Organizing tips: how to unpack after moving

Learn how to prepare and unpack in stages to keep your new home organized

by Rosemary Avance, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team
Couple sitting on couch next to boxes


By the time you’ve found a new home, packed your belongings and moved, you’ll be exhausted and ready for a break. Don’t stop just yet! You’ve got some unpacking and organizing to do. If you put it off, you may end up with boxes sitting around for months (ask me how I know). If you make a plan to unpack in the coming days (or weeks, if you have a very large home) and stick to it, you’ll be ready to enjoy your new place in no time.

Couple moving chair into living room

What to do first

You might be tempted to dive right into the task of unpacking, but there are a few important things to do first. These things are easier to do while your stuff is still packed up.

  1. Locate your essentials box. If you’ve planned ahead, you’ve packed a box of essentials for every member of your household. This box should contain all the things you’ll need for the first days in your new home while you unpack the rest of your things. Be sure it has a couple of changes of clothes, toilet paper, your toothbrush and toothpaste, shower items and a towel, bed linens, any medications you need and anything else you’ll want in those first few days.

  2. Clean the house. Unless the home or apartment is perfectly clean, give it a scrub while it’s empty. It is so much easier to dust, vacuum and shampoo carpet, mop, clean windows and scrub surfaces while a house is empty or your belongings are neatly packed in boxes. If it’s very dirty, hire a cleaning service to get things in order. Don’t forget to wipe down shelves, cabinets, drawers and countertops.

  3. Situate furniture and large items first. Once you have all the biggest pieces in place, it will be much easier to move smaller things around and fill in the gaps. If you’re using area rugs, put them down first. Then set up beds, dressers, couches, chairs, tables, desks and other big items. If you have a very large home, it’s OK to wait a bit before setting up furniture in rarely-used areas of the house so you can move on to unpacking your more important rooms.

Woman writing in notebook

Making a plan

Before you start frantically unpacking boxes in random rooms, sit down and make a plan of action. What room do you want to unpack first? You’ll need to make a plan to stay organized and efficient as you unpack.

  1. Make a list of every room in your home. The more thorough this list is, the easier it will be to plan. Don’t forget to include storage spaces like coat closets, sheds, basements, mudrooms and pantries.

  2. Decide what each room is for. Whether you’re moving into a large home or a small apartment, you’ll need to decide where everything goes. If you have a large family, choose who gets which bedroom. If you have a multipurpose room, think about if you want to use it as a den, game room, office, guest bedroom, craft room or for some other purpose.

  3. Prioritize your rooms. Rewrite the list of rooms and spaces in your home, this time putting the rooms in order of unpacking priority. List most important and frequently used rooms (like the bathroom and kitchen) first and infrequently used rooms (maybe a formal living room or library) last. As you unpack, plan to start with the higher-priority rooms, and try to completely finish one room before moving on to the next.

  4. Set a schedule. Depending on how much available time and stuff you have, you may need a week or a month to get fully unpacked. Set a schedule, on paper, and stick to it. Try to build in extra time for rooms with many small things to unpack. You can make a note on your list of rooms with estimated times for unpacking each area. Plan for about ten minutes per box of large items and thirty minutes per box of smaller items.

Couple unpacking dishes

Sample unpacking order

This order makes sense for many families, but feel free to plan the order around what makes sense for your needs:

  • Main bathroom: Unpack and set up at least one bathroom right away. Arrange your toiletries, hang up your shower curtain and store towels and washcloths so you’ll be able to stay refreshed for the next few days while you finish getting situated.

  • Kitchen: The sooner you set up the kitchen, the sooner you can run to the grocery store for fresh food and stop eating take-out for every meal. Assuming you threw away any perishable foods when you moved, you should start unpacking with the dishes and cutlery. You may want to wash these if they’ve been wrapped in newspaper, or if they were not wrapped at all. If you made a local move and still have a cooler of fresh food, definitely put that away first.

  • Nursery or kids’ rooms: If you have children, get their rooms set up pronto. It will give them somewhere to play while you unpack the rest of the house. It will also help them feel settled sooner if they have their own space with familiar belongings in it.

  • Master bedroom: Get your bed set up and made, your dressers filled, your clothing hung and any other belongings situated so you can rest easy.

  • Living room: Get your entertainment center set up and connected; you may need to call the satellite or cable company if you haven’t already requested service.

  • Office: Don’t underestimate the amount of time it can take to sort through cords, connect computers and printers and organize books.

  • Guest bedroom: If you have a guest bedroom or any other multipurpose area, set it up. Some people use closets in guest rooms to store tools, knick knacks, seasonal decor and similar rarely-used items; be sure to keep track of what you put where to make it easier to find later.

  • Sitting room: If you have a formal living room, odds are good that you don’t keep anything there that you need to access regularly. Set up this room after all other necessary rooms are set up.

  • Dining room: Many people don’t keep anything but a table and chairs in their dining room, but if you keep very-rarely used china in a cabinet you can situate your dining room last.

  • Wall art: Once every room is unpacked, you can hang wall art throughout your home. This will give your house a finished look and make it feel more like home.

Happy couple sitting on couch


As you’re settling in, don’t forget your goal for how many days or weeks it'll take until you are completely unpacked. Stick to your plan, and you’ll be past the hassle of the move before you know it.

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by Rosemary Avance, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team

Rosemary Avance, Ph.D., uses her social science research background as a member of the ConsumerAffairs research team to help people make smart choices. She researches products, businesses and industries thoroughly, then passes on the most relevant and essential information for consumers looking to make important purchasing decisions.