How do I declutter my garage?

Decluttering your garage is about as hard as a home organization gets. Because let’s face it: Everything you don’t want in the rest of your home ends up in your garage. It’s purgatory for all of the misfit items in your home! So where on Earth is all of this stuff supposed to go once you purge?

Take Everything Out

The first step to decluttering your garage is to find out what’s in it. Pick a section of your garage to start with and pull everything out onto the driveway to sort through. Besides making it easier to work, this garage cleaning tip will also allow you to see what space you have to work with and what types of storage might work best when it’s time to organize the items you’re keeping. Garage organization presents some unique challenges: how to pull together cars with toys, tools, sporting equipment, beach chairs, and cleaning supplies? In one space?

Luckily, three professional organizers Mary Hoff (Lotus Organizing & Design), Donna Jumper (JumpStart Organizing) and Lisa Mark (The Time Butler Professional Organizers) are on board to help guide us through the five steps of the organization process.

Every household stores things in their garage they shouldn’t. “Usually there is just too much of everything, and it becomes a dumping ground for all kinds of things,” says Jumper. So if you’ve accumulated massive amounts of clutter, you are not alone. And take heart, chances are your garage has nothing on what these pros have seen while organizing client’s garages: dead and live animals, spoiled food, photographs ruined by moisture, termite-infested furniture that never made it to the dump—the list goes on and on.

Before you dive into the organization process, you’ve got to have the right tools in place. Gather the following supplies: Heavy-duty trash bags, Strong vacuum like a shop vac or a broom, Catch-all basket for odds and ends

Set aside a day or weekend to get your garage properly decluttered. Go through absolutely everything you have in your garage and sort your stuff into three piles: keep, donate/sell, and throw out. Organize your “keep” pile into categories like camping gear, sports equipment, etc.

Decide on Your ‘Keep’ Criteria

Once you’ve pulled everything out, it’s time to set some ground rules for deciding what to keep. This garage cleaning tip will speed up the process by preventing you from agonizing over each individual item. When deciding what to keep and what to throw away, ask yourself: “Is this item in the garage for a reason, or because I didn’t know what to do with it?” If it’s the latter, either find a use for it or get rid of it. Before you begin the process of decluttering, though, make sure to be clear in your mind about how you want to use your garage once it is decluttered and organized.

This will help you know what types of things should be removed from the space, what should be kept, how much room you’ve got for storage or other tasks (such as parking your car, having a workshop area, etc.), and it will also make the process of making decisions a lot easier for you.

Garages are often multi-use types of spaces, or at least they can be. Some of the major “zones” you might consider for your own garage (and which are discussed more in the challenge article listed above) include a car parking zone, workshop or work area, and a storage area. Once you know what you want to do with you, at some point in the future clutter-free garage, read on below for the actual steps in the decluttering process. Tackling the garage is a major undertaking, so be ready to purge like you mean it, advises Marty Basher, a home organization expert with Modular Closets.

You have to go through all the stuff and ask yourself if you really need each thing and whether you want to store it long-term. Ask yourself whether you can easily—and inexpensively—replace an item, if necessary. If so, then you can afford to let it go. Let it go! Deciding what is no longer needed, used or valued is the hardest step in decluttering the garage. If it hasn’t been used in a couple of years, it probably never will be. Ditch it.

More problematic is the “memory clutter.”

That’s the stuff that reminds us of an important person or achievement, and the sense of letting go dishonours the memory. He recommends identifying those singular, epitomizing objects, “the ones that mean the absolute most” and raising them up to a more dignified place inside the home rather than the box in the garage. For years, a granddaughter held onto boxes of her deceased grandma’s stuff, until Walsh helped her identify those items that meant the most. She framed the recipes of her grandma’s favourite dishes and hung it in the kitchen along with some pictures and mementos.

Plan out your space

Before you start putting anything back, plan for how to store your items. Take measurements of your garage and draft a floor plan. Plan to store items you don’t use very often like seasonal decorations in the hard-to-reach places and save space at the front for frequently used items.

Before we buy anything, we need to draft up a floor plan. Write down your garage’s dimensions and take note of the size and location of windows, doors, switches, outlets, and how much room your car will need to get in and out safely.

Draw the dimensions of the garage from both a bird’s eye view and each wall from the head-on angle. This helps you make a list of the size and number of shelves you need and how tall you can build them, the size and number of containers you need, and where you can slide in carts with drawers and how wide they can be.

Since you’ve already grouped items together, you should have a pretty good idea of how much space each category needs.

When calculating where to place your items in your garage, plan on maintaining easy access to frequently used items. The easiest access point is typically right by the door that serves as an entrance to the home. Plan to put seasonal items and holiday decorations in the spots that are hardest to reach like at the top of shelves or the back of a bottom drawer.

Keep bulky garden equipment, such as lawnmowers, either in an outdoor storage unit or in a spot where they won’t get hit by the car we’re trying to fit back into the garage.

Decide What to Do With the Garage Clutter

Whatever doesn’t make your “keep” list is, by default, clutter. Don’t let it hang around your garage any longer.

With your “keep” items set aside, start going through the rest of the stuff you pulled out of the garage. Identify items you’d like to sell or donate first. Have plastic bins, cardboard boxes or bags on hand so that you can pack up donation items as you work and stash them somewhere out of the way.

Bag up or box up junk that doesn’t make the “keep,” “sell” or “donate” piles. If you’ve rented a dumpster for your weekend cleanout, toss the garbage bags into the container as you go.

While the method I’m describing for decluttering your garage is one designed to keep the messes to a minimum, you cannot deny that, at least to a certain extent, decluttering can make a bigger mess during the process. After all, you need some space to spread out while sorting the items you come across, and then you’ll need space to make your various piles, such as the donate, trash, and sell piles for the clutter you’re getting rid of.

To make it as easy on yourself as possible, create a staging area in your garage, or if it’s a nice day, out on your driveway. This staging area should be empty, and free of clutter, and give you the free space to deal systematically with the items in your garage as suggested. For example, bring the one box you’re focused on at that moment out to the staging area, deal with the entire box’s contents, and put things into the appropriate piles in your staging area.

For items that you want to keep, and that will stay in the garage, I suggest instead of piling these items somewhere in the staging area that you instead return them to where they were before inside your garage, and we’ll deal with them in a separate step, at the end of the decluttering process, and the beginning of the organizational process. With time, as you work through the clutter in your garage, your staging area will itself begin to feel crowded and cluttered. That is perfectly normal. You’ve moved all the clutter into this space. So the key is to stop the sorting and decluttering process anytime the staging area starts to feel too cramped and then deal with all the piles that have accumulated.

This is when you’ll put everything away that you’ve decided to keep, but put elsewhere in your home. It’s also when you’ll remove trash and throw it in the dumpster or trash can, and perhaps make a run or two to the consignment shop or charity shop for donations.

Until you actually deal with the piles in your staging area you haven’t actually decluttered, you’ve just moved the piles slightly. Decluttering involves getting all that stuff out of your home, completely, so cleaning up the staging area is where you actually do that.

Donate It

As you’re cleaning out your garage, it’s a good idea to keep a shortlist of places to take your “donate” pile. Your local Goodwill, Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity are a good place to start, but always call ahead to make sure they can accept your donated items. If they can’t take your things, don’t give up; you might be surprised to see what donation opportunities your local community has to offer. For example, Leveling the Playing Field near Washington D.C. accepts sporting goods donations in order to give underprivileged children a chance to participate in athletics:

Make decluttering your garage a charitable event by donating as much as you can. “Habitat for Humanity loves donations of tools and paint, and garden clubs and community green spaces will often take yard equipment, old pots, and leftover soil,” notes Denny.

If you don’t desperately need the money, you should always donate to a local charity whose mission you believe in. The only exceptions are valuable items or large items you are unable to transport yourself. Following this rule is particularly important in large spaces that are going to be time-consuming, don’t add to the burden by trying to resell everything.

Sell It

If you’d like to make a little money off of your garage cleanout, consider hosting a yard sale or selling it online. Craigslist, Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace are all great places to list your items or advertise your yard sale. Do a little research online to help you decide how to price your items.

There’s more to having a garage sale than pushing your junk into the driveway and hoping to make a few bucks. You’ll first need to sort your items and then spread the word carefully. Be methodical as you go through your stuff, setting aside sellable items such as furniture, sports equipment, home goods, and baby gear.

Advertise on something like Garagesalestracker.com for more foot traffic, and plan to hold your sale around paydays—the 15th or 30th of each month—as this is when people are more likely to spend money.

Pitch It

For the garage clutter that can’t be donated or sold, it’s time to get rid of it. The best junk removal solution for your project will depend on how much stuff you have, and the items you’re throwing away. Your garage cleanout may leave you with a pile of stuff that’s too big for the curb—especially if you’re getting rid of lots of large items such as old patio furniture or lawn care equipment. If you think you’ll end up with more than a couple of pickup truck loads, it might be easiest to rent a dumpster, if you haven’t already. But keep in mind with all your purging that you can’t toss paint, garden sprays, and other lawn chemicals into the trash.

Make sure you get rid of potentially hazardous liquids and fertilizers properly. Check with your sanitation department or local health bureau about where to drop off toxic cleaners and similar materials. 

Deep Clean Space

While you’ve got your garage entirely cleaned out, it might be a good idea to scrub it down before putting things back. In general, the best way to clean up a garage is from top to bottom. Start by dusting off and wiping down the tops of your cabinets, shelves and refrigerator if you have one. Then, wipe down your garage walls and the doors of your fridge and cabinets with a warm, damp cloth and a mild household detergent. Next, sweep the floor to get rid of the dust you’ve shaken loose. Finish up by mopping and hosing off the floor. Allow the floors two to four hours to dry before putting things away.

  • Start cleaning top to bottom — always.
  • Dust first with one dry rag, then wipe everything down with a different wet one.
  • Keep a soapy bucket of hot water and dish soap or vinegar close by to rinse out your wet rags as you go.
  • Wipe away any mould using warm water with either bleach or vinegar.
  • Clean garage walls with a sponge mop, again, top to bottom.
  • Dry garage walls with a microfiber cloth.
  • Mop the floor and remove motor oil stains by laying out clay cat litter to absorb the oil, dish soap to cut the grease, and a wire scrub brush to well… brush.
  • Optional: Dry the floor with a floor fan to speed up the process.
  • Remove motor oil stains using cat litter, dish soap and a wire scrub brush.
  • Wipe away any mould using either bleach or vinegar diluted with warm water. 
  • Use a sponge mop to clean garage walls from top to bottom. Once finished, use a flat head mop with a microfiber cloth to dry the wall. After mopping, use a floor fan to speed up the floor drying process.

Organize the Garage into Zones / Create sections

Your goal here is to divide—and then divide again. The garage is responsible for holding all kinds of different categories, so create individual areas for each type of storage.

Consider the following themes: lawn and garden, sporting goods, car equipment, and tools and workbench items.

Once you have your piles in order, divide them further using the classic decluttering method: keep, donate, toss.

  • Get rid of duplicates, check expiration dates for lawn care and gardening chemicals, and then combine packages containing the same things into one so they take up less space.
  • Now that you’ve whittled your inventory down and finished your garage cleanup seize the opportunity to keep clutter from building back up. So, what’s the best way to organize a garage? It depends on what exactly you need to store.
  • Use shelving units to keep frequently used items within easy each.
  • Use cabinets or closets for items you use less frequently.
  • Use a pegboard to organize hand tools such as hammers and hacksaws.
  • Use wall hooks to hold larger tools such as rakes and shovels, or stand these items up in a large, sturdy bin.
  • Group items by category so that you always know where to find what you need—and can easily put it back where it belongs when you’re done.

Because so many different types of items are stored in a garage, all three pros recommend organizing in zones. Begin by grouping like items with like items. We like to create zones just like you would see in any department store: Garden, Tools, Automotive, Paint/Home Projects, etc. That way, people know where each item ‘lives.

With this zone concept, you can think as small (3 basic zones) or as big as you need to. Our favourite garage project was for a client who wanted her small garage divided into seven zones: an exercise area, a holiday storage system, a spot for off-season clothing storage, a laundry zone, an area for general storage for items that would not fit into her downsized space, a workbench for her husband, and a home office.

Start with the basic four zones above and then work outward from there. Once you have everything sorted, begin assessing how much space each zone is going to take up, and then plan accordingly. For instance, if you need a “beach gear zone,” you can easily create one once you have gathered your beach items together and have a sense of how much room it will require.

Now that you’ve cleared space in your garage, group remaining items into categories to make things easy to find. Think gardening equipment, cleaning products, tools, bikes, camping gear and accessories – you get the idea.

Once everything is sorted neatly into groups, it’s time for the fun part. Shopping! Seek out stackable storage tubs and containers for smaller items, racks, hooks and shelving options for larger objects and suitable cabinets for items that need to be locked away.

To make your garage work better for you, create specific zones. For example, tools should be housed near your workbench – try hanging them on a pegboard on the wall, to free up bench space and keep them close at hand. Shelves above and below your workbench are ideal for storing hardware supplies, and lockable cabinets are a good idea for keeping your collection of valuable power tools extra safe.

Put your gardening supplies in a narrow cupboard near the garage door, so you don’t have to carry items too far, and install racks up high on the wall to create a storage zone for items like rakes, shovels and other gardening equipment. Garden, household or motor vehicle chemicals can be stored in a lockable cabinet – out of reach of children.

Walsh recommends creating specific zones for similar stuff and allocating a certain amount of space. Let’s say you have ten bins of holiday decorations, then all those bins go on the overhead shelves, for example. If there gets to be more stuff than can fit in those ten bins, then something in those bins has to go to make room for the new stuff. The idea behind zones is to know where things live, where to find them, and most importantly, how to put them back.

Besides decisions on what to keep or get rid of, a big portion of the process to declutter your garage is sorting your stuff into categories or zones, e.g. Christmas, Halloween, Camping, Cleaning, Kids’ Mementos, Gardening, etc. Walsh takes this one step further and recommends allocating a limited amount of space for each of your categories. That means creating enough space for the current inventory you have on hand and not going beyond that. When you bring in a new piece of camping equipment or another holiday decoration, it needs to fit in the current space allocated, or you’ll have to get rid of something to make room for it.

Avoid Floor Creep

This is another Peter Walsh recommendation. He states, “Flat surfaces such as the top of the desk, countertop, floor of the garage are not for storage.” He goes on further to emphasize the need to use vertical space well and wisely. When you are not taking advantage of the vertical space in your garage, you’re wasting it. Use tall shelving, hooks, and pegboards to keep stuff off the floor and where you need it. Store once a year items up high and out of the way, regularly accessed items at eye level, and less used and heavy items down below.

Invest in storage help

The best way to keep your garage organized for good is to keep things off the floor. Install shelves, hooks, and overhead storage to keep your stuff safe and neat.

When Cleaning Out Your Garage, Take Your Time

Cleaning out your garage doesn’t have to be overwhelming. With these tips, you can tackle it one step at a time and reclaim your parking space within a single weekend.  Set some time aside. If you start this chore when you’re on a tight schedule, you’ll quickly give up and postpone it. 

Maintain Garage Organization

Once you’re organized your zones, you will feel a well-earned sense of accomplishment. Step 5 is to keep this organizing scheme going by doing a quick sweep as often as you need to: Seasonally, monthly or even weekly. Garages are a high traffic area so the more often you organize this space, the less time it will take. Says Hoff, “Just like any other room in your house, once it’s organized, it doesn’t take long to clean.” After you go through the contents of your garage, systematically, and are left only with what you decided to keep in the garage on the first pass, I suggest you do the whole process one more time.

This time it will go much much quicker, but often you find even more that you want to get rid of the second time.

You do this repeated process in exactly the same way you did it the first time — by adding things you want to get rid of into piles in your staging area, and then dealing with those items once the staging area gets full.

Once you’ve done this process twice, you’ll now be left with only the things you want to keep in your garage, and it’s time to stop decluttering and begin organizing. That’s the topic of the challenge article here, so take a look at it to finish this big project, and then feel proud of yourself for all you’ve accomplished!

Large, cluttered spaces take focused effort and time. But you can do it. You’ll be glad you did.

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