Digging myself out of the basement


Round baskets are a less traditional choice for shelf storage, but I find the shape, color and textures too appealing to pass up. Rattan riverside baskets (from $178 at www.shopterrain.com). (TERRAIN)
April 4, 2012

I have hated my basement for years.

We don’t have water issues or problems with bugs. The space is large, it gets natural light and the finished portion will eventually be the perfect playroom for our daughter.

But then there’s the storage area, a 15-by-20 unfinished space that houses the washer and dryer, water heater, a half-bath and a second refrigerator.

It’s also home to boxes of books, bikes, exercise and home repair equipment, outgrown baby items, furniture we no longer use, holiday decorations, leftover paint and piles upon piles of everything else we have no other place for. Retrieving something from this area typically requires equal doses of hunting, digging, sweating and cursing.

I have decorated and organized every other inch of our home (some rooms multiple times), but when it comes to the basement, I’m paralyzed. Each time I go to tackle this space, I take one look and come up with a thousand other things I need to do instead.

“Terri,” my husband said recently after spending an excessive amount of time in the basement searching for the bicycle pump. “This is absurd. We’ve become hoarders.”

“Oh, stop exaggerating,” I said, not because I thought he was but because I was trying to make myself feel better. But he was right: It was horrifying. And we had avoided the issue long enough.

At the recommendation of a friend, I contacted Alejandra Costello, an Arlington-based certified professional organizer and productivity coach. Costello, who teaches people how to organize their homes and lives through an online program as well as a series of YouTube videos, was recently featured on HGTV as one of the nation’s most organized people .

When she arrived at my house, I gave ample warning of the visual assault she was about to encounter as we headed toward the basement.

“Oh my goodness, it’s not that bad at all,” she said, laughing, while assessing the space.

She pointed out that I was focusing on all the negatives of the space (the unfinished walls and ceiling, the disorder, the general dreariness), rather than concentrating on the positives: the size of the room, the rows of shelves and a wall of pegboard (which was obscured by shelving).

She also said the size of the project was probably overwhelming me, and she guessed I had a mental block. Then she said something that really hit home.

“If you’re a perfectionist, you can sometimes think of a space in terms of: It’s either going to be a complete mess or magazine-worthy beautiful.”

As we continued talking, I realized something: I knew exactly what I wanted to do in the basement (a gut job and complete remodel), but I also knew it was very low on our house priority list.

“If the space ultimately won’t look the way I want it to,” I wondered out loud, “why should I waste my time working on it at all?”

“If that’s the case,” Costello said, “you need to make your expectations more realistic. Determine your definition of perfection and agree to meet yourself halfway.”

Lowering my expectations is not something I ever do comfortably, but in this case, it’s a necessity. My compromised plan: Organize now, upgrade later.

To get started, Costello suggested I use painter’s tape on the floor to divide the space into smaller sections, sorting through each section completely before moving to the next. Be ruthless when deciding if you have to keep something, she said, and organize what’s left by grouping like items together, such as baby, sports, holiday, tools, etc.

Some other quick fixes Costello recommended: Paint the stark white brick walls a color that I love. Extend the existing shelving from floor to ceiling and get matching bins or baskets — with labels — to place on top. Delineate the laundry area with cheery carpet tiles or an area rug. And install a desktop in front of the pegboard wall to create a work space for gift wrapping or my sewing machine and supplies. She also said I should consider painting the pegboard a different color than the walls.

“It’s about making the space beautiful and efficient with everything easily accessible,” Costello said.

For the first time since we moved into our house almost seven years ago, the thought of my basement, with rows of orderly shelving and matching baskets in its near future, excites me. With my perfectionist tendencies now in check, I have a game plan and a self-imposed deadline of the start of the summer.

The bonus: I’m eager to get started.

When I’m done, my basement may not be ready for a photo shoot, but it will make me, and my husband, less stressed and more happy.

And locating that bicycle pump should be a piece of cake.

Pretty organization

Professional organizer Alejandra Costello suggested several items to help me with my basement project, including self-adhesive wheels ($15 at www.containerstore.com) to make heavy boxes easier to move, vertical storage pockets ($35 at www.simplystashed.com) to contain sports equipment in one convenient spot and a reusable label system ($30 at shop.nackit.com) for identifying the contents of bins and baskets.

More advice for your home

Chat Thursday at 11 a.m.: Get organizing advice from Alejandra Costello

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