A step-by-step strategy for making your hardest-working space work better.

Sports equipment on a pegboard in a garage
Credit: David Prince

1. Arm Yourself

Organizing a garage is a messy, time-consuming job. And if you're doing it right, you'll end up with a lot of things to throw away, give away, and get repaired. Before plunging in, gather heavy-duty 33-gallon plastic garbage bags, 6 to 10 large cardboard boxes (but not so large that you won't be able to move them when they're full), a marking pen to label boxes, a roll of packing tape to seal boxes, a box cutter to cut down any old boxes you empty as you organize, and a ball of twine to tie up newspapers, magazines, and cut-down boxes.

2. Sort and Purge

  • Pick a corner for sorting and then line up three boxes (first reinforce the bottoms with packing tape). Label one GIVEAWAY, one REPAIR, and one NOT SURE. Set up a trash bag for the things you're going to throw away.
  • Start pulling out items one at a time. Look at each item and ask yourself if it's something you need, want, or use. If the answer is no, put it in the trash bag or the giveaway box. If the answer is yes but it's broken and you're going to fix it yourself, put it in the repair box. If you're going to take it to someone else to be repaired, put it in your car.
  • Put items that are in working order on the floor in the center of the garage. As these items start to accumulate, sort them into piles (for instance, all the tools in one pile, garden equipment in another, sports equipment in another). Eventually, you'll create a separate storage area for each of these piles.
  • Fill the "not sure" box as you go. But remember that you'll have to decide what to do with everything sooner rather than later.
  • As boxes and trash bags fill up, seal them and take them out of the garage so you have more room to work. (Cover with tarps if you have to.)
  • If you have things stored in the rafters, sort them last.
  • Though there's no telling how long sorting and purging will take, it will be easier and go faster if you concentrate on one small area at a time and sort it completely before moving on.

3. Purge One More Time

  • After you sort, you'll be left with a number of piles.
  • Look through each pile. What you find may surprise you. Did you know you had six tennis rackets? Maybe one or two of those should go in a giveaway box. The more things you get rid of, the fewer you'll have to put back.

4. Designate Storage Areas

  • Once you've winnowed down your piles to the keepers, you're ready to create a storage area for each one. In general, plan to store things you use regularly, like cleaning products, closest to the door to the house. Store items you use outside, like garden equipment, closest to the garage door.
  • After you've figured out which pile is going where, you'll need to determine just how you're going to store things. Items you use regularly, like oversize pots and pans, bulk groceries, and craft supplies, are ideally kept on open shelves. Closed-door storage is best for hazardous items such as cleaning supplies and solvents, particularly if you have children. Hand tools and garden equipment can be hung from wall-mounted hooks or racks, as can sports equipment such as Boogie boards and skis. Not only are things easy to see when they're hung high but you'll also free up floor space for parking.
  • Relegate those things you use only once a year or even less frequently―Christmas decorations, old yearbooks―to overhead rafters or the uppermost reaches of shelves.

5. Recycle, Buy, or Build

  • Though you may be tempted to buy storage products early on in the process (after all, it's the fun part), don't. It's impossible to gauge what you'll need until you figure out exactly what you're going to store and where you're going to store it. Look at your piles carefully and then decide how many boxes, shelves, and hooks you'll need.
  • Stores and websites selling all manner of storage products are plentiful, but you can keep costs to a minimum by repurposing old furniture. For example, move an outdated hutch from the spare room into the garage to provide closed-door storage, or use an old table as a work bench. You can also lay plywood boards on galvanized brackets nailed into studs.
  • Transparent plastic boxes and bins are perfect for small items like sewing and craft supplies because you can see what's stored inside. But carefully labeled cardboard boxes from the liquor store work just as well.

6. Donate and Dispose

  • The pile of trash bags and giveaway boxes may look alarming, but a few phone calls―and a few trips to the dump―should dispatch it all.
  • For trash: Put out regular trash bags with your weekly garbage pickup. If you have too much for one pickup, divide it over a couple of weeks. You'll have to make special arrangements for large items, like furniture, as well as for hazardous waste, like motor oil, paint, paint thinner, pesticides, and car batteries. Call your local sanitation department or your local office of solid waste and recycling for information, or visit earth911.com. The Steel Recycling Institute (recycle-steel.org) will take household appliances such as air conditioners, washing machines, and dryers.
  • For donations: The Salvation Army (salvationarmy.org) and Goodwill (goodwill.org) accept many types of goods and in a lot of areas will pick up donations. For other groups that may benefit from your donations, visit guidestar.org.

7. Tie Up the Loose Ends

Revisit your "not sure" boxes. With a clear head and a clean garage, you may feel less nostalgic about those old Legos. If so, send them to the curb. Otherwise, label the boxes and stow them in the appropriate storage area.