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When a Loved One Dies

Dealing with a house after a loved one dies can be emotionally difficult in every way, from clearing out the contents to prepping the premises for sale. There are important steps to follow when emptying a house and getting it ready to put on the market. While this article deals primarily with the last owner passing away, some of the points that follow could apply to a surviving spouse who is dealing with a home that is too much to care for alone.

Change the Locks and Forward the Mail

The first step in cleaning a house is to secure the premises. You have no idea how many people may have keys to the house—friends, cleaning people, delivery people, house sitters. Rather than try to collect all the spare keys, simply change the locks. You’ll sleep better at night.

Nothing screams “empty house” — an open invitation to thieves, vagrants, and vandals —l ike piled-up mail and periodicals, so have the deceased person’s mail forwarded to your home or office by filling out a change of address form with the USPS. The post office will forward Priority, Express, and First Class mail and packages for 12 months, and miscellaneous publications (such as magazines) for two months, but you can annually update the new address for a few years to keep the forwarding from expiring. A change of address can be done online or in person at a local post office.

Also, receiving the mail will help you figure out who creditors are, and whether payments were current, as well as seeing if you need to cancel any subscriptions.

Search for Financial and Legal Papers

Look for financial documents — and money — in every nook and cranny. Sometimes people stash cash in the strangest places: taped to the bottoms of drawers, inside crawl spaces, and yes, under the proverbial mattress.

You might find significant documents in drawers, file cabinets, and boxes under the bed, or saved as files on a computer. Compile these items in a safe place until you need to process/act on each of them.

  • Homeowner’s insurance policy: Keep the policy effective until the day the home sale closes. Increase coverage if it is too low.
  • Will: Look for updated versions.
  • Life insurance policy: It could be a private policy or purchased through an employer.
  • Bank and brokerage account statements: Carefully read the statements, as many banks report all accounts on one statement.
  • Bill receipts: Contact creditors. Consider notifying the three major credit reporting agencies, which will flag the individual as deceased and effectively freeze new charges or requests for credit as well.
  • Stocks and bonds: Certificates might be tucked into folders.
  • Letters from friends: You may want to write to them.
  • Poems, articles, and letters from the deceased: These writings can later bring you comfort.

Once you have closed all accounts and handled estate matters, remember to shred sensitive documents, especially those containing a Social Security number.

Keep Paying the Bills

While you’ll want to stop some services, others need to be continued. Keep paying the homeowner’s insurance premiums, keep the utilities turned on, and notify services such as gardeners or maintenance companies where to send new invoices.

If the seller has a reverse mortgage, notify the mortgage company immediately and ask for time to settle the estate before they attempt to foreclose on the house. Under certain circumstances, heirs can keep a home with a reverse mortgage if they repay the balance of the loan or 95% of the home’s appraised value, whichever is less.

Sort Personal Belongings

This aspect of cleaning out the house may be the most emotional. It hastens the process if you sort belongings into three piles or tag them with color-coded stickers: 1) items to keep; 2) items to donate or sell; 3) items to throw away.

If family members squabble about distribution, set aside the disputed items until all the sorting is finished and emotions have settled. Then try taking turns by each choosing an item or memento. Consider trading several items for a treasure you truly desire. Sentiment aside, get real valuables — art, antiques, jewelry — appraised to determine their actual value.

Prepare the house for sale. (See related article.) Clearing out a loved one’s house of its personal effects and belongings is the first step toward getting it ready for sale. Next, you need to get it in market-ready condition. Follow this checklist:

  • Furniture: If the furniture is old or worn, get rid of it. Don’t leave it in the house because it will detract from the sale.
  • Wall hangings: Remove them.
  • Floor covering: Consider its condition. If there is carpeting over wood floors, strip it and, if necessary, refinish the floors. Replace cracked ceramic tiles. Clean carpet over plywood or install new carpeting.
  • Window coverings: If the window coverings are dated, throw them out. Most windows look better without heavy drapes or worn blinds.
  • Walls: Some people paint once and never again. You may need to patch and repaint the walls.
  • Ceilings: Replace dated light fixtures, patch cracks in the ceiling and paint.
  • Remove all pet-related items: Take the outdoor dog house with you and donate it to an animal shelter. Selling with signs of pets in the home is a turnoff for some buyers.
  • Clean from top to bottom: Wash windows, dust ceiling fan blades, and wipe down the insides of cabinets.

Also, be aware that if the seller died in the house, you may be required to disclose this fact to a prospective buyer, depending on the nature of their death. We at Lakes Country Realty are prepared to guide you through this emotionally painful time by offering a listening ear along with sound advice to make the process as uncomplicated as possible.

Preparing a home for sale is always time-intensive, and when it is a loved one’s home, emotions come into play. However, when handled with professionalism and care, the benefits are found in higher offers and a better selling price.

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