A basement was crammed with books, clothes, odds-and-ends. It was hard to walk. Junk was piled everywhere. So the handyman assignment was APPARENTLY to throw out the junk, keep the good stuff, and organize it for easy access. What’s the toughest problem here? It’s the MIND of the homeowners. There’s a contradictory instruction here. Here’s one way to solve this problem with handyman psychology to help homeowners get control over their basement and their lives.
I’m a handyman. I fix stuff. And my phone rang one day and I heard something like this:
“Tom! My basement is out of control! It’s packed with stuff so nobody can find anything! Can you help me please?”
But the first thing that any respectable handyman should think, after hearing such an appeal, is: WATCH OUT! This is a contradictory instruction. The homeowner wants (1) an organized basement but also wants (2) to keep stuff. These are opposing goals. Realize the homeowner is a human — yes, humans do such stuff. It’s part of our DNA. I know it’s in my DNA too.
Humans have opposing tendencies. One tendency is to keep only what we need; this is a smart strategy for travelers and those who like to keep their houses and apartments clean and tidy. It requires discipline. But there’s a risk of throwing out something which may be needed later, perhaps requiring re-purchase. The opposing tendency is to hoard stuff since it MAY be valuable at some future point, possible for re-sale or for personal use. Most people gravitate to the middle — we throw out some stuff, we keep some stuff.
But it’s possible for hoarding to get out of control. There are numerous rationalizations — we bought it for $20 so we should get $20 to give it up. Sounds rational, right? (But it’s not rational; the item is used and older and therefore less valuable. And there are expenses required to sell it at a premium. No, it’s not worth $20.) Other rationalizations for hoarding: throwing it out is wasting money … it might be valuable someday ,,, maybe Uncle Joe will need it. (We can even hoard generalizations about why hoarding is good.) But what is harder to see is how it gets expensive keeping things. We can’t find the few things we really need if we try to keep everything. We know intellectually that we’re keeping stuff unnecessarily, but emotionally, we’re attached to things.
So the “help me organize my basement” plea is problematic. If I throw everything out, I will solve the surface problem but possibly alienate my client because I will be throwing out their valuables! I will be the bad guy. If I do nothing, my client will still be unhappy.
So, the secret is to get the homeowner to throw out their own stuff.
I use three strategies.
- First, I reassure my client that they will have total control over what, if anything, gets thrown out. Rather, what I will do is move things in a way to enable this process. And here’s the psychology: I propose to store their stuff in strong black 3-millimeter thick garbage bags outdoors. I’m not throwing out anything. I’m merely moving it. This clears the basement. And the homeowner can then go through the contents of each bag and decide what to keep and what to throw. The bags will keep out the rain and snow. But the beauty of the bags is this: it helps the homeowner see clearly that the hoarded stuff is, indeed, garbage. It’s in a garbage bag. It looks like garbage. It has that garbage-y feel. It’s not far away from real garbage cans in the driveway. So, hopefully, the homeowner will throw most, if not all of it, out. Will it work? I don’t know, but the homeowner agrees to the plan.
- Second, I propose Wheeled Wonders — movable storage shelves — which is a fun project to focus the homeowner’s mind on the organization process. They’re shelves with wheels on the bottom. That way, they’re easily moved around the basement. They’re mobile. Heavy piles of boxes and bins keep people from looking in to them, so they just pile on more stuff; in contrast, movable shelves are easy to access and control. I propose to build perhaps five of them. But there’s an unspoken premise at work here — the Wheeled Wonders can only hold so much. What I’m hoping is that the homeowner will realize that if stuff can’t be put in a bin on a shelf in a Wheeled Wonder, that it should be thrown out. Will this happen? I can only cross my fingers.
- Third, I will praise my client when I hear sounds which suggest trips toward the dump. The client says “I’m thinking this should go to the dump” and I say “YES! Great idea!!!” The client says “I think I’ll keep this,” I remain quiet. I say cute little mini-poems: when in doubt, throw it out.
I get the assignment. We’re in business!
I get two boxes of thick black 3-mil contractor trash bags. I work quickly. Here’s the basement. Books, anyone? I put them in black bags. I don’t overload the bag otherwise it’s too heavy to carry outside. I set up a work station to load the bags. A pile of black bags builds up in the back yard.
What’s I soon realized is that I’m not attached to their stuff. It’s just stuff. I have no financial or psychological investment in keeping it. It’s easy for me to examine it clinically and say chuck it out! So, why can’t I have this clinical detached feeling about my own junk in my own house? I’ll have to hire another handyman to de-clutter my own house! But back to my client’s basement.
Hangars. Never know when they might be useful. But they’re not. Into the bags they go!
Ooooh! What’s this? A “squeeze breeze” container. Squeeze the handle, a propeller turns, and one can be cooled with a fine mist. This is one of those must-have essentials for all humans. Was it an heirloom? Into the bag!
There’s barely room to walk. I bag stuff closest to the rear door.
Look at this book. It says “Incredible Century”. But pictures only go from 1901 to 1970. Hey! A century is 100 years, Mr. Unstead! This book begs to be thrown out!
Next, I visit the junk yard. I’m in luck! Discarded chairs! Wheels everywhere. If I buy new ones at Walmart or Home Depot, they’ll cost perhaps $5 to $10 apiece for good ones; these are free. And I’ll need at least four wheels for each Wheeled Wonder. I’m planning on making five WWs.
Some wheels don’t come off a chair. So, I take the whole chair base! And attach a frame.
What’s this being thrown out? A kids’ vehicle? Hey it has wheels. AND THE KEY IS IN THE IGNITION. Let’s joyride! Mentally I prepare “key in the ignition” jokes for my client. It’s important that clients laugh from time to time.
Back at my shop, I get 2×4 boards (yeah right — they’re really 1.5″ by 3.5″) which I have hoarded (hey — why are you looking at me — I’m using them now — so it was okay for me to keep them for three years!) in my garage. I cut them, and build them into square frames using strong screws.
I build shelves on the toy vehicle. Movable storage. Biggest expense? Screws and glue. Some boards I had to buy also. But this is inexpensive storage. It’s gassed up and ready!
The 5-wheeled chair frame is attached with spare plumbing braces. That yellow thing? Normally it holds plumbing pipes.
Built. It tilts a bit, but I adjust it later. A chair-frame based Wheeled Wonder (see the bottom), ready for delivery! Clear plastic bins will go in them so people can see what’s inside. And the shelves means that one doesn’t have to lift up a few boxes to see what’s in a box underneath. It’s all accessible.
I make more wheeled wonders using the junk yard wheels. Some attach with screws. Others I bore a hole for the stem of the wheel. The frame with two 2×4 boards is about 3″ deep so it’s strong and will hold either type of wheel.
Triangles make strong braces. They’re easy to cut on a miter saw angled at 45 degree angles. Keep the saw angled. Then flip over a board each time. Be careful to use safety braces to hold down the wood before sawing. The triangles are mini-braces to keep boards at right angles to each other.
Building another Wheeled Wonder. See the triangles? Many are glued on. That gets me thinking about the word “building” — why do people call buildings, buildings? Shouldn’t they be called builts? They’re finished, right?
Power tools can be loud, but hearing protectors keep out sounds I need to hear too. What’s the best solution? Hearing protectors WITH built-in microphone and speakers, with adjustable volume, so the sawing volume is lower, yet I can still hear regular conversation. Great invention!
Knotty problem. This hole is rather large. Will it weaken the board?
A quickie imperfect cheap-but-good handyman solution is: add a mix of sawdust and glue into the hole. My hands get sticky but I rinse them soon thereafter. The glue-soaked sawdust, stuffed into the hole, hardens into a strong clump which will strengthen the board.
So I bring the Wheeled Wonders to my client’s place. They go in the empty basement. My client is happy to have the space back. But they’re probably thinking — hey, I can stash more stuff down here now!
I “park” the toy-based Wheeled Wonder in another empty area. Nonchalantly, I say to my client: “and it’s easy to move this about your basement — the keys are in the ignition” to see if there would be a laugh. My big joke falls flat. I was hoping for a guffaw, a chortle, maybe even a knee-slapper; I settle for a knowing smirk.
And the pile of garbage bags in the backyard gets covered over with an additional tarp. It snows a few days later. But surprise! My client goes through the bags, diligently, one by one, and throws out much stuff! How much? I don’t know yet (I haven’t been back) but with five Wheeled Wonders, I bet the basement will be usable and clear for perhaps a few more years!
But nobody should expect an abrupt change in our habits. Throwers will throw. Hoarders will hoard. And us humans have both sets of genes in our DNA.
That’s what I keep finding all around me. We’re all human! We are the planet’s most amazing creature. We invent cool stuff. Would a squirrel ever invent a “Squeeze Breeze”! No way. That’s why squirrels are boring. But then again, squirrels don’t hoard stuff, save perhaps nuts.
- Stair Repair — fixing a sagging stair in a 140 year old house (carpentry project)
- Handyman project: mortaring bricks to seal out rain — keeping rain out
- Swapping out a bathroom sink — plumbing project
- Tom’s Handyman Service of Northern New Jersey — advertisement for my handyman business
I also write on diverse topics. Here are a few:
- Mentally healthy mind — an exploration of human flourishing
- Dating and mating in the twenty tens — Advice for love seekers
- An American’s perspective on New Zealand — Travel account
- History of citizenship in the United States — explores citizenship from 1700s-present
- Amazing humans: Dr. Karyn Marshall — biography of weightlifter turned chiropractor
- Fifteenth Reunion — romantic comedy screenplay