Drowning In The Sea Of Stuff
February 2, 2008 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Must get rid of a mind-boggling amount of hoarded items, including some theoretically very valuable pieces. Looking for advice on how to do so efficiently and profitably.

My mother was a shopaholic compulsive hoarder walking financial disaster. She recently had a very debilitating stroke that left her severely, permanently brain-damaged and unable to communicate. I'm left in charge of her, her Everest of debt, and her two houses (one condemned as a health hazard) in different states piled to the ceiling (literally) with STUFF... and I can't ask her what's treasure and what's trash.

I'm trying to consolidate her unsustainable crazy!mom lifestyle down to one house I can take care of her in and a reasonable, useful amount of stuff. I can't just start hauling loads to the curb... I know that many of the things she owns are Worth A Lot.

I do, however, need to get rid of it. Not just because of the clutter, but because my mother has become very destructive. She breaks things on purpose and seems to enjoy putting items in the trash. I have to go through every trash bag before I set it out, because it's always full of random objects she's put in there, like my iPod, my books, or the contents of my china cabinet (that was a fun morning). She does not need to cohabitate with grandma's sherry glasses.

For stuff like silver, china, jewelry, artwork... I guess I need to get that appraised? How does one go about finding a reputable appraiser?

Should I sell it all myself on eBay? Would hiring one of those companies that eBays things for you be worth it, considering how much stuff there is, or would their commission multiply until I'd be an idiot to lose so much money?

I've heard of "Estate Sales". Would that be more profitable than eBay, or do they charge huge fees? And would they even take me on, considering that half mom's stuff is things she had to have seven of because they were OMGONSALE!!1! at Wal*Mart?

And lastly -- does this affect tax stuff? If I sell a huge amount of things, does that start counting as income? I'm trying to get her on Social Security and disability, and I know that her income matters as to whether or not she qualifies. Is there some kind of cutoff point where I could space the sales out over a few years?

Sorry for all the questions, but I've always led a very simple financial life and all this complicated stuff is absolute Greek to me.

Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.
posted by Gianna to Work & Money (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
My parents recently cleaned out my great aunt's house in upstate NY by using an auctioneer/estate sale company. They came in, inspected everything, hauled off what they thought would sell and had two days' worth of auctions. Be sure to review references if you use a company like this. The one my parents used was great, but there are scammers out there.
posted by moosedogtoo at 5:13 PM on February 2, 2008

This is just off the top of my head, but hire some of the family children to go through it. Have them put things in three piles: Good stuff, Questionable, and Obvious Trash. As they go through it, you can filter the Obvious Trash and Questionable things just to be sure no Superman #1 comics get through. Then go through Questionable, and then you're left with a good collection of her possessions. From here you can make more educated decisions on how to get rid of them. I think the "kids" part is important, just so that the person going through the stuff doesn't have an awareness for what things *might* be, so they can be more dispassionate. This will also help the process go faster if conversations aren't being struck every 5 minutes about some piece or another.
posted by rhizome at 5:29 PM on February 2, 2008

First, sorry about what you're having to go through with your mom.

I am going through something similar, but not on quite the same scale as you. What I'm doing is what rhizome suggests. Somebody (me, in my case) is going to have to go through it all and sort it into those three piles: good stuff, questionable and crap. A lot of stuff you'll prolly wind up donating to the Salvation Army. For the sellable stuff we have a booth in an antique mall/thrift store place that gets a lot of foot traffic. It's a convenient and fun way to get rid of stuff, but if you need to unload a lot in a short time it may not work for you.
posted by wsg at 6:10 PM on February 2, 2008

Seconding that this is exactly what estate sales are for. And that you should seek recommendations for a reputable one in your area.
posted by desuetude at 6:19 PM on February 2, 2008

Wow, I would steer clear of the antique mall booth... they can run $100 a month or more, and many of those places require anyone with a booth work a certain number of days a month. I'd never in a million years do that unless you want to make it your job.

I'd carefully go through the stuff and sort it as rhizome suggests. Take the good stuff to an eBay store (they'll probably take a 25% or so cut after expenses), take the useable household goods and the questionable items to a local auctioneer (or have them come to you) or wait until it's warm and have a yard sale and throw away or donate the rest.

P.S. Please send any Superman #1 comics to me.
posted by MegoSteve at 6:30 PM on February 2, 2008

I don't know where you are located. However, if you are in the U.S., you might try contacting Brian at Chicago Antiques Guide for a lead on a reputable estate sale professional. He was very helpful to us.

It will become very easy for you to get sucked into the "OMG. What if this is WORTH SOMETHING???" that makes getting rid of things efficiently that much more difficult. Believe me. I know. I've lived it.

The best possible scenario would be the ability to pay a neutral third party a fixed price just to tell you which things to bother with. I wish I could have paid someone $200-300 for a half day of consulting advice to tell me what was even worth trying to sell and what I should have just donated or pitched right away. Someone who wasn't going to benefit by auctioning it off or wasn't going to purchase it themselves.

Because, honestly? The most ridiculous things can be worth something while items that you think look quite nice are incredibly common. The most valuable items in our house full of stuff so far? A glass pitcher, a turned wood bowl, a doll in a box, a perfume bottle, a book of architectural drawings, and a lithograph. Those 6 items were worth about $3500. However, there were thousands of items that were worth practically nothing, including things that I originally thought MIGHT be worth something. Mink coats, silver tea sets, fine china, etc.? Dime a dozen. Not rare at all and worth very little unless there is something rare about the manufacturer or the design.

I researched everything in this house full of stuff myself. It has taken 4 1/2 years of insomnia, blogging about it, donating boatloads of it, giving even more boatloads away, selling a few things on eBay and deciding it wasn't worth the effort, WHILE LIVING IN A MESS to get rid of 80% of it. One weekend I hauled 9 Subaru Outback loads of stuff to our local thrift store just to make some space in the basement.

I feel your pain.

After the first two years, I decided that anything not potentially worth at least $50 on eBay was not worth my time to research it, clean it, photograph it, sell it, pack it, insure it, and mail it. Ridiculous amount of time to sell that stuff. I gave up after 10 or so items.

Life is too short. Seriously. Go "shopping" in her house. Set a limit of things to take (perhaps 10 or 20). Get rid of the rest and don't look back.
posted by jeanmari at 6:39 PM on February 2, 2008

A couple of years ago, I sold a bunch of stuff through an estate sale company. They know how to sell literally everything; they hauled stuff from my partners' parents' estate that ranged from valuable glassware to junk that had simply accumulated in drawers over the years. The company I worked with gives the option of having them buy it outright for about 50% of what they think they can sell it for (for people who want money in their pocket) or for 70% of what they actually get for it when it sells. Given how labor-intensive it would have been to sell it myself, and how ignorant I felt about what was valuable and what wasn't, and what things might be worth, and how great it felt to just have everything dealt with in one fell swoop, the 70% felt like a fair deal.

They were able to deal with things like paintings and jewelry that were potentially valuable (though, alas our stuff mostly turned out not to be especially valuable). If they're not qualified to value an item, they know people who are; they brought somebody in on some jewelry we had. They also work with junk dealers who basically come and haul away everything left at the end of the sale, for a flat rate. The guy told me, "everything that is worth anything will sell during the sale, and they'll take the rest."

Selling literally everything in a house is exactly what they do, and they're really good at it.

Also, very sorry about your mother and the stress in your life right now.
posted by not that girl at 6:43 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here are a couple resources (via google):
Cleaning Out Dad's House (MSN Money). They recommend that you find an appraiser at --
The American Society of Appraisers (I'm assuming you're in the US)
Children of Hoarders (particularly check out the "resources" section, which has descriptions of how to hire cleaning services)
Resources for Caregivers (links to a lot of websites that are devoted to helping people who are helping aging relatives, and in those pages, I imagine there are definitely some that relate to hoarding -- it appears to be pretty common among people with dementia)
Disaster Masters (one of potentially many companies that specialize in this sort of thing) (I have no affiliation)
Find a local hospice, or ask people at the hospital or a local nursing home, as they probably know many local resources for cleaning out houses after the occupant became disabled.
Best wishes, good luck.
posted by salvia at 6:44 PM on February 2, 2008 [11 favorites]

Oh! One more thing. Do not ever, EVER watch The Antique Roadshow. Or pick up one of those "What are my collectibles worth" guides. Here are some things that I learned (the hard way):

1) The price that someone paid for that super special typewriter with the mother of pearl keys etc, etc? It took four years to find the person who valued that crazy typewriter for whatever reason. Four years of someone storing that typewriter somewhere or displaying it and beating the streets for the right buyer. But it took you only 10 seconds to read about it and decide that you cannot sell any of the vintage typewriters YOU find for less than that.

2) The local antique dealer has a butter churn/spinning wheel/ceramic pitcher JUST LIKE YOUR MOTHER'S listed for (gulp) $90!!! But no one will give you more than $10 for it. This is because the antique dealer is selling it from a shop, has the certain aura of a professional/connoisseur of vintage things, works very hard to cultivate a client base that trusts their judgment and will probably sell it for $50 anyway when they give their buyer "a real bargain". Plus, they are trying to recoup the costs of the risk they took in buying it at that estate sale plus the original price they paid for it plus the cost of keeping it in their inventory.

3) If it doesn't have a mark on it (stamp, signature, etc.), and it isn't an OBVIOUSLY identifiable piece, it might not be an easy item to sell because there are so many knock-off's in the world. And serious collectors of things like ceramics, tchotckes, etc. (even furniture often times) want marks on their items.
posted by jeanmari at 6:54 PM on February 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

if my countless hours of watching cash in the attic have taught me nothing (and this is a distinct possibility), it's that there is no accounting whatsoever for what sorts of things people will people will spend a lot of money to own. (really? those 1982 royal doulton figurines of pigs in uniforms?). calling in an estate company seems, by far, like the most efficient way of dealing with this.

whether you have legal authority to do so and towards whose income the revenue generated applies is a different matter, i suppose.
posted by wreckingball at 6:58 PM on February 2, 2008

You can always post things that are not saleable, but are useful/useable at freecycle.org
People will come and take things away and save you the time and trouble, keeps stuff out of landfills, helps people in your area who need those items.
posted by mmf at 8:30 AM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Wow, I would steer clear of the antique mall booth..."

posted by wsg at 12:58 PM on February 4, 2008

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