Stranger in my own home

The Thinker by Rodin

What is the greatest appeal of owning your own home? It took me twenty-one years to figure it out. It was not appealing principally because I hated having noisy neighbors above and/or below or next me, although some of them annoyed me a lot. It was not that I did not like what felt like arbitrary and capricious rent increases. It turns out the real reason I wanted to own my own home was having someplace to park my stuff more or less permanently.

The reason it took so long to figure it out is because it’s been that long since some of the stuff I am now sorting through has even been looked at. Of course, in the intervening twenty-one years that we have been in our house, we’ve also added considerably to our troves.  We did it because we assumed we would never move.

The day of reckoning has arrived. It’s not that we are particularly pack rats but we had plenty of space so why not use it? Things got bought or picked up then shuffled to other spaces, to maybe be periodically shuffled somewhere else. The shuffling process is still underway. However, now the intent is to shuffle of a lot of it permanently out of the house. That’s because my wife and I are both retired now and we intend to move, which means we have to sell the house. And that means we really must declutter the place. Oh, and fix it up and stuff.

Those of you that own a home know that fixing up a house is a never-ending experience. The fixing up part, not to mention the actual living in the house part, has consumed much of our twenty-one years in this house. With the exception of the doors, the entire exterior of the house has been replaced. Inside, the sump pump is the only appliance here when we bought the house and presumably is still in working order. The deck has been replaced and screened in. The kitchen has been enlarged and its floor propped up with a support beam because it was sagging. Carpets have been torn out and hardwood floors put in, but in other places carpets have been replaced, sometimes more than once. Walls have been moved, a bathtub replaced and even the basement windows are new and energy efficient. The kitchen floor has been replaced twice, the cabinets once, and the countertops twice, most recently with granite. There was no time or energy left to do much in the way of decluttering.

But now it simply must be done. Wherever we end up, it will be smaller than where we are now. And we won’t need a lot of the stuff we have now. We won’t need to cut the grass so we have got to dispose of a lawn mower, as well as an edger, grass seed, fertilizer and various insecticides and herbicides. We probably won’t need a tall ladder, but we may keep that in case we have cathedral ceilings. Some condominium association will handle the outside. We won’t need our huge workbench, and probably one of our bedroom sets can go as well. There are books out the wazoo, most of which we’ll never read again, magazines in some cases twenty years old, thousands of pictures stuffed into envelopes that were never filed or indexed, small appliances we never use, and various pet stuff. We’ll keep the cat condo, but I can’t see us having a hamster in our lives again, although we still have the cage and the shavings for the inside.

There is a freezer full of stuff in the basement, some of it that has been in there more than five years, that needs to be half as full as it is and maybe actually defrosted. The only good thing about our refrigerator dying over vacation is that it forced us to throw out a lot of food that we should have thrown out anyhow. It also made us clean the refrigerator top to bottom, the first time we did it in the five years we have had the appliance, and it would have been disgusting to clean even if it hadn’t died.

It all must be looked at and then we have to decide what to do with it. At least it falls into discrete categories: keep it, trash it, donate it or sell it. The natural tendency is to trash it. This is easy to do with small stuff. It’s the larger stuff that gets hard to dispose, like a mattress we slept on for fifteen years. Only once a year does our cluster have a large trash pickup, and ironically you can get in trouble for putting too much stuff on the curb. Which suggests at some point we’ll have to stage all this large sized stuff to trash in the garage, and hire some firm to haul it to the dump.

It helps to be ruthless when you declutter, especially with your personal stuff. I saved printouts and floppy disks of software I wrote in the 1980s. It meant a lot to me at the time, but yesterday I sent the printouts to recycling and put the five and a quarter inch diskettes with my impressive 1980s dBase III Plus and Dataflex code in the trash. Our file cabinets were busting at the seams. No wonder, there was ten years of Explanations of Benefits crammed in there, not to mention owners manuals for appliances in some cases two generations gone. Anything that looked the least bit sensitive went into a pile to be shredded, the rest went into general paper recycling boxes. Recyclables are collected weekly at the curb, but this was different. Every day I fill up a box or two of paper, cardboard or paperbacks that no one will want to read. Later that day or the next I drive three miles to the county recycling center and unceremoniously throw them in the recycling dumpsters.

Freecycle is a good place to get rid of stuff that is usable, but even those who are glad to take very used stuff for free won’t necessarily take boxes full of empty binders. Excess clothes including shoes are easily donated at Goodwill boxes at nearby shopping centers, but the better stuff should go to a consignment shop. Sometimes we’ll give away for free something that we might get some cash for if we had the energy to do a proper garage sale or a car big enough to haul something larger, like a used office chair. Mainly we are happy to give these to a good home if someone will just haul it away. Whether you give something away or sell it, it takes time to describe it, photograph it, respond to requests, and to actually hand it over.

My 2008 iMac went quickly for $75 on Craigslist. I underpriced it, so the next item I post there will be set more at a market price. The workbench needs to go but really can’t leave the house until our daughter does. That’s because it took two big guys to haul it in (it’s in one piece), and it only fit through the back door just barely. Her stuff from her college apartment is blocking the path to the backdoor, which is perhaps the reason why my wife has been needling our daughter to move out already. It’s time to empty the nest permanently, and just in time. Her room is very lived in, will need repainting and the carpet may need to be replaced as well.

We’ve kept up with painting reasonably well over the years, but there is more painting to do, and more things that must be caulked or patched. There is an original basement carpet coated in a lot of cat vomit that even the best carpet cleaners could not remove, so it has to be replaced. We have to decide how much to renovate the downstairs bathroom, if at all.

Which means we need to start interviewing realtors. We interviewed the first one today. Our house will need to be staged, she told us, which means at some point it will cease to become our home while we are still living in it. They’ll bring in some furniture and potted plants and ask us to replace some carpets and put in certain do-dads so that it shows right when the public is finally allowed in. We’re not so much selling a house as creating something that would not be too embarrassing to show on HGTV. In short, our house will be transformed into a surreal living space until it is inevitably sold, probably to some starry eyed couple with a couple of kids. Then all that staged furniture will be hauled out, we’ll move out, and the new owners will take possession. Doubtless it will soon devolve back into rooms full of clutter again.

We won’t see it then, of course, but I’ll be happy to hear about it when it happens. Because you don’t really have a home until the clutter arrives and it settles into storage bins and closets. For when the clutter goes, so goes the soul of your home. Any day now as we transform our home into a surreal space it will cease to be my home too, and I will be a stranger in my own home.

If you care about the environment, choose your realtor with care

The Thinker by Rodin

The Koch Brothers have been much in the news lately, at least if you follow political news. The two brothers own Koch Industries, which itself is a holding company for a lot of other companies it owns. The brothers are Charles and David Koch, but Koch Industries was actually built up by their father Fred, who long ago went to his reward.

Aside from their obscene wealth, the Koch Brothers have been known for their extremely conservative views. Moreover, they have not been afraid to put their money where their mouths are. Their money helped elect Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor. Together their political action committee, KochPAC, spent huge amounts of money on the 2012 elections, to little effect. As an investment, it was an unwise one, but its magnitude was stunning: over $400M. Their PACs alone spent nearly three times more in the 2012 election than the top ten labor unions combined.

Koch Industries is into lots of industries, principally industrial in nature. Their profits depend on getting natural resources cheaply to market. It’s not surprising then that Charles and David are premier anti-environmentalists, who vehemently deny that global warming is a problem and are trying to keep their industries from being impacted by pesky and costly pollution laws. Koch Carbon has created a lot of petroleum coke as a byproduct from refining oil shipped from Canadian tar sands. The product, called petcoke, has been piled up many stories high along parts of the Great Lakes. A huge noxious cloud of dust from a petcoke pile was captured on video last year. Its presence doesn’t bother the Koch Brothers, who don’t have to breathe the stuff, but it was of great concern to residents of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, who were on the receiving end of these polluted dust clouds.

While primarily into industrial activities, the Koch Brothers have influence in some surprising areas. One thing the Koch Brothers do well is create PACs and network related companies to contribute toward these PACs to achieve common goals. For the Koch Brothers, this is principally electing conservatives with an anti-environmental bent.

Many parts of the country are controlled by a handful of national realtor firms. Ever hear of Realogy? I hadn’t. There is a good chance you have heard some of these real estate firm names: Coldwell Banker, Century 21, Southbys, ERA and Better Homes and Gardens RE. It just so happens that Realogy gives heavily to Koch Brothers-related PACs. And Koch Brothers PACs give money principally to candidates that are anti-environmental, not to mention anti-union.

Real estate commissions are quite profitable, typically six percent of a house’s purchase price. A house selling for $250,000 actually costs $265,000, when you add in the typical real estate commissions. (It’s more than that, of course, when you add in all those other fees that come with buying a house.) Often the fee is split between two realtors: the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. If you consider how many houses are sold across the country annually, you can see that real estate commissions amount to a huge amount of money. Of course the individual agents keep a lot of it: it amounts to their salary. However, they also kick back a lot of it to their companies. Companies like Coldwell Banker ship their profits back to Realogy. Realogy’s in turn uses some of those profits to fund Koch-related PACs. It helps explain why the Koch Brothers-related PACs can find more than $400M to spend influencing elections in 2012 alone. For a company this big, $400M amounts to the change found under the family’s sofa cushions.

Curiously, most of the agents who work for these companies have no idea where these profits go. It’s likely that many of them are like me: environmentalists. They would probably be aghast to learn a substantial amount of this money is spent to help elect politicians who will be anti-environmentalist. I’m not a realtor, but I am a likely home seller and buyer in the next year or so. I would have known none of this had I not spoken to a realtor, who shall remain anonymous, with progressive leanings, who gave me the inside dope on all this.

What this means for us home sellers and purchasers is that unless we are very careful we are indirectly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If next year when I expect to put our house on the market I choose a realtor who works for a company controlled by Realogy, I could be indirectly contributing to PACs controlled by the Koch brothers, which will go principally to electing people who will further harm the planet.

I am so glad to get this insider information. If you are an environmentalist and in the housing market, then you should be glad to be reading this post too. In fact, I hope you will take a moment to “like” it or hit one of the share buttons for this post, and broadcast it to your friends. Perhaps, before listing your house, you should choose a realtor firm not associated with Realogy. Among the national firms not part of Realogy are ReMax and Keller Williams. Perhaps, before hiring a buyer agent, you should do the same. That does not necessarily mean that ReMax and Keller Williams may not be channeling some of their profits into these anti-environmentalist causes. But it seems less likely that they are.

Deciding who to hire as your realtor or buyer agent of course is a complex decision. Typically you are more interested in the agent than the company they are affiliated with, and his or her track record. If you are an environmentalist, you can look for good agents that simply aren’t associated with these firms. You can also choose small, local and independent realtor firms. These firms don’t have to send their profits to a national office. They can keep the money in their community instead. And that sounds environmentally friendly.

You can bet that before I sign a contract with a realtor, I’ll be assured that my money will not indirectly support any Koch Brothers PAC, or any anti-environmental cause. I hope you will do the same.

Updated 3/9/14 – I initially published this with some incorrect information. I had suggested that Realogy was owned by the Koch Empire. This is not true, however Realogy does give heavily to the Koch Brothers’ related and approved PACs. The full extent is hard to determine, since individuals working for Realogy can make contributions to any organization they choose under their own name. As for the official Realogy PAC, you can see how it spent its money here. As you can see, a lot of it went to the Madison PAC, whose Facebook page indicates its purpose is to get conservatives elected to Congress.