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Mission Possible: Cleaning Out a Big, Cluttered Victorian

Category: Home and Garden

By Barbara Ross and Bill Carito
October , 2018 —

I recently calculated that my husband and I, either solo or with other family members, have emptied eight houses in the last ten years. Like many people our age, this has included helping elderly parents downsize from big old homes, emptying their second homes, and finally, emptying their downsized homes when they were gone.

The spring/summer of 2017 was the trifecta. We cleaned out my mother-in-law’s chock-a-block full apartment following her death, helped our son and his family move from Connecticut to Virginia, and moved ourselves from Somerville, Massachusetts to our dream retirement home in Portland, Maine.

One task remained
We bought my mother-in-law’s big, beautiful Victorian sea captain’s house on the harbor in Boothbay Harbor, Maine from her in 2004 in a transaction so complex, I took to calling it “Momitrage.” As a part of the whole deal, she moved into a lovely two-bedroom apartment in our two-family house in Somerville during the winters and continued to spend her summers in the house in Boothbay.

My mother-in-law was, to put it kindly, a “stuff” person. A true materialist, she imbued every item she possessed with an emotional memory. A chipped teacup reminded her of a trip to an antique store with a girlfriend, a stolen menu (or worse) brought back a special meal.

Over the years we owned the Boothbay house, my husband and I had tackled many projects: clearing out a bedroom and sitting room for our own use, making the other bedrooms and living spaces, “useable,” and removing twelve tons of stuff from the basement (according to the tipping fees). In a piecemeal fashion, we gave the stuff to charity auctions, hospital thrift shops, libraries and antique booksellers.

But there was still a lot to do when, in the spring of 2018, after a lot of soul-searching, we determined to put the house on the market. And after our travails of 2017, we were physically and emotionally exhausted from cleaning out. There had to be a better way.

Is there a service for that?
Then I read an article here on Topretirements about services that would help prepare houses for moving, downsizing or sale. I decided to find out if there was such a service in Coastal Maine.

It turned out there were several, with different levels of service. There were antique dealers and auction houses that would come in and skim the good stuff. There were firms that would organize estate sales, and there were liquidation companies that would come in and pay by the pound.

We interviewed three, and chose Caring Transitions of Coastal Maine, because they offered a comprehensive service. They would start with the mess that we had and we would end up with a house that was broom clean and ready to put on the market.

Working with Helen and Bob Johnson, our local Caring Transitions franchise owners, we determined a process, a date for them to start work, dates for our estate sale, a total cost to do the clean out and to run the sale. The costs would be either partially or entirely offset by their 30% take from the estate sale. This told us our maximum financial exposure and gave us deadlines–July 9, when Caring Transitions would start work, July 20 and 21, the dates for the estate sale, and July 25, the day the house would be left broom clean.

The service was exactly has advertised and it was amazing how efficiently the team went through all our stuff. Photos, documents and other personal items were put aside for us to inspect. Everything else was priced and displayed for sale. The estate sale was well publicized and crowded. Helen and Bob took care of everything including making sure there was enough parking available. As soon as the ended at 3:00 pm on that Saturday, the estate liquidators showed up. Charity shops came and picked up stuff on Monday and Tuesday, and the house was ready to put on the market by the end of that week.

Better than breakeven
In the end, we did better than breakeven. We were a few hundred dollars to the good. We were thrilled. If we had done the work ourselves, we would have paid for dumpsters, and trucks, people to carry heavy stuff from the third floor, and tipping fees. Even more important to us, our summer would have been miserable and the house would have gone on the market even later in the year.

If you find yourself in circumstances similar to ours, we cannot recommend this route enough. (The house is still for sale, by the way, in case anyone out there is looking.) See Listing

Tips for Hiring A Service to Clear Out Your House

– Be clear on your objectives. Specifically, is it more important to maximize the amount of money derived from the stuff or to get rid of it?

– Be clear on your role, when you’ll be in the process and when you won’t. The service likely will not want you around on the days of the sale.

– Be clear on what will happen if you change your mind about an item. Caring Transitions made it clear it was our stuff and we could take something out of the sale right up until it happened. However, they asked us to think ahead and not to remove things once they had photographed the items and put them in online advertising if we could help it.

– A good service will determine the best way to dispose of various items. Valuable antiques or art may do better with an auction house or online retailer of that specific type of item than in an estate sale. A good service will arrange for those things to be sold separately to maximize return. Our stair-climber, which got only a lowball bid at the estate sale, was later sold for us on Craigslist.

– The people who do this kind of work are often individuals, small firms and franchises. Personalities and professionalism will differ. Do your own due diligence. Study the contract and get references.

Editor’s Note: Thanks Barbara and Bill! Yours is a great story and we will all profit from your experience and tips.

About Barbara Ross and Bill Carito
Barbara Ross and Bill Carito are enjoying their second acts in Portland, Maine. Barbara is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries published by Kensington. The next one is Steamed Open. You can visit her website at Bill is an iPhone photographer whose photographs have been shown in national exhibits. You can follow him on Instagram at at billcarito and bill.carito.colorphotos.

Comments: Do you have a story to tell about downsizing? Do you use a service to help you, or did you do it on your own? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below.

More Downsizing
Downsizing Checklist
A Tale of 3 Downsizings

Posted by Admin on October 6th, 2018


  1. For those items that cannot be sold or donated like matresses, beat up furniture and just plain junk we used 1-800-JUNK. Two very polite strong young men came to the house and we just pointed at the items we no longer wanted. Slightly more expensive than dumpsters, but no heavy lifting on our part.

    by M Williams — October 11, 2018

  2. Barbara and Bill give a realist picture (literally) of what it is like to go through this and I commend them on all they did and how they did it. I have two brothers and two sister-in-laws that were overwhelmed at this process although we knew the day was coming with both parents sick and one having dementia. But they had no interest and I wanted everything taken care of quickly. After months and months of procrastination and no one showing up to help me, I arranged for a couple of church organizations, The Salvation Army, and 1-800 Junk to show up with their trucks on the same day, it took me two months to coordinate dates but they loaded up the house and by the end of the day, I was done, swept the floor and left and sold it for our asking price the following week.

    by Darla — October 11, 2018

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