In this post: step-by-step instructions for how to declutter your attic.
Does your attic give Hogwart’s Room of Requirement a run for its money?
Is so much stuffed in between the rafters that you dread the thought of going through it all? But you can’t find that one thing you really need and enough is enough because you can’t live like this any longer or you will lose your mind (not to mention, your wedding china you need for a dinner party that is in there … somewhere?)
Take a deep breath. And then take heart. Decluttering and organizing an attic is a major undertaking, but it is not impossible.
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It’s just a matter of taking it step-by-step. And after decluttering and organizing my share of attics during many, many moves, I’ve got you covered.
How do I clean out my attic?
The best way to clean out an attic is to edit out the clutter you don’t actually need anymore. Storing stuff indefinitely in your attic can turn into a giant, disorganized maze that is hard to walk through, let alone find what you are looking for.
Depending on your attic access, this can be a tricky endeavor. Get some help if you’ll be going up and down an attic access ladder, and try to do it all over the course of consecutive days so you don’t have everything everywhere for an indefinite amount of time.
If you are fortunate enough to have walk-in access to your attic space and a nearby room where you can put everything while cleaning, count your blessings.
After you remove everything, dust, sweep, and vacuum. If there is evidence of pests, call in pest control, if needed.
How long will it take to declutter an attic?
Setting out to declutter your attic is not the kind of project you can expect to complete in an hour or two. It’s not even the kind of project you can expect to complete in a day or two (unless you have very few items in your attic.) Plan on 3-4 days, if not a week, to complete the task with a helper. Longer if more than that.
Pace yourself, and work systematically through the piles of storage tubs and boxes. Once you’ve gotten a feel for the process, you can bettter estimate your total project time, but it will take an hour or two daily of consistent effort to make a dent in a very crowded attic space.
If you decide to make this a long weekend project, expect to spend the better part of 2-3 days going through everything, sorting, cleaning, and discarding or donating items.
Love the idea of an attic you can find everything in, but running short on time or feeling overwhelmed? I can help! I offer in-person home organizing for those local to the Nolensville, TN area and its surrounding communities, as well as consultations and support for clients who prefer a virtual option.
Here’s how to declutter your attic:
Take before pictures
You’re going to want to see what you’re getting into and have proof of how much work you’ve done! Seriously. Attics are an achievement.
Assess the mess (piled high? Deep? Mostly boxes and paper? Or vintage items and sentimental storage?)
Safety first. Pull things out to declutter in a way that makes a pathway for you that is easier to navigate. Set aside the more sentimental items that will impede your progress and focus on the items that you can go through quickly at first, to build momentum.
Set up a staging area with folding tables and gather your supplies.
Have Ziploc bags, small boxes, something to temporarily tag what piles are (full tack post-its and post-it tape are recommended), Sharpies of various sizes, zip ties, velcro cable ties, clear trash bags (for sorting large soft items), black trash bags or white kitchen bags (for actual trash), gloves, P95 masks, phone charger, possible bluetooth speaker for music, and signs for donate/sell). Possibly lighting on tripods if it is hard to see in the staging area or it gets dark at night.
I find that my favorite way to sort piles is to start with a few laundry baskets set underneath folding tables and, as I unpack boxes and bins, to repurpose them when they are emptied out into additional sorting areas.
Continue to clear a path.
Start by removing the items in the direct path to get to the back of your attic space. Sort out boxes and items in the staging area according to their category (office, sentimental, photos, artwork, papers to keep, papers to shred, etc.)
As boxes, tubs, and other containers are emptied and sorted into piles, reuse them to store the item category overflow if they are clean and in good condition.
Try to put like items with like when you sort. Put all the office supplies in one box, Christmas decor in another, party supplies in another, etc. This not only makes putting things back much simpler, but it also helps you see where you have multiple duplicates of items that can be downsized, and keeps items together to find in the future.
Give yourself permission to process difficult emotions.
Attics hold all the memories we don’t want to make decisions about right now. Things get shoved in boxes and set aside for later. When you declutter your attic, you may discover that sorting through belongings and inherited items bring up emotions that are unexpected and intense.
Some of these will be happy (pictures from a family photo album from a favorite vacation), and others will be sad (mementos from a loved one who has passed.)
If at any point, it becomes too overwhelming to touch and inspect these items, set them aside for later in your decluttering, when you’ve had a chance to distance yourself from the discomfort and emotions.
Once the staging tables and surrounding area get too full to bring in more items to sort, try to clear them off and put away items in a more permanent spot.
Take boxes and bags of donations to your car or items to sell to another area of the home (like the garage, if there is room). If needed, take the donations and trash directly to donation centers or the dump.
As you find items that can be stored more effectively in other areas of your home, take them to those spots.
Continue working through all remaining containers and sorting their contents by type, as well as any large items like furniture or Christmas trees. Consolidate duplicates.
Remember, the goal here is to be able to access your attic storage easily! If you’ve been putting this off for years, it’s going to be a long process, but you can complete it.
Take breaks as needed. Don’t forget to hydrate!
Clear off any shelving and put completely decluttered tubs back, temporarily labeled, if need be.
Tidy attic storage is a process that might need to be done in layers. Unless you have a very generous budget, matching bins and custom labels can be changed out over time. Don’t let mismatched bins and hand-written labels stop you from finishing the work!
Put storage items back into the attic in order of use.
The goal when you declutter your attic is is to save time in the future when looking for things. In fact, the whole goal of decluttering at all is to make life easier for you.
So keep that in mind when you put everything back! Even if it doesn’t make sense to everyone else, order things in the way that makes sense to you—and then label everything that is hidden storage so others in the family can find things, as well. (Again making life easier for you! Now you don’t have to be the only one who knows where things are and you’re saving yourself time as well. Win-win.)
Find new homes for household items, if they can be used daily or on a regular basis.
Did you uncover a stapler you forgot you had? Take it to the office! Or maybe you finally found a way to display those vintage quilts from Grandma. Get them out of that bin and into a place they can be enjoyed! (Attics aren’t the best place for fabric items, anyway, due to all the pests that sometimes find their way into boxes in the attic, and plastic tubs can cause yellowing due to chemical reactions from the plastic being released in the air around the items … I learned this the hard way.)
Be prepared: you’re going to uncover a whole lot of stuff you forgot you had when you declutter your attic!
Remove all trash and donations and items to be sold from the staging area.
No, seriously. Remove them. Or you’ll just have more piles. Plan ahead of time to immediately take the items you decluttered away from your home. Take them to a donation center or put them in the trash, as needed.
Tear down the staging area.
Put everything away, and viola! You can use your temporary staging area for its originally designated purpose again.
I know the temptation is strong to leave this for another time. You’ve already done so much work with the decluttering and sorting, but if you don’t complete the clean-up process you will just prolong the mess.
Vacuum/sweep staging area, and make sure it is returned back to its original state (or better!)
Decluttering an attic is messy. You’ll be stirring up a lot of dust while moving things around and leaving behind debris while sorting. A quick vacuum and dusting will work wonders on the area you used to stage the process.
Take trash to the dump and donations to a donation center (or friend or family member, if passing things on).
Time to act on the plan to take items you decluttered out of your home for good! Until you do this, the job is not fully done, as you may have decluttered your attic, but you will have cluttered another area of your home with these items. Discard them and complete the process. They say the last 10 percent of the job is sometimes the hardest … and it’s true. At this point, the last thing you’ll want to do is drive to a donation center, but if you don’t do it quickly, you’ll have piles in another area of your home for an indefinite amount of time.
And that’s it! Time to relax. You’ve earned it.
How do I start organizing my attic?
After you declutter your attic, it’s time to put things back in it. Place your most frequently used items closest to the entrance to the attic. Then put your least used items furthest back, if possible. If possible, leave an aisle between zones of categories, for easy access.
If you have space, add industrial shelving to separate bins of items, or build shelves into the eaves of your attic.
Put all the Christmas or holiday items together, all the sentimental items, all the practical but infrequently used household items like inflatable mattresses or extra folding chairs together, etc. Larger items in the back, smaller items in the front if on shelving, for easy access.
Take into consideration the order you’ll need to retrieve bins and boxes. For instance, if you decorate for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah or Christmas, make sure you can get to the Halloween items without having to move Christmas out of the way first.
If you decide to replace storage containers, clear containers allow you to easily see into them, to help you find items at a glance, while solid containers create a more cohesive appearance. It’s up to you which one to go with, although I find clear is a bit more of a time-saver for me.
If at all possible, do not put family pictures, artwork, and clothing or precious fabrics in your attic, as they are subject to extremes of heat and cold and humidity. But if you have no other options, buy new ones that are archival quality.
When you are ready to tackle even more clutter, I recommend downloading a copy of my ebook, Room to Live: 90 Days to a Clutter-Free Home, (you can buy it as a Kindle ebook on Amazon, or as a printable PDF in my shop) for step-by-step directions for decluttering all the living areas in your home.