucker, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley and John Olsen, but there are many more. There are lots of internet resources available to establish the importance and profile of an artist. Art work that is by an unrecognised artist is assessed on condition and aesthetic value, and often the frame is worth more than the work.
You should try and establish if a piece is an original work of art, a print, an amateur artist’s work, or one of the many souvenir pieces that were churned out by Chinese factory painters. Often the back of the artwork can provide as much information as the front. The quality of the frame, and how it is assembled can also give a few clues about its potential value. Generally nobody spends good money on an expensive frame for low value art.
Most people who own valuable art, don’t just buy one piece, they get bitten by the collector bug and buy more. If there is one art piece of value, there is likely to be more.
Some prints, such as those by J H Lynch, Vladimir Tretchikoff, and Slim Aarons, are highly collectible, especially if they are in good condition, and while not as valuable as an original, can still be worth quite a few dollars. If you can find an original work by one of these artists you are very lucky. Ebay’s selling prices (not listing prices) can be a good way to identify the value of prints that are collectible.
For the remarkable story about the collection of Australian art left by Alan Boxer follow this link:
Preparing a house to put on the market
Most real estate that is on the market that has been a deceased estate seems to have every last item from the previous owners removed and presented as a blank canvas. This often removes any personality from a home, and some potential buyers do have trouble imagining how they could live in a home when there is no furniture to give them a visual clue. If a house is in an area where many homes are being demolished for redevelopment then an empty home will hold more appeal to a developer than somebody looking to live in a home.
Some vendors engage a real estate stylist who can organise contemporary furniture to be hired for the duration of the marketing process. While there is a cost engaging a professional stylist they can substantially improve the visual appeal of a home to the market, which will improve the price, and possibly reduce the chance of the home being demolished for redevelopment.
If the furniture is appropriate to the style of the home then another option is to declutter the home, but leave the nicer pieces that will complement the home and assist the marketing process. This is especially true of any mid-century furniture in a mid-century home, and is the first thing that I look for to feature in social media. Remove any visually heavy pieces, such as large recliner chairs, that eat up space. Remove any pieces that say “deceased estate” such as walking frames, wheelchairs and medical items. If you need a hand in deciding what should be kept and what should be removed then engage a real estate stylist. After the sale of the house this furniture will need to be removed, but occasionally the new owners may offer to purchase it if it works well with the house.
What items from a deceased estate should go to family members?
Try and match items with relatives who are going to love and cherish the items as if they are their own, in a reasonably fair and equitable manner. For many family members there can be more emotional value attached to a piece, especially if there is a strong association with a deceased person, then there is a financial value. Unless a piece is a design classic, with a design pedigree, such as a Featherston chair, or a Meadmore dining setting, then most second-hand furniture has a very low value on the second-hand furniture market, and will not provide a substantial financial return.
One of the challenges in dealing with a deceased estate is that different family members measure the worth of a piece in different ways – some will value the aesthetics, some will value the emotional connection, some will value the usefulness and some will only value the financial worth. For instance a university student setting up a student household will find that the fridge, TV and the contents of the cutlery drawers may be more valuable to them than the 6 seater dining table and matching hutch. I have a relative who has recently purchased a rambling 1880’s house in the country (with no built-in-robes), and she values my recently passed aunt’s collection of gigantic oak wardrobes, that nobody else in the family would want, or could accommodate.
This can be very difficult to resolve when emotions are running high. Every family dynamic is different so don’t let one person cherry pick the most valuable items, especially if they don’t have the space to keep and use them, as they will just end up being sold. If spouses and in-laws get an opportunity to put forward their opinions it can get very complicated and messy. At the end of the day the long term harmony of family relationships is more valuable than the few dollars that most second hand pieces will secure on the market.
Don’t assume that a family member will actually want a particular piece. Most people already have a house full of furniture, and won’t want to make room for inherited pieces if it doesn’t fit their lifestyle or home. While older furniture is usually better made, and was more expensive than contemporary furniture, many younger people prefer the more disposable furniture that follows contemporary trends, and don’t appreciate furniture that was built to last a lifetime.
A great example of this is the beautiful furniture made by Tessa, which is still available at a premium price as new. Second-hand Tessa three-piece lounge suits can be purchased for 10% of the new cost, as the build quality, and comfort is not generally appreciated. The same can be said of Moran Chesterfield sofas that were built to last a lifetime, and are available second-hand (some with patina), at a fraction of the new cost.
Many of my clients have one or two pieces inherited from a relative’s estate, and they are often the centrepiece of a room, so this is the ideal result. If somebody ends up with a piece that they cannot keep due to their circumstances it should be offered to the other family members before being disposed of outside the family.
There are costs in storing and moving furniture, and most deceased estates need to be cleared to a deadline. If a family member would like a piece of furniture then they should be made aware of the time constraints and the family should work out about the costs of moving, and who pays for it. Sometimes the cost of moving a large piece a long distance is more than the financial value of the piece.
Family photos and deceased estates.
Most photos in a deceased estate will be of family, but sometimes they are of historical events, or buildings that may have value to a historical society or museum. Family photos are items of high emotional and historical worth, but of no financial value. Whether they are in photo albums, framed on the wall, in boxes of slides, or stored unsorted, they should not be disposed of during the clean out. In addition there is the problem of the digital age, of photos being stored on hard-drives, that are lost forever when the computer is disposed of. Hard drives should be checked for photos before an old computer is dumped.
The best family photos are usually the ones in frames and were sometimes taken by a professional photographer. It is worthwhile to carefully remove these photos from the frames and have them professionally scanned and digitised to share with family members and as a historical record. They will also be easier to store and archive without the frames.
Storing and cataloguing photos from a lifetime can be a monumental task, and not achievable in a short time. One solution is to move all of the photos off-site so that they can be sorted, scanned and catalogued when time allows. There are a number of tools that make this easier, including using a high-quality phone camera that can automatically upload the photos to a drop-box account to ease the sorting and cataloguing process. Quite often the rear of a photo may have a hand written date and description of the people in the photo so these should be recorded as well. It is also possible to buy a dedicated photo scanner, which is a small hand held device that can scan directly onto a memory card and will give a higher quality result than with a phone camera.
If the house is being prepared for sale framed photos (and artwork) on the wall may be better left there for the marketing campaign, especially if it is on wallpaper. Often wallpaper fades with time and by taking the frame off the wall leaves a “ghost” of the frame and the leftover hook.
The leftovers, and minimising land-fill.
So once the family has selected the items that they can accommodate and use what about the leftovers? There are a whole lot of options depending on how much time and effort the family is prepared to put into the work involved, however there is no magic bullet to maximise the return, with the minimum amount of time, effort and cost.
There are some items that can’t be sold, and can’t be given to charity, such as used mattresses and manchester, so these could go straight into a skip bin. If beds are staying to be part of the real estate campaign then keep the mattresses for the time being with new manchester. There are some items that are difficult to sell such as cathode ray televisions, recliner chairs, walking frames etc, so charity donations may be the easiest option if they are in good condition, and a skip bin if not.
Unfortunately the value of second-hand furniture is highly variable depending on its age, condition, style, location and if it is reproduction or original. Furniture of the past twenty-five years or so is a small fraction of its original purchase price as it is not valued. However it takes a trained eye to assess items of worth.
Many of the heavier, dark timbered, antique pieces which were purchased at a premium in the 1970’s have lost value as they are no longer popular for use in contemporary interiors. The same applies for the reproduction Georgian and Regency styles which have very low market value today. Formal dining settings have taken a big hit on the second-hand furniture market so don’t expect to get much for these which is heartbreaking if it was expensive and in good condition.
Perhaps the most worthless furniture pieces today are the big timber wall units that were designed to accommodate boxy, deep televisions. With the advent of cheap, larger flat-screen televisions nobody needs a deep wall unit for a TV. Good prices can still be obtained for top tier hi-fi units, but unless it is really top end, then it is not worth much as technology has really overtaken the record player, tape deck, radio tuner and giant speaker boxes.
If you are really lucky you may have a Featherston chair or two, that may look the worse for wear and requires re-upholstering. Before you throw anything out as it needs re-upholstering be sure of the vintage and value, as the right mid-century chair can be worth thousands of dollars even in poor condition.
There is a lot of mid-century furniture in deceased estates, but it isn’t necessarily valuable, especially if it has been renovated, poorly repaired or painted. When preparing a piece for sale it is best to give it a light clean, get rid of the spider webs and dust, but don’t spend any money on trying to fix it as you may inadvertently devalue it. Do not remove any stickers or labels that identify the piece. If there is any paperwork about the purchase it can increase the value of the piece knowing the heritage of the piece.
Getting outside help with a deceased estate.
There are companies that will help clear out a home, but there are costs involved.
Some companies such as Canard Solutions, offer a complete service that specializes in managing the dispersal and sale of personal estates, with fees based on the size of the project and which is recovered from the sales of the estate. They work to achieve the best value for their clients and reducing the pressure for them at a critical time. One of their services is to create an online catalogue of the estate so that family members, who may be geographically remote, can collaborate together to work out who gets what.
Then there are companies that offer estate clearance services. The problem is that the value of the contents is usually not very high, there is a lot of labour involved, and the stuff that can’t be readily sold will go to landfill, where there are tip fees. If the valuable stuff has already gone to family members then the remainder is harder to sell, and their costs will be for the labour and tip fees.
Calling in a second-hand furniture dealer has its limitations. They are only interested in pieces that they recognise that they can clean up and resell at a profit. They usually will not show any interest in the pieces that need a lot of work (such as a lounge suite that needs re-upholstering), or pieces that they can’t move quickly. They will make low offers on the best pieces, especially if they think that they are the only dealer in the running, and leave the less valuable stuff behind for the family to deal with. They are a business, their business relies on turn-over, and they can’t afford to sit on pieces for months. Nor can they wait around for the family to decide if their low offers are acceptable. Sometimes if there are a couple of high value pieces (such as a set of Featherstone chairs) they will offer a low figure to take everything, keep the valuable items and send the rest to landfill.
If you just need help with sorting and making decisions then a professional organiser may be a good starting point. Secret Design Studio has recommended to a few of our clients to Amanda from “Organising You”, who is a whirlwind of efficiency and common sense with challenging sorting and organising projects. Amanda is part of the Australian Association of Professional Organisers if you need help in finding a local person.
Secret Design Studio is not in the business of buying or selling second-hand furniture from a deceased estate, so cannot provide valuations.
Once furniture and household goods have been sorted the family may want to consider the auction process to try and maximise the value. Whether it is a traditional bricks and mortar auction company, or an online one, there are fees which are usually a commission as a percentage of the sold value.
Some auction houses have moved into the 21st century and conduct their live auctions online, so it is possible to broaden the potential bidders to include those who can’t physically attend the auction house.
Abbey’s Auctions of Box Hill conduct online/real time auctions and have an online catalogue with suggested prices for each lot, which is a valuable resource. They generally sell a few deceased house lots every Friday. This is a very convenient approach to empty a house of furniture quickly and conveniently. In addition Abbeys Auctions also have an estate management service to assist with deceased estates.
However, the family will need to sort through the house and clear it of stuff that they won’t sell, such as mattresses, manchester, clothes, toiletries, paperwork, etc. In addition there is the cost of moving all of the household items to the auction house, and a commission which is based on a percentage of the sale. Large (or valuable) items are sold as individual lots, and smaller items such as books, DVD’s, tools are boxed up and sold as a lot. A shelf of books is one lot, a box of tools is one lot, etc.
For larger estates with a lot of high value lots some auction houses may also offer to conduct the auction on-site, but the success of this depends on the amount of bidders that they can draw with their advertising so it has its risks. For special items of high value a specialist auction house such as Leonard Joel’s may be the answer, but they wouldn’t normally auction the everyday items. They regularly conduct themed auctions to draw bidders of similar interest together which is of benefit to the sellers.
Many of the buyers at these deceased estate auctions are dealers, but they are competing against each other and they will only buy what they think they can clean-up and can resell for a higher price. As a result you will not be able to sell furniture to a dealer at an auction at a “retail” price. The upside to this is that dealers need to have a good eye for the pieces that are valuable (that you may not have recognised), and when a few dealers recognise the value they will bid against each other. You may get also get a rude awakening when you realize that a large, once cherished piece of furniture, which cost a fortune is not valued, or appreciated today, so that it sells for a lot less than you thought it may be worth.
The other buyers at Abbey’s Auctions are students and people looking up to set up a house cheaply, so will buy white goods, televisions, etc. These people are looking for a bargain, and like real estate the value is what the market will pay for on the day. You will get a small financial return on this furniture, and it will be a small fraction of the new price. The sad fact of the matter is that unless a piece is special, most second-hand furniture has very low resale value.
The main benefit of dealing with a reputable auction house such as Abbeys, is that with the quantity of stock that they handle every week they have a very good understanding of how much a piece will sell for at auction. They can advise on the range to expect, they will encourage you to set a realistic reserve, and if an item does not meet their suggested reserve then you may end up donating it to charity.
Then there is the online selling options such as Ebay and Gumtree. The online auction process has the best potential to maximise the return, however is definitely the most time-consuming, needs the most amount of work, and should only be considered by those who can take a decent digital photo (and know how to upload it) and who can write a description. Ebay provides a level playing field for dealers and household buyers, and auctions can run over 10 days to maximise the potential exposure. To get an indication of the value of an item find something similar and see what it sells for at the conclusion of the auction. Other seller’s reserve prices are not an indication of the market value, but their own wishful (and usually unrealistic) thinking. Location also has an influence on price, so a mid-century G Plan coffee table in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, which has a large number of potential buyers, will sell for more than the same G Plan table if it was listed in Broken Hill.
It is important that prior to any photos being taken the piece is lightly cleaned up, without the labels removed. Items should be photographed in a good light and presented with a good description to maximise the level of interest. Some dealers actually scour ebay listings for poorly presented items as they know that bidder interest will be low, and the item can be can be secured at a bargain price. Many dealers photograph their furniture outside with a neutral backdrop. Don’t let the background distract from the item being sold.
If there is any damage this should be described and photographed. If there are any labels they should be photographed and included in the listing. A description should include the suburb location and all dimensions. If the piece is big or heavy you should state clearly if it will split into parts, and how many men will be needed to move it. Some potential buyers like to inspect a piece before bidding so somebody should be available to meet them at a pre-arranged time. You should never let anyone know the piece is from a deceased estate, and that the location is in an empty house.
Just like an in-house auction the market should determine the value of the price. A high reserve price will discourage bidders, but a very low reserve price will encourage interest, watchers and bidders. An item with a reserve price that is too high will languish on Ebay with few watchers and no bidders. Just like an in-house auction there are commissions to Ebay based on the final auction value, but you don’t have the cost of moving the items to another address to auction it.
Ebay can be a good avenue to find a buyer for collections, such as butterflies, coins, stamps, model trains etc, that wouldn’t necessarily sell well, unless it was part of a specialist auction. If you can’t accurately describe the item, photograph it and prepare a listing you may be better contacting Leonard Joel who regularly do specialised auctions.
One of the downsides of Ebay is the buyers. Some people ask to inspect an item, but don’t show up at the pre-arranged time, so it is always a good idea to swap phone numbers when arranging to meet. Even though it is against Ebay’s rules there are a few bad buyers out there who decide after they have won an auction that they have changed their minds, and won’t proceed with the purchase. If this is the case then it is best to relist the item, or contact the under-bidders, but this can be time consuming.
Other disposal options
The suburban garage sale can be a lot of work for a minimal return as everything needs to be cleaned, labelled and presented in a saleable condition. The buyers will be either the dealers, who will swoop in early to get the most valuable stuff, and any locals who are free on the day. Garage sales are fraught with danger for a family as the remaining items at the end of the day have their prices negotiated down by potential buyers. The family has to be quite clear about who has the right to negotiate and when as you don’t want any bad feelings that somebody accepted offers that were too low. Garage sales can also be affected by the weather, so a lot of preparation work can go to waste if there is a wet weekend.
There is also the charity donation option for unwanted items that are in good condition, still saleable, but you can’t sell. There are lots of charity bins for clothes etc near railway stations. These items are then sorted for re-sale, or to be sent to third world countries, or to be converted to rags. The Smith Family appears to be the biggest for accepting donations of quality, wearable clothing (but not furniture).
Charities, such as St Vincent de Pauls and the Smith Family are picky about what they will accept as they spend a lot of money disposing of dumped items that are unsellable. For this reason St Vincent’s charity shops will not accept electrical goods, and many don’t have the resources to accept furniture at their shops. For St Vincent’s it is best to call and get one of their trucks to visit and take away the furniture that they can sell, or give to needy households. They don’t have the time, money or resources to repair broken items for resale so you are better off fixing it yourself or sending it straight to the tip.
Finally there is the tip. There are costs involved with getting rid of rubbish, but there are ways to reduce this cost. Obviously the more items that can be distributed to family members, sold, or donated to charity will reduce the amount of left-over stuff for the tip.
One company that helps load and dispose of rubbish without everything going straight to landfill is “1800-Got_Junk”, who advertise that mattresses, electrical equipment, etc are separated out for recycling, rather than everything going straight to landfill.
If you don’t want to pay for rubbish removal labour then there is always the do-it-yourself skip option. Usually skip bin hire is for a limited time, so you need to be organised and know what is going in the skip. Skip bin size is priced and measured in cubic metres, but it is often difficult to calculate how big a skip bin you will need. Some skip bins make loading larger items easier by having doors at the back, so you can just walk in, known as “walk-in” bins, rather than manhandling heavy items over the lip. As you are being charged by the cubic metre it makes sense to put compressible items, such as mattresses, at the bottom of the skip bin, and heavier items, such as fridges, at the top.
Another way to reduce skip size requirements is to mimimise by dividing the waste into recyclable and non-recyclable items and take them to your local recycling centre.
There is a lot of hard work, a lot of time, a lot of difficult decisions, and a lot of emotion involved in cleaning up a deceased estate. In an ideal world every family member would be able to contribute equally to the huge effort, but every individual has different commitments and availability. It can be a pretty dreadful time for some families but clear communication, commitment and good organisation can make this process a little easier. Don’t be afraid to engage people from outside the family, who have an emotional detachment to the situation, to assist with the hard yards if necessary.
Secret Design Studio is not in the business of buying or selling second-hand furniture from a deceased estate, so cannot provide valuations. If you would like to make an appointment for a Dr Retro House Call to discuss a deceased estate (or any other design aspect of a mid-century home) then check out our website and referrals.
If you would like to print out this document to share with others it is available as a free, downloadable .pdf file from our website. Here is the link: