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How to prepare a junk-filled home for selling without getting stuck cleaning it

Selling an empty house is much easier than selling one laden with junk, where buyers might be turned off by the mess rather than looking at the bones of a good house on a great piece of land. (iStock)
3 min

Q: I will have to sell my elderly mother’s home in “as is” condition, and possibly “with contents.” By “contents” I mean that the house is very full, almost to a hoarder’s level of junk.

I live out of town and this is just too big of a task for me to deal with. I can’t clean out the property. I do not have contacts in that town.

Also, I do not have firsthand knowledge of things that need to be disclosed with the property, but my mother might be able to provide a list. It has been neglected for about 20 years. Because of the junk, prospective buyers may not be able to do a proper inspection.

The house is in a nice country neighborhood with a beautiful lot. Can you please discuss my situation and how best to sell this house with no liability on our end afterward?

A: Your mother’s situation is extremely challenging, sad and, unfortunately, not uncommon. Many people who have lived in their homes for decades accumulate an overwhelming amount of stuff, most of which no one in the family wants (like sets of old dishes, cookware, silver serving pieces and other ornate furnishings) and can simply be thrown away.

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Giving yourself permission to let all of this go is the first step, and it sounds like you’re there. Next, try a practical fix: Assuming your mother no longer lives in the property, and assuming you can deal with the emotional toll of managing her anxiety around the cleaning up of the property, you can hire a company to come in and basically throw everything away.

If that’s too much for you, given that you don’t live locally, you may be able to hire a local real estate company and have the agent who will list the property act as quarterback for the cleanup of the property.

If you can manage this, it will make the eventual sale of the property — even in “as is” condition — much easier, and it is much more likely to bring in a higher price. Selling an empty house is much easier than selling one laden with junk, where buyers might be turned off by the mess rather than looking at the bones of a good house on a great piece of land.

Selling without future liability means you list the property in “as is” condition. You can refuse or allow an inspection, but your agent should make it clear to prospective buyers that you will not entertain discussions around the property’s condition or negotiate the price. But that also means you need to price the property for the condition it’s in, not the condition you wish it were in.

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So if the house can’t be salvaged, then you’ll have to settle for pricing the property as a vacant lot that someone will eventually build on. If the house can be renovated, you can price accordingly. The agent you select should have comps to share with you about pricing the property depending on what you’re able to get done before listing it, and who the eventual buyer (builder, developer or individual) will be.

You should be able to stipulate that the buyer takes the property in its current condition, and on the seller disclosure form your mother should check “not sure” about the condition of any specific item, unless she has information to the contrary. That will allow future buyers to understand the limits of your knowledge given that you don’t even live in the state.

If you think there might be anything personal to salvage in the property, then by all means go there and have a look around. But in cases like these, where elderly relatives have been unable to let go, it may just be faster, easier and better to have someone else empty the house and ready it for sale. Lastly, there are companies that will help people like you go through the personal items in the home and either set them aside for you to consider, prepare them for sale through a home sale or an estate sale, or arrange to have them donated or discarded.

Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (Fourth Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website,

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