Are we slaves to our belongings? #735

#735 in a series of true experiences in real estate

A friend once told me about a man whose house burned down with everything he owned in it. When I expressed sympathy, my friend assured me that the man was relieved by his loss. He was glad to be suddenly free of his belongings. Shortly after the fire he bought a camper, lashed a new motorcycle to the back and hit the road.

That’s all I know about the story. Maybe the man replaced some clothes and blankets, a few books, got a new frying pan; maybe he is still traveling. Or maybe by now he’s bought another house and is filling it up with all sorts of things.

To some degree we are all slaves to our belongings. We lock them up, insure them, keep them out of the rain. Sometimes, depending on their value to ourselves and others, we pay to keep them in vaults and safe-deposit boxes. We install alarms, lighting systems and locked gates on our property; some hire security guards.

We bring things home piecemeal; use, display, stash them. It doesn’t take long to fill space. Sometimes we clean out, sort through our things because the clutter is bothering us or because we’re moving. We may discard items; others will be taken to the garage, basement or attic. Or we’ll rent a storage unit and house our excess there.

A lot of the time we don’t have any idea what we’ve got. Not everything we save is valuable, of course, not even to us. We save things we think we might find a use for someday, papers and books we might use sometime, things belonging to someone else that we’re keeping for them.

At least one collector whose house we were in seemed to own quite nice things, although we were not able to see most of them beause the majority was contained in cardboard box towers. Probably 90 percent of the living space in that house was taken up with boxes. It was hard to find a place to sit.

For years after seeing this, I had visions of the grandest garage sale of them all. I tried to estimate what would be involved in unpacking, pricing and displaying every item and I was dazzled by my own guesses of what the total receipts of such a sale might be.

But most pack rats keep stuff that no one else wants. As far as I know, no one seeks large quantities of cardboard egg crates, Styrofoam meat trays, newspapers and jars. Yet we see living spaces with all of these plus astonishing amounts of what can best be termed “possibly useful parts of things.”

Pieces of machinery, cars, appliances – but seldom the whole of any. The parts spill out of aluminum pie plates, plastic plant saucers, sagging shoe boxes. The items have certainly not been cataloged. A single bowl will contain 50 different, unrelated objects. We met a delightful couple once whose house was very full of all of these but even more, papers and books.

They had little furniture and what there was didn’t seem to have been deliberately placed. Although they had lived in their house for more than 20 years, it looked as though they had transferred the contents from somewhere else in a hurry and left it where it was first laid down.

These people knew very well that they had much to contend with, and because they were planning to sell their house and move out of state, they thought they’d better begin. After hacking away at it for some months with little progress save for rearrangement, they resorted to renting a storage unit. They filled boxes with whatever was close at hand and moved the boxes to storage.

In the end, I think they rented 6 separate storage spaces. They planned to retrieve everything and sort it after their house was in contract but they ran out of time and left it all where it was. It’s probably still there.

Many years ago I met through real estate the man I would marry. He had built in the Oakland hills a custom house with oversized garage and workshop in which he stored two vehicles (one was in pieces), a boat for water skiing, numerous tools and sports equipment.

By luck, I knew of a smallish warehouse for rent to which, when he sold his house, he moved everything from his garage. After we married, we added many an item to the warehouse where each was forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind, I said, although occasionally the thought of so many stored-for-another-day-items became pretty scary.

Years passed and the monthly rent on the space rose from around $75 (in the 1970s) to $160. When we separated in the 1990s, my husband decided it was costing him a lot of money to store things he was probably never going to need, so he emptied the warehouse. It must have been a formidable task.

I estimate that it cost us around $30,000 for storage rent. We might have gone to Europe a bunch of times instead. Or bought new, good stuff.

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