Life Lessons from an Empty House

I’ve mentioned previously that we are going through a time of transition. We  are selling our home due to an impending job change. To make this process easier, I relocated the family to Atlanta for a couple of months while my husband stayed behind to do needed repairs and cleaning to get our home ready for market. All of our belongings went with us into storage.

Just this week we returned home and we’ve been living quite minimally. We brought back only what we could take in our van, and with four kids and three dogs, that didn’t leave room for much, even with a car bag strapped to the roof rack. I managed to bring clothes for me and the children, a handful of toys, a few basic kitchen tools and our school supplies. 
At some point we ended up with all the dogs in the back seat with the kids. Good times!
Clutter is a Calm Buster
Just this evening my husband commented that I seem calmer than he’s ever seen me since living in an empty house. I realized that over the years, our clutter has been a significant source of stress and anxiety for me. With dogs, kids, homeschool, electronics, and various interests that my husband and I pursue, we have accumulated a lot of stuff! And surfaces around here tend to be clutter magnets. A shelf that is intended to only have framed pictures inevitably attracts various odds and ends, papers, etc. The kitchen counter, with it’s cute basket for holding a handful of my husband’s stuff (his “man basket”) gets covered with mail, paperwork, and kids’ toys. Even the window sill, which should be clear of stuff, with the exception of a small plant, ends up with electronics, screws, and minutiae that I can never seem to rehome. Don’t get me started on papers and crafts, which seems to be a common clutter issue with homeschoolers.
Here in our empty house, there are limited surfaces, and we have to be extra vigilant about keeping them free of clutter, since our house is on the market and can be shown with limited notice. All of our possessions here are neatly stored in cabinets or non-descript gray bins, to not detract from the interior of the house. Clothing, toiletries, school books, even our kitchen items are in a bin or neatly stored in a cabinet or a drawer. I pick up the few toys that are here at the end of the day and put them in a bin out of the way. Having very little stuff may seem like it would be depressing, but I actually like it. I like walking through the house and seeing clear surfaces and organized containers and cabinets. 
I like having the freedom during the day to get our school work done, or pursue some of my own interests, without being weighed down by the thought of a pile of stuff that has accumulated but that I don’t have the time to put anywhere. I don’t feel guilty sitting down to read for thirty minutes, instead of organizing some messy area that has been overwhelming me. 
I won’t be living like this forever, so how do I carry this over to my regular life once we are in a house again with all of our stuff?!
An empty house makes an excellent play area!
Make sure everything has a place – Every item needs a home – preferably some kind of contained system like a bin, or cabinet. For items that I store on book shelves (especially smaller items) they can be contained into fabric bins kept on the shelf.
Consider what can stay in storage. Whether this is in a storage unit down the street, or just a corner of the garage or attic, what can stay neatly packed away and out of living space?
Consider what can be let go. We purposely keep 2/3 of the children’s toys (if not more) packed away. Occasionally we go through the bins and trade things out. But there are still items stored away that are no longer played with or put into rotation. Some things I think I hold on to for nostalgia reasons, but I could probably find a handful of items I’m not willing to part with and then donate or yardsale the rest. What I keep can stay in bins and we will continue our rotation system. We can also start purging baby clothes – our youngest, currently six months, is our last, so as she grows out of things I can finally start rehoming children’s clothing!
Starting with a Daily and Weekly Routine
Because our house is empty and clean it feels like we are starting with a fresh slate. We also want our house to be “showable” at all times. We sometimes have a day’s notice before a realtor has set up an appointment, but often it is only a couple of hours notice. I need to keep the house picked up so that all I need to do before we head out with the kids and dogs, to keep the house empty for the showing, are minor things like putting away toys and school books, and making sure kitchen counters are clear. I can’t start from scratch, cleaning floors and toilets and things like that.
To make sure I have the house ready for a potential showing each day, I have come up with a daily schedule of tasks, as well as tasks to be done weekly.
Obviously this list will vary for individual situations, but for us, hitting these points daily is essential for keeping the house “ready to show.”
  • Dishes cycled (clean away, and dirties load as they are generated)
  • Dirty laundry collected around the house and a load washing
  • Bathroom trashes emptied
  • Toilets given a swish of bowl cleaner in the morning and left to soak, and a quick scrub later in the day,
  • Kitchen and dining room swept
  • Counters cleared and wiped down
  • Kitchen sink scrubbed
  • Spray shower with daily shower cleaner
It is taking me less than an hour each day to hit these areas and keep the house ready for potential buyers. And truthfully, I like the house being kept this clean too!
I’ve also made a Weekly checklist for areas that don’t need daily upkeep. Each day I hit one or two of these items, and by the end of the week, all tasks have been completed.
  • Vacuum upstairs
  • Vacuum downstairs
  • Mop all floors
  • Clean showers
  • Wipe windows
  • Wipe down cabinets and window sills
Be Mindful of What is Coming In
Because the house is empty, it is tempting to start filling up the space with stuff. Indeed, since we arrived, I’ve had to get two baby gates and a pack n play out of necessity. But I know that we want the house as empty as possible for showings and that keeps me grounded. When we are back to a normal living situation, there should be less pressure to acquire items for the home, but I expect it will still exist.
I’ve read about a strategy that some people employ to deal with this temptation. If they want to bring something in, something needs to go out. Want to buy a new lamp? You need to get rid of one you already have. Seems like an excellent strategy, but I am tempted to go one step beyond, and declare the need to purge two or three items for every one thing coming in. This should ensure that anything coming in is really necessary or worth it, and it helps in the overall reduction process.
End the Day Read to Start the Next
There are often days where, once I finally get the kids in bed after a long day of cleaning up messes and refereeing battles, all I want to do is unwind and go to bed.  It’s tempting to leave the dinner dishes for the morning and wait to do that last load of laundry. But keeping the house ready to show means I have to get the house completely in order before I go to bed so that I start the next day with no mess, in case we end up with an early showing. Now I wind down the evening by putting away stray toys, cycling the laundry and getting the dishwasher loaded and running. Even when I am exhausted, I know how good it will feel to walk into the kitchen and see clear counters the next morning. And I find that I can actually tackle the mess fairly quickly late at night because, thankfully, my kids (and my husband!) haven’t figured out how to wreck the house while they sleep.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Debbie Hall says:

    Wow, Michelle. When you retire, you should write your memoirs. You’re a great author. But then again, you’re great at everything you’ve done so far and I am very proud of you. :) <3

    1. Michelle says:


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