“Hoarders” host Matt Paxton may be best known for helping pack rats purge their possessions. But in his new show, “Legacy List,” he focuses on a far more common problem: What to do with all the stuff your parents and grandparents hang on to that might eventually end up with you.
“Legacy List,” which airs on PBS on Mondays at 9 p.m., follows Paxton and his team as they visit homeowners faced with downsizing attics and basements full of family belongings. Paxton helps his clients not only whittle this mountain down to a handful of valued mementos—aka their “legacy list”—he also helps them pinpoint surprising items worth thousands of dollars, from old baseball cards to antiques.
Yet Paxton is the first to admit that even he has struggled to unload family possessions. We at realtor.com® chatted with him to hear his best advice for handling the toughest clutter of all.
You had a lot of responsibility when it came to your own family estate. How was that experience?
I don’t remember a lot. I was 25, I was a kid. My dad, stepdad, and both my grandfathers all died within about two years, so I was just going through all these houses. And when you’re grieving, it’s not really the best time to go through it. If you’re moving and that’s why you’re decluttering, usually that’s positive, so you can make the decisions easier.
What advice do you have for people who are purging stuff from family members who’ve passed away?
I always say, “Focus on the things you absolutely know you don’t want.” That’s an easy way to get started.
You recently packed up and moved. Did you have to purge beforehand?
My three sons and I had been in a house for about 15 years. And it’s funny, I do this on TV, been doing it with both “Hoarders” and “Legacy List” and for 20 years privately as well, but until you do it yourself, you forget how hard it is. I’ve helped thousands of families, but when you go through boxes of your parents’ stuff and your loved ones’ stuff, that’s when it gets hard.
Because stuff is memories—we keep it because they’re memories of people we care about. It’s not really the financial value; it’s the emotional value.
Did you find any surprising items during your move?
I did find a stick in a box that said “fragile” in my handwriting, so clearly I packed it. I don’t know what it was for. I don’t know why I saved it. But it obviously meant a lot to me at the time. Sometimes, if you don’t write down the stories, you don’t know why they meant so much to you. So, that I actually just threw away.
What tips do you have for people who want to get their home organized during the pandemic?
Try to do it now. Give yourself a box a week. You don’t have to do it all in one sitting. Bring one box down and do it while you’re watching TV. But give it the time that it deserves. If you try to cram it in a long weekend, you can’t get it done.
Many people have family heirlooms in their home that they don’t want, but feel guilty throwing out. What advice do you have for these people?
This is the hard part, when it matters emotionally to you but not enough to keep it. That’s when I tell people to call your family members and tell them about the item. If they don’t want it, it’s OK to donate, even if it’s something from someone you love.
I compare it to leftover pasta. You could say, “Do you want the pasta for dinner? Because if not, I’m throwing it away tomorrow.” Like, you don’t want it. Why are you pushing it on somebody else?
I really love those Facebook Buy Nothing groups. That’s a great way to empty your house quickly, and it doesn’t cost you anything. You know that those items will go to somebody in your community who can use them.
A lot of times people start going through boxes because it’s time for a parent or grandparent to move into a retirement home. What advice do you have for them?
Start small. I can’t ask my grandmother to work for 10 hours straight. Work for two hours every other Saturday. If I learned one thing from being on “Hoarders,” the worst way to clean out a house is five days straight, 10 hours a day. We do it that way on TV, and it’s the worst way we could possibly do it, but it’s the only way to knock out a job that big. At home, pace yourself.
I really challenge everybody that if you think you’re going to move in the next 10 years, now’s the time to start doing it. Give it an hour or two a week.
Your philosophy is to focus on keeping just five legacy list family mementos. Why five?
You have to have a limit. If you have more than five, it becomes 10, and then it becomes 30, and then you’re on “Hoarders.” It’s kind of like ice cream. If you eat it every night, it’s not really a treat. It’s just something you eat every day. The whole point of a legacy list item is that it’s special.
Do you mind sharing something from your own legacy list?
I have one of my dad’s old rings that he gave to me the night he died. I have my mom’s piano. I have a piece of art from my dad. I have a letter from my 9-year-old son.
When you come down to it, there isn’t a whole lot of stuff you really need. I think the older you get, the less you really need.
You’ve also seen people throw out things that are actually really valuable. Why does this happen?
People don’t go through the boxes. They’re, like, “Oh, this is china, this isn’t worth anything.” Put 10 minutes of research into everything. Google the value.
Now, don’t keep it just because you think it’s worth something. But it wouldn’t hurt to check, especially with things like baseball cards, coins, and stamps. The collections we’re finding now are often our grandparents’ collections, and those things can be a hundred years old.
What makes something financially valuable is scarcity. Beanie Babies? Not valuable, because there’s millions of them.
But the things coming out of your grandparents’ house, they may actually be financially valuable, even if you don’t want them. A lot of the midcentury modern furniture coming out of the ’50s is extremely valuable. I found a Picasso this year on “Legacy List” sitting in an attic.
What other advice do you have for sifting through family heirlooms?
With pictures, wear cotton or rubber gloves. You can ruin pictures and documents by not wearing gloves.
What has been one of your favorite finds from ‘Legacy List’ so far?
In the pilot episode while going through a client’s home, I actually found one of my dad’s paintings. My dad was an artist. We were filming the pilot, and there it was and I started crying. That was insanely special to me.
Of course, I had to buy it at auction because it was owned by a client, so I was just hoping no one would outbid me. I actually have that in my office now.
How do you let go of the items yet hold on to the memories?
Marie Kondo will tell everybody “What sparks joy?” Well, that doesn’t work for clients on “Hoarding” because everything sparks joy for them.
I just say, “Hey, tell those stories,” and document it. Either put it on camera, video, or audio. Somehow get those stories recorded and start sharing with your family. You spend 30, 40 years creating these memories, you’ve got to share the stories. Just get started an hour a week, and create your legacy list to share with your family. I think you’ll be amazed. You’ll hear the reaction of your family members; they’ll love the stories. And when you start to share those stories, you start to realize it’s not the items—it’s the people. You’ll find you’re able to let go of more items that way.
We need positivity right now in the world. This is a great way to just be happy.