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?
Check with family members first, said Lowrey. "Don't put people's noses out of joint. Tell them, 'Here's what's on offer. Come and take it.' Most important: Give them a deadline."
If your family doesn't want your discards, call your favorite charity. Many pick items up. Or offer them to a church or other place of worship. They would know families in need of furniture.
* Pieces that might be valuable. Years ago we inherited a couple of antiques -- a carved wood chest and a Victorian pedestal table -- that somehow didn't go with the rest of our furniture when we got them in the house. They ended up in the basement, but we've never figured out what to do with them.
You'll get more from antiques shops than consignment shops, Lowrey said. "If you've got the time to traipse around, go to several different places and see what they'll give you."
* Laundry-room supplies. Our laundry room contains the basics but no frills: a washer, a dryer, some clothesline. Here not only laundry supplies but also most of our cleaning equipment ends up in no particular order.
Separate cleaning things from laundry supplies, Lowrey told me. Hang brooms and mops up off the floor. If you don't want to invest in brackets, use two nails put close together for each handle.
He also recommended investing in a separate plastic laundry basket for each family member so the clothes can be folded in the basement and taken upstairs sorted. "It's a good way for children to earn pocket money," he said.
* Tennis racket covers. Do we ever use these? he wanted to know. Once a year, when we go on vacation, I told him. "Put them with your luggage in the attic," he suggested, which made sense. It's the "like items together" principle again.
* A set of no-longer-used golf clubs. There's a consignment shop for golfers called the Golfer's Outlet in Timonium, he told me. "For something that sits around doing nothing, you'd be happy to get $100 for them."
That principle applies to half our basement, and probably yours. A yard sale is in our future -- or, as Andrew Lowrey termed it in his fine British accent, "a car-boot sale."
The task of organizing my basement still seems paralyzingly large. But at least all of Lowrey's ideas seem doable, if I take them one at time -- and delegate some of them to the rest of my family.
"You're going to be amazed at how much space you have," he said encouragingly, and I find myself encouraged. Maybe I'll start with shelving the books.
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.
PRINCIPLES OF ORGANIZING AND STORAGE:
* Clutter is one of the enemies of efficiency and stealers of time. Control it.
* Place shelves near an entrance and allocate one to each family member.
* Sort stuff into several boxes labeled "To Keep," "To Trash," "To Sell or Donate," "Undecided." Don't try to find a place for everything until your items are sorted.
* Store like items in the same boxes -- one for photos and memorabilia, another for kitchen items, and so on.
* Label everything. Tape inventory lists to the fronts of cartons to identify their contents.
* Use clear plastic boxes for storage.
* Don't hesitate to invest in bins, shelf dividers and other organizing tools that can be bought at discount or home stores. The time you save looking for things will be worth the small investment.
* Use over-the-door organizers. If you can hook it, you can hang it. These are great space savers.
* Often-used items should be easy to reach.
* Like items that are needed at the same time should be kept in the same place. Keep sewing equipment for minor repairs near the washing machine, for instance.
TIPS FOR ORGANIZING A BASEMENT OR GARAGE:
* Place a rug at the bottom of the basement steps or garage door to help stop dirt from being carried further.
* Label the fuse box to identify each fuse or circuit breaker.
* Make sure your basement is well- lighted.
* Once or twice a year, go through everything. Don't let the area get out of control.
* Store flammable substances away from all sources of heat.
* Get rid of basement odors with activated charcoal from a hardware store. If charcoal doesn't do it, you probably have mildew growing somewhere in your basement.
* Clip the wanted articles from stored magazines and file them in a folder or a three-ring binder. Throw the remaining magazines out.
* Be careful about storing wine in the basement anywhere near your furnace. The fluctuation in temperature can harm it.