How to Convert Your Garage from a Catch-All Space to the Organized Storage of Your Dreams

Clever solutions, straight from a professional Southern organizer

how to organize a garage
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For many Southerners, the garage is a storage area where everything from Christmas decorations to ages-old soccer gear is thrown into a corner and enveloped by clutter. While Southerners may not use their garages as car parking, since the region is not prone to below-freezing winters, it doesn't hurt to be able to fit your car in the garage in case a snow storm does strike. But where do you even begin when you finally decide to re-organize your cluttered garage space? We chatted with Margaret Ellison, founder of Sunday Plans, a boutique home organizing company in Charleston, South Carolina, to learn how she guides clients through transforming their garage into a space that they'll enjoy.

Organizing garages is a common request for Ellison, and, in her opinion, the garage is the ideal place to start when organizing a home. "The great thing about starting with a garage is it actually gives breathing room to the rest of the house, Ellison says. "Sometimes when we start somewhere inside [a home] like in the kitchen, if we have things that need to overflow there's no breathing room for those items to settle, if the garage is jam-packed with other stuff." So before you begin to tackle organizing other parts of your home, here are Ellison's recommended steps for organizing a garage:

Review every item in the garage, and break them into three piles.

Ellison's first step when tackling any space in a home is to have an item audit of every single item that's currently located in the space. An item audit will allow you to take inventory of every item in your garage. Ellison helps her clients analyze each item stored in their garage to decide whether they want to keep it or get rid of it. Then they create three piles of items: definitely keep, definitely donate, and maybe. "I allow a maybe pile because sometime things are hard to get rid of at first and when we revisit the maybe pile in an hour or so [the clients] say, 'Oh, I don't need any of this,'" Ellison says. She works with her clients the most during this step of the process to ensure they have an exact understanding of all the items stored in whichever space they're organizing. If there are items that shouldn't be in the garage, like indoor children's toys or temperature-sensitive heirlooms, Ellison also suggests creating a home for those items inside your house.

Donate any unwanted items.

After going through every item in your garage, you should immediately work on donating or recycling unwanted items. This prevents those items from again accumulating in the space. Ellison suggests using Facebook neighborhood groups as a resource to alert your neighbors of a curbside pick-up pile. There are also specialty organizations that will pick up unwanted items and properly recycle them.

Consider a fresh coat of paint.

While it's not completely necessary, and this step may vary between circumstances, Ellison often suggests that clients paint the interior of their garages while everything is cleared out. "A quick coat of paint elevates a garage so well," she says. "I've had clients who've been amazed by how much better the space feels."

Organize all the remaining items into categories.

First split your items into macro categories such as bikes, lawn care, gardening, decor, and any other necessary categories. Then within those macro categories split your items into micro categories. "I make it really clear what the categories are and what we're going to be housing then from there I make recommendations to the client," Ellison says.

Purchase uniform storage systems.

When it comes to storage, Ellison's main goal is to get everything off the floor. In garages, she recommends a combination of industrial wire racks and clear, stackable, and air-tight bins. "It goes a long way if all the containers are from the same place because clutter attracts clutter, and visual clutter attracts visual clutter," she says. Keep track of the links where you purchased your storage bins so that you can always order more of the same bins when needed. Ellison gives her clients the links to products that she used in their home after she's finished a project. Track systems are also Ellison's favorite method for hanging larger items on walls.

She labels bins with labels from Paper and Pear on Etsy, or her personal label maker, depending on which area of a home she's organizing. "You don't need to go all out in a garage, but the more aesthetic a space is, the more likely you are to use it, she says. "I try to be as specific with my labels as possible because it streamlines everything."

You should also take into consideration the frequency at which you use certain items and if children need to be able to reach them. If there are items in your garage that you will reach for multiple times throughout the week, consider giving them a specific home not in a bin, like a hook on a wall. "The most important thing is that every item has a clear home," Ellison says. "One of the good things about having a clear home for everything is not only are you able to maintain the way it looks, but you are also alerted pretty quickly if something is not in its home."

Communicate the organization system to everyone in your household and build the habit of maintaining an organized space.

Once your garage is finally organized, the best way to maintain its organization is to get into the habit of using all the homes you created for the items stored there. One of Ellison's go-to phrases when working with clients is "Your things don't need a pit stop on the way to their home." If you're done using your gardening gloves, don't leave them on the front stoop. Hang them back on the hook where they belong. The same rules apply to anyone else in the household. If you're trying to teach children to learn to put their outdoor toys away in appropriate bins, Ellison suggests referring to Shira Gill's book Minimalista, in which she directs parents to use similar language to what they hear in classrooms. Children learn to put their belongings into appropriate cubbies at school and the same principle can be applied to your household for keeping it organized.

"There are always going be things that accumulate in the garage," Ellison says. Checking in with the space every quarter of the year can help you maintain your new organization system by identifying any items that are out of place. Out of place items will also stick out more when you have a uniform organization method.

It's inevitable that you're going to fill the space that you occupy. By making your garage a place for your hobbies where you want to be, you'll be more inclined to maintain its aesthetics. "Your garage doesn't have to be a nightmare place that you need to keep closed, Ellison says. "It can be a really functional and useful part of your house for your whole family."

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