The Basement: The Last Frontier!

At one time, basements were the last frontier with regard to sprucing up a home. They were often damp, gray and only used to do laundry and store things that couldn’t possibly fit in your living space.

Nowadays, basements are often the focal point of a family’s living space. Newer homes are built with the intention that at least some portion of the basement will be used for a living, play or work area, but it’s often up to the homeowner to make it that way. If you find yourself in the position of wanting to refinish your basement, you must first organize what’s down there before bringing in a contractor to do the job.

 Step 1 – Sort It

The first step in any organizing project is sorting. That means looking at everything in your basement and putting it into a category. Depending on the amount of clutter in your basement, this could be an all day event, so engage the help of all family members.

Make sure you have big trash bags, empty boxes or plastic storage bins on hand to help you move things out of the basement. If you need to create some space to work, start with the biggest items first. For instance, you may have to make a decision about old furniture, exercise equipment, big tables, etc. Are you going to use them, donate them or sell them at a yard sale?

My rule of thumb for any cleaning-out project is to only keep what you use. If you’re not using it, someone else can. Take these big items and move them either outside or into the garage. Then continue to sort through all your other items, creating categories and purging as you go.

Don’t take too long on one item. If it’s obviously trash, then throw it out. If you have to think about it, put it into a category and move on. If there is paperwork in the basement, don’t get bogged down with reading every piece of paper. Put papers in their own category and go through them in detail at another time. The goal with the first step is to significantly organize, clear out trash and create space.

After moving out large items, clear out anything you have at the center of the basement floor. Next, sort through everything you have stored against the walls. To keep focused, pick a starting point and move clockwise around the room.

Typical categories of items found in basements include toys, laundry products, dry food, holiday decorations, tools, paint, big game tables, arts and craft supplies, memorabilia and old furniture. Everyone’s categories will differ, but make sure you label the box or area you are sorting into, so you don’t mix them up and have to redo the sorting. This is also helpful if several people are working together. What looks like a pile of toys to one person might actually be a donation pile.

When sorting, there are certain “no-brainers” you can throw out, such as expired food, games and toys that are broken or have missing pieces, broken furniture and anything that is moldy. Most people throw away more than half of the stuff they’ve been saving. It’s like the basement was a holding zone and these items were given one more chance to make it, but didn’t.

Step 2 – Purge

After you’ve sorted everything, it’s time to purge. That means remove everything from the basement that won’t belong in a newly-refinished basement.

One couple who refinished their basement said they could easily determine that everything they had stored down there was trash, so they simply rented a dumpster and that was the end of their organizing. A dumpster will cost between $300-400 a week to rent.

Another alternative to getting rid of a lot of junk quickly is to try This company will pick up unwanted items and sort through them to donate what is usable and trash the rest for a fee. To calculate how much this will cost, first put all items in one spot and measure the cubic feet. Then go to the company’s website and calculate your charge. A full truck is about 400 cubic feet and will cost about $600.

Where to Dispose of unwanted items:

For most of us, it’s not that simple. Trash and donations can also be broken down into categories. Here are some suggestions for disposing unwanted items:

Clothing and linens: Find a drop-off point in your area for Goodwill, St. Vincent DePaul Society, Leukemia Society or any charity. These usually look like dumpsters permanently placed in busy parking lots.

Arts and crafts materials: Donate to a retirement home, senior center, church, children’s hospital or school.

Big household items or furniture: Find a thrift store or consignment shop that offers pick-up.

Old paint cans: Let latex paint dry up and harden first before you put it in the trash. Speed up the drying process with Waste Paint Hardener™.

Broken or outdated electronics: Contact your municipality’s solid waste authority for places to drop off these items. Some even hold drop-off events a couple of times a year.

Step 3 – Rearrange

After you have purged all unwanted items, take a step back and look at what remains. It’s time to rearrange. Is there any category of items elsewhere in the house? For instance, tools and paint may move to the garage, holiday decorations to the attic and toys to bedrooms. Move those items and remember to keep like things together. Only keep things in the basement that will serve the new function of the room.

Step 4 – Store It

You’ll need to temporarily store items while refinishing takes place. I recommend plastic storage bins with lids that seal because they keep everything dry and dust-free and are easy to label. If you have a storage area built into your basement, you may be able to keep bins there and let the construction crew work around them.

If this is not possible, you may have to store these bins in a spare bedroom, attic or garage. Be careful not to put anything in the attic that will be damaged by extreme temperatures.

If your house is completely full, your last option is to rent a portable on demand storage (PODS®) container which will cost approximately $350 per month. This is a walk-in container, and although it’s not the most attractive thing to have in your yard, it will prevent basement items from cluttering up your whole house.

Once you have cleared and categorized your basement, you’re ready to start planning your new room!

Let Form follow Function

The most important question to ask yourself when you start to organize a room is, “What is the function of this room?”

If you don’t like the answer, then ask, “What would I like to use this room for?” Make sure that you’re not using it for more than 3 functions. Once you do, it begins to get cluttered. Just remember the power of 3! Same goes for a closet. Don’t store more than 3 categories in one closet.

Here’s a real life example from a couple who hired me to help get their home organized. One bedroom had been their daughter’s. She had moved away but left clothing and memorabilia in that room. The father was using the room for storage of books & paperwork but not really using it as an office.  The brother who was still at home was using it for electronic games and occasionally the family used it as a guest room. The mother also stored some memorabilia there.  Too much going on! So when we talked about what they wanted the function to be, it was decided that the room would stay a game room and guest room and because the family owned a lot of books, some books would stay there. With that decision made, it was easy to decide what should go out of the room and what should stay. Here’s what we decided:


  • sofa bed
  • game console & games
  • book shelf
  • dresser


  • desk
  • nightstand
  • father’s paperwork
  • mother’s memorabilia
  • the daughter’s stuff

Also, to save the mom some trouble we decided to consolidate her daughter’s things on one side of the closet and let her decide on her next visit home what to toss. Sometimes grown children who have moved out just need a deadline. If they don’t take it, then parents have every right to toss it or donate their clothes.

Now, sometimes a whole house project requires that you move things to a different room, sometimes crowding that room. That’s okay, as long as you have a plan to continue room by room until the house is completely organized. Usually this happens until you get to the basement where odds & ends are stored. And then the basement becomes the “Final Frontier.” But in the process you will find a home for everything and set up functional areas so you don’t feel like everything is everywhere!

What room do you find the hardest to organize?


10 Steps to Really Get Organized

It’s been 10 years now that I have been working as a Professional Organizer. On a day to day basis, I get caught up in my clients’ lives, listening to their problems, helping them create a plan to get organized and to achieve their immediate goals. So every once in awhile, I have to take a step back and look at what all these “disorganized people” have in common. This helps me focus on simple solutions. Let me summarize some common problems I see and steps you can take to really getting organized this year.

1. Set Priorities – You’ve got to clearly state what your priorities are. Not only with your big goals for the year, but with regard to what you need to get organized.  Most disorganized people focus on the little things they think HAVE TO get done but in reality, they miss the big picture. Often, they consider everything to be a priority. Once you say yours out loud to someone else, write them down to stay focused.

2. Take the Time – Organizing is first a project, then it’s a process. It probably took you many years to be in the disorganized state that you are. Don’t expect to dig out of it in 3-4 hours, even with a professional’s help. Plan on at least 8 hours per room and then you’ll have to develop daily & weekly routines to get everything back to order. In the long run, organization will save you time.

3. Focus – Pick a room or a category and stick with it. Once it is complete, move on to the next thing.  Your results will be far better if you do one thing at a time than if you do a hundred things in a rushed fashion.

4. Accept that you will have to change – I love clients that give me a long list of what WON’T work for them in the initial meeting. While it’s good to know your style, if you want to change your surroundings, you’ve got to change your habits. Be willing to try something new in hopes of new results.

5. For a dramatic change, take everything out of a room or off your desk. – This forces you to choose the most important & favorite things and only put those things back in the room on back on the desk. Basically everything else can be tossed or put away. Disorganized people tend to fear the big clean out and start only in small areas.

6. Make quick decisions  – Every piece of paper does not require a 10 minute explanation. Paper falls into 1 of 3 categories:  TO DO, TO READ, TO FILE. Anything else is trash. Same goes for clothing & household items (keep, donate, trash)If you keep that in mind your sorting will go much faster!

7. Put items where you will use them – Don’t focus so much on leaving everything out so you can see/remember it. Also don’t focus on shoving everything into little cubbies. You have to place items logically so you can read, react, and use them.

8. Organize papers into categories, then handle them. – Some people believe that reacting to every piece of paper as you see it is cleaning off your desk. But if you put a stack of “To Call” papers together, or “To do on computer” work together you will actually be more efficient with your time. Organize first then DO.

9. Limit what comes into your home – If paper work is your nemesis, stop the junk mail, subscriptions, etc. If you have tons of clothes, vow not to buy anything new until you clear out all closets and clothes in storage. The more you have, the more you have to organize.

10. If you hire a professional organizer – Remember that he/she is there to help you get yourself organized. Don’t rely on them to do things you don’t like to do. It’s your life and when the organizer leaves, you are going to have to live it on a day to day basis. Set up simple systems that you can maintain.

Which of these steps do you find the most difficult to do?