House Hunting Trip, part 2

In House hunting trip, part 1, we discussed how to prepare before you leave your current home. Here are a few more tips.

Before you leave home

Take measurements of furniture that will be moving with you. Ensure you know how big your credenza, chesterfield, and large screen TV are. If you’re moving appliances, measure those as well. Keep this information on a spreadsheet either on paper or on your laptop. You don’t want to buy a house that your furniture won’t fit into.

Pack a tape measure in your suitcase. You’ll want to be able to measure room sizes and spaces to fit appliances. Most real estate websites only list approximate sizes for rooms. For example, they will state that a room is 10ft by 12ft when really it is 9ft 10 inches by 11ft 11 inches. Those few inches might make a big difference when trying to fit a large piece of furniture. You may also need to measure the width of doors and windows.

You might also want to take a laser measure for determining the size of large spaces like open basements, garages, and even fenced in back yards. They are also handy for measuring smaller rooms because sometimes people’s furniture is placed so you cannot accurately use a tape measure.

Note taking equipment (pen, paper, clipboard, etc.) is essential on a house hunting trip. You will likely look at so many homes you won’t remember which house has which features. It is helpful to print out the real estate listing with the address and a photo of the house and write details about the house on the reverse side.

A camera is also an essential tool but be organized in taking photos and videos. Think of how they make a movie. At the start of filming, they use a clapperboard to show the name of the upcoming scene. When you are house hunting, take a photo of a piece of paper with the address of the house. Then, take photos of outside, and inside the house. At the end of the showing, take a photo of something completely different (yourself, your car or even just blank paper) to indicate the end of that set of photos/videos. It will be much easier to separate one set of house photos from another — especially if many of the houses are similar in colour and design.

On arrival

On the first few days of your trip, visit as many houses as time allows. Don’t hesitate to cancel a showing if you know right away a house will not meet your requirements. (One time, we arrived at a showing and realized the house was directly below the flight path to an international airport. After we heard the noise of the airplane overhead, we didn’t even bother going inside the house.)

Here are a few things that you might want to think about to narrow down your choices before you call in a home inspector who can inform you of structural issues with your potential new home.

Location

What is the noise level like? Are you close to train tracks? Are you underneath a flight path? Is there a busy thoroughfare for emergency vehicles (loud sirens) nearby? If you’re moving into a multi-unit building, what is the soundproofing like?

What smells? Are you downwind from a farm or a local dump? Are there any factories nearby that might create smells from time to time? If you are looking at a multi-unit building, can you smell your neighbours cooking dinner?

What can you see when you look out windows? Are you looking at factories, rail yards, or derelict empty lots? Who could look back and see in your windows? Remember to think about what you will see when the trees lose their leaves or if they have to be cut down for any reason.

Traffic

Are you near a bar, restaurant, or event centre (theatre, concert hall) that becomes boisterous in the evening? If your house is on a route between a bar/restaurant and major public transit stop there may be people walking past or heavy traffic making lots of noise after the venue closes.

Will a nearby school create traffic problems that make it impossible to get out of your driveway at school start and finish times? If your house is on a route from a school to other community services (recreation centre, shopping area, playgrounds) it might mean kids marching past your house all afternoon.

House orientation

An east facing master bedroom window will let in a lot of light first thing in the morning — not ideal if you like to sleep late. Avid gardeners will want to ensure that the yard gets sunlight during peak growing season. Those in snowy climates will want to check wind direction to ensure that they won’t have to shovel deep snow drifts right in front of the garage door. Don’t hesitate to use the compass app on your smartphone to help you figure things out. Try to visit the house on a sunny day and a cloudy day to check light levels inside and outside the house.

Household chores

If you are going to be living in this new home, you are going to have to clean it. You might not like that gorgeous chandelier over the large, open stairwell if you have to rent a scaffold to clean it every few months. A yard with lots of shade trees is nice until you spend every autumn weekend raking leaves. Likewise, that sloping driveway might add a touch of class and elegance until the first ice storm turns it into an Olympic-like bobsled track.

Watch for home staging tricks

Staged homes may be so uncluttered that they seem incredibly open and spacious but remind yourself that real life never looks like this. Think about how small the living room would look with your large sectional and several toy boxes.

Pedestal sinks make bathrooms look larger but then storage and usability are a challenge. How easy would it be to shave, do your hair, and put on make-up in the morning with no counter space?

Other tricks for giving the illusion of space include strategically placing mirrors, using smaller sized furniture, arranging furniture diagonally in a room, and removing closet doors and doors between rooms. Always measure, measure, measure so you ensure that your belongings will fit comfortably in your new home.

Some dubious tricks have been used by home stagers as well. These include strategically placing rugs and carpeting to hide damaged flooring, hanging unique art pieces to divert your attention from leaks or cracks in walls or ceilings, or hanging curtains to hide old or rotting window sills. Take a moment to look a little deeper and if you see any of these issues, bring them to the attention of your home inspector.

How it flows

Imagine your typical day living in the home. If you and your partner are using the walk-in closet at the same time, is there enough room? Do you need to assist children with their brushing hair and teeth? If so, can two or three people fit in the bathroom at the same time?

Do you and your family members cook meals together? Make sure you can all work comfortably in the kitchen. Ask your real estate agent to pretend to load the dishwasher while you pretend to get a roast out of the oven. Then see if there is still room to have someone chop vegetables at the counter at the same time.

Is there enough space in the entryway? It might be summer when you visit a home but think about winter coats, snowsuits, and muddy boots. Will there be enough room to store everyone’s things? Consider the design of the home. Will you have to track through a snowy, muddy entryway to go from one area of the home to another?

Is the laundry area convenient? If hidden away in a dark, dank corner of the basement, it might be difficult to motivate yourself to get the job done especially if you have to carry heavy laundry baskets up and down two flights of stairs.

If you have children or pets, take into consideration their safety requirements such as doors at the tops of stairways (or the ability to easily install safety gates), spacing between banister rails in older homes, secure fencing in the yard, etc.

Outlets and vents

Take a moment to note the locations of power outlets and heating/air conditioning vents. Are there enough power outlets and are they at the right locations? You might want to ensure you can plug in both your coffee maker and toaster in an accessible area in the kitchen. Likewise, you may wish to ensure there are power outlets in locations where you normally charge your electronic devices. Note locations for phone, cable, and internet connections as well.

If there is only one living room wall long enough to put your wall unit, make sure there isn’t a heating vent there. It is expensive to relocate ventilation ducts. Likewise, make sure you check the bed placement in relation to vents so that you won’t blocked a vent with a bed or end up with air from a vent blowing on you all night.

Rank your choices

Now that you’ve accumulated all of this information, you’ll be able to rank your home choices. Return to your top three or four choices for a closer look. Re-rank your choices if required and provide this information to your realtor and home inspector and proceed with the next steps in home buying (or renting if that’s what you’ve chosen).

Finding the home of your dreams in a short period of time doesn’t have to be stressful if you’re prepared and organized.

Readers are more than welcome to chime in with other tips and tricks they have for finding a home.

The Real Cost of Financial Clutter on the Road to a Remarkable Life

This guest post comes from Trent Hamm, the author of The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams. Be sure to check out his blog, The Simple Dollar after reading this truly inspiring piece.

Every time you spend a dollar, you sacrifice a bit of your future.

Five years ago, I believed the above sentence was foolishness. I was 24 years old, working at a high paying job, and about to get married to a wonderful woman. I had just spent almost ten thousand dollars on a wedding ring and an exorbitant honeymoon in Europe, and I was actively shopping for a new vehicle because, well, my current ride just wasn’t quite good enough.

Roll forward three years. I had $17,000 in credit card debt and literally not enough money to pay my bills. A good chunk of the debt incurred for that honeymoon still sat on the credit cards. My wife, son, and I lived together in a tiny apartment, trying to figure out what we were going to do next.

Everywhere I looked around me in that apartment, I saw stuff I didn’t need. Video game consoles piled high under the television, along with a small mountain of games for the consoles. Over a thousand DVDs. A gigantic television set that dwarfed our living room, looking almost comically out of place. A huge collection of Magic: the Gathering cards. So many books that half of our child’s bedroom consisted of bookshelves. Two nearly-new cars sitting outside.

And yet I felt empty inside. I held my child close, thinking about all of the things I wanted to give to him, but instead I had chosen to spend all of my money on stuff

Every time you spend a dollar, you sacrifice a bit of your future.

Today, not only do I believe deeply in that sentence, it underlines every choice I make in life. I turned that disastrous ship around, realized that all of that stuff was standing in the way of my passions and dreams, and in just two short years, I found enough financial freedom to do what I’ve always wanted to do: quit my nine to five job, stay at home, and focus entirely on my family and on my passion for writing.

The name of this blog, Unclutterer, really underlines the entire idea. Clutter exists in all aspects of our life, not only in the way we arrange items in our office and in our home, but in how we manage our time and manage our money. Clutter is distraction from the big picture, in every way, shape, and form. Clutter can even blind you and choke you if it grows out of control.

Financial clutter is a particularly insidious form of clutter, because it winds through so many aspects of our life. Much of the clutter in our office and home has a financial cost to it, meaning that we actually spent some money to create that clutter. The cluttering of our time is also financial clutter – if we waste our time on things that drain our money or don’t earn as much as we potentially can, we’re draining our financial plans of a great deal of vitality.

Here are six great steps that you can do immediately to reduce the financial clutter in your life – and begin to open the path to a truly remarkable life.

Calculate the true value of your time. Figure up how much you earn in a year. Now, subtract from that the cost of transporting yourself to and from work, the cost of work clothes, the cost of income taxes, and any other costs that your job foists upon you (like entertaining coworkers, for example). Now, figure up how many hours you actually work in a year, and add to that the time spent transporting yourself to and from work, the “extra” time spent working when at home, the time spent buying work-related materials, the time spent schmoozing with coworkers, the time spent on business trips, the time you “need” to spend unwinding after work, and any other time investments you make at work. Then divide the calculated amount you make by the number of hours you work for the year. That’s how much you really value an hour of your life. Know that number. Remember that number. It’s important.

Physically unclutter your living space. Go through all of your possessions and ask yourself whether you actually use it or not. Is it something that has honestly provided value for your life? Look for books you’ve not read, DVDs you’ve only watched a time or two, unplayed games, unlistened music, collections of things that you no longer feel passionate about, and so on. Gather up all of this stuff and estimate how much you’ve spent on it. Then divide it by the value of your time that you calculated above, and if you want to, divide that by 40 (so you can see this in terms of weeks). That’s how much of your life you spent working so you could have this stuff. When I first did this, I estimated that I had spent two years of work accumulating stuff I barely use.

The next step is to get rid of all of this stuff and make a clean break. Eliminate the stuff that you’re not using, haven’t used, and likely won’t use again. Get some degree of financial return out of this stuff in any way you can. Don’t worry about maximizing your return – you rarely will be able to make back the value of your time by seeking out a slightly higher return for the stuff. Then take that money and put it into the bank – it’s now your emergency fund so you don’t have to turn to credit cards when something bad happens.

Set some big goals – and remind yourself of them all the time. This is an effective way to unclutter your mind. Sit down and figure out what your true big goals are. My goals were to spend more time with my children and write for a living – that’s what I really wanted to do more than anything else. Your goals may differ, but spend some time really searching within yourself to know what they are. Focus in on just one, two, or perhaps three goals that really speak to the core of your life.

Once you’ve figured out what you’re really shooting for, let most of the other stuff in your life melt away. If you’re focused on becoming a full-time writer, don’t burden yourself with chasing promotions at work. If you’re focused on being a great parent, don’t spend your mental energy worrying about social obligations in the neighborhood. Focus in on your goal and use all of your energy to reach that goal.

The best way I’ve found of keeping on focus with the goal is to put visual reminders of the goal all over the place. My desktop wallpaper is a picture of my children, and I keep pictures of them everywhere. I also keep notepads everywhere to make it easy for me to jot down thoughts – and also to remind myself of my writing dreams.

Use the true value of your time – and those visual reminders of your big dreams – every time you consider making a purchase. Let’s say the true value of your time came out to be $5 an hour (it can easily be this low, even at a “good” job). You’re at the store and you’re lusting after buying a Nintendo Wii — it’s $270 after taxes. That’s 54 hours of your life spent working for someone else so you can buy something else to clutter up your home. Even better, that’s $270 (or 54 hours) taken away from your big dream.

This works well for small purchases, too. Is that latte worth an actual hour of your life spent working? Is one latte a week for a year worth 52 hours of your life — more than an entire work week? Might that $270 not go better helping you save to make that dream come true, perhaps by helping you build up the financial cushion you need to quit your job and follow that crazy dream?

Go through every. single. monthly. bill. Many of the bills you receive every month have some sort of extra fee in it. Look at your cell phone bill, for instance. Are all of those features something you really need to pay for, every single month? Figure out what you don’t need – what’s just cluttering up your bill – then ring up your cell phone company and get those “features” dropped. Look at your credit card bill. Is that finance charge ridiculously high? Call up your credit card company and request a rate reduction. If the first person you talk to says no, ask to talk to a supervisor.

Even better are bills you can eliminate entirely. We used to subscribe to Netflix, but we were scarcely watching two movies a month, so we cancelled the service. Now, if we get the itch to watch a movie, we just go rent one or download one — it’s far cheaper than the Netflix grind. We used to be members at a gym, but now we get most of our exercise at home or by jogging around the block, so there goes another substantial chunk of financial clutter.

Unclutter your debt. Make a list of every single debt you have — credit cards, student loans, car loans, mortgages, and anything else you have. Write down the total amount you owe and the interest rate you’re paying on that debt. Order them by interest rate. Then, each month, make the minimum payment on each of them, then make a substantial extra payment on the highest interest debt. When that debt disappears, move on to the next one on the list until they’re all gone.

The best way to do this is to create a “virtual bill” for you to pay each month. Figure out an amount that you can afford without too much hassle – say, $200 – and then each month give yourself a bill for that amount. That bill is payable to whichever debt is on top of the list.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Organize your medicine chest

Last year we shared some advice on organizing a medicine chest. Now that cold and flu season is upon us, I want to revisit the topic with a few more best-practice tips and tricks.

As Erin previously stated, don’t store medicine in the bathroom. Humidity isn’t good for many medicines and unlocked cabinets can be an invitation to curious kids (or nosy house guests). Instead, invest in a lockable cabinet that can be mounted in a closet or somewhere similar. You’ll find the rest of Erin’s great tips here.

In this post, I’d like to offer some tips on how to organize the items within your medicine cabinet.

First, round up those little cylinders that love to fall over, roll around, and make a general nuisance of themselves. I’m talking about lip balm, sunscreen, and the like. Clear acrylic canisters will keep them tidy and easily identified.

Next, round up small metallic items like bobby pins and tweezers and stick them to a bit of adhesive magnetic strip. It will save you hours of hunting around trying to find them.

Move “leftovers” into smaller containers. You don’t need to store the last four bandages in that gigantic cardboard box that is already falling apart! Move them into something like a zipper lock bag or coupon organizer. The same goes for cotton balls, cotton swabs, etc.

If you keep cosmetics in the medicine chest, consider these stick-on mini-shelves for the inside of the door to keep them organized and separate from medication.

Lastly, give the cabinet a good cleaning. Remove everything, wipe down the entire interior with sanitizing wipes, and properly dispose of anything that is expired or no longer needed. When that is done, re-arrange the contents based on how you live. Put oft-used items front and center while moving the stuff you rarely use on a top shelf. You’ll spend less time digging around.

This is tangentially related, but I keep a dopp kit ready to go at all times, with the following inside:

  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Shampoo
  • Mouthwash
  • Deodorant
  • Disposable razor
  • Shaving cream

That way I don’t need to tear the medicine chest apart to find these things in an emergency or when I’m packing for a trip.

Unclutterer’s 2017 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Practical gifts

Not everyone wants a practical gift, and what’s practical for one person might be useless for another. But for the right person, one of the following might make a great non-clutter gift. These are all things I own and find incredibly useful, so perhaps someone you know would appreciate them, too.

A gift subscription to the AP Stylebook Online

This can be a truly useful gift for the writer or editor in your life. I prefer the online subscription to the physical book because the search function is so useful — and because you can submit questions to the editors if you can’t find an answer to your question. (They usually reply quickly.) You also get updates throughout the year instead of just annual updates.

To purchase a gift, just order as you would for yourself and indicate you have a gift order during checkout. If the gift option doesn’t seem to be working, you can contact the help center to place your order: [email protected] or 800-353-6798 (U.S. phone number).

Really good kitchen shears

I’m not sure these Wüsthof shears are the ones I have, but they are pretty close. I use these all the time, both for cooking and for various other purposes.

An emergency kit for the car

Living in earthquake territory, I put a kit in the trunk of my car to ensure I have some critical supplies with me in case I get trapped away from home. I also got kits as gifts for my brother and sister-in-law when they moved to California. But a kit can be good preparation for all kinds of emergencies. You can create your own or buy one that’s already assembled. If you go for a ready-made kit, you can choose one with just the basics (food, water, ponchos, survival blankets, basic first aid supplies, etc.) or one that’s more comprehensive.

A TubShroom

I got one of these last year and it’s the best hair catcher I’ve ever used in my shower. It’s a little thing that makes my life a bit easier, and I’m glad to have found it.

Spurge item: really good binoculars

These Zeiss binoculars cost a lot, so they would probably be a gift for a special someone, or perhaps a gift from a group rather than an individual. But I got mine 20 years ago and I use them for all sorts of things: watching the birds in my back yard, getting a closer look at the performers at a play or concert, taking a good look at the top of a stained glass window in a cathedral, etc. The compact size makes it easy to carry them with me whenever I might find them useful. This isn’t a gift for someone who tends to misplace things, though!

Old favorites

There are some items we’ve mentioned before that would still make good practical gifts:

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Uncluttering the garage

When you’re deciding where to start on a whole-home organizing project, it often makes sense to start with the attic, basement, or garage — whatever space you use as secondary storage for things you don’t use very often. There are two reasons for this:

  • As you clear out the rest of your home, you’ll probably find things you want to move to one of these secondary storage places. Clearing it out first makes room for you to do those moves later.
  • You’re probably less attached to many things in these secondary storage spaces, so it’s often quick and easy to make some real progress.

I’ve been doing my own garage uncluttering project for the past couple weeks. I knew it was time when bags and boxes were accumulating on the floor, making it harder to get into the storage closets. The following are some things I’ve done:

  • Dropped off donations that were just sitting in the garage.
  • Donated some items I had thought I might sell, after realizing I hadn’t done that for years and was unlikely to do it in the future.
  • Recycled the box from my printer. It made sense to keep this for a while, in case I needed to return the printer, but that time has passed.
  • Tossed an old pre-packaged emergency kit that had somehow gotten moldy.
  • Put the lid to a kitty litter box in a dumpster someone let me use — it won’t fit in my garbage can — since I’ve now switched to using an unlidded box.
  • Took a box of packing popcorn my local UPS Store. I rarely package something for mailing, and when I do I’d use something other than packing popcorn.
  • Got rid of random items I’d saved because they might be useful sometime — but which I hadn’t used in years and couldn’t reasonably imagine needing in the near future. And they were all things I could easily get again, pretty inexpensively, if by any chance I did need them.
  • Moved my cat carriers out of the garage and into my front hall closet, per the post-wildfire advice I read.

Now that I’ve done this uncluttering, it’s easy to put away the things I just bought that belong in the garage: spare light bulbs and batteries. I could also find spots for things I’d recently moved to the garage from the house but hadn’t put away for lack of free space.

I’m not done yet — I still need to go through all the old paint, for one thing. But my garage is working a lot better now.

Want to join me in clearing out a space? A friend named Dinah just wrote that instead of joining NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) she would celebrate DiProProMo (Dinah Project Progress Month). That sounds like a nice idea that other non-novel-writers may want to adopt.

Backups aren’t just for computers

I’ve written prior posts urging you to have good computer back-ups, and I’ll take this opportunity to do so one more time. Here’s a reminder that fits the Halloween season:

?OOOOOooooooOOOOOOO
The ghost of future hard drive failure reminds you to back up your data
oooooOOOOOOooooooo
— Hannah A. Brazeau

But what I mostly want to discuss are two other kinds of backups you may need.

Backups of important paper documents

Some documents you might keep tucked away in a safe deposit box or a home safe, but there are also important papers that you might use regularly and need to keep close at hand. And those papers are susceptible to being lost or damaged.

Author Susan Orlean wrote about the following problem:

Had a small flood in my office. Some handwritten notes are now abstract watercolors. Fortunately I’d typed them up, but yikes.

And then there’s this sad story from Gene Young, who wrote about his Day-Timer:

I accidentally left my little book in my shirt pocket and it got washed and dried but good. My schedules were all in little bitty pieces.

Do you have any similar papers, where losing them would be a significant problem? One way to give yourself a backup for such papers would be to take photos of the important pages or to scan them, perhaps with a scanner app on your smartphone.

Backups for critical technology

Vince Dixon wrote for Eater about a problem that happened last May:

A Square service outage … lasting roughly two hours forced restaurants, coffee shops, and food carts around the country to turn away customers and lose sales, bringing into question whether relying solely on new technology and software to make business transactions is a good idea.

Nate Snell, the owner of one such business, learned his lesson:

He has emergency plans for greasy spills and fires, but was caught off guard by the technical glitch. “I don’t think we realized that the entire Square system nationwide would go down,” Snell says. “I immediately got on Amazon and ordered an old-fashioned [credit card] swiper.”

While this type of contingency planning is critical for businesses, it might also apply beyond the typical business environment.

Do you have any technology you use all the time that could cause a significant problem if it malfunctioned or became unavailable? I rely on my computer and its internet connection for a few things — sometimes a smart phone isn’t enough — and I once lost that connection for a couple days when someone drove into and destroyed a major piece of phone company equipment. Fortunately, my backup plan was as simple as taking my laptop to a local coffee shop — and making regular food and beverage purchases to compensate for using its WiFi. But if I had a desktop computer rather than a laptop, finding a backup solution would have been much harder.

If you rely on a mapping program to provide driving instructions, what would you do if that service went down halfway though your drive? Would you have another way to find your destination?

If you assume any technology might fail at any time, and then plan for working around any significant problems that could cause, you may save yourself some panicked moments in the future.

Organizing for disasters: thoughts after the recent fires in California

The horrendous fires in California aren’t close enough to my city to put me in any danger. But they sure got me thinking, yet again, about how we can be prepared if a disaster sadly comes our way. My latest musings are as follows:

Preparing with pets in mind

Julia Whitty just wrote about getting ready to evacuate if need be. She began her article with the following: “I’m waiting about 10 miles from the nearest fire front with bags packed, my cat carrier ready, and my cat locked inside with me.”

I hope Julia doesn’t need to evacuate — but if she does, I’m glad she’s prepared for both herself and her pet. I was heartbroken to read about someone who left her big Maine Coon cat behind when she evacuated from a hurricane because she didn’t have a carrier. And much sadder still are the stories of people who died going back to their homes to save their pets.

Gary’s article about evacuating when his apartment building caught fire had some good advice about keeping cat carriers close at hand. (He also inspired me to finally order some of those Pet Inside stickers for my home.) And Ileana Paules-Bronet wrote some good advice about evacuating with pets. I know people with multiple cats and just one cat carrier, used for taking a single cat to the vet. That won’t work in an evacuation situation.

Sheltering in place vs. evacuating

Because earthquakes are always a threat where I live, I think a lot about what I’d need if my community were isolated for a while, perhaps without running water or electricity. So I stock up on bottled water, nonperishable food, cat food and litter, etc.

But being prepared to evacuate is a whole different scenario — and the scenario also changes depending on whether it’s a localized problem (a single building fire, for example) or a larger one. If I had to leave immediately, I’d be happy to just get my cats and myself out safely. But if I had a bit more time, what would I want to take? There’s the practical stuff: medicines, food, water, laptop computer, a change of clothes, etc. Would I have room for any irreplaceable art and memorabilia? I think I’ll make myself a checklist so I won’t have to think about it if I ever find myself in the midst of an emergency situation.

And I’m going to re-evaluate the supplies I keep in my car. They were chosen in case I found myself stranded away from home during an earthquake, but it might make sense to add some things I’d want during an evacuation (such as some cat food) just to save precious seconds.

I was also grateful to find a home evacuation checklist with a number of good suggestions that were new to me, such as leaving interior and exterior house lights on to make it easier for firefighters to see your home in smoky conditions or at night.

Staying informed

Making sure you know when to evacuate (or otherwise prepare for an emergencies such as storms) is critical. While TV, radio, and social media can be helpful, it’s also useful to sign up for any emergency notification system your community offers. You can search for the name of your city plus the word “alert” to find what’s available, or you could ask your local officials. Fortunately, the text alerts I’ve received from my own local alert system have only covered major road closures, but I know I’ll be warned if anything more serious happens.

Procrastination and deadlines

Do any of the following words sound familiar to you?

  • Me every time: “Should I spend ten minutes completing this task now or stress about it for four days first? The latter seems good.” — Kelly Ellis
  • My most reliable hobby is spending an hour putting off a task that will take two minutes to complete. — Josh Gondelman
  • An hour is amateur. I’ve gone months. Years. — Helen Rosner, replying to Gondelman

I just cleaned my cat fountain, a task that just takes a few minutes but which I’ve been putting off for weeks. I finally did it because I knew I was writing this blog post.

For me, the most useful way to avoid procrastination on tasks of all sizes is to have a deadline or make a public declaration of intent. Last week I wrote about figuring out which of my keys are the ones I need, so this week I finally went to The UPS Store and determined which one opened the store’s front door. I’m in a book club, which gives me a deadline for reading at least 12 books per year. I just volunteered to host the next book club meeting, so I will definitely give the house a good cleaning before then.

Tim Urban did a TED talk on procrastination where he says that even though he’s a master procrastinator, things work out for him. As deadlines approach, his “panic monster” shows up, frightens off the “instant gratification monkey” in his brain, and he meets those deadlines. It’s not a pretty system, but it works. The problem comes with things that don’t have deadlines, so the panic monster never appears.

I wondered if maybe that panic monster can be activated for good even when there’s not a deadline. Those of us in earthquake territory, watching the news about the horrible hurricanes lately, might get inspired to begin creating or updating our stash of emergency supplies since we have no idea when the next major quake will strike.

Eric Jaffe, writing for Co.Design, says that some studies indicate that self-imposed deadlines don’t work to overcome procrastination, and this matches the thinking of scholars in the subject.

Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, one of the leading scholars of procrastination, isn’t surprised that self-imposed deadlines don’t resolve undesirable delays. Procrastinators may need the tension of a looming deadline to get motivated, but when that deadline is self-imposed its authority is corrupted and the motivation never materializes. “The deadline isn’t real, and self-deception is a big part of procrastination,” he tells Co.Design.

Jaffe goes on to say that Pyschyl and other researchers think procrastination isn’t actually a time management issue. Rather, the problem is the following: “Procrastinators delay a task because they’re not in the mood to do it and deceive themselves into thinking they will be later on.”

I’m not sure that’s why I procrastinate, but I do know that private self-imposed deadlines frequently don’t work for me. If I find I’m procrastinating on something important that has no hard deadline, I might need to create one by making that commitment known to someone else.

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?