Tips for Unpacking

Get Organized from the Start

Unpacking is my favorite part of moving.  As a military family we have gone as long as three months without our household goods as we waited for them to catch up with us on an overseas move.  With interstate moves it’s usually a month or so from the time things are boxed up and loaded on the truck until we receive our shipment on the other end.  As a result, unpacking always feels a little like Christmas to me.  I can’t wait to open all the boxes and get reacquainted with my stuff!

As exciting as it is to be reunited with your belongings in a new home, that mountain of boxes can be more than a little bit intimidating.  You may find yourself wondering…

  • Where should I begin?  
  • How will I ever find a place for everything?  
  • How long is it going to take me to get this job done?

After all these years of moving I’ve developed a few strategies to make the job more manageable.  Following are some of my favorite tips for unpacking.  I hope you find them useful.


As hard as you may work to declutter prior to a move, it’s not uncommon to get to the other end and find that you still have things you no longer use, want, or need.  There are a number of reasons for this. 

For one thing, distance provides perspective.  Living without your stuff, even for a few days, helps you to see it in a new light. 

In addition, the realization that you must find a place for all that stuff often leads to a desire (if not a need) to purge in order to free up space. 

Finally, unpacking requires you to look more closely at all of your possessions.  In order to free them from their cardboard cages, you must handle each and every one of them.  There is no better way to purge.

As you prepare to purge, remember the professional organizers’ mantra – if you haven’t used it in a year or more, you probably don’t need it.  While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, in general it’s a good rule to apply.

Before you begin unloading all those boxes designate a spot for stashing the stuff you plan to part with.  As you identify items you want to get rid of (assuming they don’t just belong in the trash), set them in your purge pile.  

Recommended  Reading

When you’re all moved in you and your purging is complete, it's time to decide what to do with the things you no longer need. The possibilities are numerous. Read all about your options by clicking on the images below. 

Establish a plan

Before you start the unpacking process, decide how you plan to use your home.  Will that space labeled ‘dining room’ on the floor plan be used solely for dining or would it better suit your needs as a home office? 

Once you’ve determined the purpose of each room, think about furniture placement.  Decide which pieces will go in each room.  If you took the time to measure your furniture as you organized for your move now is the time to put that information to good use. 

Sketch a simple floor plan for each room with basic shapes to represent each piece of furniture.  Label each shape with simple descriptions such as ‘tall dresser’ or ‘writing desk’.  Tape your floor plan to the door of the corresponding room for the movers to use as a reference when unloading.  This will free you up to check off the inventory as the truck is unloaded and save you from having to rearrange the furniture after the movers leave.  It’s useful to think through and map out furniture placement even if you are moving yourself. 

From clutter to clarity -- nothing beats the transformation.

It's tempting to leave books in boxes when you know you're only going to be in a place for a year, but the sizable book collection is part of what makes this house feel like home for its residents.

Set priorities

It can be hard to know where to begin when your whole house is a maze of boxes.  The best way to decide is to determine your priorities.  The kitchen is always near the top of my list because we prepare the vast majority of our meals at home.  If you do a lot of eating out normally, you may wish to start somewhere else.

If you have small children, I recommend starting in their rooms.  The sooner you can reunite them with all their favorite things, the sooner they will start to feel at home in their new location.  In addition, setting up kids’ rooms gives the kids something to do while mom and dad are busy unpacking the rest of the house. 

Decide which areas are a priority for you and begin your unpacking there.

Is that my Star Wars toys?

When my son was three we moved from Vermont to Southern California.  It was a big move for a little boy.  When we got to California (following a week of traveling) we had to stay in temporary housing for about three weeks until our home was ready.  My son missed one thing: his Star Wars toys. 

On the day the movers delivered our shipment to the new home, he stood out in the yard watching as they pulled items from the truck, regularly asking “Is that my Star Wars toys?”  We searched each box labeled ‘toys’ or ‘play room’ the minute it was unloaded until we finally found them.  There was no waiting until the unloading was complete.  Those Star Wars toys were a priority!  They kept him busy for the rest of the day and several days to come.

Set up a staging area

One of the things I love about unpacking is the chance to arrange things in new and different ways.  Unpacking provides a unique opportunity to organize from the start.  It also allows you to discover your style and show it off. 

I like to take a methodical approach to moving in.  I recommend that you set up a staging area where you can ‘shop’ for the perfect item to suit your needs.  I use my dining room table. 

Whenever I come across a basket, empty storage container, decorative item, framed photo or artwork I set it in the staging area.  When I find something that needs storing, I check out my supply and select the perfect basket or container for the items and space in question.  Having everything in one place allows me to see exactly what I have and make an informed decision regarding the arrangement of things in the new space.

Establishing a staging area helps you easily locate storage containers as well as identify items that are destined to be together.

Search for similarities

Placing all your decorative items in one location will likely reveal similarities and relationships.  Look at your stuff with new eyes.  Try to identify items that seem destined to be together.  Search for potential groupings.  Items don’t have to form a set to be grouped together attractively.  They simply need to share a common trait (color, theme, material, style, etc.).

Pace yourself

Depending on the size of your home and the amount of your stuff, unpacking can just about do a person in.  Try not to drive yourself into the ground.  Set goals for each day and allow yourself to take a break when you’ve met your goal.  If you’ve been at it for hours and you haven’t quite made it, give yourself permission to stop for the day and come back to it tomorrow.  The boxes will still be there. 

Put everyone to work

If you’ve got kids, put them to work unpacking.  Older kids will enjoy (or at least prefer) arranging their own rooms.  Younger kids can help with their rooms as well.  Kids can also help by (carefully) unwrapping items from their packing paper, sorting items, handing you things to put away, breaking down boxes, and so forth.  Help kids strengthen their academic skills by giving them a stack of books or movies to arrange in alphabetical order and other thinking tasks. 

Organization is a learned skill.  Take the time to teach it to your children by involving them in the process.  It will benefit them throughout their lives and it will help to decrease the time it takes you to unpack your new home. 

A place for everything

This is one of the tried and true principles of organization.  Use your move as a springboard for getting organized.  Take the time to think through the placement of things.  Don’t just shove stuff in a closet or drawer to be dealt with later.  Now is your chance to deal with it by assigning it a unique, specific slice of real estate within your home.  

Take the time as you unpack to determine the best location for everything you own and you will save yourself tons of wasted time down the road searching for things and dealing with clutter.

Recommended Reading

To learn the secrets of establishing an organized house from the start click on the image below.

Unpack everything

Granted, some stuff belongs in boxes.  That’s where it lives the majority of the time, and that’s OK.  You should still take the time to open each and every box to examine its contents.  Why?  Because packers are notorious for stuffing things in strange places to ensure a snug fit. 

Another reason to unpack everything is to make your family feel at home.  As a military family we sometimes end up in a location for less than a year.  I’ve known a number of people who refuse to unpack under those circumstances because they know they are just going to move again.  If we took that attitude, we would never unpack. 

In my mind it’s better to spend a few days up front doing a job I’m going to have to do again in a few months or years so that my family can feel at home for however long we remain in one place. 

The Last Box

Even if you moved yourself, there’s a good chance that some stuff ended up where it doesn't belong. My husband and I spent months searching for an item we were both certain could not possibly be in a particular box based on how the box was labeled.  Finally we broke down and searched through the contents of the box (because it was the only place we hadn't looked) and guess what we found! 

Whether this is your first time moving or you move on a regular basis, I hope you found these tips for unpacking helpful.  Good luck settling into your new home!

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