If your garage is not as organized as you’d like if you prefer not to spend time there because it’s chaotic and dirty and smells like car exhaust or gasoline, welcome to the club.

You’re not alone: many, if not most people, view the garage as the place where the car lives and not another opportunity for organization and storage. If you’d like to increase your available storage space, however, or improve the overall look and value of your property, putting your garage to rights is worth the effort.

First of all, why are garages so messy? There are a number of reasons. Few people choose to spend significant time in their garages. They’re just a waystation on the way to somewhere more hospitable. In many places, for consecutive seasons, the garage is too cold a place to linger. People drive in and hustle out, and since they aren’t there for too long, the mess is less distressing than it would be in, for example, the living room. It can be ignored indefinitely.

Garages tend to become receptacles for forgotten or outgrown items or for purchases that are too unwieldy to carry into the house. Bicycles, snow blowers, lawn mowers, and wheelbarrows are stored there, and anything with wheels is more likely to be dumped untidily or flung in a heap somewhere. Kids are also in and out of garages constantly  — bringing things from the outside in and things from the inside out. The garage is an indoor/outdoor space with multiple entrances and large doors. This means that dirt, grease, leaves, salt, and pests are much more likely to enter and remain. While bicycles and garden equipment do not create messes, insects and animals do chew, scratch, and nest – and often with or in your valued possessions.

The garage is not an ideal storage place for many things. While some garages have climate control systems, vinyl floor coating, and deep sinks to allow for easy cleanup, most do not. The temperature of this space can fluctuate from extreme heat to extreme cold, and water or humidity may pose other problems.  This means you need to consider carefully what you will store in your garage before you put anything there and risk its destruction. Here is a short list of items you should not store anywhere where they might be exposed to cold, heat, car exhaust, humidity, or pests:

  • Electronics
  • Books and paper or digital files
  • Paint
  • Upholstered furniture, mattresses and bedding
  • Wood furniture
  • Food, including canned or boxed foodstuffs

Less environment-sensitive items can be stored long-term in a garage, but you should still use care in packing them away. Possessions that might absorb the odors of gasoline or car exhaust should either be wrapped in plastic or placed in air-tight containers because once the smell gets in, you will never get it out. Design your storage space with shelving so that nothing will be in direct contact with either the floor or the exterior walls. In either location, they are more likely to become wet, moldy, or dirty, and you want to avoid all of those.

While differences exist between the two, many of the same tips for organizing and keeping inventory in a storage unit can also be applied to home garage: sort through what you have, discard or donate what you don’t need, but like with like in labeled bins, and document what is where so that you will not be the only person who can locate an important item in a hurry.

How you arrange your storage area is up to you and is part of the fun of this process. The options are endless: they include metal shelving, wood shelving, plastic shelving, and plastic bins, as well as hanging things from peg boards, the ceiling, and the walls or any combination of the above. A careful examination of the physical limitations of your space and what exactly you need or want to store will help you determine the best combination. Consider that while organizational tools are not belongings, per se, they are subject to the same environmental stresses. If you wouldn’t store wood furniture in an area subject to damp, wood shelving is not your best option either.

The most rewarding part of cleaning and organizing your garage space is, of course, when the project is complete and you can easily see and access all of your tools and useful or decorative objects. A well-designed storage area will lend itself to staying organized as well because it will be easy to put things away again, and it will be visually and emotionally rewarding to put them back where they belong.