Cleaning a garage is usually something you tackle only when the Halloween decorations, your favorite measuring tape, and/or the occasional puppy disappear forever into its murky maw. But sometimes, you gotta get it cleaned up (to keep the ASPCA off your back, if nothing else). So I’ve written out step-by-step instructions on how to clean out the garage and find your missing-since-1994-ThighMaster (or to rescue little Gumdrop).
Why We Put Off Cleaning the Garage
But first, a strange analogy for those willing to indulge my mental meanderings.
Or click here to go right to the step-by-step instructions on how to clean out the garage.
Garages are like moms.
Why yes, yes I did spend a lot of time trying to force an analogy that doesn’t really work to impress you with my inventiveness.
Just hear me out.
Anyway, as I was saying – garages are like moms.
We dump on them.
How many times have you backhanded stuff into the already-messy garage without regard for where it lands?
Especially when you’re car shoveling, or when you’re fed up with the pile o’Cozy Coupes in the driveway, or when you’re shuffling crap from one storage area to another.
We ignore them until we need them.
Chances are, the reason cleaning your garage even made the to do list is because you need it for something.
Sure you probably cringe every time you open the door to toss something in, but cleaning your garage doesn’t make the to do list cut until it becomes a necessity.
We have too-high expectations and are disappointed when they let us down.
Do you expect your one-car garage to house your car, a workshop, all your Christmas decorations, all your gardening supplies, the kayaks and the kids’ bikes? While staying neat, clean, and organized?
Maybe if you’re Martha. But not if you’re…well…you.
We groan every time we see them or talk about them? (Or is that just my own kids?)
How many times in your life have you said “OMG I love my garage so much it always stays clean and organized and every time I need something from it, it takes me 2 seconds to locate it and I almost never have a towering pile of pogo sticks and lawn gnomes fall on me and crush me to death?”
If you’re reading this, it’s more likely: “Ugh I don’t wanna clean the garage. How about we spend today doing taxes?”
We waste their potential.
It’s easier to use your garage as a procrastination receptacle than to spend time caring for it and realizing its true worth.
Just like you probably don’t realize how valuable your mom is and how much she could teach you.
And yes, I know some of us moms teach best as cautionary tales. Still valuable though.
We let them get full of spiderwebs.
On second thought, that’s probably just the garage…
Anyway, I’ll tell you how to clean out your garage.
But I won’t tell you how to clean out your mom.
Because that would be weird.
- The Best Method to Start Garage Cleaning
- Step #1 Preparing to Clean Out the Garage
- Step #2 Set Up a Workspace Outside the Garage
- Step #3 Declutter
- Step #4 (Optional) Clean and Repair the Garage Before You Fill It Back Up
- Step #5 Sort and Replace the Garage Keep Pile
- Step #6 Start Organizing Your Garage
- Step #7 Set Up Your Garage to Maintain Its Newfound Organization
- Cleaning a Garage When Time Is Limited
- Recap of Steps for Cleaning Your Garage
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Cleaning a Garage Step-by-Step
These are the steps I follow when I clean out my garage.
Step #1 Prepare. Set aside time and gather materials.
Step #2 Set up a place to work.
Step #3 Declutter.
Step #4 Clean and repair the garage while it’s empty.
Step #5 Sort out what’s going back into the space after you’re finished cleaning out the garage.
Step #6 Decide on some organizing systems.
Step #7 Make the garage easier to keep clean from now on.
The Best Method to Start Garage Cleaning
Cleaning a garage is best undertaken in large chunks. Yes, it’s possible to do it in smaller pockets of time. It’s just harder (and you know I’m a big fan of easier).
When you clean out your garage all at once:
- There’s no shuffling heavy or bulky things in and out. You empty it once and refill it once.
- There’s more space to move around while cleaning.
- You don’t lose progress when you forget which pile is which.
- But mostly, getting the first big pass at garage cleaning done all in one day means you’ll actually do it all. Because it’s all out in the driveway.
Which means if you don’t finish, you’ll have random people shopping in your driveway at the world’s saddest yard sale.
On the plus side, if you accidentally sell enough of your crap, you won’t have to move it back in.
However, cleaning out your garage is doable if you only have limited amounts of time. I’ll give you some ideas on how to accomplish it at the end of this post (look for the heading “Cleaning a Garage When Time Is Limited”)
For now, let’s assume you have at least a day, preferably an entire weekend.
Okay, so where do you start when cleaning your garage?
Step #1 Preparing to Clean Out the Garage
- Plan for a non-rainy day when you’ll be home all day. Garage cleaning’s a dirty job, so errands or appointments mean wasted time showering and changing in and out of work clothes.*
*Not counting Lowe’s – the one place on earth where it’s acceptable to run into a friend with humidity hair and zero makeup, covered head to toe in grunge and paint splatters. Just make sure you’re wearing something that screams “I’m mid-project and had a big-box-home-improvement emergency!” and not “will work for food.”
- Get a sitter for small kids if humanly possible.
- Strategically ground any strong teens earlier in the week and then graciously offer an exchange of labor for a reprieve.
- Plug in the crockpot or unearth the pizza coupons.
- Don old clothes (see above) and definitely shoes. I have a tetanus shot bill that proves barefoot garage cleaning is a bad idea.
- Cleaning supplies – broom, brushes, rags, spray cleaner, fans (if you’re mopping)
- Tubs and boxes
- Tape, paper, markers
- A dust mask (possible mouse poop alert)
- Something to listen to (I love Scribd – a cheap way to get unlimited audio books) so you don’t get bored/overwhelmed and wander off.
Do these ahead of time if you can, so you’re not wasting valuable time on D-Day searching for boxes (Helpful hint: they’re all piled in your garage…)
Step #2 Set Up a Workspace Outside the Garage
But how do you clear out a garage that’s so full there’s no place to even sort?
- Set up a nearby workspace like your driveway or patio.
- Move the cars, wind up the hose, and clear the driveway of toys
If you don’t have an outdoor space to work, start by gathering smaller items in the lidded tubs. Then either:
- Stack two tubs to use for a sorting table.
- Or put the tubs inside the house (for now) to clear floor space in the garage.
Alternatively, you can clear a workbench by shoving the clutter into tubs and then use that space as a sorting surface.
Don’t worry – as you work, your cleared area should get larger, and it will get easier to move around.
Once you’ve cleared a spot, inside or out, set it up to sort.
Lay out boxes or tubs or designate areas for:
- Donations/Other Stuff to Get Rid of (I usually combine this with the “Trash” category at first and then refine the sort later)
- Put Elsewhere (I prefer to break this into two areas – one inside the house for things that go there and another for stuff that goes into the shed or elsewhere in the yard)
- Stuff To Keep In the Garage
Step #3 Declutter
When you’re trying to figure out how to clear out the garage, it’s probably full of clutter in addition to being disorganized and dirty.
But even if your garage isn’t full of useless junk, it’s always a good idea to declutter.
Hey, I’m an organizing blogger- I’m never gonna not recommend decluttering.
It’s kind of our thing.
The more you can declutter, the easier it will be to organize the garage later and keep it organized.
Plus decluttering will:
- Unearth stuff you’ve been missing, since you’re actually opening boxes of junk still sealed from three moves ago instead of just moving them around.
- Keep your unwanted treasures from dry rotting or being exposed to extreme temps and allow someone else to use them before they’re ruined
- Make me really happy (like I said, organizing blogger here)
To declutter, the best way is to empty the garage into the areas you designated and try to get rid of whatever you can. Or at least move it to another location (shed, deck box, basement) and out of the garage.
For example, if you’re not done baby-making and are holding onto your pack-and-play, but it’s currently not packing-or-playing any kiddos, find a long-term solution that’s not in the middle of the garage.
You don’t want to be tripping over baby gear every time you need an extension cord.
The decluttering step is also the garage cleaning step where you deal with everything that’s not going back into the garage. I talk more about that in a decluttering post I’m working on (I’ll link it here when it’s live) but, basically, after you’ve figured out what to keep and what to ditch or relocate, it’s time to:
- Put stuff away
- Break down boxes, and
- Make a plan to dispose of everything you’re getting rid of
More about where to get rid of it all in the decluttering post I mentioned (to be linked here once it’s live).
So only the keepers going back into the garage get to continue hanging out in the driveway.
Step #4 (Optional) Clean and Repair the Garage Before You Fill It Back Up
Cleaning and repairing the garage is optional, but you should at least sweep out the random bottle caps, twigs, beetle carcasses and the 500 trash bag twistie ties your teenager sheds when he takes out the trash.
Once your garage is totally (or at least mostly) empty, take advantage of this time to clean it.
If you’re going all in on cleaning and not just sweeping, work top-to-bottom doing all of some of the following garage cleaning tasks.
- First, look up. I guarantee there are not only spider webs on the ceiling and walls, but also little white fuzzy sacs brimming with spider eggs (I just got chills). Brush those suckers down with a broom.
- Sweep the walls and ceilings completely to make sure you’re not missing those or any other tiny critters hiding in the nooks and crannies (my own garage is not totally dry-walled so, yeah, lots of creepy hiding places).
- If you have a decent ladder and good balance, take down the light fixtures and get rid of the 5 zillion dried-up wings from kamikaze moths.
- Then clean behind workbenches or anything else against the walls that you can’t shove to the side. Try to at least tilt them (with help) if possible to get behind them.
- If you have a shop vac, use the crevice tool. Wear your mask because, if Mr. and Mrs. Mouse and family do live in your garage, this private little alcove probably serves as their port-a-potty.
- Get on your knees and vacuum under anything you can’t move out (again – mask up, sister).
- Vacuum or brush out any crevices between the flooring and walls – if your garage is drywalled, it’s probably not trimmed so there’s a gap between the drywall and floor. That gap gets pretty oogey.
- If you have windows, brush all around the inside frame.
- Use a vinegar/water spray or sanitizing wipes to wipe down horizontal surfaces like workbenches, saw tops, etc. Wipe out the inside and tops of cabinets.
NOTE: If you’re mopping up unknown spills, stick to plain water. No need to accidentally create a bomb.
Or a new designer drug.
- This is a great time to wash your hands or at least rinse them with a garden hose after, just to be safe. Or sanitize. I, personally, would just keep working (probably gloveless as well) but I’m a terrible safety example.
If it were a different era, I could have been a star of those old PSA films – “See Joni asphyxiate herself? Don’t do that. Stay alive. Don’t be a Joni.”
- Wipe down doors going in and out. Don’t forget to roll down the big door and clean the back of it.
- Sweep the entire floor. You’ll probably need to do it twice – once for larger debris, once for dust (especially in a sawdust-filled workshop)
- Clean up any oil spills on the floor. This is an excellent, thorough article with good details about what to use and when for concrete garage floors.
- If your floor is epoxied or painted, mop it with hot, soapy water. Then go back over it with clean water.
- Since you’re probably in a hurry to put stuff back, set up some fans to dry the garage floors if you mopped them.
- Vacuum or launder any rugs/curtains.
- Lastly, clean any window glass and (most likely very dirty) window screens.
- While you’re cleaning the garage, take note of repairs that need to be done in the future (this post offers a good way to keep track and not forget once you leave the garage).
- If you have time and don’t think you’ll get distracted, make any smaller repairs yourself and caulk anything that needs to be caulked to keep bugs and vermin out. Plug larger holes with spray foam insulation.
Hmm, while I have the caulk gun out, I might as well go caulk all the baseboards, wow these baseboards could really use a fresh coat of paint. While I have the paint out, might as well paint the back door. Geez, this deck is a wreck. I should bleach that mold off. Hmm, while I have the bleach out…
See, I told you you’d be going to Lowe’s today…
Please note – this is not the time to paint or redo the garage floors. Not if this is your first big garage cleaning in awhile.
That’s way too much to try to attempt at once – clearing out, cleaning, reorganizing, decluttering AND trying to renovate the garage all at once.
If you’re dying to paint (as is my dream), start with just getting the garage clean and organized this round.
Then choose another weekend when you can paint without the exhausting job of clearing out/decluttering/cleaning and organizing all at one time.
Also while your garage is empty, decide now if the big furniture and shelving left in there will serve you. If not, this is the easiest time to get rid of it – while it’s not piled high with car parts.
Step #5 Sort and Replace the Garage Keep Pile
Once the newly-cleaned-garage is ready for repopulation, you can start carting stuff back in.
But first, plan where it will go.
Think of your garage in zones (more about this in my realistic garage organizing post to be linked here when it’s live).
Decide what purpose each general area (or zone) will serve.
Some suggested zones:
- Tools and hardware
- Riding toys
- Long-term storage
- Beach, pool, and sports equipment/chairs
- Overflow pantry storage
- Car repair
- Chemicals that need to be stored out of reach
- Projects I will probably never get to but have super high caffeine-fueled hopes for
When you move stuff back in, place it in its appointed domain.
Think about how you’ll need to access each thing before choosing its spot.
More on that in the post about realistic organizing (to be linked here when it’s live).
Box up smaller stuff by category and label it well so you can find it while it’s waiting to be organized. You want it boxed and not piled so the piles don’t morph into each other.
Step #6 Start Organizing Your Garage
Once you know exactly what you have, you can decide how to organize your garage.
I’m working on a post specifically about garage organizing for real people, but in the meantime, here are some basic garage organizing tips:
- Don’t buy expensive garage organizing systems until you know what you’ll need long-term (or never – you can also DIY this). A gorgeous garage lined with $4,000 worth of organizing systems is useless if it doesn’t work for your family or your needs.
For example, before you decide for sure to buy expensive hooks to hang all your garden tools on one wall, put them all there and make sure that’s where you really want them. Like if your car is between them and the door, it might not be a great idea.
You just know it’s only a matter of time before that garden rake gets dragged across your hood.
Or if you have big ambitions of always going to the back of the garage to get car wash supplies, make sure that’s really a good idea. Will you really go all the way back there once your car (and some probable piles) are back in the garage?
- Use weatherproof and pest-proof storage. Bugs and mice are way less likely to get into tight, lidded plastic tubs. And some bugs eat the glue on tape, and cardboard boxes (our newest cat also eats tape but she’s insane so…). Plus then spills and floods won’t hurt the contents.
- Keep things off the floor if possible. The exception is anything super bulky or heavy (snow blower, large pieces of furniture) or that kids need access to (bikes, riding toys, the nail gun). But even if you keep heavy equipment like the power washer there, the peripherals – hose and sprayer – can be hung or stored elsewhere.
- Be realistic (more on that in the post I mentioned to be linked here when live). Consider convenience and access, or your family will never put things away. Not to mention if it’s inconvenient to get to equipment to do frequently-occurring chores, you’ll procrastinate on car washing, weeding, and recycling. Even more than you already do now.
- Save the inconvenient spots for lesser-used things that you usually have advance notice to get to. Like if you only go to the beach once a year, your beach chair, cabana, and beach toys don’t need to be within easy reach.
- Or maybe they do – if you’ve fished once in your life but can’t bear to declutter your fishing rod (it’s okay – sometimes we just can’t let go of our dream life), was the fishing rod so hard to access that you didn’t get around to it? If so, put it in easy reach but give it a shelf life. Stick a post-it on it with a date a year from now and if you still haven’t fished, store it high.
- Think about safety. Either block off areas where you don’t want the kids to get hurt or don’t let them in the garage at all. I’d say lock up anything dangerous but, really, almost everything in the garage is dangerous. Better to keep them out altogether or give them a designated area and keep them out of your gardening area, tools, older kids’ toys (I’m thinking bow and arrow), etc.
For much more on child-proofing the garage, check out this article that does a wayyy better job than I could.
- Containerize. Once again, organizing blogger here – you knew I was gonna go there. Any time you can group items in a dishpan or other container, you’ll be cutting down on:
- Spill cleanup
- Things getting knocked off shelves (or worse yet, behind them)
- Losing smaller items
And when you decide to move a category elsewhere, it’s so much easier to move it all at once
- Once it’s all containerized, get the containers off the floor wherever possible. We just bought some heavy-duty shelving for our basement that’s awesome for tub storage. You can also use heavy-duty shelf brackets to attach sturdy shelving to the walls.
- Label everything you can. Even if it’s not in a tub, label its spot on the shelf. Label its spot on the floor. Label your kids’ parking spots (and maybe issue parking tickets – hey, even moms need extra pocket money, right?)
Step #7 Set Up Your Garage to Maintain Its Newfound Organization
Once you garage is clean and organized, here’s how to keep it that way. Try these tips to set yourself up for success:
- Use a big indoor/outdoor rug in front of the door going into the house to trap all the dirt and leaves garages seem to attract.
- Plan around your family members’ personalities. If they always dump things in the garage, think about creating a marked and limited dumping spot. This contains messes. It’ll mean your garage won’t be showroom perfect, but if all the odds and ends can only go in that spot, your garage won’t get out of control.
- Make a note on your calendar to get out there and deal with junk that builds up regularly before it takes over your garage. Monthly or even weekly, instead of your current schedule of garage-cleaning only seasonally. Or when you notice a condemned sign pasted on the door.
- When you organize, leave extra room in each box or tub so you have room if you stock up on something.
- Put a trash can and recycling bin in the garage specifically for use in the garage. Even if you keep your big outside can out there, a smaller, kitchen size can that uses regular trash bags will make it easy to throw away car and yard trash immediately. A larger, outdoor can is a hassle and hard to use with your hands full.
- If you have a donations area, keep it in check. Schedule regular stops at the thrift shop and try to get into the habit of remembering the donation tub each time.
- If your kids are old enough to get their own toys out of the garage, make them safe and easy to access and put back.
- Keep a good stepladder in the garage so returning stuff to high shelves immediately isn’t a huge chore. If you have to go find a ladder, you won’t. And that hard-to-access stuff will end up as clutter layer #1 on your garage floor.
- Keep a roll of paper towels and a bottle of vinegar and water in the garage for quick spill and grime cleanup.
- Assign an old broom and dustpan for garage use only. If you don’t have to go in to find a broom, you’re more likely to sweep it out.
- Keep labeling supplies right out in the garage. That way, whenever you add a new category to an existing area or change what goes where, you can label it right away. I like to use plain old masking tape and a sharpie, which I keep in a drawer in the garage. If I had to go print a label or even dig up my label maker, I would never get around to labeling anything new, and my organizing efforts would quickly fall apart.
- For workshop power tools, buy an adapter to catch sawdust and sanding particles.
- Fill in holes to help keep pests out, which will also keep the garage cleaner. This is one I have NOT done yet but need to. Maybe writing this post will shame me into it…
- Line drawers with non-slip mats from the dollar store to keep tools and supplies from sliding around and getting mixed up.
I’d love to hear have any other tips you have to maintain a newly organized and clean garage. Leave me a comment below!
Cleaning a Garage When Time Is Limited
But what’s the best way to clean out a garage if you only have small chunks of time?
I promised to talk about cleaning a garage when time is limited.
If you can only clean out your garage here and there, try these steps.
- Designate a spot in the garage for stuff you’re working on. Mark it off as the Supreme Unjunkable Zone and threaten everyone (including yourself) with dire consequences if this spot gets filled.
- Gather sorting tubs as above and, instead of sorting out the entire garage at once, sort one small section at a time.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes less than the time you expect to work.
- Then when it goes off, spend the 15 minutes emptying the tubs. This is the time to;
- Deal with trash,
- Put donations in your car to drop off, and
- Put things away that go elsewhere.
- You probably won’t be able to do much with the stuff you’re keeping in the garage just yet, though. Not until you have more room to work and have all your areas cleared. But at least you’ll be making progress.
I’m all for making a big mess if I know I’ll be able to clean it up because I have all day (not including ER visits for tetanus boosters). But if you only have small amounts of time, you don’t want to make it worse before it gets better.
Mostly because you have no idea when it will get better.
So if you tackle one section at a time and wrap up each sorting session by neatening the area, it will be easier.
Alternately, if you are not a methodical person (me), you can spend your short stints of time cleaning by category instead of by section.
By this I mean, start finding all the trash or breaking down boxes or gathering anything that needs to leave the garage to go into long-term storage.
Recap of Steps for Cleaning Your Garage
If your garage is a total mess and you’re ready to tackle it, the easiest way to get it done is to block off some time and spend a day or more following a specific plan:
- Prepare in advance – gather tubs, labels, cleaning supplies, etc.
- If you suspect mouse activity, wear a mask in that area.
- Clear out a workspace in front of the garage so you can empty the garage into it
- Sort as you go into tubs or designated areas: Put Elsewhere, Trash/Donations, and Keep In the Garage
- Take advantage of your empty garage by giving it a good dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing
- (Optionally) Fill cracks and holes where bugs and mice can get in with caulking or sealant.
- Repair anything you can easily fix before the garage is full again.
- Decide where things will go based on zones such as: workshop, car repair, gardening, recycling, etc.
- Get rid of the Trash and Put Elsewhere piles.
- Start bringing in the Keep pile.
- Box up small stuff and label it well, especially important stuff.
- Put the boxes in the zones where they belong.
- Once you know what you have and how you want to store it, start organizing.
- Wait to invest in expensive organizers until you’ve lived with the layout for a time.
- Once your garage is clean and organized, set it up to stay that way. Make everything easy to put away, keep a broom and garbage can handy, and set up a time to deal with it weekly.
Garage cleaning is one of those things only sadists look forward to. But it’s necessary, because when the garage is a mess:
- We can’t reach stuff because it’s buried. So we buy more. Then it becomes clutter, which we chuck into the garage. Repeat.
- Our stuff gets ruined.
- We just don’t feel like digging for garden or car cleaning or home improvement supplies so we don’t garden, don’t clean our cars, and defer home maintenance. We’re just too exhausted before we even start just thinking about getting stuff out of the garage.
- Not to mention it gets downright dangerous.
- Oh yeah, and it would probably be nice to park a car or two in there.
The goal for this go-‘round of cleaning out your garage isn’t photographic perfection.
The goal is to be able to use your garage and find stuff in it.
If you’re tempted to skip cleaning the garage because it’s overwhelming, think about how nice it will be to be able to walk in any time you want, grab what you need without digging for it, and walk out.
This is where I am with my garage now and it makes my heart go pitter-patter every time I easily grab a piece of string, command hook, or a monkey wrench without digging, tripping, or yelling.
It’s the best feeling to know I can find anything I need, any time I need it.
So do yourself a favor, make a plan and get your garage cleaned up.
- Stop dumping on it.
- Stop ignoring it.
- Stop wasting its potential.
- And best of all, stop groaning every time you talk about it.
Make it easy to find your crap without risking your life.
Oh yeah, and after you’re done cleaning your garage?
Call your mother…