Moving: The art of unpacking

If there is a stage of the moving process I dislike the least, it is probably unpacking. I’m not suggesting I enjoy it, because I certainly do not — I garner about as much enjoyment from unpacking a house as I do from getting a cavity filled at the dentist. However, compared to packing and carrying boxes, the unpacking stage of the moving process is the bee’s knees (and since bees have six legs with multiple joints in each leg, I guess that is worth something).

If a new place wasn’t cleaned before the previous residents moved, I start the unpacking process by having professional cleaners come in and give the place a good scrubbing. No one wants dust and grime under their belongings in closets, on shelves, and on the floor.

After the cleaning crew is gone, I unpack supplies and rooms in this order:

  1. Essential items: Toilet paper, hand and body soap, shower curtain, bath towels, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, paper towels, trash bags, scissors (I use them to open boxes), a change of clothes, vacuum, broom, dustpan, pillows, bed sheets, and pet food and bowls. I usually pack these things in a clothes hamper and have it packed in the car, not the moving van.
  2. The kitchen. I start by unpacking the food first and then dishwashing supplies, drinking glasses, silverware, plates, pans, and finally everything else.
  3. Assemble beds and put on sheets.
  4. Bathrooms. They’re easy to unpack, and easy is what you’ll need at this point.
  5. Coat closet. This is more of a priority in cooler weather than in warmer weather.
  6. Clothes closet and dressers.
  7. Laundry room. Dirty clothes tend to pile up quickly when moving.
  8. Remainder of bedroom.
  9. Home office, if you have one. Beware, hooking up equipment with all of its cords and cables can be stressful, so take your time with this step.
  10. Dining room. After putting your office together, you’ll need this low-key room.
  11. Family room. Setting up the television and all of its peripherals can be just as frustrating as putting together the home office. Take your time.
  12. Porch. You’ll need a breather.
  13. The garage, basement, and storage spaces. Save these spaces until late in the process because it might take you weeks to get these the way you want.
  14. The last thing I do is hang artwork throughout the entire house.

When you’re unpacking boxes — and unpack all boxes — be sure to lay all pieces of packing material flat to ensure you don’t miss small items. Also, break boxes down as you go instead of waiting to do them all at once. Moving boxes are great to sell on Craigslist, so try not to damage them if you can.

I try to wait until I’m in the process of unpacking a room to buy any organizing products. You may not need bookshelves, storage bins, etc., once you’re in a space.

Finally, a few weeks after you’re unpacked, evaluate all of your decisions and make any changes as needed or desired.

Do you have unpacking methods you can share? Add your insights to the comments.

Also in this series:

28 Comments for “Moving: The art of unpacking”

  1. posted by Krishna on

    Having moved recently, this subject is very fresh on my mind. Before packing itself, we began the ‘unclutter’ phase: get rid of anything we didn’t need to bring over to the new place.

    This minimized the amount of items we had to pack. Right now, we’ve tackled 98% of all our boxes. There’s a few odds and ends in the garage, but we’re more or less settled in now.

    For unpacking, we typically move the boxes into the appropriate rooms, and do a methodical unboxing per room. It’s at this point that we seriously consider layout – i.e. how things like beds, tables, etc. will be organized in the room, BEFORE we unpack the smaller items.

    Lastly, I don’t mind unpacking – it’s the packing part that I hate. 😉

  2. posted by Juliana on

    Have you moved often? Your article reads as if you do this every six months or so! Just wondering. 🙂

  3. posted by ninakk on

    A couple of years ago I moved into a place that was beyond nasty. I should have saved myself the trouble, stress, frustration and anger by hiring some professional to do it, since the landlord didn’t bother to check the place himself and I got the key from the previous tenants. I cleaned for days, couldn’t deal with more than a little at a time and obviously couldn’t move in properly during that time either. Not a good mix of feelings when beginning to nest in a new place.

    Re:cords: I suggest that everything is taken apart and reconsidered according to the new place. Once it’s done and usually stays that way forever.

  4. posted by Dorothy on

    YES! Flatten all packing materials including each sheet of paper. I lost a treasured and expensive small item in my last move. I think it went to the recycling center in a wad of paper that was never fully unfurled.

  5. posted by Rachel on

    My list is very different… The very first thing I do is unpack bathroom stuff/hang shower curtains, and then I make beds. That way, whenever I’m too tired to take on another box, I can shower and fall into bed! Then I unpack some of the kids’ toys so that they have something to keep them occupied while I work on the rest.

  6. posted by Shalin on

    Great list and reasoning – as usual 🙂 Thanks soo much!

  7. posted by Karen Newbie on

    When I was younger and helping single friends move, we joked that the first thing that a guy would unpack was the stereo equipment (and then would set it up and turn it on). The first thing a girl would unpack was the toilet paper and a bathroom hand towel.

    Don’t know if that’s still the case, especially given the prevalence of ipods and MP3 players, but it was almost a “rule” then.

    Love the suggestions. They make all kinds of sense!

  8. posted by marjoryt on

    And, you can declutter during the unpacking process. I keep one moving box set up for donations. I always find something I brought along didn’t deserve a place in the new home. This has included pencil sharpeners, paper towel holders, odd chairs, towels, decorative items, yard tools.

  9. posted by Karen on

    Organizing the kitchen has always been the most difficult job for me. I’ve always had small kitchens with small cabinets, and figuring out where everything will fit is always a challenge. I try to unpack all the kitchen boxes first and lay the items out on the counters and tables, then plan out where everything will go. This seems like more work, but having your kitchen set up the right way is so helpful on a daily basis. I’ve found that taking extra time at the beginning is worth it.

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Rachel — Setting up the bathroom curtain, etc., is first on this list (Essential Items). I wait to put sheets on beds, though, until the third step because I highly recommend people stay in a hotel the first night at their new place. They’ll need the rest of a good night’s sleep! This was addressed in a previous post in this series.

    @Juliana — This was my 15th move.

  11. posted by Molly on

    Also, I recommend taking your time. My husband decided we needed to unpack our last move in 24 hours. Whoa. Never again. Even if it’s another 1 bedroom apartment. Also, unpack every single box. Don’t let them languish – it’ll only make you feel guilty when you see it.

  12. posted by Liz on

    I’m with Karen, but not necessarily by choice. 🙂

    Last move we did was cross-country in the winter, and we packed everything ourselves into one of those moving cubes (great way to go, by the way, if you want to pack/load yourself but don’t want to drive the truck!).

    We moved our very large and very expensive plasma TV, and hubbie was anxious about it and wanted to make sure that it survived the move. So, once we’d moved all the boxes and furniture into our condo (in a snowstorm in March, I might add!), the TV was the FIRST thing to get set up.

    This makes sense, though, as that was the biggest ticket item we shipped, and also the most fragile, so if there was damage, we wanted to make sure we could start the insurance claim process as quickly as possible.

    So that is something else to consider when moving: make sure all your fragile/expensive items are intact and working, as some moving insurance has a small window for reporting damage.

  13. posted by Shaunna on

    My list is also different than yours, as are my methods. I’ve only moved within town though.

    We don’t tend to hire movers or cleaners (wish that we could!), so the cleaning goes way different. The day before we plan to move in, we come and wash everything, and then we bring everything back to the old house (still gotta clean that!). Then we move everything over. We have all our overnight stuff in a suitcase (clothes, toiletries, the few extras that are needed – but toilet paper would have come, with some glasses on cleaning day). First thing unpacked is bed and anything in coolers, so they don’t go bad. Then, if you are really that tired, crashing is an option.

    After that, we do clothes and the kids things, it keeps them out of our hair and gives them something to do. Kitchen is next, because pizza and restaurant food is damn expensive. After that, it’s whatever box or furniture is most in the way, because much as we’ve tried to organize the boxes as they come in, it never works all the way to the end.

    That having been said, we seriously need to declutter and stop using our packing boxes for storage. 🙁 We use it, but have nowhere to keep it, so we pack it again.

  14. posted by Lindsay on

    Wow, Erin, this is so fab. Wish I had moved one month AFTER you instead of one month before, but I’m sure it will be a useful resource in the future. Thanks!

  15. posted by Lindsay on

    Wow, Erin, this is so fab. Wish I had moved one month AFTER you instead of one month before, but I’m sure it will be a useful resource in the future. Thanks!

  16. posted by DawnF on

    If you don’t want to deal with selling the boxes on Craiglist, just post them on your local Freecycle group website and say you need them picked up today (just put them on the front porch). I always see people begging for boxes on Freecycle… You won’t get money for them, but I would bet they would get picked up super fast.

    I agree with you, Erin – upacking is about as much fun as a dental trip, but soon enough it will all be done and you and your family will be enjoying your new, happy space! Good luck!

  17. posted by Aimee on

    My movers are coming Sunday morning and this is a lot like my unpacking process. I would add a stereo/iPod dock, a tool box, paper plates, and reuseable water bottles (and water filter) to the essentials in the first step. Also, if you’re moving into an apartment, many of which have little overhead lighting, add setting up floor lamps to your essentials.

    I like to arrange furniture as the second step; it’s easier to see the space and experiment while everything is packed. I agree with the others that setting up the bed comes before the kitchen. Moving is already pretty expensive, why add a night in a hotel room? I do recommend taking a day or two off work, though.

    It’s good to keep the unpacking process in mind while you’re packing. Anything I consider essential and will need while unpacking is separated from the rest of the boxes so I can move them in my car or labeled “open first” if the movers will be moving it.

  18. posted by Aimee on

    Oh, and add first aid kit to those essentials. Bumps, cuts, and sore muscles are inevitable in moving.

  19. posted by Julie on

    Thanks for this! Although I have done it before, I am getting ready to move and this is a great reminder. I forgot a few things on my list!

  20. posted by Deb on

    Great advice. I just moved back across the ocean – again. We use plastic bins. They are sturdy, the handles make for easy carrying and moisture is not an issue. They’re also good for storage and stack easily into smaller spaces. Every bin is labeled with a detailed list of contents so they are easy to find at the new home. Boxes of the things I knew I would want most were stacked in the same location in the container so I could easily recognize them. During the last two moves, I had bins stacked into the garage and an extra room so I wouldn’t have the overwhelming, visual clutter of a hundred unpacked and partially unpacked boxes sitting in our living space. I’ve been carrying them in box by box and taking care of everything before moving onto the next one. It’s been much less stressful. But I never want to do it again!

  21. posted by elle on

    I have moved twice with my husband, and both times he insisted that we set up the living room first and not use it to store any still-packed boxes, etc. I thought this was crazy, since we don’t use the LR that much, and there were so many higher priorities. He was right! It doesn’t take long since there aren’t closets or cabinets to fill, and after working in another area or whenever we needed a break, it was so nice to be able to retreat to a clean, put-together space for a cold drink or sip of wine.

    And as an aside, I completely agree with the male=music; female=bathroom priorities too.

  22. posted by Deb on

    Can I add one step before you start – particularly if you’re renting, or if you’ve spotted a problem in someplace you’ve bought? Take photos. Take lots of them before you start, and make sure they have date/time stamps (at least in the properties) which are correct (check the menu setting on your camera, ensure the date/time stamp is set correctly there).

    That way, if you need to prove to a landlord or realtor that the issue existed before you started, all you have to do is email through the digital photos, and you’ve a clear set of evidence. Better to be safe than sorry! Also it gives you a good feeling of accomplishment when you take the ‘all done’ photos, and have something to compare them to at the end.

  23. posted by Lynn on

    Oh my. Don’t even get me started talking about moving! I am 54 years old and have moved 47 times in my life…wait…or is it 48 times now? Anyhooooo… I agree about flattening out the packing paper, but would like to add, that I tend to carefully unwrap stuff from the boxes by holding them low over the box. Time and again it has helped rescue a breakable that slips from the paper. If I unwrap something breakable while standing over a hard surface (like the kitchen floor) there’s not much room for error if something slips and crashes.

    Also, we prefer to have all the boxes loaded into the garage (when possible), stacked in rows, with aisles to walk between, and with box labels visible. Then we carry a few boxes at a time into the house to deal with. This helps us feel like our home is organized right off the bat without all the box mess in the rooms at once.

  24. posted by Laurie on

    We are in the middle of our 25th move in 19 years (and by “in the middle of” I mean I’m writing this while in transit), to Indonesia this time from Scotland. We do things differently, although maybe less methodically.

    After the furniture is in place and all the boxes are indoors, the first thing we do is get the rugs on the floor and the artwork on the walls, so it looks like home as soon as possible. This is very important for those of us who move so often. After the bathroom is functional with tp, soap and towels, I get some things set up for the kids like toys and maybe a video if the weather isn’t fit for playing outside, to keep them busy while we’re working. We get the kitchen functional and the beds made. And that might be all we accomplish the first day. When we move it’s to the other side of the world so we have to combine recovery from the trip and jet lag with the unpacking process (not to mention adjustment to a new country etc.) so we pace ourselves to avoid getting overwhelmed and exhausted, which can happen easily.

  25. posted by Another Deb on

    I cover the windows with sheets, newspapers or garbage bags when I reach the new destination. I won’t have time to hang curtains the first day and I do not want to feel so exposed as I move around the place the first few nights.

  26. posted by April on

    I think it really depends on the person/family and their lifestyle. There’s no one right order to unpack. I know my way is a little different than yours. I see in the comments above I’m not alone.

  27. posted by Jane on

    Note to Deb:

    In CA, your plan would not work without an additional step. Print the photos and mail them to yourself. Once the envelope arrives DO NOT OPEN IT, but file it with your lease or where ever you would look for it when moving out.

    As a person who has rented out a house only to have it trashed by tenants, I found out the hard way that the legal system knows that the date on a picture can be manipulated, the post mark, not so easy!

    You could also print the pictures, ask the landlord to sign and date them and then mail them to yourself.

  28. posted by Tess on

    I always make the bed first, then go through the steps you outlined. My husband goes to the garage first b/c those items are always needed (tools, etc.) and he sets it up fairly quickly b/c he has pictures of his tool board and where everything goes on his moveable industrial shelving. And we always stay the first night in our new home . . . the bed and essential bathroom are ready and so are the kitchen (more or less) and the garage. Before I move in, I always get permission to go in and measure the kitchen cabinets so I can cut shelf paper ahead of time. Then, once I am in, I just go for it! I get a lot done the first day. Then, I just pick away at it for the next couple of weeks b/c I can live for sometime with what I completed on the first day.

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