Get organized to help in an emergency

As Florida and Houston deal with the aftermath of devastating storms, I’ve seen messages from good-hearted people on social media opening their homes to those who have been displaced. Countless people are affected by these disasters, and will be for weeks and months to come.

It’s a fantastic act of selfless generosity to open one’s home to someone in need. It also takes a lot of planning and organization. If you plan to have friends and/or family stay with you for an indeterminate amount of time — especially when they’ve lost so much — there are steps you can take to make the experience better for yourself and for them.

First, ensure how many people you can safely and comfortably accommodate. Everyone will need space to sleep, so count up bedrooms as well as couches, air mattresses, cots or sleeping bags. If using the latter, make sure that there’s an opportunity for privacy for all. Not everyone wants to sleep on the living room couch. Maybe you can make a rotating schedule. While you’re at it, make sure there is ample room for the belongings they will bring with them.

If you plan on accepting many people, you might even want to check with your municipality for advice on how many people can safely occupy your home.

Next, stock up on supplies. More people means more food, water, toiletries, etc. If you have time, buy these supplies before your guests’ arrival and designate a tidy an accessible place for storage.

Guests forget stuff at the best of times, and in this instance, they might not have the opportunity to grab essentials. Buy extra toothbrushes, disposable razors, extra towels and so forth and make them available.

Your guests will also have clothing to launder. Providing a few mini pop-up laundry baskets will allow guests to keep their dirty clothes out of their suitcases and transport them to and from the laundry area with ease.

Also make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit on hand, as well as some common over-the-counter medications, even pet food if your guests will be bringing a dog or cat with them.

Have phone chargers for various models available, as theirs may be gone, as well as a mini charging station. Make your Wi-Fi password available if you have one (you should). A crank-powered radio is also useful, especially if your own home is in or near a danger zone.

If you’re opening your home to people in need, our hat is off to you. If you don’t have that opportunity but still want to help, contact the Red Cross.

What would you do in a public emergency?

With the recent terrible attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, we thought here at Unclutterer that it would be a good idea to review some basic things to consider when faced with a public emergency.

Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the venue’s layout. Pay attention to the location of medical tents, first aid stations, washrooms, and escape routes. Also pay attention to dead-ends, you don’t want to become trapped in a space where there is no exit.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get the slightest feeling that something may be wrong, you need to listen to your instincts and act fast. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, such as a rapid increase in the crowds in your area or perhaps a suspicious loner that doesn’t seem to belong, it’s probably a good time to find the nearest exit.

If you’re caught in a crowd, think of it as a flowing river — swim with the current and slowly make your way to the edge.

Prior to the event, choose a meeting spot in case anyone gets separated from the group. Ensure everyone has each other’s phone number. It is helpful to have a contact outside the event that can be called to coordinate planning should something go wrong at the event. In large crowds, mobile phones get lost and damaged so being able to contact someone outside the event is helpful.

Take photos of your group or yourself if alone — share them with your friends at the event and your contact outside the event. If you get lost or separated, you can show a photo of your friend and say, “Have you seen this guy/gal?” Authorities will also want to know a detailed description of what your friend was wearing. Your memory may not work so well under stress so having a photo is helpful.

Now for what to do if something horrible does happen.

First off, stay calm. This is probably the hardest thing to do. With chaos around you, it’s human nature to panic and when we panic, we end up doing things that we normally wouldn’t ever consider doing (I knew someone that in an armed robbery started grabbing people and pulling them on top of her, something she was horrified for having done afterwards). As much as possible, try to keep your thoughts clear and practical.

Next, make sure you’re safe, and if as long as you don’t put yourself at risk, help others get safe too. In most cases, this means getting as far away from the situation as possible, but that may not be possible. For example, exits may be blocked or as happened in Charlottesville, there were so many people in the street and there was nowhere to go. After the Barcelona attack, my husband and I had a conversation about how we always know where we would go in case of emergency. We read evacuation plans in hotels and tend not to put ourselves in situations where there are limited exits. We also talked about how the intuitive way out might not be the best. For example, we live on the ocean. If something happened while we were on the beach, intuition would suggest heading inland, but it may be better to head out into the water where it’s less likely we’d be trampled.

Of course, once you are safe and away, let friends and family know that you’re fine. They’ll be worried about you. Facebook, for example, has a function that they turn on in such situations, allowing you to let all your contacts know that you’re safe and sound.

If you’ve had some sort of first aid training, or see something you can do without putting yourself in danger, do it. As I mentioned above about panic, in emergency situations it’s human nature to think of ourselves first and to maybe cause others harm inadvertently. Maybe the best way you can help is to get out of the way, but if you see someone suffering and it’s in your power to do something, take a deep breath and offer assistance.

When the worst of the situation has passed, find out what you can do to help. Whether it’s donating blood, clothing or food, or volunteering in whatever manner is being requested, it is actions that count. It’s all well and good to express your horror and support publicly via social networks and minutes of silence, but real assistance comes from doing something productive, not just making ourselves feel better with words and flowers.

In this age of social media, it’s important to remember to put your smartphone away and do not distribute images or videos of the tragedy unless asked to do so by authorities. Most of us are not reporters and it’s not our job to inform the world of what’s happening. When my father had a terrible swimming accident, I was shocked that I actually had to tell someone to get out of the way of the paramedics and stop gawking. And the man was hovering about with his phone, as if he wanted to take a picture or something. Watching the news about the Barcelona attack, I was horrified to see people taking selfies while the police were cordoning off the area. Remember that the person you’re filming is someone’s mother, brother, or child and imagine how you would feel if it was your loved one.

And finally, check your facts before spreading information. With news and rumors easily confused online, it’s important to take a moment and make sure that what you are about to share is real.

The Unclutterer site has quite a lot of information about emergency preparedness and I suggest taking a moment to check out our archives to make sure that you know what to do when life takes a tragic turn.

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

When emergencies strike, it’s important to have important medical information close at hand. It’s one of those things you usually don’t think about until you have to, but not thinking or doing anything about it ahead of time can cause you serious trouble. One way to keep this information organized and easily accessible is to securely store it on your smartphone.

If you have an iPhone or an Android device, the following information should help you:

iPhone

Apple has made organizing emergency information quite simple. To begin, open the Health app, which is part of the standard iPhone operating system. Next, follow these simple steps:

  1. Tap “Medical ID” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Tap “Edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
  3. Enter pertinent information.

There’s a lot of info you can list here, including any medical conditions, special notes, allergies, potential reactions/interactions, as well as any medication(s) you currently take. There are also fields for adding an emergency contact, blood type, weight, height, and whether or not you’re an organ donor.

At the top of screen, there’s an option to have this information available from the lock screen. If selected, your emergency information is just a swipe way from your iPhone’s lock screen.

This is useful should you have to visit the ER, but that’s not all. I recently had to have a prescription refilled and while at the pharmacy I couldn’t remember the medication’s name (nor could I pronounce it even if I had remembered it), so I simply opened this info on my phone and handed it to the pharmacist. “Wow,” he said. “I wish everybody did this.”

On Andriod

Storing emergency medical information is a little tricker on Android, but not impossible. There may be a field for this information among the phone’s contacts, but that depends on what version of Android you’re running. If it has an In Case of Emergency field in the contact’s app, be sure to fill in this information. But in addition to this, I suggest you download and use an app like ICE: In Case of Emergency. For $3.99, it lets you list:

  1. People to call in an emergency (and it can call them directly from the app)
  2. Insurance information
  3. Doctor names and numbers (again, it can call them directly from the app)
  4. Allergies
  5. Medical Conditions
  6. Medications
  7. Any special instructions or other information you wish to provide

Both of these solutions can be a convenience in any medical situation, especially emergencies. More importantly, this simple bit of organization can greatly help a first-responder when you need help the most. Take some time this week to set it up.

Organizing for disasters: your emergency preparedness supplies

What goes into an emergency preparedness kit? As Erin has noted before, FEMA can help you with this and the American Red Cross can help, too.

If you’re interested in creating your own kit, the following are three specific things to think about as you assemble it.

Food and water

You may have heard advice like: “A good rule of thumb is to have supplies for about 3 days, or 72 hours.” That advice comes from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. Both ready.gov and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have repeated that advice, recommending at least a three-day supply of water per person.

Other sources indicate that 72 hours worth of supplies is a bare minimum. The Southern California Earthquake Center, in its brochure “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Territory,” recommends that you have enough food and water for “at least 3 days and ideally for 2 weeks.”

FEMA’s guide entitled Food and Water in an Emergency (PDF) advocates for more supplies, too.

If an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days or even weeks. … Store at least one gallon per person, per day. Consider storing at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family. If you are unable to store this quantity, store as much as you can.

The American Red Cross has made a distinction between the supplies you need if you’re evacuating versus the supplies you need if you’re staying where you are. They recommend a “3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home.”

Emergency lighting

I’ve had clients tell me they were holding onto candles as an emergency supply — but that’s a really poor idea. As the CDC has indicated:

Home fires are a threat after a natural disaster and fire trucks may have trouble getting to your home. If the power is out, use flashlights or other battery-powered lights if possible, instead of candles. If you must use them, place candles in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire. Never leave a burning candle unattended.

I’ve heard people suggest getting a headlamp, so you can walk around with your hands free, which sounds like a good suggestion to me.

Landlines with corded phones

In day-to-day use, many of us rely on our cell phones, and many people are getting rid of their landlines. If you’re lacking power, a landline using copper wire, in conjunction with a corded phone, may work when no other phone will. Tara Siegal Bernard wrote in The New York Times about this in more detail. She noted that 911 services works better when the calls come through on a landline rather than a cell phone.

There are additional advantages to having a landline during an emergency. If your local cell phone network is overloaded after an earthquake, your landline calls might still go through. If you need to evacuate your home and you have a landline with an answering machine, you may be able to call home to find out if your power is back on; if the answering machine picks up and your home is still standing, your electricity is back.

Prep your tech for a weather emergency

Earlier this week, many of us here on the Eastern Coast of the USA endured hurricane Sandy’s assault. As a resident of coastal Massachusetts, I spent last weekend preparing for the storm. There’s a lot to be done, and you’ll find an excellent overview from the American Red Cross here. Now that the worst seems to be behind us in my particular neighborhood (I know it’s not this way for all those affected by the storm), I’ll share some simple tips I picked up from this event to ensure that your tech gadgets are ready to go the next time emergency strikes. Getting things organized ahead of time can lessen the stress of dealing with the event itself.

Charge Up

It’s likely that you’ll lose power during a major storm, so charge all of your devices ahead of time. When power does go out, unplug your devices, as it could be restored with a jolt. Also, if you’ve got a generator, it’s best not to run electronics like phones, laptops, and tablets off of it.

Keep it Charged

I live in a small town, so we lost power at the drop of a hat. Once it’s gone, it stays gone. A good backup battery is great to have on hand. iPhone owners should check out the Mophie Juice Pack. It starts at $80 and provides several hours of additional life to your iPhone 4 or 4S (an iPhone 5 version is under development). It’s a case that charges separately from your phone, and features an on/off switch so you needn’t use it until you need it. If that’s not enough, consider the Mophie Powerstation Pro, an external battery that provides even more power to your iPhone.

There are several options for Android phone owners, too, like the Samsung Galaxy S III Power Bank External Battery Case.

You can also extend your phone’s battery life by disabling certain features, like Wi-Fi (your router’s probably out anyway) and Bluetooth. Also, dim the screen brightness and avoid playing audio at a high volume. If your phone is set to check email automatically at regular intervals, turn that off, too. All of those processes drain battery life.

Store Important Documents

If you’re forced to evacuate your home, it’s helpful to have important documents with you, but not always practical. One solution is to store copies in the cloud. Evernote lets you store digital files remotely and access them from nearly any Internet-connected phone, tablet, or computer. Simply scan your documents or take photos of them. Create a new notebook in Evernote (I suggest the name “Emergency Documents”) and add the digital copies.

Find Some Useful Apps

The American Red Cross has released several great apps for both the iPhone and Android devices. For this storm, I installed one called Hurricane App. This free, full-featured app provides tips on preparedness, push alerts for your area and so much more. You’ll even get location-based NOAA weather alerts and can monitor alerts for far away regions of the country where loved ones are. There’s even a flashlight, strobe and alarm included.

iPhone owners who are interested in NOAA weather radio should check out NOAA weather radio app for iPhone. It provides live NOAA weather broadcasts for a huge variety of locations across the USA. A crank radio is best, as there’s no battery to exhaust, but this works if you have power on your phone.

Back It Up

Back up your computers, tablets, and smart phones before the storm hits (you’re doing this anyway, right?). It’s nice to have a backup in your house, but inadequate if that’s all you’ve got. Create remote backups with a service like Crashplan, Dolly Drive or Carbonite.

Go Social

Finally, keep an eye on social media. It’s amazing how significantly these services affect our lives. You can follow The American Red Cross on Twitter for up -to-the-minute information. Also, look for relevant hashtags, like #Sandy.

Of course, the best advice is to follow the instructions of emergency personnel in your area. Be safe, be careful and be prepared. And our thoughts continue to be with those most affected by this horrible storm.

Workspace of the Week: Emergency

This week’s Workspace of the Week is [email protected]$’s office in red:

The color of the wallpaper reminds me of a fire truck. Everything is organized, similar to how it is on a fire truck, and in its place. I wonder if the colored magnets on the front of the red storage cabinet under the desk denote any information? I like the idea of the magnets meaning “to do today” or something equally valuable. All of the components for this office were purchased at Ikea and the space looks incredible. Thank you, [email protected]$ (I’m saying that as “Vegas” in my mind), for sharing your space with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Organizing pet information in case of emergency

My friend Elspeth recently lost her cat. The kitty is home safely now, but in the process of looking for her my friend learned a thing or two about how she could have been a better organized pet owner.

After her experience, Elspeth put together a list of emergency information and resources you should have on file if you have a pet:

  1. Have your pet microchipped and have on file the name of the company, the microchip number, and contact information for the company.
  2. Know the number on your pet’s rabies tag.
  3. Have documentation on all of your pet’s vaccinations and surgeries. Shelters and vets that take in lost pets will conduct blood tests to identify strays from non-strays. Knowing which vaccines are in your pet’s blood and locations of scars can help in identifying your pet.
  4. Take pictures of your pet at many different angles and of all unique pattern markings. Have these images in digital format. Many states and shelters will post pictures of lost pets online and you’ll want the pictures to print fliers.
  5. Most agencies will only allow you to report a pet that has been missing for more than 24 hours. Find out which agencies take these notices (usually shelters and animal control) and have their contact information in your address book.
  6. Even if your pet lives primarily indoors, you still need to have a collar on your pet with identification. Break away collars are best for constant wear so that your pet doesn’t accidentally choke himself/herself.
  7. Keep contact information for how to post messages to your neighborhood e-mail listserv and Craigslist community.

Ultimately, it was a couple who found the cat and also saw one of Elspeth’s posters on a bus stop in the neighborhood. We hope that you never lose one of your pets, but if you do, you’ll be prepared by having the above information at your fingertips.

Organizing for disasters: supplies that work and some that don’t

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have been devastating to so many, and my heart goes out to anyone affected by these storms. My dad lives in Florida, so I followed Irma-related news pretty closely. (Thankfully, my dad is fine.)

I got many of my updates on Twitter, and I noticed two themes that might help anyone who wants to be prepared for potential disasters in the future.

Candles are not your friend.

Lots of people noted they were lighting up their candles as they lost power. But both public safety organizations and other experts kept saying, over and over again, that candles are a bad idea. The following are just some of the warnings:

  • The American Red Cross, South Florida Region:
    Use flashlights in the dark. Do NOT use candles.
  • Florida State Emergency Response Team:
    If there is loss of power, do not use candles or open flames as a light source.
  • City of Tallahassee:
    Flashlights, headlamps, etc. are better options for light if you lose power.
  • Miami-Dade police:
    Use flashlights if the power goes out. DO NOT use candles, likelihood of a fire increases.
  • Dr. Rick Knabb, hurricane expert at The Weather Channel:
    Millions expected to lose power. Don’t run generators indoors – carbon monoxide kills. Don’t light candles and risk a fire.
  • Florida Department of Health:
    If the power goes out, don’t light candles in your home. It’s a fire hazard that can be avoided by using battery operated lights.
  • Plantation Fire Department:
    #SafetyReminder If your power goes out, utilize FLASHLIGHTS instead of CANDLES!
  • Oviedo, Florida police:
    Use flashlights if the power goes out. DO NOT use candles, the likelihood of a fire increases
  • Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator, now in Gainesville, Florida:
    Hurricane #Irma, don’t use candles / open flames during the storm when the power goes out. The Fire Department doesn’t need more emergencies.

And the Miami Herald has a list of 7 stupid things we do during a hurricane that can get us killed and using candles is on that list.

So forgo the candles, and load up on some combination of flashlights, headlamps, battery-powered lanterns, and plenty of spare batteries. Some people like to include glowsticks in their emergency supplies, too.

A corded phone just might be your friend.

Key West lost most of its connectivity (cell phones and internet) after Irma, but reporter David Ovalle found a way to get the news out:

My savior. Patricia on Eaton St in Key West had a relic landline that worked after the storm, allowing me to call story after storm

Firefighters also used line to call their families. Her friends chided her for years. She has no cell, still uses an answering machine!

And someone else got good news via landline: “Random woman in Key West that still has a working landline just called me to let me know my parents are ok. #Irma This woman is my hero”

As Consumer Reports wrote, “A phone with a corded base can work during a power outage, as long as it’s connected to a conventional landline or VoIP service with battery backup.”

My internet service provider bundles a phone line with my internet service, and I’m glad to have it. Corded phones are relatively inexpensive, too. You might want to join me in having a corded phone in addition to a cell phone, just in case.

Disaster response is not a time for uncluttering

The tragic hurricane and flooding in Texas filled the news in the U.S. this week. And because so many of us want to help however we can, it’s a good time to remember that generally the best thing you can give is money, in whatever amount works for you.

Yes, sometimes relief organization will ask for specific donations, and if you’re in the area that might indeed help, if done well. As Kelly Phillips Erb noted in an article for Forbes:

Check with the organization first. While most organizations prefer cash, there are some soliciting in-kind donations. … Those wish lists may change as needs are assessed and storage for items may be limited. Check with the organization before you send or drop off anything.

I’ve gathered some examples of the wish lists I’ve seen lately regarding efforts to provide relief from the storms in Texas.

When Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio’s mayor, announced some donation collection sites, he was clear about what was wanted:

Nirenberg said that the city council offices will be used as additional drop off locations for donations. They will be collecting any food, new clothes, diapers, pet food and other supplies. The mayor wanted to emphasize that no used clothing will be accepted.

In another example, one of the shelters noted the donations they were seeking as of Tuesday morning:

As of 9:45 a.m., here is an updated list of items needed at the GRB shelter:

  • Toiletries – travel size shampoo, conditioner, soap
  • Wheelchairs
  • Bottled water
  • Individually packaged food
  • Pillows

We do not need additional clothing donations at this time.

KENS 5 TV noted the following wish lists:

Trusted World is looking for the following supplies: New underwear and socks (all sizes), non-perishable food, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, baby diapers, wipes and formula.

SPCA of Texas is looking for the following supplies: cat litter, litter boxes, towels, blankets, large wire crates, toys, treats, pet beds, newspaper and gas gift cards.

You’ll notice that most of the requested things are new items — not (in general) the kind of things you would bundle up from cleaning out your closets. Of course, there are a few exceptions. For example, if you live locally and you can safely get to a shelter that wants toiletries — and you accumulate all those little hotel bottles — this might be a great time to unclutter.

If you want some good insight on why unsolicited donations of stuff is a bad idea, CBC Radio has a great explanatory article, which begins as follows:

It’s called “the second disaster” in emergency management circles — when kind-hearted outsiders send so much “help” to a disaster zone that it gets in the way.

Unwanted donations of physical goods can divert important resources as people on the ground must deal with them — sort and store, for example.

If you live outside the disaster area and you really want to donate something specific, not just send money, you can look for organizations that have Amazon wish lists (or other such lists) and then purchase exactly what’s needed, knowing it will be shipped to the right people to handle your donation.

But otherwise, you might want to heed this thought from Alexandra Erin: “Relief donation tip: money does not have to be cleaned, sorted, stored, or inspected and can be turned into whatever resource is needed.” If you decide to go this route, there are many lists of organizations that would appreciate your support, including one from Texas Monthly.

Reader question: How should I store my fabric stash?

Reader Zora sent us the following question:

I sew my own clothing; I also quilt, make lace, crochet, etc. I have a 20 year accumulation of cloth, scraps, and supplies that is exquisitely organized (labeled boxes, labeled plastic drawers). If I had a dedicated sewing room, it would all fit nicely there. But I don’t. It’s all neatly stacked in the spare room, which I must clear out so I can rent it. Advice for fabriholics?

Zora, I understand the stash and hopefully can provide you with some help on this matter. I, too, sew and have a fabric stash. Fabric, yarn, fiber, thread, and canvas hoarding, along with pattern and supply accumulation is a common problem among fiber artists. (The most unbelievable stash I’ve ever seen photographed is showcased here. It’s a yarn stash, but the hoarding concept is the same.) The advice that I’m giving can be applied to anyone wanting to get his or her stash in order.

Mindset: There is not a limited supply of fabric in the world. Plants continue to produce cotton, worms spin silk, sheep have wool, and there are fabric manufacturers and retailers willing to produce and sell you gorgeous fabrics. If any of these processes cease to exist, you will have larger concerns than obtaining fabric.

That being said, it is ridiculous to assume that a serious artist will have no stash. A friend may appear at your door with a batik fabric from a trip to India. If you can’t think of a project to start immediately, you now have a stash on your hands.

Therefore, I suggest that your stash be a limited size. Determine the size of your stash based on two factors: 1. How much you can sew in a set time period (I suggest having no more than six months or a year of projects), and 2. How much you can carry in one load. If you cannot carry the whole of your stash, then it is too big. You would never be able to save it in an emergency if you couldn’t carry it, so why have more than you could reasonably save?

Future buying: Buy fabric for specific projects. Don’t buy fabric unless you know the exact length, style, and type that you need for a project that you will make in the next six months or year. I carry a list of my fabric and supply needs in a small moleskine notebook in my purse with me at all times. Resist all other types of personal fabric purchases. This is the hardest step in the process.

Organizing your stash: When I bring new fabric into my home, I immediately put it into a large Ziploc Storage bag. The pattern, thread, and all other necessary supplies for the project go into the bag, as well. I write the name of the project and the date the fabric was purchased on the exterior of the bag with a permanent black marker.

I measure fabric that is given to me as a gift and then put it into a Ziploc bag. On the bag’s exterior, I label the size of the fabric, its fiber content, who gave me the fabric, where it was purchased, and the date of the gift. I then actively seek out projects for that fabric.

Organizing your non-fabric supplies: I have two additional storage containers in addition to my fabric stash. The first is a thread organizer and the second is a tackle box for all of my other sewing supplies. I keep manuals and pattern books on my bookshelf and my cutting mat leans against the back wall of my office closet.

Getting rid of fabric: If you haven’t sewn a project in a year, evaluate if you’re actually going to make the project. If the answer is yes, it goes back in the bin with a re-evaluation date written on the bag. If the answer is no, get rid of the project in full.

After a project is complete, immediately get rid of scraps. You don’t have to throw the scraps in the trash (you may have more than a yard of scraps), but you need to get them out of your house. Scraps are clutter.

Here are suggestions for ways to de-stash projects, scraps, or large amounts of fabric–

  • Set up a Pay Pal account and sell it on your blog
  • List it on Craigslist or Ebay
  • Have a yard sale where you specifically mention that you’re getting rid of fabric
  • Freecycle it
  • Contact your local high school and see if the Home Economics department could use it
  • Donate it to charity
  • Let your sewing friends go through it and take what they want

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in August 2007.

Renting vs Owning a Home: The Eternal Debate

Back in 2006 when I left Canada, I sold my house and thought I’d never buy another one again. The place had been a fixer-upper and my father and I had invested a lot of time and money into it (nine years to be exact) — just in time to sell it.

I know that home-ownership is supposed to be the holy grail of the (North) American Dream, but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to ever get back into the cycle of renovations, repairs, and mortgages. It took a bit of an attitude change because as a simple search on Amazon suggests, mortgage-free home-ownership is what we are all supposed to aim for.

But I knew couples who had been renting for over twenty years and they had more disposable income than I’d ever had. When something went wrong in their place, it was the building owners, not the renters, who had to pay for it. Renters also knew exactly how much they needed to pay every month without any sort of surprise costs like a new roof or plumbing repairs.

That sounded good to me.

Generations ago in Ireland, my father’s family were renters. Yes, they owned property, but they never lived where they owned. They used the extra income from renting out the place to rent something better for themselves. And while they had those emergency expenses that any homeowner had, they considered it as a part of running a business, rather than intruding on their lives directly.

When I settled in the Basque Country, I was convinced that renting was for me. Although it irritated me a little bit that I couldn’t do up the place exactly as I would like, I was pleased to no longer have the temptation to enter into constant rounds of renovations like my parents did. They cycled through the house I grew up in, redoing one room a year, and I can’t count the number of times they completely remodeled the garden.

When my parents died a few months apart from each other then eight months after that my mother-in-law passed away, my husband and I found ourselves with a chunk of money. Given the volatile nature of the markets at that moment, investing did not seem like a good plan.

So, we got back into the home-ownership market, not just once but twice, buying a flat where we live full-time plus a second one in a sunny part of Spain. However, this second time around, owning a home is different from the first time.

  • We chose to live in a tower instead of a detached home, meaning emergency expenses are shared by the whole building and in a recent case, spread out over three years.
  • Our flat is half the size of the (small) house I had in Toronto, and is just the size we need.
  • Renovations happened quickly, before we moved in.
  • Mortgage payments are less than the monthly rent we were paying.

The second flat we bought (mortgage-free) has a double purpose, one as a weekend and summer retreat, and the other as a retirement emergency fund in case one or both of us needs to go into a nursing/retirement home. While medical costs are covered here in Spain, there is a big difference between public and private retirement residences. With the money from selling off the second flat, we will be able to live out our final years in comfort.

My siblings, however, took other routes: my sister invested in a large rambling country home and my brother sold his house and sunk the money into his girlfriend’s place, turning home-ownership into a type of romantic commitment.

When deciding if renting or owning is for you, just as with any project you undertake, it’s imperative you consider your priorities. In this case, the questions that can help you decide which option is better for you include:

  • What type of financial situation do you want to be in? Fixed or variable costs?
  • How important is it to you to put your personal stamp on the space you live in?
  • How much space do you really need? How much do you want to maintain?

The New York Times, has a good rent vs. buy calculator. I plugged in the original numbers for our primary residence and the results confirmed that buying was the right option financially, as we would be paying about three times the amount in rent each month as we do with the mortgage.

Are you a renter or a homeowner? Do you know which is the better option for you financially? Or are there other factors (emotional, familial, etc…) that led you to choose?

Book review: Unf*ck Your Habitat

Note: Some of you may take offense at the title of this book, in which case this is not the book for you. But if you’re fine with the title, you may enjoy the book and find it useful.

When people talk about their messy homes, they’re often talking about two related challenges: organizing and cleaning. Unf*ck Your Habitat by Rachel Hoffman deals with both of these as part of the ongoing process of creating a pleasant home.

Hoffman focuses on creating a “functional and livable home that you aren’t ashamed of or stressed out by, “not one of the “picture-perfect” homes you often see in magazines. And her advice applies to someone living in a dorm room or renting a room in someone else’s home, not just those with their own apartments or houses.

You won’t find any radically new organizing advice here, although the advice provided is good. Some examples:

  • We’re disorganized primarily because we have more stuff than storage. There are two solutions: less stuff or more storage. Less stuff is almost always the better option.
  • Your everyday items should live someplace where it’s just as easy to put them away as it is to leave them out.
  • When you’re getting rid of stuff, don’t make it someone else’s problem. … If something is broken, outdated, or no longer useful, you’re just passing the buck on ending its life cycle when you know good and well that it was time for it to get tossed or recycled.

Hoffman advocates doing your organizing and cleaning in a series of 20/10s, one or more per day, where a 20/10 is twenty minutes of work followed by a 10-minute mandatory break. But here’s something I really liked: She says that if 20/10 doesn’t seem right for you, go ahead and make it 45/15 or whatever works better. If you have energy limitations, she suggests that 5/15 may work better. And if your physical limitations mean that 5/rest-of-the-day is all you can handle, that’s okay, too.

Hoffman is a compassionate realist. She admits that cleaning is not fun and that “there’s no magic solution to the problem of disorganization.” She expects you might backslide into messy ways, because forming the new habits needed to keep your home in decent shape is hard. She writes, “The only way to really succeed is to not give up at the first setback (or the second or fifth or tenth), and to keep trying until it sticks.”

There’s a useful chapter on dealing with roommates, spouses, and significant others who don’t share your cleaning and organizing goals. And the chapter entitled “Emergency Unf*cking” gives a practical plan on how to respond when you need to make your place presentable, fast.

Unf*ck Your Habitat is a quick and easy read. It won’t give you lots of detailed advice regarding how to organize your clothes, your files, etc. But it just might inspire you get going, even when your home feels like a total disaster.