Probate explained: what to do with a house after the death of a loved one.
Decluttering and valuing possessions can be tough and highly emotional.
Here is our stress-free guide to the process plus a guide to how much your heirlooms might be worth.
One of the most difficult things you may have to do in life is clear the family house after your parents die. Just ask Catherine Field. Her childhood home, a seven-bedroom listed Georgian house in Saffron Walden, Essex, has been in her family for 50 years. So when her father died last year at the age of 87, she faced a formidable task.
“My father never wanted to leave the house,” says Field, 58, a freelance business writer. “He was adamant. And because it’s quite a big house, there’s never been much incentive to throw anything away. It’s got an attic, cellar and outbuilding. So there was always a temptation to put things out of sight, and it accumulated. I’m one of two surviving children, but my sister lives abroad so I have been dealing with a lot of it. There was an awful lot of stuff. I’ve tried to see it as a step-by-step process, otherwise it’s just too daunting.”
Field’s first step was to get an estate agent who was accredited with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to give a red book valuation, the most rigorous formal assessment of a property’s value. Then she had a fine art specialist from Cheffins auctions give a general valuation of the contents for probate purposes. These valuations form part of the calculations for inheritance tax.
“Once probate has been granted, you are then free to sell the contents, which you might do via auction,” Field says. “If you go down the auction route, valuers (who do not have to be the same as those you use for probate) would go through the contents in much more detail, to estimate values and catalogue items for sale. You might get several people/companies to value items. I used Cheffins for most of the contents because I know them and they run a wide range of auctions (from fine art to general household contents), which makes it convenient.”
To prepare the house for sale, however — it went on the market in June for £1.75 million — she did a big declutter. “To start with, I was too timid. I’d go to the house and get distracted: you’d find photographs and start looking at them.”
The estate agent suggested hiring a skip for the rubbish. Its arrival motivated her. “We went round the house room by room. The agent said we should leave the house dressed with furniture and art for the sale, but to remove certain things, like a modern bookcase that was hiding period features. And then we threw out rubbish: boxes, endless magazines, broken furniture, plastic garden furniture. I also found a man with a van through a local newspaper advertisement. He took a load of stuff away. We had a real blitz for three days to prepare for the photographer.”
Books, knick-knacks and clothing went to charity shops. Furniture and art will be sold at auction after the house is sold. Field is surprised that her parents’ Georgian brown furniture is worth very little but their 1960s Danish dining suite is predicted to fetch a tidy sum. “I do want to go to the auctions and see what things sell for, but I think I might find it quite emotional.
“I have such fond memories of the house. I had my wedding reception in a marquee in the garden. It has lots of nooks and crannies, so as a child, we’d play hide and seek. I still have a room there that I refer to as my room. I sometimes find myself walking through in a sort of aimless fashion, recalling memories. It will be quite a wrench when we sell it.”
Summer is peak probate sale time, according to Andrew Cronan, head of Strutt & Parker in Bath. That’s because deaths are more common in winter, and it usually takes six months for probate to be granted. And it seems like there’s a glut of probate properties right now: because there is such little stock on the market, about one in ten of Cronan’s properties are probate sales, versus the usual one in 20 during normal markets.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) requires valuation of all house contents for tax purposes (including electrical goods, furniture, wine collections and cars), but if the total value of the household contents is expected to be less than £1,500, you do not need a specialist to formally value items — you can submit an estimate.
And if your household contents are not auction house material, you could call a house clearance company. They will charge to take items away, but check their recycling policies to make sure items don’t end up in landfill. Just Clear bills itself as “zero waste to landfill”. If asked it also fills out the chattels report that goes to HMRC — for noting any item worth more than £1,500 — and offers homeowners a share of the proceeds for items it sells on eBay or Facebook Marketplace.
When Matthew Gimlette, 63, recently cleared his late father’s four-bedroom flat in Putney, southwest London, he put the flat on the market furnished so it looked loved. He waited until they had exchanged contracts before sorting through the furnishings (they gave the buyer a delayed completion of six months to allow time for probate to be granted).
To avoid tension over who got what, Gimlette photographed every item and listed them on a spreadsheet alongside values given by the probate specialist. He shared the document with his siblings on Google Drive and they put their initials beside the items they wanted. Then they arranged a day to meet at the flat — without their spouses — and went through the spreadsheet. When two siblings wanted the same item, they settled it by flipping a coin. “Everyone compromised,” Gimlette says. “‘I’ll give up that, but I want that’. It worked well. We said let’s not argue about it. These are only things.”
“If you can get all the siblings together in one place it makes it so much easier,” says Gimlette, head of membership development for an alliance of law firms. “We made a weekend of it. We went out to dinner. We went out to a comedy club. We had a lot of reminiscing. And we sorted it quickly. Rather than letting it drag on. Itemising things and getting everyone together works well. Otherwise you’re all over the place.”
House clearance tips
By Liz Aitken, founder of decluttering company Carefully Sorted
1. Ascertain the legal position. Are the wills held by a solicitor? If not, do a forensic search of the property for paperwork.
2. Start by sorting things that are not emotional items: pots, pans, kitchen utensils. Be systematic: sort items room by room, or category by category.
3. Agree with family who will take the lead and co-ordinate. Otherwise you might all call the same people.
4. Good quality, low-value furniture and clothing can go to charities. All offer guidelines on what they can accept. Sofas need to have a label proving they are made of flame-retardant material. Try British Heart Foundation, Sue Ryder, Cancer Research UK, or Emmaus.
5. Good antique furniture, pictures and china can be disposed of at auction houses. First send them photographs and descriptions of each item to find out their worth. Also try selling china at chinasearch.co.uk.
6. For old watches, jewellery, silver cutlery and ornaments, vintagecashcow.co.uk will pay you for items it wants and cover postage.
8. Contact the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers (apdo.co.uk). Some APDO members also belong to the Photo Managers, who can sort through your photo collections (thephotomanagers.co.uk).
Cut glass crystal decanters
Often these can end up in charity shops, unless they are genuine antique glass, or a high-quality maker such as Waterford, which could be worth £50-£300.
A pair can be bought for under £50, unless they are particularly unusual models, in which case they can be worth far more. Mass produced in the 19th century, they fell out of fashion, but are now back in interior design magazines. We have seen some recently sell for well into the hundreds.
Blue willow china
Mass produced in the late 18th century, this is instantly recognisable by its traditional chinoiserie-style design, usually in blue and white. Large boxes of willow pattern can still be bought at auction for well under £100, however I expect that prices for this will also rise as the trend for patterned tableware continues. Pretty patterned dinner services and tea services are back in fashion with the maximalism trend. Two years ago, a smart Spode service might have only sold for around £50, now the best examples sell for well into the hundreds or even the thousands.
Once the preserve of local tips, today the blonde Ercol furniture of the 1950s and 1960s is back in vogue, as is other mid-century design such as G Plan. They can sell fetch hundreds of pounds; dining room suites into the thousands.
Cased sets of silver
Silver spoons, fish knives and forks, grapefruit forks and elaborate serving implements were once highly prized wedding presents, but today they are worth little more than their bullion value. Best in class can find their way into specialist silver auctions.
Too big for many modern houses, heavy oak antique sideboards are presently out of fashion. These tend to only achieve prices in the low hundreds.
Gold sovereigns or grandfather’s gold pocket watch are making good money at the moment. Obviously prices depend on the carat of the gold, but a good quality gold pocket watch could achieve a couple of thousand pounds at auction.