Updated December 1, 2022
The task of cleaning out a storage unit you haven’t visited in awhile can be overwhelming, but experts have strategies in mind to help you attack the job.
Professional organizer Julie Naylon of Los Angeles said many people rent units, fill them up with possessions and then simply forget about them.
“It is out of sight, out of mind,” she said.
Diane Gibson, owner of Cox Armored Mini Storage Management, said she’s aware of some units that hadn’t been visited for 20 years before they were vacated.
Eventually, people might lose track of what they stored in seldom-visited units, Naylon said.
“Most of the time,” she said, “people don’t even know what they have in there.”
If you need to empty out your self-storage unit, here is a step-by-step guide for a successful storage unit clean out.
Storage Unit Cleanout Step by Step
Professional organizer Amy Trager said some of her clients have a hard time beginning the process of cleaning out units they’ve rented for a while. The key is to make a plan, and then take things one step at a time.
Step 1: Take an Inventory
The first step is start opening boxes and taking things out, just to see what you’ve got. Try to see the task from a positive perspective. You might find precious family heirlooms or valuable items that can be sold or can be donated to charity.
If items are jam-packed wall-to-wall in the unit, just take stock of what you can see and access for now. Just know that an overstuffed unit will take additional time and effort to declutter, and might yield unexpected surprises as you make your way through it.
Here are some common items you might find when taking inventory:
“Sometimes people hang onto things so long that they really no longer have any value for anybody else,” said Terri Stephens, a professional organizer in Atlanta, GA. “People feel such a tremendous amount of angst and sometimes guilt, as if they’re throwing the person away.”
If you have kids, you likely have mounds of toys that they’ve outgrown. It’s ok to keep a few of the more novel or interesting toys for nostalgia’s sake and donate the rest to a thrift store like the Goodwill.
If you like it, keep it. If it’s broken or the wrong color, repaint or repair it. If not, what’s next?
Is there more than one of something? It might be part of a valuable collection.
Pre-digital film and sound technology without a means to play the movies or music is a classic waste of space.
“Memorabilia is the most difficult stuff to get through,” said Trager. “We find it fascinating to go through but feel guilty getting rid of it.”
If you are sitting on a pile of photos or journals from family members that have passed on, there comes a time when you should probably go through it instead of holding on to it out of a sense of obligation.
Step 2: Develop a Game Plan
Once you have an idea of everything in your unit, you can strategize a plan of what to do with everything. Make a list of items that you want to keep, items you are giving away or donating, items you will sell, and items that can be trashed or recycled. Cleaning out storage units is hard work, but you will work more efficiently with a solid plan in place before you begin.
If you know you have large items to clean out from the unit, such as appliances or furniture, then you’ll need to make sure you have a vehicle big enough to haul them to their new destination. If you need to rent a moving truck, now is the time to make arrangements.
Step 3: Lighten Your Load
If you are selling or giving away large items, arrange for the recipients to pick up items directly from your self-storage unit. Some non-profits organizations will pick up unwanted items for free if they are in good condition. Schedule any of these pick ups before your big clean out day and you will reduce the amount of items you have to move at that time. Plus, you’ll have some extra cash in your pocket if you manage to sell some of your stuff. Just take pictures and post free ads on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist and you’ll sell your items in no time.
Step 4: Recruit Helping Hands
Cleaning out a storage unit may be more work than you can handle in a single day.
If you can, enlist the help of some friends. Go through items and boxes as a team and sort items according to their destination (thrift store, landfill, back home, etc). If your friends are mysteriously busy on your storage unit clean out day, you can easily hire hourly help using an app such as Bellhop. Any hourly moving labor service can help you load items or move them around inside your unit.
Step 5: Dispose of Trash
Take care of any items in your unit that are destined for the landfill. Most storage facilities have an on-site dumpster you can use, but their may be rules or limitations on what you can throw away. If you have more trash than you can put in the storage facility dumpster, make a plan to haul it off site yourself to a landfill or a recycle center
Alternatively you could hire a junk removal company to pick up your trash items. Most offer storage unit cleanout services. They will attempt to recycle or recover anything of value, with the rest dropped in a landfill. If you opt for this option, save this step for last.
Step 6: Load Up Your Items
Load everything that you are keeping or selling into a truck or van. Make sure you have a plan for every item that you take back home. If you are just going to fill up your garage or basement with stuff, it defeats the purpose of cleaning out your unit.
If you have items to sell, start photographing and listing them right away. Or unload the items in your driveway and have a garage sale scheduled for the next day. Whatever your preferred selling method, be ready to follow through so you don’t find yourself surrounded by piles of clutter at home.
Step 7: Turn Over Your Unit
With all of the contents unloaded, sweep out the entire unit with a broom. It is important to remove everything from the unit, or you will likely be charged a hefty cleaning fee by the storage facility. The unit should be left in the exact same condition that you found it. Take a picture of the unit with your phone so you have proof of its condition when you surrendered it.
Finally remove your lock and notify the manager that you have vacated the unit when you leave.
Tips for Cleaning Out Your Storage Unit
Naylon offered these five tips for making the job of organizing or cleaning out a seldom-used unit as smooth as possible.
- Set a deadline. Pick a date to start the project and stick to it, Naylon said. “That will help you with motivation,” she said.
- Divide the job into small parts. Accept the fact that it might take you several visits to sift through your belongings. Set aside enough time to do so.
- Avoid the landfill. Naylon said she tries to find a new home for everything her clients no longer need. Hauling things to the nearest dumpster should be your last resort, she said. Many thrift stores will send a truck to your unit to pick up your donations, free of charge.
- Don’t turn your home into a storage unit. Many people rent storage units to remove the clutter from their homes. Make sure you don’t reverse the process by turning your garage or basement into a storage unit.
- Make sure you enlist enough help. Doing the job alone can be difficult and lonely, Naylon said. If your friends or a professional organizer can lend a hand, the task will go much faster.
Having a plan does indeed seem like a really smart idea. That and having a few friends along can really make a difficult looking process easy. I am going to have to clean my storage unit soon, so nothing get’s ruined by dust and such. My friends should probably be able to help me too, which would be really nice.
I think alcohol would help.