The Whole-House Cleanout Guide: Letting Go Joyfully from Your Attic to Your Basement

Updated March 14, 2019

Whether it’s stacks of paperwork you keep shuffling from surface to surface, overstuffed drawers that make getting dressed a chore, or toys overflowing every box and bin, mess causes you stress.

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Clutter wastes your time, causing you to spend more of your minutes looking for that field trip permission slip, your other shoe, or that Lego® man with the mask. It costs you money, from late fees on misplaced library books to purchasing duplicate items to replace the ones you’re tired of looking for. Too much stuff can even be a health hazard, accumulating dust and mold, and triggering feelings of anxiety and depression.

It makes you wonder. With all of these negative side effects, why do so many people still have so much stuff? Why aren’t we all intentionally curating the spaces where we live, work, and play to bring us joy? Put simply, decluttering is a pain. It takes time we don’t want to give up and courage we don’t think we have. In other words, the temporary discomfort of cleaning out our spaces is keeping us from the rewards of a clutter-free home, however worthwhile.

So, how do Marie Kondo, Joshua Becker, and other experts on clutter-free living joyfully let go? For one thing, they stop shopping. They stop buying and acquiring new possessions that take up space in their home, in their minds, and in their hearts. After that, they simply begin: room by room, space by space, and surface by surface, they decide what items are beneficial to their family’s health and happiness — and what items are exactly the opposite.

With a plan in place and a goal in mind, you can too. The information below is not for the faint of heart. This step-by-step guide will challenge you to complete the ultimate undertaking: a whole-house cleanout.

The Process

Before you get started, sit down and make a list of each area of your home that needs attention. (Hint: it’s all of them.) You can work geographically, alphabetically, or by difficulty. Most experts recommend starting small, with a linen closet or a junk drawer, and working your way up to the bigger, more time-consuming rooms. Ultimately, you can do whatever keeps you motivated and accomplished.

Once you’ve made a plan, get started right away. Regardless of which room or space you’re dealing with, the following six steps will be your guide to determining what you actually need to keep and figuring out what to do with the rest.

Step 1 - Empty

Remove everything. Place everything on a large, flat surface for easy sorting. The bed, sofa, floor, or driveway will do, depending on where you are in the home. When it comes to furniture, use your best judgment. If there is a piece that you constantly bump your knee on when you round a corner or something that is broken, you can go ahead and remove it from the space. If you know you will keep it, it can remain.

Step 2 - Clean

There is no better time to deep clean a space than when it is totally empty. Vacuum, sweep, and/or mop the floor. Wipe down walls and shelves. Dust the baseboards, and remove cobwebs from the ceiling and underneath the furniture.

Step 3 - Sort

Whether you’re dealing with clothes, toys, or knick knacks, you’ll need four separate piles. Every single thing you removed from your closet will need to be deposited into one of them.

  • Yes - This pile is for items you love and use regularly.

  • Maybe - You are hesitant to let go of these items, but you don’t love them or use them often.

  • Donate - You don’t need these items, but they are in good condition and would be useful to someone else.

  • Trash - These items are in poor condition.

Step 4 - Remove

Once you’ve completed your first sort, pack up the items you intend to donate and the items you will throw away, and remove them from the space. By doing this immediately, you don’t have a chance to second-guess your choices or change your mind. For a whole-house cleanout, you might want to consider renting a dumpster or hiring a handyman to haul the trash away at the end of each day.

Step 5 - Sort Again

Now, it’s time to go back through the “maybe” pile. There are a lot of reasons we choose to keep items that don’t bring us joy. Gifts, expensive or valuable items, seasonal decor or clothing, and keepsakes are just a few examples of items that don’t have a place in our daily lives but are hard to let go. Only you can determine which items should ultimately stay or go, but consider storing these items separately — on site or in a storage unit — and coming back to them in three months to re-assess.

Step 6 - Reload

When you’re done sorting, you can place the items you’ve chosen to keep back in your space. Categorize and store them any way you want — by color, season, size, or use. The most important thing to remember during this part of the process is that extra space is a good thing. That empty space doesn’t just make it easier to find things and harder to lose things. It’s a metaphor for the space you’ve created in your life for the people and experiences that bring you real joy.

Tips and Tricks

While you can apply the process above to literally any space inside (or outside) your home, each area also presents its own unique challenges when it comes to decluttering. The area-specific tips and tricks below should help.

Closets

For many of us, what began as a place to keep clothes, shoes, linens, and other housewares organized and easily at hand has become a disorganized catch all with years’ (or even decades’) worth of belongings. To ensure your cleanout is as effective as possible, you may need to customize your closet storage. From purse storage and jewelry hangers to shoe shelves and an extra rod for hanging clothes, a closet that is designed for your specific needs can help you keep things tidy. You can hire a professional organizer to help you or go the DIY route — there are plenty of off-the-shelf options at big box stores.

Bathrooms

With hygiene-, hair-, and beauty products, as well as extra toilet paper and first-aid supplies, even the most spacious bathroom storage solutions can fill up quickly. To keep your counter clear and maximize the items you can fit out of sight, look for ways to reduce the amount of storage space each item requires. Remove products from their packaging, or combine multiple containers of the same product. Once you’ve done this, keep things organized with storage hacks like using small boxes (like the ones your jewelry or checks come in) in your drawers. For easy access to items you use every day without the clutter, baskets are an attractive and functional solution.

Bedrooms

Once you’ve decluttered your bedroom, you may find that you experience benefits like better sleep. To ensure your room remains a restful place, consider adding a basket, bin, or bag in your closet where you can immediately place items that you no longer want, need, or use. Once a week, donate the contents. 

Kitchen

Being organized can save you more time and stress in the kitchen than any other room in the home. Knowing exactly where every utensil, pan, and ingredient you need is every time you need it can turn cooking and meal prep from a chore to a joy. Focus on creative storage solutions that keep items off the countertop, like pegboards, toe-kick drawers, and wine racks.

Don’t forget to apply the same decluttering techniques you’ve used in the rest of the kitchen to your fridge and freezer. Empty them, clean them, and get rid of any items that you don’t intend to eat before they expire (if they haven’t already)!

Living Room

When it comes to the hub of the home, one common problem that decluttering alone can’t fix is unsightly cords and cables. Even if they’re nicely coiled, there are few things less appealing than visible cords. Blend them into your decor by running them around doorways, inserting them into walls, or concealing them in channels painted to match.

Playroom

For kids, variety is key. To keep things neat in a playroom, try rotating toys, books, and decor so that only a few items are out at one time. Swap them out based on a weekly theme, like dinosaurs or baby dolls. Wash the used items, and store them all in a plastic tub in a closet or under the bed so they are ready for their next rotation.

Office

Creating a calming office space starts with organizing — and minimizing — paper. Toss the trash, file the important stuff, and only print what’s absolutely necessary. Swap out messy Post-it® notes for a neat notebook to keep track of your to-dos. Of course, clutter can be digital too. Cleaning off your computer’s desktop and organizing digital files are just as important to your productivity and peace of mind. You can also set your screensaver to a relaxing image that coordinates with the room or a recent family photo for an even more pleasing aesthetic.

Garage

Like with closets, a garage works better if you have the proper type and amount of storage. For example, you can hang the family’s bikes from the ceiling and store garden tools on hooks along the wall. If you spend a lot of time in your garage crafting, building, or hobbying, a custom storage system designed by a professional can help maximize the space with overhead storage, wall cabinets, workbenches, and even the right kind of floor.

Attic

Unlike other areas of your home, your attic can be hazardous to clean out, especially if it’s extremely cluttered. Dust and insulation particles can pose health concerns, and carrying items up and down the pull-down stairs isn’t exactly a breeze. Always wear protective gear, like a face mask, and don’t take this task on alone. Once you have everything out, consider hiring a professional attic cleaner to prep the space while you clean and sort the contents.

Basement

A basement can serve as a playroom, a home gym, a hobby room, or any number of truly useful spaces. Unfortunately, it’s commonly crowded with, well, everything else. To maximize storage space in your attic or basement, consider letting go of the items you’re holding onto just in case you need them one day. If an item can be acquired inexpensively at a second-hand store or, even better, borrowed when you need it, let it go.

It’s that simple! Just kidding. Even on paper (or a computer screen), a whole-house cleanout is anything but easy, but the benefits are many: more time on your side, more money in the bank, and more freedom to spend with the people you love doing the things you enjoy.

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