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The Fascinating, Emotional Story of a House Clearance

The Fascinating, Emotional Story of a House Clearance
‘I will never, ever get used to going into someone’s house after their death’ … Brendan O’Shea. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

A cluttered desk sits in front of me, filled with items like remote controls, spectacles, a medication box, and even false teeth. This mix of personal belongings seems both familiar and intimate. I find myself in the office and music studio of a deceased person, where every object tells a story. The dust-covered retro recording equipment and instruments reveal a passion for music.

It’s evident no one lives here anymore. The cards on the mantelpiece downstairs suggest the elderly occupant passed away around Christmas. Brendan O’Shea remarks, “I will never, ever get used to going into someone’s house after their death. I will always feel as if I shouldn’t be there.” His emotion is surprising given this is his line of work. O’Shea operates Just Clear, a house clearance business that launched in south-west London in 2012. It now manages probate properties daily across England, Wales, and soon, Scotland.

More than half of Just Clear’s work involves probate, handling possessions and properties after someone dies. Occasionally, other types of domestic clearances come up, like those inspired by tidying expert Marie Kondo. Despite the challenging task, O’Shea ensures that nothing ends up in a landfill. From humble beginnings with one van, Just Clear now operates eight vans, each collecting up to three van-loads a day.

Explaining his business, O’Shea says, “We are a nation of consumers, and there needs to be someone at the other end taking away the unwanted items, otherwise where does it all go?” He aims to have everything either recycled or reused. O’Shea’s commitment to minimal waste extends from his experiences as a commercial banker. He saw potential in the clearing and redeveloping of probate properties, recognizing a gap in reliable service.

Probate clearance brings a mix of emotions, from sorrow to decades-old resentments and greed. Before starting a clearance, O’Shea often gets calls from beneficiaries worried about items they might miss. In one particularly cluttered house, anxious family memories surface from old toys and musical instruments. The emotional toll can be significant, not only for families but also for O’Shea and his team.

The job sometimes involves dealing with hoarding situations. Reminiscing about his first experience, O’Shea recalls entering a house through a window because the doors hadn’t been used in decades. “There were 42 tons of newspapers inside, and a lot of rodents and fleas,” he says. Such situations require sensitivity and, often, protective gear. The question O’Shea always asks himself before a hoarding job is, “Is there access to the bathroom?”

The pandemic has led to an increase in hoarding cases, particularly food stockpiling. Without judgment, O’Shea observes, “How people keep their home is often in keeping with their mindset.” He reflects on homes cluttered with locks and how hoarding can be a generational issue.

The World Health Organization first recognized hoarding as a psychiatric condition in 2018. Hoarders create a fortress of things to defend against emotional pain, explains Dr. Stuart Whomsley, a clinical psychologist. A meaningful relationship with possessions can be healthy, providing comfort and a sense of identity.

One of O’Shea’s most exciting moments involved finding a cabinet with brass dragon handles in a cluttered house. This item, discarded by the family, fetched £60,000 at auction. Another significant find included Q1s, the world’s first fully integrated desktop computers, sold for £20,000 to £30,000.

Clearances can reveal unexpected treasures. A Knightsbridge home concealed ceramics signed by Picasso worth £120,000 each. Another instance involved finding £16,000 hidden in a saxophone case, a welcome discovery for a family struggling to cover funeral expenses. Typical house clearances yield between £750 and £2,000 at auction, with rare items often making a big difference.

Occasionally, unsettling finds like wills or ashes present additional challenges for O’Shea’s team. Sometimes, they are asked to scatter the ashes, bringing a personal touch to their professional service. Sorting through various items, the team groups furniture and smaller debris for assessment and possible auction.

Recycling is at the heart of Just Clear’s operations. Mattresses go to a specialist recycler, and fridges often enter “closed-loop” recycling to become new fridges. The warehouse is a treasure trove of recovered items, from typewriters to gymnasium vaulting horses. Each object has another potential life, channeling O’Shea’s commitment to zero waste.

Occasionally, valuable items slip through the net, but O’Shea remains undeterred. His team once found and sold two first-edition Doctor Dolittle books for £50 each. Despite the daily challenges, O’Shea finds hope in his work. “What we do is part and parcel of life,” he says. “And there is a lot of hope in it.”

Source: The Guardian