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Guide to Organizing and Cleaning Your Home

Experts explain how to whip your home into shape.

by Scripps Howard News Service

You haven't seen your favorite pair of pants for months, no doubt because they're buried under a mountain of clothes in the closet. Your car has never seen the inside of the tool-stuffed garage. And good luck finding your favorite spice in the kitchen, pay stub in the office or school notebook in your child's room.

Don't despair. We've checked with experts to help you whip things into shape.

"You need somebody who has an objective eye, partly because when you live in a space, the problems become invisible to you," says Jeff Bredenberg, author of 2,001 Amazing Cleaning Secrets (Reader's Digest). "You've been there so long you overlook what might be obvious to someone else."

It's time to face the facts. Those ankle-zip, acid-washed jeans you've been saving since the '80s are not going to make a sudden stylish comeback. Even if you do someday manage to fit into that size-6 skirt you've hung onto since high school, there's no way it will still be considered fashionable.

If you need a wardrobe overhaul, there's no better time to clean out your closet than now, says Melly Kinnard, author of books including Get Organized.

"If your closet's out of control, your life is probably out of control," she says. "When everything in your closet is a mess, it can be an overwhelming and frustrating way to start the day."

If you think of home as your refuge from the work world, a fortress shielding you from the rigid organizational demands of business, Bunky Lundberg has some bad news for you.

"There has to be a pretty businesslike approach for running a home," says Lundberg, a mother and grandmother and owner of Chaos Cancelled in Denver. "The management of the home is awfully important."

Three Barbies are sold every second of every day, and most of them are on the floor of your daughter's room. Every night, your foot meets yet another Lego structure in the dark. Your child owns 5,692 puzzles, each of which is missing at least three pieces.

So what's a parent to do?

Susan Isaacs Kohl knows — she wrote the book on it: How To Organize Your Kid's Room. The operative word is organize. Neatness naturally follows organization, but a room can be sparkling clean and woefully disorganized. And that's an invitation to a disaster area.

"The whole idea is to facilitate their activities," Kohl says. "It's about making life easier for your kids so they can find things easily."

Organization takes time. Begin by consulting our experts' tips below.

Closets

Size up your clothes. Ask yourself the following questions — and be honest here:

  • Is it a great color on you?
  • Are you proud to be seen in it?
  • Will you wear it again?
  • Have you worn it in the past two seasons?

If you answer "no," box it up and donate it to charity.
Think quality rather than quantity.
  • Buy fewer, more expensive pieces and beware of bargains.
  • The extra space you'll save keeps clothes from being jammed together, which means you won't have to iron and steam them as often.

Now get organized.
  • Think about your closet like a department store and hang clothes by category. Next, hang each category according to color.
  • Take out everything that doesn't fit — no need to be depressed looking at too-small clothes — and box them up.
  • Use each inch of space for storage containers such as shelves and plastic boxes.
  • Good lighting is important — no one wants to get to work wearing navy when you thought it was black when you got dressed.
  • Use hooks or a pegboard to organize bags and jewelry. Get everything off the floor that you possibly can.
  • Keep a list of clothes you need so you don't end up with six black shells when you really need only one or two.
  • Shoe storage depends on your closet space. If you have a small closet, use shoe bags or trees. If you have a big closet, use plastic shoeboxes so you can easily see what you have.

Garage


  • Establish priorities. If you want a lathe or a workbench, find the longest wall of the garage and clear off the space. If your goal is to park your car, work on the central clutter first.
  • Get rid of anything you don't need. Be brutal. If the child who used to ride that bicycle now lives on his own, ask him whether he wants the bike at his new home. If he doesn't, give it to charity or sell it.
  • Sort what remains and put like items in the same place. Round up garden supplies, sports equipment, seasonal items, small tools and hardware and items of sentimental value. Figure out the best area in the garage to store each category for appropriate accessibility.
  • Professional organizers often offer free consultations and make money by selling and installing their storage products. You can find phone numbers under "Garage Cabinets and Organizers" in the Yellow Pages.

Kids' Rooms

  • Involve your children in the process. The more they help, the more they'll want to help.
  • Help your children customize their rooms according to their interests and abilities. Toddlers need to have open bins or shelves to encourage them to put things away, while preschoolers are starting to dress themselves but have a hard time opening drawers and reaching high closet rods, so low rods and open crates for clothes are best for them.
  • Create activity areas, starting with a basic four: grooming, play, rest and work. Put bedtime storybooks and a soft light on the nightstand — whatever helps your child to relax and unwind. A work area will contain a desk or a table, office and art supplies, a good light and perhaps a bookshelf or a computer.
  • Add other centers that reflect your child's needs and interests, such as a stamp-collecting area, a building corner with bins full of Legos, an art area with drawing and painting supplies or a dress-up center with a mirror and costumes.
  • Help your teenager sort through clothes and weed out things that don't fit or never get worn to donate to charity.
  • Use inexpensive see-through plastic bins to help your child group things. Avoid toy boxes in which everything gets junked together.

Kitchen

  • Before you begin, strategize. Save time by grouping "like" items in the same pantry or on the same shelf or in the same area — i.e., place mats near the silverware; flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and baking soda; coffee filters and accouterments with the company sugar bowl and creamer; plastic sandwich bags with brown paper bags for lunch.
  • Put things you use all the time in the waist-high drawers. Review what's eating up all your space. If you have a dozen vases and use only one, give some away.
  • Avoid counter clutter. Look into appliances that attach to cabinets underneath — and deep-six the cutesy decorative items that do nothing but take up space.
  • Revolving racks for spices are good if you have counter space. Otherwise, maximize the space in the cabinets with plastic tiers that you can buy at container stores.
  • Consider whether you have storage space before you buy a small appliance, especially if you'll use it only once a year.

Office

  • Designate a space in your home as the office if you haven't already done so — ideally, you'll need a desk.
  • At the desk, create a sacred place where you keep your bills so they won't be misplaced and paid late.
  • Set two dates a month when you'll pay bills. Schedule those days in ink on your calendar or put them into your PDA.
  • Open your mail near a trashcan. Don't let the piles keep growing. Make a decision right away.
  • Create a filing system. Start by deciding what you're going to keep. If you work with a tax-preparer or an accountant, ask him to give you guidelines on what you must keep and what you can toss. Organize papers by category. For example, group personal items together, including vital records, warranties, etc.; finances and investments; taxes and insurance; and lifestyle, such as newspaper and magazine clippings or material on travel and vacations.
  • Allow yourself a couple of hours every week to spend in the home office, keeping the piles down and the files sorted. Time commitment will vary from person to person, and don't assume you can do it all at once. As with other areas of the house, organizing takes time.
  • To find professionals who can guide you, see "Organizing Products and Services" in the phone book.

Upholstery

  • Vacuum your upholstery with an attachment, pulling cushions out to get underneath them.
  • For minor stains, try a mild solution of Woolite and water, along with a damp cloth. Test a small area first before attempting to remove the stain.
  • Hire a certified technician, if necessary, to steam-clean the upholstery for you.

Woodwork

Doorjambs, cabinets and windowsills acquire a dirty glaze of fingerprints over time, says Tammy Wood of Extreme Cleaning in Arvada, Colo. Built-in shelves, paneling and baseboards also need annual cleaning to prevent dust from building up in crevices.

Wood offers these instructions:

  • For a cleaning solution, combine a quarter-cup of white vinegar with three to four cups of hot water in a bucket.
  • Wet a rag with the solution and wipe down all woodwork, drying it with a second rag.
  • Follow with lemon oil furniture polish. Use a clean, dry cloth to polish woodwork. Don't use lemon oil on wood floors, as it will attract dust and make them slippery.

Dusting

  • Start at the top of each room and work down. Sweep a telescoping duster across high window ledges, ceiling corners, drapery rods and crown molding.
  • Clean the ceiling fan. Turn it off and use dry paper towels to knock off as much dust and lint as you can. Follow by spraying an all-purpose cleaner onto a fresh paper towel and wiping the housing and blades clean.
  • Dust the tops of books with the feather duster.
  • Clean knickknacks with a cleaning spray, wiping well with a rag. Use a detail brush to clean crevices.
  • Vacuum the floor when dusting is complete.

Carpets and Rugs

Clean your carpets at least once a year. If you have pets or heavy traffic in your home, or if someone smokes, clean more often, according to www.a2zcarpet.com, a website that provides carpet-and-rug-cleaning information to consumers and professionals. For carpet-cleaning do-it-yourselfers, here are recommended steps provided by www.a2z rpet.com and other cleaning experts:

  • Remove odor with Liquid Alive, a ready-to-use spray contains that an enzyme that eats uric acid, or similar products if pets have soiled your baseboards or carpeting.
  • Rent good equipment and use good-quality cleaning chemicals.
  • Remove as much furniture from the room as you can. Lift draperies off the floor.
  • Protect the carpet from rust stains by putting aluminum foil, wax paper or plastic wrap under furniture legs until the carpet is dry.
  • Vacuum the room, then follow the instructions provided with the equipment.
  • Allow carpet to dry completely (six to eight hours) before moving furniture back into the room.

Window Cleaning

  • Buy the correct tools: A 12-inch strip washer made of lamb's wool, a T-bar holder that it will go on, a six-gallon bucket wide enough to accommodate the strip washer and a squeegee with brass handle, are good things to have on hand.
  • Fill the bucket with hot water and a drop or two of dishwashing liquid.
  • Wet the stripper in the bucket, wash the window and scrape the wet surface off with the rubber squeegee, from top to bottom.
  • Use a sponge or a paper towel to wipe up any water at the bottom of the window.
  • For second-story windows, hire a professional to do the cleaning. Flexible extension handles are hard to use on the exterior of windows and can cause electric shock if they come into contact with power lines.

Blinds

Most blinds are made of aluminum, vinyl, fabric or wood, so cleaning methods can vary. For routine cleaning, you can vacuum across the slats with a dust attachment or wipe them with a lamb's-wool duster.

To clean:

  • Firmly wipe fabric or vinyl slats with a rubber dry sponge to remove dust and residue. (These special sponges are available at hardware and paint stores.)
  • If fabric blinds are very dirty, remove them and have them cleaned by a dry cleaner.
  • For most other blinds, remove them and take them outside to your patio or driveway, laying them on a scrap of rug or padding to prevent scratches. Put a few drops of soap in a bucket of water, wet a sponge and clean the blinds from side to side. Rinse gently with a garden hose, tilting the slats so the water will run off. Drape the blinds over a fence or a couch to dry.

Top Cleaning Products

Consumer Reports often tests cleaning tools and liquids, occasionally comparing them with good old-fashioned standbys. Area janitorial suppliers also have their professional-grade favorites. Here's a list:

  • Best floor mop: A string mop and Mr. Twister wringer — Nothing beats a mop and pail.
  • Best all-purpose cleaner: Now — This biodegradable, nontoxic, nonfuming concentrate can be diluted for carpeting, glass, mirrors, countertops and cabinets. At full strength it works as a degreaser and grime-cutter, removing grease from stove hoods and old wax from floors.
  • Best miracle cleaner: OxiClean — OxiClean Active Stain Remover Spray was rated by Consumer Reports as very good for cleaning up dried mud in carpeting. The Oxiclean that comes in a tub was good at removing scuffmarks on tile and soap scum from ceramic tile.
  • Best odor remover: Fresh Wave and Ecosorb — These nontoxic removers are produced as a Fresh Wave gel and candle and a liquid called Ecosorb. Bob Gooding at Walter Industrial and Sanitary Supply says they're powerful enough to remove overwhelming odors such as cigarette smoke or pet odors from rooms.
  • Best carpet cleaner: A professional with truck-mounted steam equipment — If you want the cleanest carpet, hire a professional with truck-mounted equipment. When it comes to appliances, the Hoover Steam Vac F2, was rated the best for cleaning up the most water, compared to other rental equipment.

(by Lesley Kennedy, Marty Meitus, Jay Dedrick, Lisa Ryckman and Janet Simons of the Rocky Mountain News.)

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