Finding a Place to Live & Making it Yours
RETIREMENT FOR BEGINNERS
By Carma Lou Rich-Saathoff
I have never, ever, ever lived by myself. It was such a big undertaking and one that I never thought I would do. But life goes on and fate takes a hand now and then. All old clichés, but oh! so pertinent. I was lucky to have one friend in my City of choice.
When I called Tracy in Portland to tell her I was moving, she said, “Well, c’mon up for a week. Stay with us and we’ll find you a place. When are you coming? And when are you moving?” Whatta friend!
Their apartment was in a big high rise 21 blocks from downtown. I had never been in one and was immediately enchanted. I adore Tracy but felt it best not to live in the same building. I would rely on her too much and not do stuff on my own. We had lived around the corner from each other two other times and that was convenient enough. We wanted to be close but not in each other’s way. That was my goal.
We found another high rise around the corner in the same neighborhood and I rented an apartment on the 9 th floor. I had 500 sq. ft. and a view of Mt. St. Helen’s. I was 18 blocks from town, 4 blocks from the grocery store, and 2 blocks from City buses. It was all very convenient after I learned a few things. I signed a year’s lease that started in one month and said, “I’ll see you July first”.
There is a bright clean laundry room on the first floor. I brought my iron but not the ironing board so I suggested to Jay, the manager, that it would be nice and so convenient if the building furnished an ironing board for tenants. Jay thought it a good idea and did it. He even bought an iron that we can borrow. Also in the laundry room is a big shelf for people to pass on their hand-me downs. Isn’t that great? I got a beautiful black rayon blazer, a couple blouses, some fantastic sweaters, and four nifty baskets. My neighbor picked up some wineglasses and a serving platter. You have to love freebies.
We have a pleasantly decorated Community Room that is used for all sorts of things besides having our mailboxes. There are tables and chairs and an attractive kitchen, which is the center of management sponsored parties for the tenants on occasion. What I love about the Community Room is it is a place for tenants to leave their magazines and books for others to use and enjoy. I love the recycling. The room is a lovely spot to meet your neighbors and to sit and chat for a while. There is also a chess board table and a drawer full of jigsaw puzzles.
Tracy was very smart and knew me so well. She told me to get an apartment above the tree line (7 th floor). She pointed out that I am an outdoor, sunshine person and on the lower floors it is often gray, cloudy and depressing. Tracy told me to keep the shades up and it will be bright on even the gloomiest of days. And she was so right! I have never felt depression when I was feeling blue, lonesome or sad. It’s too damn bright! Now I keep the blinds down but the slats wide open. It’s bright, but comfortable, not blinding!
I have to talk about security. When I was 16 I had a bad experience walking home from work during the Christmas holidays. It left me scared and super cautious. I do not go out at night alone and it is imperative that I feel secure in my home. Believe me living on the 9 th floor was about the most secure I could feel. Plus there is a security guard on patrol all night long. And it is a secure building with locked doors and buzzers and all that paraphernalia. Thank goodness. Remember this if you have pangs of fear as I do. “Better safe than sorry”.
There are 190 units in this building and I have lived in three different apartments in the five years I have lived here. First I moved more to the front, and then to a view unit with a terrace and a fireplace. I was so very lucky as most apartments don’t have balconies; often it is only condos that do. I have made many friends here in the building and still love it. I am grateful to my old friend, Tracy, every day for her friendship and encouragement. I have tried to emulate those qualities and found it very satisfying.
When I decided I wanted to live in a City with good transportation. I also made the decision not to have a car. It costs between $65 and $100 a month to rent parking space in almost any building. You can get a street parking permit for various amounts starting at $25 a year. Add auto insurance, gas and maintenance and you have quite a monthly expenditure out of your retirement income. Parking downtown is outrageous. I left the car with my husband and have been walking healthily ever since. When I visit the kids in Walla Walla I rent a car. Cheap compared to a years’ expense for just one or two car trips annually. A lot of my friends have cars and sometimes we do things together like shopping at Costco with Kathy or going for a River Walk in Vancouver with Pat. But when we go to the movies or the library or out to lunch or dinner, we walk. It all works out just fine.
I knew that once I got back to my home in California and started trying to decide what to take for my first apartment, it would prove to be a horrendous task It was amazing how it turned out. I even fooled myself. First, I took very careful measurements of each room, closet, nook & cranny and drew it on an open manila folder ¼ inch to a foot scale. Then when I got home I cut out little bits of green cardboard for the furniture I wanted to bring to the same ¼ inch scale. With that done I was able to play house with the floor plan and the furniture pieces. Bill & I discussed what furniture he wanted and what I wanted and then played with the pieces to decide if they fit. It was a simple plan and saved me lots of hassle. The movers were delighted when they arrived in Portland and I knew exactly where every thing belonged. It was a breeze and I highly recommend it.
Three years later when I got my latest and last apartment with its outdoor space, I needed plants, containers, table & chairs, etc. Bill wasn’t going to want half the stuff we had accumulated when he moved to Texas the following year, and told me to take what I wanted. That’s when we decided to have the Estate Sale the next year when we both knew for certain what we were each going to need and want.
My neighbor, Mary, and I drove a Hertz rent-a-truck up to Portland from Southern California. We filled the truck with all the stuff that I could possibly use and off we went. It was a wonderful experience and one that I would do again. The truck was comfortable and handled so well for a novice truck driver. You could do it if you had to and tried. It was great. Mary was also amazed at the ease of handling this 14’ truck. Afterwards a package arrived in the mail from Mary’s husband. It contained a T-shirt that showed a truck and driver with “Mary & Lou” on one line and “Mother Truckers” on the other!
A few things that I learned along the way. So much new furniture of today is bulky and huge, and rooms in apartments and condos are usually not large. The end result is a lot of that style furniture isn’t going to look right in an apartment. Big furniture makes the rooms look dinky. Your rooms will look so crowded you will be unhappy. I get so disgusted with designers of furniture. What is this big stuff and where is it going to fit? Jessica McClintock has a new line of furniture that is smart, good looking and suitable for any place you choose to live, well, except for a log cabin in the woods. If you’re buying new, check it out.
My Dad had a small, but cozy lounge chair that was the perfect size for me and suitable for any room. I kept it and had it recovered in an off white fabric and it’s gorgeous. Or it was. It’s been five years and I think I will do that one chair over in off white leather because I sit in it every night and no matter how careful I am, it is getting soiled and tacky. I even put a big beach towel on it in the summer to protect the upholstery from natural skin oils but it doesn’t do any good. I have light colors and I refuse to upholster it in dark colors just so it looks clean.. Doesn’t that sound just like a woman? Well, I am and it’s OK. It’s my chair! Light leather upholstery seems to be the answer.
About dishwashers and that wonderful convenience when you had a family. Well, if you are alone, you just don’t need one. They take up valuable cupboard space or floor space if it is a portable and you live in an apartment. I had them take my portable out as well as the stack washer & drier in the kitchen. I needed that space for shelves and a portable cabinet that I brought from my house. There is a big laundry room in the building that I use every two weeks and only on weekdays. The working people don’t need us retirees using those machines on the only days they have off. How would you feel? It’s kinda A Golden Rule thing.
More on you being the dishwasher. I wash my dishes once a week or whenever I run out of plates or silverware. When I am through cooking something, and before I eat, I clean out any pots or pans, salad bowl, baking dish, whatever & let them dry while I eat. When I am through eating, I rinse & stack the dishes in a neat pile as well as the silverware. I put away the dried pots, etc., wipe up the counter and I’m through for that meal. Believe me, it really works and actually doesn’t make me antsy about the mess in the kitchen. There is no mess in the kitchen. It’s just a neat pile of rinsed dishes waiting their turn. (And I save on dishwashing detergent. Every bit helps.)
One more thing about dirty glasses. I put all glasses and cups used by my guests in the pile with the other dirty dishes. My juice glass used each morning is rinsed out thoroughly and placed upside down on the rim of the sink to dry out. I do the same with my wineglass. My water glass and my drink-before-dinner glass have their own spot over by the coffeepot along with my coffee mug. They all get washed once a week when I do dishes. It’s only my healthy germs so I don’t fuss about them.
I bought a grocery cart for my heavy item expeditions. The cart was too low and killed my back the first time I used it. So I returned the cart to the store and went to the wonderful hardware store in the neighborhood and purchased one that was a bit bigger and had a higher handle. That solved the back ache problem. One day I was walking by the bus stop with my loaded grocery cart and one of the men sitting there said, “Wow! That’s the Cadillac of grocery carts”. And it is a comfortable Caddy.
The grocery cart is perfect for going back and forth to the laundry room. I take hangers along and use the handle to hang up certain garments that I hang on the shower rail to dry. The laundry box in the bottom holds my “delicates” that I hang on a collapsible rack in the bedroom along with other things. My Caddy is multi-purpose.
Another thing that is very handy to have is a folding clothes drying rack. It is perfect for drying your undies and other things that aren’t quite dry from the drier or if you don’t always use a drier. Have you ever seen sweater drying racks? They are a big square framework with a mesh middle. They have about 6” detachable legs. I keep both of those items handy under the bed and use as necessary. A great convenience.
A bit about decorating. I truly could not get rid of all the collectibles I had accumulated over the years. So I put up shelves 14” or so below the ceiling. The shelves go over the doorways and windows so that is what actually determines the height. They are hung with white “L” shaped metal brackets that are attached to the wall and to the top of the shelf. You put objects in front of the brackets and then they are invisible to the viewer. Good idea, huh? I also added a little grooved molding to the underside of the shelf and a one and a half inch piece of wood to the shelf edge to make it all look more finished. If you want to buy wooden brackets to put underneath to look pretty, do it. I did and they do. Paint every thing the same color as the walls. A very effective idea that some decorators use is to paint the wall above the shelf a different color. And it does look nice.
When I rented the U-Haul, I brought the painted shelving and all the stuff to be used for display from our house that was finally being sold. It was easy to putty and paint where the shelving had been. And of course, it was much easier for me to take the already assembled shelves with me. Big baskets, either flat or bulky, and serving trays hide the brackets. I arranged the items by color or type of metal. It is more effective and shows off all your treasures so much better. In each group they enhance each other. The blue pitcher draws attention to the blue jar and blue bottle. It’s great! Your guests will love it and your ingenuity. And you still have your belongings.
And family pictures. I suggest keeping them in the bedroom. Leave the living room public and don’t have your private and personal family all over the place. I placed another little shelf over my twin beds and have pictures of the 14 grandchildren on them. Plus, a shoulder-high book case holds my shoe boxes and there are more grandchildren pictures on that. My parents and ancestors are on the dresser and the walls. It’s cozy and warm and makes me feel loved and fortunate.
If you need fresh air at night while you are sleeping, as I do, install a ceiling fan in the bedroom as well as having the window open. Mine runs 24/7 year around. When it’s really cold outside and I barely crack open the window at night, I have the illusion of fresh, not stuffy, air. The cool breeze touches my face and I know all is right with the world. There is also a ceiling fan in the kitchen. The bathroom doesn’t have a fan or ceiling fixture since the lighting comes from the cabinet lights over the sink. To remedy this, I bought a little battery operated fan that I clip on to some shelving so that it blows towards me on those sticky, hot days when I need ventilation or if the shower has left the room all steamy. You might try a portable electric heater in that windowless bathroom. It tends to eliminate the steam in the colder weather when you don’t use the fan. It’s amazing how we can adapt to our new environment if we just give ourselves a chance.
Speaking of sleeping in a City. It is amazing how very light it is at night with City lights bright & beautiful outside. Makes for a great view but often is too light for folks who are used to a darker environment at night. Try a sleep mask. Some friends swear by them. Another problem with living in a highrise or any spot in the City is the noise. So try ear plugs. The brand I use is “Quiet Please” and they work beautifully if you follow the directions. Don’t give up on a wonderful City living opportunity because there are minor problems. Don’t be an old fogey! Try something new and adapt to the surroundings.
Closet space is never what you are used to. Some buildings have had closet experts come in and redesign the units. If that isn’t the case, I suggest you divvy up your closet with one space for long things (jumpsuits, etc.) and dresses. And divvy the other space with two high and low racks, one for shirts & blouses and one for pants and vests or whatever. If your closet is such that you can’t raise that top rod then buy a dowel the correct length and suspend it from the rod with two chains. You can loop the chains over the top rod & slip the bottom rod through the loops so it hangs evenly. It works. Then hang shorter garments over the new rod such as vests and so forth. Since there isn’t room in my bedroom closet, my blazers and jackets and coats all hang together in the hall coat closet. I don’t have a coat tree anymore (no space) so I hung one of those wooden expandable racks on the wall for my rain hat, visors, umbrellas and my over-the-shoulder water bottle for the movies. I also have a big old armoire in the hall for sweaters as there isn’t room in the bedroom. Actually, there would be but that is where my computer and file cabinet sit. “First things first”
If you are a born-again-decorator like I am, it is difficult to just settle into one color scheme for the rest of your years. It’s a depressing thought. My solution is simple. Have a color theme for different seasons of the year. I chose yellow for spring and summer, while red is my choice for fall & winter. I change so many things that my home looks all different and fresh to me. And what fun to unpack a pretty piece that you will enjoy for the next six months. Visa versa when you pack away a favorite piece you know you will be seeing it again when the season is over. I change my bathroom towels & rug, the bedspreads and throw pillows, scatter rugs throughout the house, sliipcovers for two chairs & an ottoman, all the throw pillows in the living room, seat cushions on dining chairs, place mats & napkins, and odds & ends of decorative dishware and accessory pieces. Voila! A New Look!
Be sure to settle on a safe place to keep your most valuable papers. A small fireproof safe that sits in the back of a closet is a good idea. An extra copy of your will and other important papers for the executor of your estate is a necessity. You also might consider an extra key for that person. And be sure to keep that person informed when you go on trips. If you are renting, you might consider putting his/her phone number on the “emergency “ line plus the nearest relative. When I go on a trip, I leave a large envelope sitting on my message chair, addressed to my Executor and my children with a note attached saying, “in case of my death, please mail”.
Very shortly after you move in, I suggest you find a place to leave messages to yourself or to your housemate. On a chair near the door or your hall table are handy and easily noticed as you are coming or going. But not the refrigerator. It often gets too cluttered with other items. Junk mail envelopes written on with a Magic Marker are perfect for reminders. You don’t waste paper and the writing can be huge.
Speaking of messages. When you call a friend and the phone rings 6 – 10 times before the answering machine kicks in, do you get impatient and swear you won’t go through that again? Those long waits drive me crazy. Maybe your friends will take the hint if you do the following: Set your answering machine to go on after only 2 rings or the least amount of rings your particular machine allows. Unless you live in a humungus house, you probably can get to the phone before they finish the message. Or if you don’t want to talk to that person at that time, you can pass!
I keep my phone ringer in the living room on low and the phone bell in the bedroom is turned off. It’s all very nice because if I am asleep the phone doesn’t wake me!
If you are fortunate enough to have a deck, patio, balcony, or terrace and you have plants out there, get those little platforms with wheels for your big potted plants. They are so handy and easy to work with. When it’s really cold, I push them over next to the warm building. When it rains, I move the ones under cover out into the open. They are so convenient and easy to use. A must for us as we grow older and lose some of our strength. Plant stands on wheel are a necessity if you have a touchy back.
Bird watching is something to consider if you have any out-of-doors area. Get yourself Peterson’s Birds of North America or one of his dedicated to a specific area of the country and a pair of bird watching binoculars. Once you discover what kind of birds you have then you can buy the correct seed for particular species. It sounds complicated but it’s not. It is such a rewarding hobby that you can share with other birders. Be sure to have a watering trough for your feathered friends. I painted the bottom of a big planter tray a bright blue to attract them. I love to watch the birds enjoy their drinks, especially the Blue Jays who seem to have a unique style of drinking.
Don’t forget hummingbirds. Mix ¾ cup of sugar with one quart of water and add a couple drops of red food dye to attract them to your place. You will be amazed at the hummers. You can tell the females from the males by the manner in which they eat. The females perch to eat while the males just hover. Once the hummers get used to their new eating spot, they will come to your window if their food is gone. Sometimes they will even approach a human & just flutter & flutter to get their message across. “Feed me!”
Pets. I love dogs and have always had one or two. It can be difficult to find a place to rent that you like that will accept dogs. There are also the problems invoIved with exercising them and getting them outside to do their thing. I left our dogs with my husband. Some friends have given their pets to their children and grandchildren. The dogs are still with family and you can at least visit them and not feel you have totally abandoned them and their lifelong love for you.
Cats are something else and are somewhat easier to have in an apartment. Usually you have to make a $200 - $300 deposit, or sometimes pay a fee, to keep a cat or cats.
I cat-sit for friends in my building when they go on vacation. Once the cats are familiar with me, we have a great time. I keep the cat box in the shower (use flushable litter) and put it on the floor when I bathe. It’s all very convenient and easy for me. Since I have the bird feeder, I open the blinds from the bottom so the cats can watch. They love it!
I highly recommend renting a storage space in your apartment building, if you need more space. And that also goes for a condo, co-op, and retirement home. They aren’t terribly expensive and most places have somewhat adequate closet space but what about the Christmas decorations, out of season clothes, that precious box of old pictures, and so on and so on. That way it’s all there and you don’t have to make the decision to part with those valuables yet. I happen to believe that we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bath water”. It’s all too many decisions. Wait a while. Wait a few years. You have time.
Excerpted from Retirement for Beginners by Carma Lou Rich-Saathoff. Copyright © 2005 by Carma Lou Rich-Saathoff. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Inkwater Press. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.