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The Saga of the Storage Unit

The Unit

Last week Alex and I traveled to New Jersey to visit our storage unit and clear out the last of our stuff. People sometimes ask why we got the storage unit in the first place, and all I can say is: it made sense at the time.  We were moving to London and we didn’t know how long we would be here. If we hated it (or our visas weren’t renewed) and we moved back to the US after a year or two, it didn’t make sense to either A) ship all our stuff over and then back again, or B) buy entirely new stuff.  Plus, we didn’t really have the money for either of those options!

I think that’s probably one of the most crippling problems for young people or those without disposable income: you have just enough money to make stupid decisions.  We had enough money to pay the $45/month fee for the storage unit, but not the $3,000 it would have taken to ship all our belongings. (But of course, after five years of paying for the storage unit, we’ve paid out a total of $2,700, with none of our stuff to show for it.)

The little door around the corner leads up to the smaller units.

The little door around the corner leads up to the smaller units.

So that’s why we decided to get a storage unit in the first place. But why did we decide to get one in Howell, NJ, when we lived in Brooklyn?  Again, it was all about the money. A storage unit in Brooklyn or Queens, or even out on Long Island, would have been 3 or 4 times more expensive, and we really needed to count our pennies.  And since we figured we wouldn’t need to access it very often, it was okay. We chose the place in Howell, NJ largely because it was cheap, but also because it was on a bus route from Manhattan. So if we visited NYC and we didn’t rent a car, we could (theoretically) take a bus down there. It seemed logical at the time, but we failed to consider what we would be DOING with the stuff when we visited:  each time we’ve gone through a few boxes to sort/donate/bring stuff back in empty suitcases – which would have been nigh-on-impossible on a bus. So we’ve rented a car (and paid gas and tolls) each time. If you add the price of the car rentals and gas/tolls to our overall storage unit bill, it would skyrocket over that $3,000 mark.

When we first went down to sign-up for the storage unit, we discovered that the second-floor units were significantly cheaper than the first-floor units. And despite being warned that it was up 14 steps, we again made the decision based on frugality. A decision we would come to regret as we have schlepped (really heavy!) stuff up and down those stairs over the past five years.

The stairs of doooooom!

The stairs of doooooom!

Alex has specifically asked that I try and describe the hell of dealing with a lot of stuff in a small space. I think I’m pretty good at logistics, but it was like a never-ending game of Tetris trying to get the boxes to fit. And when we were going through stuff, it was like this:

Take these 10 boxes out to get to the one on the bottom, and then shift those 8 boxes over so that they are up against the wall, then pull out the one you want, and then try and get the 10 original boxes back in. But without the one on the bottom, they all fall over (especially as the cardboard gets weak and soggy over time), so quickly run to HomeDepot to buy a plastic tub/container, empty the boxes and repack them into the tub, and then shift the tub back into the unit. But a tub is bigger than a box, and therefore heavier and harder to shift. Oh wait, before you can go to HomeDepot to buy the tub, you have to get everything back in the unit so you can close and lock it. So shove it in as best you can, run to get the tub, and by the time you’ve come back, all the boxes have fallen against the door in the front so you can’t actually open it anymore. And when you do get it open again, you realise that the tub you’ve bought has a different shape than the tubs you bought last time, so they don’t stack securely, and the wobble is pretty worrying… it’s probably all going to collapse again as soon as you close the door…

Times a zillion! And do that in the heat and cold, with no facilities, and you’re guaranteed a few cranky exchanges.

The sorting process.  Into piles, of course.

The sorting process. Into piles, of course.

Once we got our permanent UK residency cards last fall, we decided that enough was enough. So we made two trips (one disastrous attempt in January, during a blizzard when it was freezing cold) and one just last week (when it was ridiculously, boiling hot) to clear the thing out. In our shared calendar, the trip was called “STORAGE UNIT OR DIE!!”  I’m pleased to say we didn’t die.


The Stuff

For the record, we had at least 14 boxes of books in the unit to deal with. We estimate it was about 1,000 pounds (weight, not value!). Of that, we ended up taking 10 boxes to a book re-seller in Pennsylvania… he paid us about$130 for all of them. There were a lot of painful decisions to be made, but ultimately we only brought back the books that were valuable financially or sentimentally. Anything that could be replaced or repurchased was sold or donated.

In addition to the books, we have all the china, flatware, and wine glasses that we received as wedding gifts. I’m really pleased to say that managed to find a way to bring it all to London in our carry-on baggage. I’m sure it looked funny going through the x-ray, but no one questioned it, so I guess they are used to seeing Champagne glasses in bubble-wrap!

Of the other things remaining, the only problematic item was my wedding dress, which I wasn’t expecting. No one wants old wedding dresses. Or rather, they want properly old wedding dresses, but 8 years isn’t old enough to be considered “vintage”, but it’s not young enough to be in style. None of the charities would take my dress – not even Brides Against Breast Cancer!  So we risked putting the giant box in the cargo hold, and brought it with us to London. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with it here, but I’m sure I can eventually find someone who wants a lovely dress.

So that’s that!  The last of the ties that bind us to the US (other than friends and family of course, and student loans…and taxes…). It feels so good to get rid of the storage unit. It’s like a giant, 5×5-foot monkey off my back. It started off a haven where we stored the things that were precious to us, but over the years it became an albatross. Making the (increasing!) payments every month and every year, visiting it when possible to ensure that nothing was wrong, sorting through our previously-treasured possessions which – after five years apart – felt more like the detritus of a life abandoned … well, trust me. Don’t ever get a storage unit.

All the stuff being donated! Mostly books. In boxes that are too big to move when they are full of books.

All the stuff being donated! Mostly books. In boxes that are too big to move when they are full of books.

Bringing it All Back

The only way we were able to bring as much stuff back as we did is that Alex has status with British Airways, which means he gets more bags, and heavier bags, than usual.  We could bring 8 pieces of checked luggage, and each could weight up to 70lbs. We didn’t quite use up our entire allotment, since the wedding dress box was large but light, but I feel really bad about those tubs of books.  We sealed them up with duct tape, but I still had visions of the boxes opening up and all our books being loose on the runway!  Luckily they made it safe and sound.

We brought stuff back with us in tubs, as well. This is us, almost completely filling the luggage rack on the Heathrow Express. All these bags are ours!

We brought stuff back with us in tubs, as well. This is us, almost completely filling the luggage rack on the Heathrow Express. All these bags are ours!

Lessons Learned

  1. Don’t get a storage unit!
  2. If you absolutely have to get a storage unit:
    1. Inventory all the boxes.
    2. Keep the inventory in a safe place. (We lost ours!)
    3. Number/label all the boxes and match it to the inventory.
    4. Take pictures of everything that goes in each box. That way you can sort remotely and make the hard decisions in advance, rather than dealing with an emotional sucker-punch every time you open a box.
    5. Don’t get cardboard boxes. Get plastic tubs instead. With handles.
    6. Get plastic tubs that are small enough to shift easily.
    7. Get plastic tubs that stack securely (i.e. same size/shape/edges)
    8. Go for the ground floor unit. Your back will thank you.
    9. Be seriously, sadistically ruthless when deciding what to keep in the unit. If you can buy a new one, do so. It’s not worth the price of saving that toaster. Trust me!
    10. Consider hotel availability near the unit – where are you going to stay when you visit? The nearest hotels to Howell are a 30 minute drive away, which means we lost an hour each day just to commuting.
    11. Negotiate a lower price and longer terms when you first move in. They will increase it every year, but if you start at a lower base, you’ll pay less overall than if you just take the first offer.

A new record

Alex and I moved to the UK in January of 2010, and we moved into our current apartment on Feb 1. Back in December, when we first got back from Japan, we had to decide whether to renew our lease or look for something else. Well, if you remember the drama we had when we first moved in, neither of use was terribly excited about venturing back into the estate-game.   BUT … we have a bit of history with moving.  In the 90-something months that we’ve been together, Alex and I have never lived in one place for longer than 21 months … so coming up on our 2 year anniversary with a single address was kind of strange to contemplate. I’ll admit that I was jonesing for a change, so we decided to scope out a few places in the neighborhood.

We saw one flat on the top floor of a converted Victorian mansion. There were 5 or 6 flats in the house, and I really loved the main staircase, which was grand in every way. But the flat itself left a lot of be desired: the layout was funky, the kitchen was microscopic, and the bathroom needed new tiles.

There was another flat that I really loved, with two bedrooms, hardwood floors, and a Juliette balcony. The only problem is that it was a 20 minute bus-ride from Wimbledon; there was nothing within walking distance except lots of parking lots. We’d definitely need a car to live there, which is just not in our lifestyle.

The third flat we saw had us tossing and turning for several nights. The big benefits of our current flat are: location, price, quality. The big drawback is the size, because it’s a one bedroom, whenever we have guests they are sleeping on an air mattress on the floor.  So we really wanted a flat with a bit more space, but of course we wanted it for the same price and in the same location as our current place. Impossible, right? Well, we found it. Right now we’re about 2 blocks north of the train station, and this flat was about 6 blocks south. It had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms (over 2 floors),  a really nice patio, and new carpet in part. It sounded perfect, and when we first looked at it I was totally thrilled – convinced that we’d found something amazing. But then we got back home and started talking it over, we realized that it had no closets (none!), nasty old carpet in part, older appliances, and it was on the ground floor. The next day we went walking around, and we noticed that all the neighboring houses have bars on the windows – while this flat didn’t. Hello, criminals, please burglarize here! The alley in the back was a little sketchy, and neither of the bathrooms was very inviting (in fact, I’m sure that one of them was unusable).  BUT THE SPACE – TWO BEDROOMS!! You can see how we went back and forth … and back and forth … and back and forth some more!

Ultimately it was a casual comment from a friend who swayed us. “You should move for yourselves, not for other people.”  You see, we want the extra space for when guests come, but we only have guests maybe 2 or 3 weeks out of the year. That leaves 49 or 50 weeks where it’s just us … and we’re perfectly happy in our current place!

So that’s how we came to sign a renewal on our current flat. Yes, we’ve committed to a third year – which is a pretty big commitment for us! But I’m quite happy with our decision. That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally check out the estate listings … because hey, you never know!



One Year Ago Today…

Exactly one year ago today I got on a plane at JFK and left the United States.  I can’t believe it’s been a whole year already … it’s gone so fast!  And at the same time we’ve done so much it feels like we’ve always lived here in London!

So what’s the status report after one year?  Well, in case you couldn’t tell, I LOVE IT!  London is just as wonderful as I hoped, and we’ve been able to travel more than we expected.  Our flat is lovely, my job is fantastic, and Alex is (as always) a dream.

I’ll never forget my first night here in London.  I was beyond exhausted and totally overwhelmed and more than a wee bit terrified, and all I could manage was to scurry to the store on the corner and get a loaf of bread and some ham & cheese.  I had sandwiches for a week! Looking back on it now, it seems so silly.

Would I do it all over again?  Absolutely!  Would I change a few things?  Maybe, but nothing substantial.  I would bring less stuff.  I would give myself more time to adapt.  I would not freak out about getting a job as much.  But overall I have to say that we’ve adapted quite well, and we’re both really really happy here.