Order Your Life's Penny Catterall joined the weekly chat | Home Front

Jan 24, 2013

Penny Catterall, of Order Your Life, is a professional organizer in Bethesda. She works with small, often home-based businesses and residential clients to help them let go of the excess in their lives and prioritize what is truly important. Got a question or two for Penny? She was online to chat with us about getting, and staying, organized this year.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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In January, piles of things seem to show up on every surface of the house. Professional organizer Penny Catterall of Order Your Life is here to help us figure out how to deal with this mess. Let's go.

Hi there, Love your chats! I have two club club chairs flanking the fireplace in my living room. The whole room is pretty dark, especially on that side, and floor lamps behind each chair seem like an easy solution. Should they be identical? And what are the pros and cons to the apothecary style, as opposed to something with a shade? Thank you!

Thanks for your kind words! Two club chairs flanking a fireplace make a cozy place for reading. If that's what you plan to do there, the apothecary style or pharmacy lamp style as they are called would be a good choice for those chairs. I personally would do two matching lamps. If you mostly will be sitting in the chairs conversing or lounging, I would think something with a small shade would be fine.

Hi! Something I always read about de-cluttering is a rule about infrequent use: "If you haven't used it in a year, toss it." I have so many things that were purchased for very occasional needs that, according to that advice, I should throw out. However, when I've done that, I've ended up needing it (a year later, say) and am so frustrated that I threw it away and had to buy it again! If I had a bigger budget it wouldn't be as much of a problem, but I hate having to spend money on things I once had on hand. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

I find that this is a pretty common issue.  There are a few things that you use that cost quite a bit, like a Dutch oven, fondue pot, etc. that you might want to hang on to so you don't have to buy it again. But think about the last time you really used it - if it is several years ago, let it go.  If it is really something you use every year or so, I would store it in a lesser accessed part of your home where it won't take up space used by items used on a more frequent basis.  However, there is a website at Neighborgoods where you can sign up to lend and borrow items like these from people in your neighborhood.  I love this idea of sharing!

I'm trying to get my 8 and 11 year old kids into good habits and they resist at every turn. I was hoping to decorate their rooms a bit to get them to have more pride in their spaces, if only they could keep their rooms clean. It worked for the 8 year old but the 11 year old is a complete slob. Help!

I think that one of the most important things about teaching kids to be organized is to model good habits yourself.  If you put things away when you are done with them, if you only buy things you need and love and have a place to put them, then they learn by the example that is being set around them.  It also helps to explain to them why it's important for their rooms to be organized - not just for the sake of being organized, but so they can find things more easily in the morning when they are rushing out to school, or get their homework done faster in the evenings. 

I love the weekly chat and am submitting my question early. Do you know of any place that specializes in home intercom systems? Our home security system company was recently bought out by a larger, national company, which installed its own system and ever since, we have had an annoying background crackle on the intercom. The home security system company says they can't do anything about it, and an electrician said he couldn't fix it, so i am looking for a specialist in intercom systems who can provide a solution. Thank you!

I have never gotten a question like this and admit I have no experience in home intercoms. So I am hoping you chatters may have some experience with this to share.

I have such a time with all the paper. I pay bills on line but I keep large accordion files of charity receipts and bills. Is it worth scanning all these in and shredding the paper. Is there a good system for this? Is it legal to use a scanned document for tax purposes.

It is legal to use scanned receipts and other back up documents for tax purposes.  A great scanner for this purpose is the Fujitsu ScanSnap and you can find many different models of it on Amazon.com.  The S1100 model can fit in a large handbag and works interchangeably with both PCs and Macs, which is one of the reasons I love it so much.  The important thing to remember, is once the documents are scanned, and the paper shredded, to keep a back up either in the cloud, or on a thumb drive or other mode, so if your hard drive crashes, you haven't lost all your documentation.

Hey gurus! Thanks for taking my question. My fiance and I are moving into a new apartment and brought a bedroom rug with us. It's several different colors, mostly reds and browns, and I'm not crazy about it but he is. The problem: We want new bedding and are struggling to design it around this rug! The walls are white (and large) so we'd like some color for the bedding... but I'm frustrated designing it around this area rug. Do we toss it? Or make it work? Is there a way to make white bedding with white walls work? Textured white bedding, perhaps?

I would say if you are not crazy about something, don't buy more things to try and match around it. If you have white walls, you really have carte blanche to have your bedding pop with some color. I don't know if you have wood floors, but if you do, you could certainly get rid of the rug and live without any carpet right now. Or you could get aninexpensive solid color rug. Red and brown are not particularly uplifting colors for a bedroom or for sheeting. 


How do you become a professional organizer? Is there a certification process or an association that I should begin with. How would I advertise my services? Any advise would be most helpful. Thank you. Laura Strombotne

I started out by joining the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), which is a fantastic resource and community for anyone wanting to get into this business.  There is a vibrant DC area chapter of NAPO as well.  NAPO National offers many different professional organizer education teleclasses on everything from starting a professional organizing business to working with chronically disorganized clients.  Word of mouth among family, friends and neighbors is a great way to get started with hands on organizing.  Good luck!

We all have piles of books all over the house. Which organizations are the best to donate books to in the Washington area? Also is it worth trying to sell your books?

We are lucky that in the DC area, we have many organizations to donate books to.  My website page Donate Your Items has a full list of all the area book donation sites.  As far as selling them, you won't get much unless they are rare or first editions.  There are book buyers in the area who will come to your home, and Second Story Books out in Rockville also buys second hand books, CDs and vinyl records.

This is for Penny: Do you ever encounter a person who thinks a cluttered house is better than a neat one? My experience is that this person thinks the clutter makes a "house look lived in". Any suggestions for useful response? I am not talking about a hoarder, exactly.

That's a very interesting question. I would say that there is a difference between cluttered and disorganized.  If someone has a cluttered house, but they have no problem finding things in it, have a smoothly running system for processing mail, bills, etc., and the clutter is not impeding their life in any way, then I would say that is fine.  However, if there are so many things in the house that they can't find their keys to get out the door in the morning, or they have so many clothes in the closet that they can't find anything to actually wear, or the important mail is getting lost under piles of junk, then my response would be that the clutter is preventing them from leading the life they want to live.

Hi, is there a tipping point that you've encountered with clients who have clutter vs. clients who are probably on the verge of becoming hoarders?

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization actually puts out a very useful Clutter Hoarding Scale which you can download for free from their website.  It's meant for professionals, but you can get an idea of where regular clutter starts turning into hoarding.

I have tried to give them away, but donating has been a problem. Where can I take them? I hate to throw them out (unless they are broken or missing pieces). Goodwill turned me away a couple of years ago and I had an organizer in 2011 and she took away tons, but what is a good way of dealing with them? I can't seem to convince family and friends NOT to give gifts, and the kids are still young enough that "experience" gifts are not as meaningful (trips to the zoo, restaurants, etc.).

There are so many wonderful places that will take toys for kids in this area.  A Wider Circle in Silver Spring for instance, helps furnish homes for previously homeless families, including children.  You can even take your kids out there to volunteer, and show them that their toys are going to new homes where they will be well loved.  The National Center for Children and Families also accepts toys and gives them directly to familes in need.

Hi Jura!  I've scored a couple of fantastic vintage table fans from the 1930's and 1950's. They are working, but need a little attention, cleaning, rewiring. Is there anyone in the area that does this? I'll expand area to mean within a 2-3 hour radius of DC. There are people in other parts of the country that specialize in this, but even though they are small they are extremely heavy and fragile and I don't want to put them in the mail. Any ideas?


Good for you. That is a neat thing to collect and they are so much more interesting and well designed than most fans you buy today. I finally found the place for you: Appliance Fix-it , 5800 Seminary Rd, Falls Church, VA 22041 Phone: (703) 820-1255. Good luck!

We moved from 3800 sq ft to 1400 sq ft when the market crashed, so we've adopted a simple rule for new stuff: "one in, one out." Works great for at least not making it any worse, and we can apply it to everything but my wife's shoes.

Love it. Everything except shoes. You gotta have some luxuries. It sounds like a great life plan. Last night I saw an ad for storage units which talked about how wonderful it is to have space to store all your beloved memories! The storage units are often just an excuse to postpone decisions.

The paint is peeling off my banister and other trim, the roblem being it was painted by the previous owner. I don't want to have to paint it all over, or look totally splotchy so do you all have a suggestion of a white that is typically used for trim or can match other whites pretty comfortably? I would describe it as a true white (no real yellow or blue undertones). Benjamin Moore would be preferred. Thanks!

Check out Elizabeth Mayhew's story today on white paint. Here it is.

Oops, I submitted this as a comment first (wasn't paying attention) but I'm having the hardest time organizing our 14' wide rowhome. My husband and I have two kids (ages 4 and 20 months) and I work out of the home. Also, with my mother's passing, I now have the bulk of my parents' furniture since my father moved into a one-bedroom condo. Everywhere I look, there are piles. I have no idea where to start. And whenever I try, it becomes very overwhelming. Any tips on getting started?

Often getting started is really the hardest part.  And when it is your own stuff, it gets even more overwhelming.  The important thing is not to do try to do too much at once.  Take just one 5x5 square foot area at a time and only focus on what is there.  Have large boxes labeled Trash, Donate or Elsewhere ready. Put all the items that don't belong in the space you are working on in one of those boxes until you have cleared the area.  Don't bring the Elsewhere items where they need to go until you are all done, or you will get pulled off course.  Your goal is to focus only on that area for a solid period of time, say 1/2 an hour to an hour, then put the Elsewhere items away, and go to the next 5x5 area if you have the mental stamina. You may find that once you get started, you will get into a flow.  Aso, if you can get a friend to help you, or put on some good music, it will make it a lot easier.  Then reward yourself when you are done with a cup of coffee or glass of wine (depending on the time of day!)

It might be worth considering letting the 11-year-old be a slob in his (or her) own room, so long as he helps out and goes along with the organizational plan in the rest of the home. Respecting his privacy/individuality/autonomy over "his space" might make him a happier and more cooperative teenager going forward.

Agreed!  I have two teenage boys, and my older son has the messiest room in the house (fortunately, he's in college now, so it's not messy all the time!).  I just shut the door when he's home so I don't have to look at it, and the house rule is that everyone needs to be responsible for their things in the rest of the house, as that is public space.  It works out well, and I am told that he actually has a very neat room in college (go figure!)

Good Morning! A number of months ago you had given a web address for an online purveyor of custom lamp shades. We have a one-of-a-kind lamp that needs a shade replaced (the opaque plastic liner on the inside is shot) and this is our only hope. Help!

Call a Home Theater specialist. Our guy fixed the cables in our entire house, from the intercom, to the tvs, to the computers, to the sounds system. We don't even have a home theater (maybe one day).

Great idea. Thanks.

For the poster that is not fond of the rug, perhaps nice white bedding and some inexpensive throws that match rug will help. You can use the white bedding after you get rid of the rug and you can still coordinate. You might be able to find a fleece throw to put over a comforter/duvet that has the colors of the rug and perhaps some throw pillows or pillow covers that can accent the bedding to match the rug. Less expensive and easily changeable options can make this work for a temporary solution.

Another idea. Thank you.

I don't have a vendor, but I had a similar problem with a security system. A contractor can try to shield the wires of the intercom to avoid interference, but if it doesn't help you are pretty much out of luck. The signals now used in some security systems cause interference, and apparently there aren't industy standards that limit or eliminate interference with other electronics.

Joy. Don't you love it when that happens?

I have a bad habit of hiding things in boxes when company is coming over. As a result, I have lovely boxes all over my house with no idea what they contain (papers, wires, computer stuff etc). Do you have any suggestions as to how to tackle these boxes and what to do with the stuff in them. I have a fear that I'll take the stuff out and put it into other boxes and soon be back where I started. Thanks.

This is a very similar situation to the question I answered previously about the row house.  Start by just going through one box at a time.  Put the TV or some good music one, and just sit with it in your lap and determine whether each item is a toss/shred, donate or elsewhere.  Make piles or boxes for each.  The important thing here is to have a place for the things to go.  If you don't have files for the papers, or a dedicated box for the computer cords, they are just going to end up in random boxes again.  Think about where you use each of the items and determine where their real home should be, (e.g. computer cords in the home office) and then create it.

As a parent, you are a leader and role model. Saying "do as I say and not as I do" will not work as a long-term strategy if you want your children to be neat and organized. The organizational habits that your kids develop now will be very hard to break when they are adults, so you're on the right track by paying attention to these issues now! I had a disorganized mother and had all the encouragement, short of her changing her own habits, that you can think of, including punishments for not cleaning my room and having my out-of-place items thrown away or stored (and forgotten) out of sight. Do you know what would have helped more? Being able to watch her police her own items. Children can learn by example, and becoming more organized is an ongoing process - a learning process. I was an adult before I learned how to property care for and organize my things, and I am still learning. But would I have preferred developing simple strategies much earlier in life? Of course! And is any time a great time to start developing positive habits? Of course!!

Thanks for that wisdom. You make a lot of really great points.

The master closet in my 1958 split level is a reach in, and I have to share it with my husband. I store out-of-season clothes in another closet, but I still can't seem to make the closet work for me, particularly for shoe and purse storage. Do you have any advice?

One of my favorite products for purse storage is the Container Store's 8-Pocket Handbag File.  It is very inexpensive and a great way to store your purses so you can see them.  I store my shoes in clear shoeboxes, also from the Container Store, with a label on the outside describing the shoe.  I do keep my out of season shoes on the highest shelf of my closet where they are out of the way and stack them 3 boxes high.  If you don't have the room, you might want to store them in with your out-of-season clothes in the other closet as well.  

I'm trying to make 2013 the year that I switch to a digital calendar so I can share calendars with my family, but I'm having a hard time. Do you all use these digital calendars or are they more trouble than its worth?

Frankly, I couldn't live without my digital calendar.  I am a Mac user, so I use iCal, but Google Calendar is great as well and pretty easy to set up.  At a glance, I can see my whole family's schedule, including husband's doctor's appointment, kids sports schedules, etc., and can even save locations, notes, and put in reminders so that an alarm goes off on my phone at a pre-designated time before an important appointment.  I color code each person's calendar as well, so it's easy to see who is doing what quickly.  Will never go back to paper!

Maybe a bit off-topic but where's what I do. I have some software on my computer which creates nightly backups of the important files and saves a single file (about 1 GB) onto the computer. Once a week, I copy the most recent file onto a rewritable DVD and bring that file to my office (offsite backup). I have 3 DVDs for this so every three weeks I erase the oldest copy and replace. If I accidentaly delete a file, I have a backup from the previous night. If it takes a while to realize I deleted a file, I have one week of nightly backups and two weeks of weekly backups.



I have a large collection of antique/vintage manger scene figures, which I enjoy mixing and matching each year. But I am having trouble storing them. I currently have them in Christmas ornament boxes--the plastic ones with the cardboard dividers. Even though the boxes are clear, I can't see the figures easily and end up unpacking and repacking. Other than downsizing to one manger scene set, do you have any suggestions for storing them? Ideally I'd like them to be easily visible and movable but stored away from dust.

Can you take digital pictures of what is in each box while you pack it up, and then either print them or save them in a file called Christmas Box 1, Christmas Box 2, etc?  If you print them, you can just either tape them to the side of the box, or put them in at the very top  so you can quickly see what's in the box when you take the lid off. 

Hi Penny, I've been on a quest to find stylish filing cabinets for my small condo as I don't have the luxury of a second bedroom or den to hide the typical unattractive ones in. Do you know of a web site or store where I can purchase stylish non-metal filing cabinets that lock (preferably wood material in white)? Pottery Barn has some nice ones, but they don't lock. Thank you!

Try Ballard Designs.  They have some lovely options, but don't know off hand if they lock.

We really appreciate your being on the chat and being a cheerleader for decluttering.

In This Chat
Penny Catterall
Penny Catterall, of Order Your Life, is a professional organizer in Bethesda. She helps small businesses achieve greater efficiency and profitability by developing organizing systems that are tailored to their needs. She also helps residential clients let go of the excess in their lives and recognize what is truly important.
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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