Everything in its place

If you've been ignoring that mess in the basement or attic, here's a plan to make order out of chaos.

January 17, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

There comes a time when every homeowner, faced with decades of accumulated clutter, decides to set his basement on fire. The wise alternative at this point is to seek help.

"Basements are a catch-all," says professional organizer Bonnie Blas, whose business, the Organizer, is located in Baltimore. "People throw stuff down there and assume they'll get a chance later to clean it up."

Over the years, my basement -- and maybe yours, too -- had become the dumping ground for the general overflow of a too-small house: the unorganized books, the used tennis balls, the discarded furniture, the yard-sale items, the cat food, the cleaning supplies and all the detritus of our lives.

In January, the urge to turn over a new leaf and have things organized is strong. It was time to call in a pro. For me, help arrived in the shape of 6-foot-2 Andrew Lowrey, president of Precise Home Management. After all, paying someone to tell me how to get organized might motivate me actually to get it done. I found Lowrey's Mount Washington-based company in the Yellow Pages under Organizing Services, and I picked it because one thing my basement needed was some precision.

For the reasonable sum of $45 an hour -- about what a tennis lesson would cost, and half the cost of an hour of psychotherapy -- he promised to help me reduce the stress caused by a chaotic environment.

A Brit by birth, Lowrey worked as a butler and then an estate manager before starting his own business eight years ago. As I led him through the kitchen and down the basement stairs, which are lined with bookshelves, he complimented me: "You've put your cookery books on shelves near the kitchen. Good." (He politely didn't mention the fact that the bottom shelf had fallen, so books and canned goods were now stacked on the stairs.)

Items like my cookbooks should be where they are most convenient, he said, "instead of where they are most conventional."

We reached the bottom of the stairs, and Lowrey looked around. I expected him to dredge up the old "If you haven't used it in the last year get rid of it" rule. But no, when he finally spoke he said, "If people are like me, they can't bear to give things away. It's very personal."

When we got down to specifics, he suggested holding on to the outgrown toys and games. (Puzzles with missing pieces can go.) Toys have become so collectible these days, he said, that it would be foolish to give them away. "And toys and games are part of a family's history."

Who knows what my daughter's Monopoly game in its original box will be worth one day? But such things need to be stored neatly. Lowry suggested creating separate boxes for each family member's personal items to make them easier to find when you want them.

He likes using storage boxes with inventory lists for organizing. You can buy heavy-duty cardboard boxes from moving companies or shipping businesses such as Choice Parcel Service, or invest in large plastic boxes with lids and handles from discount or home stores such as Kmart and Hechinger. Store like items in the same boxes. "Like items together" seemed to be a cardinal rule here.

That applied to the books that were stacked haphazardly everywhere, from paperback mysteries to my husband's World Book encyclopedia from the 1950s. Get them in order on shelves, Lowrey said, by putting books of various categories together. It sounds obvious, but who really does this unless you're told to?

When Lowrey looked in our furnace room, he blanched. On shelves not too far from our furnace we've stored half-empty paint cans from the last 25 years. We should store flammable substances like turpentine and oil-based paints away from the heating system, the hot water heater and all other sources of heat, he told me.

I had the uncomfortable feeling the whole basement was about to burst into flames -- just when I no longer wanted to set fire to it.

I'm not sure why we kept the cans anyway. Most of them no longer bear any resemblance to what's currently on the walls of our house. I found out why when Lowrey told me they can't be just thrown into the trash can. Paint cans fall in the category of household hazardous waste and need to be disposed of accordingly. It was easier for my husband just to keep them.

When you're ready to get rid of yours, call your local recycling or solid-waste office and find the date of the next household hazardous waste program. For us Baltimore city dwellers, it will be April 24 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Memorial Stadium and Polytechnic Institute parking lots.

Here's what Lowrey suggested we do with some other things that are cluttering our basement. His advice can be applied more generally:

* Discarded furniture. Over the past 25 years, whenever we've bought a new piece of furniture, what it replaced has been lugged to the basement: A truly ugly but still functional chest of drawers. A sleep sofa. A couple of pieces of youth furniture that my daughter outgrew. All of it could be useful to someone, but not us. What to do with it?

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