Cleaning Out Six Years of Storage

Today was Veterans Day in the U.S. and WWI Armistice Day in France. The kids didn’t have school and we decided it would fun to go through all the stuff we stored at our cottage when we moved away six years ago.

Oh my. It was a mess! We knew this already because when we spent the summer in France three years ago, and checked in on our stuff, it had already been invaded by field mice. That summer, we didn’t have the time or energy to deal with it — so we ignored it.

But now, we have a rental house with an attic for storage (and we’re purchasing another house that also has an attic for storage). Both are more secure than our rustic little cottage, so I felt confident about tackling the project.

We couldn’t really remember everything we had put in storage. I remembered there were a couple of Christmas boxes. Ben Blair remembered there were tennis rackets. Ralph remembered there was a guitar. But that’s about it. So it was definitely fun to go through each item and have a rush of memories wash over us.

When we originally stored these items, we put them in the outbuilding at the cottage, and locked the door. We put wood pallets on the ground, and then a huge thick plastic water trough on the pallets. We put our items in the trough, and then covered everything with a few layers of vinyl tarp. At the time, we figured we’d be back a few times each year and would be able to easily access anything we needed — we were definitely not thinking the storage would go untouched-by-humans for 6+ years!

The good news: Even with the field mice using bits of anything soft to make nests, we were still able to salvage 90% of everything we stored. The other good news: in all that time, no one had ever tried to break in and steal anything. Human-wise, it was totally undisturbed.

The bad news: even the salvageable stuff was dirty and musty, and in some cases moldy. Each item had to be individually cleaned and it took us all day. But that’s okay — it was good, satisfying work.

Some of what we found:
– Boots! Lots of boots. Enough to fit all five of us — plus 3 pairs that are for younger kids. This was great news! After the mushroom hunt, I was thinking we might need to go buy boots, and now we don’t have to. Most of the boots are in excellent condition, but a couple have cracks in the rubber because they were flattened in storage — we should have stuffed them full of fabric or paper or something that would help them keep their shape.
– Books, games, and puzzles. Some in French. Some in English. And mostly in good shape, though I think the books may always smell a bit musty.
– A bin of marbles.

– A vintage doll bed, and a newer doll stroller. The stroller has some stains that I’m not sure how to get out.
– Big glass jars and pitchers and a vintage milk can. (We already put the milk can to use at the market today.)
– A bunch of stuffed animals. A couple had to be tossed, but we ran the rest through the washer and they’re doing great.
– Our Christmas stockings. I was worried these would be eaten, but they weren’t! They all need to be vacuumed and aired out, and there’s a knitted one that needs repairs, but overall, they weren’t in bad shape.
– A box of Christmas decorations. They were in a cardboard box that was totally untouched by pests (not sure why). The outside of the box had a thin layer of mold, but the inside was still pristine. So we just transferred everything to a fresh box and put it in our attic with the rest of our Christmas storage.
– A really cute vintage bike! I had forgotten about it.

– An acoustic guitar. A kid-size electric guitar (and mini-amp). A trombone. All of these were in hard-shell cases and were in good shape. We just had to scrub the outside of the cases. Both guitars need new strings, so we’re looking for a repair shop.
– A drill with a French plug! We’ve already put this to use. (We brought our U.S. drill, but the electricity is a different voltage here and even with adaptors, some things don’t work.)
– A few small furniture pieces we picked up at vide greniers (community yard sales) when we lived here before — like two stools, and a little vanity mirror.
– A step ladder.
– Tennis rackets and tons of tennis balls.

The saddest loss: A beautiful wool blanket we’d bought in Ireland was completely decimated. I’m so sad I didn’t just give it to a friend before we moved. Oh well. At least it made soft beds for baby mice. : )

If I was doing it again? The palettes and trough weren’t as beneficial as I would have guessed. We would have been better off buying airtight rubbermaid bins and storing everything inside. And though I remember we gave away a ton of stuff before we moved, we should have just given it all away, and shipped anything we really cared about to Oakland. But of course, hindsight is 20/20 — we had no idea all this stuff would be in storage for six years or we would have approached things differently.

How about you? Have you every “temporarily” stored something, thinking it would only be a few months, and then it ended up being years? What was it like to eventually go through your storage? Did you discover treasures? Or junk? Do you have strong opinions for or against storage units and storing things? I think I’m becoming progressively more and more against storing things when you move. (But that’s a topic for another post!)

P.S. — The big plastic trough was originally purchased as a backup plan for Oscar’s baptism because we weren’t sure if we would be able to baptize him in the nearby river.

25 thoughts on “Cleaning Out Six Years of Storage”

  1. When we moved to Japan almost 10 years ago, we thought we’d only be here about 5 years. So we put a California king size bed frame and mattress in storage, along with some boxes of old math textbooks and notes than my husband thought he might want later. Well, nearly 10 years on we know that we won’t move back to the States until my husband retires, and now that bed has been storage so long I don’t think it’s usable. We haven’t even seen it. Heck, we weren’t even there when the movers took it and stored it. I wish we had just sold the bed. And my husband says he should have just chucked the math books. Even though he is a math teacher, he knows he won’t ever need those ones again. And every time we go back to the States, we talk about how we need to go just close that storage unit down. But yeah, hindsight is 20/20.
    We hope that his job will take us to Europe in the next 5 years, and our big decision then will be what to take and what to sell/junk. Storage won’t be an option. Which is probably for the best.

  2. Our stuff is all in the storage unit, of course we got it for a few months only, now it’s been 5 years and the cost has gone up by more than £50 a month in that time! I’d dearly love to go through it, sell or give away most of it and just keep the few things that are important to me, but it’s such a big task and we have no transitional space in which to sort through it, that I just can’t face it. I wish I could find a way to deal with it, we could really use the money we’re spending on it. I’d definitely hesitate to store stuff again.

    1. I think it’s darling too! My kids are past the doll stroller stage. So now I have to decide: do I gift it to someone else and they can give it a new life? Or do I save it for future grandkids or young visitors?

      1. Could we do a whole discussion on this topic: save for future grandkids or not? This seems to be the crux of many of my organizing decisions right now.

        1. I think that’sa great idea! It’s a big conversation in our house – my husband wants to save everything, and I try to think about what I even liked that belonged to my parents/grandparents. (A little bit that’s precious over a lot that wasn’t carefully considered?)

          And I think you can spray down the stroller fabric with vinegar and then hose it off – should be good as new and then you should donate it :)

          1. My mom saved some of my sisters’ and my toys. My three girls LOVE playing with it all when we visit. They also adopted two Cabbage Patch Kids with their clothes and accessories, and they fit right in, with an added special historical touch, to the rest of their toys at home.

        2. Oh my gosh YES. I am struggling with this right now, especially with my own toys that I saved for my kids and they’re done with. It was one thing when they were all at my parent’s house, but now?!

      2. I started a Grandma Trunk, in my Grandma’s vintage steamer trunk, about 10 years ago. ;D Saving, from my 4 kids, the most precious toys and clothes. Things that I thought would be timeless. Occasionally I add to it with new items. Also occasionally I give others baby gifts from it:) Now my kids will have original baby blankets, etc…
        My oldest is 22 now, and the rest are just 2 years behind the next, so I’m anticipating finally using it in just a few years:) The trunk lock is broken and jagged now, and its lining smells musty. I have decided to transfer it all to better storage. We live in a very humid climate so I’m going to utilize vacuum-seal bags to save things from mold too.
        As for storage…we’ve been a military family for 20 years now. We decided very early on that if it isn’t coming with us, it gets sold, donated, or thrown out. There was only once I went a little too crazy and got rid of all my yearbooks and dance pictures, much to the horror of my girls when they became teenagers. I sure wish I could show those to them. Overall though, I am soooo glad we’ve kept no storage, even as we’ve lived in Europe twice, Alaska and now Hawaii. Especially as we’ve heard from fellow military friends about their stuff they haven’t seen in a decade or items ruined or leaving something behind they now wish they had with them.

  3. Oh yes, over 20 years ago, I decided to take a temporary contract working as a registered nurse. I put all my furniture and personal belongings in storage because while that first contract was only 4 months, I had a notion that I might end up taking another short-term contract after that.

    The items ended up being in storage for about 3 years. When I settled somewhere and went to get them all out, I was surprised at some of the things I had saved. Nearly everything was fine (if a little dusty), but so many of the items would’ve been so easily replaced. I should have just given 80% of the stuff away and used the money I saved by not paying 3 years’ worth of monthly storage fees to buy new stuff.

    Ah well. Live and learn.

  4. If you’re willing to unpick the stitches take the stroller fabric off, a days-long soak in oxyclean (if they have it there) and water and then letting it dry in the sunshine should bleach out those stains. I used the same process for some vintage baby clothes my great-grandmother hand-stitched for my grandfather!

  5. When we moved cross-country about a decade ago, we knew it was a permanent move (location-wise) but weren’t sure about the housing situation. We were moving to a house half the size so a LOT of stuff was going to be destined for long-term storage. We decided that for 90% of the stuff, it wasn’t anything we couldn’t replace and we weren’t sentimental about it. We did an initial downsizing – whatever could fit on the truck went. The house we moved into was half the size we came from but had a walk up attic. We filled that attic and it remained mostly untouched for 6 months while we renovated the house. The stuff that we sought out during those 6 months stayed, the rest was sold off when we finished our renovation since we obviously didn’t need it. We’ve never regretted letting go of things.
    The majority of storage units are never visited, you’re paying for the convenience of not having to do the work of letting something go. I’ve been steadily cleaning out my mom’s place on each visit. She had an entire guest bedroom full of “toys for the grandkids” but grandkids don’t go to her house – she goes to them. She had a closet full of items my siblings had left when they moved to college, etc. I told her if they didn’t care about the items enough to store them in their own home, she shouldn’t bear the weight.
    It’s a process!

  6. Similar to the posters above, we moved from a townhouse to a one-bedroom apartment “for a year”, and that was 3.5 years ago. We stored some furniture and things like the beach umbrella, camping gear and Christmas decorations.

    We really do need a larger apartment, so I think I’ll be glad I saved the furniture. Most of it is family antiques, so while not very valuable, it’s useful *and* sentimental.

    But I’m definitely glad we have the storage unit for the beach stuff, camping gear and Christmas decorations. We are in and out of storage multiple times a year to access those items, and it’s worth it to keep the seasonal items out of our small apartment. I figure $80/month is significantly less than it would cost to upgrade to a 2-bedroom, so it’s worth it to us.

  7. Oy. A tender subject. I went to Israel to get engaged (to an American studying there whom I met in the US) and married, and we ended up there almost three years and had two of our so-far three children there. I stored all my stuff in my mom’s immaculate garage on industrial shelves. When we first got back, 1/3 came out of storage. Two years later, the next third. So now, seven years after storing my things, 1/3 remains in storage, including a collection of art and design books and magazines and foreign/independent films on DVD (and even VHS!) Hopefully our next living space will mean ALL of the stuff will have a spot.

    Thanks for sharing this story–it gives me hope that things CAN move on!

  8. This is fascinating, but I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because this makes you seem more human. (“Whoa! Design Mom stores stuff! AND critters get to it!”) Maybe it’s because I thought you had brought everything that you bought in France back with you to Colorado, and it contributed to The Anxiety Attack.

    Or maybe it’s because this feels new: writing and taking photos of what you stored, and what survived. It feels like the TV show Storage Wars, or the other TV show Auction Kings or even Antiques Road show. I like all of them.

    Or maybe we just like looking at each other’s stuff. That’s part of the appeal of design.

  9. My cousin and his wife stored all of their personal items that they had accumulated growing up and while working in three or four countries. It was mostly sentimental items and included all of their pictures of their kids growing up to that point. They had packed it in a seacan and paid a storage company to come pick it up. The storage company parked the seacan outside their lot and someone stole it that night.

  10. We live overseas right now but kept our house as a vacation rental. So, fortunately, we didn’t need a storage unit. We did sell quite a few items though because we originally thought we were going to sell our house and use a storage unit. Instead, we decluttered and boxed up personal items into our garage (away from short-term rental guests) and left the house furnished. Since we teach overseas, it is nice to come home in the summers to a place that is our own. I went through all the boxes this summer and it was so fun to see what we decided to keep. I am actually not upset with the few boxes in the garage that hold our winter clothing, a few kitchen items, camping/outdoor sports gear, tools, and holiday decorations. I am just glad I am not paying for storage. If I had to though, I think I would have downsized a lot more.

  11. RebeccaNYC (IG: mybackstageopera)

    My husband and I stayed in the same rental home near Uzes for about 10 summers in a row. We left a lot of stuff with a friend to put in their cellar for the following year. We put it all in two big Rubbermaid containers…clothes, linens, all sorts of stuff. (this way, we figured, we could get away without packing a suitcase if we just leave our clothes in France….good idea, right?) When we retrieved it the following year, everything was moldy…the clothes and linens were almost completely ruined, even after washing and drying in the sun they were stained. So….we had to go out and buy some clothes to wear that summer. Now we just pack our suitcases and forget about leaving things behind.

  12. We moved across the country about 3 years ago, and I ~still~ wish I had sold/given away nearly everything. While some furniture has been used in our current home, I realized later it is difficult to furnish a home, which you haven’t lived in or even seen with what was for another specific home. So when I move again, I will sell or give away as much as possible. I think every space is unique, and things don’t always fit.

  13. I don’t really believe in storing things. I think, stuff should be in use until it falls apart. My parents stored a lot of our beautiful toys from childhood and when they eventually gave it to my children, it was like the stuff that you stored: A bit smelly, stainy, but mostly: it was still great, but not what my children were really playing with, it didn’t match their interest. So after 2 years of trying to get my daughter excited about a wooden train set, I gave it to charity and now I think, that’s what my parents should have done years ago, when it was all in nicer shape. Things should be in use. I have one drawer in my room with letters and photos that have sentimental value to me, and I kept two of the tiny onesies of my premature child, and the dress my first born walked in the first time, and the dress she was christened in. Otherwise all the beautiful clothes and things that we do not longer need are living with other people now, and that feels great. I learned over the years that storing for me is like holding on to big baggage, life feels easier when I only own the stuff that I can see around me.

    1. Maike, I think your perspective is so wise. I have a hard time parting with things but then, when I keep things it weighs on me. A basement and attic full of things no one uses seems like a tragedy. It’s hard to admit we’ve moved on, or our interests changed, or maybe we just bought things by mistake.

      Please also be very cautious around mice infested items! There are good sources online to make sure everything is properly cleaned, or when you need to dispose of things!

    2. I love how relatable all of your posts are for me. And your readers comments/stories. All of my experience is already written here. The international moves and leaving the house as a vacation rental and the new house that doesn’t fit old furniture and the attic storage that fails some items and the things I got rid of that I wish I had and what to save for grandkids. The actual storage unit for long term remodels and shipping things around the world. All of it! One thing I would add is storage of old photos. I had some in a rubber maid bin on the floor in the garage in Hawaii and we had a rainy July that flooded the garage while we were in NY and the bin (plastic gets brittle in humid climates) had a crack and all the photos were ruined. Then I stored everything digitally new on a big hard drive and another July while we were in NY our house was robbed and that hard drive was gone. This was before cloud storage. So since then, I hired my college boys to make archives of everything we had left of photos. Now we can pull up a name and a year or a location and we can find our photos on drop box. They made some mistakes with locations and years but I can fix that one of these days. It served as a double storage of the link to their childhood and our history together.

  14. This is such a timely post. I’m responsible for cleaning out the huge, unfinished basement of my family’s home before it’s sold this spring, as my dad passed on and my mom is blind with terminal cancer. The basement has a mix of sentimental items (photos, letters, books), practical items (baby stuff from my first baby, furniture, sports gear, non-perishables in Costco sizes), and clutter. But… mold has recently become an issue, and I’m pregnant, and the mold removal company quoted a $30k remediation cost. Does anyone have advice on how to deal with moldy stuff? Can I salvage much, or is it all gone? How do I tackle this while pregnant? Any advice would be much appreciated ❤️

  15. Though many people love to save all of their children’s books as a library, I believe they should be shared among friends and relatives rather than saved in boxes from generation to generation. In those 15-20 years they are sitting in boxes so many other kids would have been able to enjoy the books that will most likely be musty after being stored. Save some favorites, but share the rest.
    My sister’s daughter was five years older so we got LOTS of hand-me-down books when she outgrew them. I then passed them down to our cousins, neighbors, friends who had younger kids and even teachers my children had so they could use them as classroom books.

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