As has become tradition, the last two weeks of the year I glance back at the 50 cathartic home columns I’ve written, and pull one takeaway tidbit of scenario-wrapped advice from each month, and re-share them here.
This year brought no shortage of material. In the first six months I moved into a new old home, met Martha Stewart, moved my parents into assisted living, and unearthed the secrets to making a home smell great (a public service).
Along the way I passed on advice extorted from a cadre of experts on whom I rely for my precarious sanity. Here are the lessons from the year’s first half.
In January, after eight months of living in a state different from my husband, I came to miss the many advantages of having a man around. For instance, when the garage door gets stuck, the sink backs up, or a towel bar falls off the wall, I’m the guy.
Stephen Fanuka, host of DIY Network’s Million Dollar Contractor, came to my rescue. “A lot of people think DIY is just for men,” he said. “So we have a little more muscle, but you women are cleaner, more organized, and more efficient.” I felt empowered.
Lesson: Know builder lingo for when you do need to hire help. “Contractors read you,” Fanuka said. “You should have a few terms that can scare the guy. If you sound as if you might know what you’re talking about, you’ll save 20 percent.”
In other words, saying, “I think the thingamajig that goes to the whoozywhatsit is broken” could cost you.
In February, while touring the New American Home, a showcase for the National Association of Home Builders, I came away with a bad case of — I’m sorry if this embarrasses you — toilet envy.
Kohler has a toilet that features of a wall-mounted LED pad that looks like an iPhone. With a finger tap you can auto-magically raise and lower the toilet lid without touching it, (That right there is better than a European vacation), heat the seat (Men, you will never understand.), and play music. Plus, this smart piece of plumbing sprays, dries, and has adjustable flushing. From what I can tell, this toilet of tomorrow does everything but send a urine sample to the lab.
Lesson: The best in life is yet to come!
In March, I moved into a 130-year-old home after the house I had been living in and staging sold, which was the point. Now my job was to stage this historic lakefront charmer.
To broaden its appeal, I needed to fast-forward the folk farmhouse through 12 decades. The owner was a stickler for keeping with the period.
I called Amy Hughes, features editor for This Old House magazine for moral support. “Just because you live in an old house, doesn’t mean you have to live in a bygone era,” she said. “Technology evolves. I can assure you, the Victorians would have upgraded if they’d had the chance.”
In a few days, I moved old pieces out, keeping some, and moved transitional and contemporary furniture and art in, and made a century of difference.
Lesson: Putting new décor in an old space, or vintage pieces in a new space, creates the best of both worlds — timeless appeal.
In April, I met Martha Stewart. In person. After nearly 10 years of writing this column in Stewart’s large shadow (encased in a shadow box with acid-free paper and a hand-hewn maple cedar frame), I felt like a Little Leaguer meeting Babe Ruth.
Stewart came to Orlando to judge the firemen’s chili cook off. During her visit, she granted one media interview. I scored it. After the chili judging (“No condiments,” she said, “the chili has to stand on its own first.”) I peppered her with questions, including these:
Q. If chili has to taste good without the condiments, a room has to look good without the...
Q. What’s your best advice for people who want to live well?
You have to be interested, curious, and passionate. You have to work at it. You can’t slough.
Lesson: The secret to living as beautifully as Martha Stewart is to step it up and care.
In May, I gave my old and slightly musty house a fragrance makeover. I called on fragrance expert Helen Feygin, owner of Intuiscent, a fragrance supplier in Middlesex, NJ, for help.
“Every house smells,” said Feygin. (Except ours, right?)
“People often overlook their homes’ smells, because we adapt. We must be mindful that when others come in, what you no longer smell will seem strong to them,” she said.
Lesson: Home fragrance comes in many forms: potpourri, spray mists, electric diffusers, reed diffusers, candles, and aromatic salts. Choose carefully and don’t be cheap. “This is one area where price really does equal quality,” says Feygin. If you buy a smaller candle of a higher-end product for a bit more money, you’ll be much happier than if you buy a huge scented candle from the dollar store. The best smells are blends (mandarin bergamot and citrus verbena) that smell like nature. Nothing beats an open window. Ahh.
In June, my brother and I made the tough call to move our parents into assisted living. I would have rather removed my own appendix.
We had a plan: Our parents would not age. That didn’t work. As they both turned 90, their living situation grew rickety. Mom took a few spills, and was becoming forgetful. Dad was losing weight. My older, wiser brother began The Conversation, eventually convincing them they would be much better off — safer, happier, healthier — in a home with some help.
Dad warmed to the idea of a social life, cooked meals, and no yard to maintain. But six months later Mom still wants to “go home.” I can’t blame her.
Lesson: After talking to experts, I learned this difficult decision boils down to five criteria: Safety (they’ve had falls, injuries, or driving mishaps), health (balance, memory, or stamina is failing), hygiene and housekeeping have slipped, and they’re eating poorly. I also learned the truth in something my parents often said: The right choice and the easy choice are rarely the same.