There's a big difference between driving a car into a garage filled with a jumbled mess and one that is tidy and well kept. But not everyone can afford to, or wants to, hire a garage-organization company to turn the former into the latter.

And that's fine, says Donna Smallin, author of The One-Minute Organizer, because with extra time and hard work, homeowners can achieve some order on their own.

It's retaining the clean garage that's the real challenge, Smallin says. "Organizing is not a onetime project, it's a process," she says. That's especially true for the garage, where items not needed in the main part of the house often get stashed.

Following are tips on how to clean up your act and maintain a neat garage:

Take inventory. Before buying a single organization product, know what's in the garage to begin with. "We get [items] out of the house because we don't want them anymore . . . but we leave them in the garage. Go in and pick out things that you really don't need anymore," Smallin says.

Make the easy decisions first, says Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers and author of Organize Your Garage in No Time.

"Start with the things that are unemotional and you can easily pitch right away," he says. It's easier to pitch a broken VCR or the "10-year accumulation of National Geographics molding away in the corner" than items that have sentimental value.

Keep things that are still useful and relevant - and can be stored. For the tough decisions, ask yourself what's the worst thing that can happen if you get rid of it, he advises.

Those planning to unload unwanted items at a garage sale should try to start collecting things in one place, perhaps parking the cars in the driveway and using the center of the garage for a few days, Smallin says. Or donate the items to charity, getting receipts for tax deductions.

Those who just want to get rid of the stuff might check out, a Web site that helps people throughout the country hand items off to neighbors.

Think in zones. To find the best place to store objects, separate them by use, Smallin says. For instance, sporting equipment should have its own space, as should lawn-care items and car-washing supplies. "People are more likely to put things where they belong if it's obvious where they belong," she says. "If there's no organization, things get put wherever because it doesn't seem to matter." Items used most frequently should be the easiest to get to.

Shop for supplies. After planning where items will be placed, start thinking about which organization materials might be best to hold them. "I'm a big believer in hanging things in the garage because we're limited with floor space if we want to park the cars in there," Izsak says.

Those on a tight budget might consider peg boards to help organize, he says. Another common way to keep costs down is by reusing old shelving items from the house, including old kitchen cabinets and bookshelves.

The upside to purchasing cabinets specifically made for the garage is that they're often longer, Smallin says, allowing the homeowner to store more behind closed doors. She, too, advocates thinking vertically. Bicycle hoists keep bikes off the ground and can be purchased for about $35, she says. Smallin also likes shelving units that are mounted on the ceiling.

Thinking of redoing the flooring? Start with that job first. If it's painted with epoxy, for example, it will take about three to four days to dry, Smallin says.

Keep it clean. Go out to the garage and clean up every three months or so once the job is complete, Smallin says. Those who want a reminder might choose to subscribe to, a service that keeps track of a home's maintenance schedule. Smallin works as an organization expert for the company, which charges an annual fee to send e-mail reminders about jobs ranging from inspecting the water heater to flipping the mattresses.

The most important element of an organization project is follow-through, Izsak says. "The biggest reason for . . . disorganization [is] not a bad system, it's because the person didn't maintain the system."