When Home Isn’t Home Anymore

How I feel about living in a town that was my home for 15 years without actually living in the house that was my home.

My visit to Wickenburg again this winter brings up something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: how Wickenburg was my home but isn’t my home anymore. This wasn’t really an issue in past visits, but is really on my mind this year.

What’s different? Well, I made friends with the folks who bought my old house.

New Friends in My Old House

It was Mary who started the dialog earlier this year. My wasband had left behind a metal sculpture she thought I might want. She tracked me down online; between this blog, my business website, my Twitter account, and my Facebook account, I’m really not that difficult to find. I didn’t want the sculpture and explained why. We started a dialog in email. I thought she and her husband might like my friends Jim and Cyndi (who I house/dog sit for in Wickenburg) so I made introductions via email. They really hit it off. We became friends on Facebook. And the other day, when I arrived at Jim and Cyndi’s, I got to meet Mary and Jeff in the flesh. I think it’s safe to say that we hit it off, too.

We’ve been hiking with the dogs at least once every day since I arrived.

The other day, I went to their house (formerly my house) to lead a hike on one of the horse trails I used to take. I thought it would be a nice introduction to the trails near where they lived. (That turned into a bit of a fiasco when the trail was longer than I remembered and obviously hadn’t been used in some time so it was hard to follow. And what’s with the fences?)

Palm Tree
This Mexican fan palm, which was about five feet tall when we planted it in 1999, is easily 30 feet tall now.

I’d flown over the house in October on my way to Chandler to drop off the helicopter for overhaul. That was the first time I’d seen it in 3-1/2 years. Oddly, I didn’t feel any emotional pangs looking down at it from about 500 feet up. It was just a nice looking house with a well-kept yard and a very tall palm tree.

Still, I thought I’d feel weird about actually going to the house. After all, it was what the court referred to as my “marital home.” But again, the weird feeling never really sunk in.

Mary and Jeff have made some changes to the house and yard that really improve it and make it look better than it ever did while I lived there. They’d increased the height of the wall around the yard and installed some really pretty yet simple metal gates where needed. Whatever vegetation had survived since my departure in May 2013 — a lot died when my wasband turned off the irrigation before deserting the place in the summer of 2012 — had really grown. The single palm tree, the mesquite (Spot’s tree) in the back yard, the two saguaros, the desert willows, and the palo verde that I’d nursed from seed were all at least twice the size I remembered them being. All the overgrown plants and weeds had been cleared out and everything was nicely trimmed.

All these things combined made the house seem different.

Is that why I didn’t really feel any weird emotions while I was there?

Or is it because my mind has completely closed that chapter of my life? Because my mind closed that chapter on the very last day I was there, when I drove away for what I thought would be the last time?

Marital Home?

In all honesty, it really wasn’t much of a “marital home.” How could it be? More than half the time I was there during my short, ill-fated marriage I was there by myself while my wasband played house in his Phoenix condo with a roommate or went back to New York to spend time with his mommy. It was my home, the home I’d painted and furnished and decorated the way I saw fit. Where I worked and played and relaxed, mostly alone.

There had been very little input from the man who occasionally lived there with me before abandoning it for a walled-in tract home in a decaying Scottsdale subdivision. The man who, for some reason, tried to keep me out when I returned that last autumn by changing the locks and fighting me in court when I got in anyway. (As if an $8 lock would keep me out of my own home.) The man who was so desperate to get me out after the divorce trial that he agreed to give me every bit of personal property in the house and his condo that I wanted. The man who wanted it so badly in the divorce that he eventually paid me half of its court-appraised value.

And then he never moved into it, neglected it, incurred huge expenses getting it ready for sale, and wound up selling it for less than his appraiser told the court it was worth.

(Yeah: I made more money on the sale of the house than my wasband did. I did mention elsewhere in this blog that he made a lot of really stupid decisions, right?)

Anyway, although I thought I’d feel weird about going to the house, I didn’t. It was just another house. Sure, I’d lived there for fifteen years, but I’d moved out and I’d moved on. Any fond memories I had about the place had been pretty much erased by the abuse and neglect I dealt with after I married the man who seldom lived there. My mind was on my current home, a home not haunted by a failed relationship and false marriage. My old house was no longer my home and I had absolutely no regrets about leaving this one behind. I was much happier where I lived now.

The “Then” Photo

One of the things I did before leaving home this November was to track down one of the framed photos that had hung on the wall in my old house. It’s an aerial image of the house, shot in 2000, not long after I’d started the landscaping in the yard. All the trees and other plants I listed above are still quite small. My horses are down in the wash — you can see almost all of Cherokee, but just Jake’s butt sticking out from under the shade that is no longer there. I’m standing near the front door, holding my aviation radio, wondering why a helicopter is hovering over my neighbor’s house.

I packed the photo that last winter mostly because I didn’t want to leave it behind, but when I got to my new home, I had no desire to hang it. So I packed it when I headed south.

The other day, I remembered to give it to Mary and Jeff. Part of me was worried that they’d think I was just getting rid of my old junk. I was prepared for a very unenthusiastic response. But to my surprise, they liked it.

I promised them a helicopter ride to get another shot just like it, so they can get a sort of Then and Now comparison. (I hope Mary or Jeff won’t mind riding with a door off to get reflection-free photos.)

I thought I had the original floor plans for the house, too. I distinctly remember them being rolled up and stowed away in one of the poster tubes I had in my office closet. But when I went through the poster tubes I packed and brought to Washington, I couldn’t find them. Maybe my wasband has them. Maybe when his old whore reads this — she follows my blog and tweets because her own life isn’t very interesting — she’ll ask him to look for them and send them to Mary and Jeff. He knows the address.

More likely, he threw them away, as he threw away the rest of his life.

How Do I Feel?

So how do I feel about being back in Wickenburg? Great!

My hosts here have given me a very comfortable place to stay while I watch their dogs and house. I get to enjoy daily hikes out in the desert I know so well and drive my truck down the desert roads I used to bump along in my Jeep. I get to eat at the restaurants I remember and like — the pollo asado burrito I had at Filiberto’s the other day was just as amazing as I remember it and I can’t wait to get up to Nichols West, “the best restaurant in Wickenburg.” (The joke is, it’s not in Wickenburg.) I get to see old friends who are all genuinely glad to see me. And of course, I get to soak up the sunshine in warm temperatures that let me wear t-shirts so I can start working on my summer tan.

What’s not to like?

Best of all, I don’t have the burden and responsibility of owning a home here. And I don’t have to deal with local politics and policies, which are apparently as close-minded, crooked, and skewed to favor the “good old boys” as they ever were. (Seriously, Wickenburg: do you really think hanging a digital sign on the Community Center is going to get the Phoenix/Vegas drivers to stop? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people stop at destinations. Hanging a tacky sign does not make Wickenburg a destination.)

I’m not tied to Wickenburg anymore and I like that. When I’m ready to move on — or my friends start hinting that I’ve overstayed my welcome — I’ll put my camper back on my truck and head out to explore other places. And when all my friends die or move away, I’ll likely stop coming here. By then, I’ll have other places I prefer to spend my winter time — possibly places a lot farther south than Arizona.

So “home” really isn’t home anymore — and I don’t have a problem with that at all.

How I Became a Snowbird

It only took eleven years.

I’m halfway through my first full week in Arizona, the place so many mostly retired Americans go in the winter to escape the cold at their northern latitude homes. With my second winter season in a warmer climate now under way, I think it’s safe to say that I’m officially a snowbird.

I also realized that I’ve been doing some form of snowbirding for the past eleven years now, although I didn’t do it the usual way.

And I think I prefer it the way I do it now.

He’s the scoop. Be advised: this blog post includes the airing of some dirty laundry, which, unfortunately, is an integral part of the story and explains what took me so long to get here.

The Reverse Snowbird

For the eight or so years leading up to my eventual divorce and move to Washington state, I was a sort of reverse snowbird. Instead of migrating south for the winter, I migrated north for the summer.

2004 was the first year I did this. That’s when I got a job as a seasonal tour pilot at the Grand Canyon. A week in the significantly cooler Grand Canyon area followed by a week at home in Wickenburg. It was a busy summer. I was just another tour pilot at the Canyon, flying over “the big ditch” up to 13 times a day, but in my home office, I cranked out the fifth (or sixth?) edition of my best-selling Quicken Official Guide and got started on an Excel book. When I wasn’t home, I dealt with the relative discomfort of life in a horse trailer’s cramped living quarters, parked on 40 acres of property I owned with my future wasband five miles from pavement. I’d leave at 6 AM to get to work by 6:45. And yes, sometimes I did fly to work; I had a R22 parked beside my Jeep at the trailer. That’s the summer I decided to “go for broke” on my struggling helicopter charter business and order an R44.

Howard Mesa Cabin
Our Howard Mesa cabin was a nice place to escape from the heat.

In 2005, I had a brand new R44 helicopter but virtually no summer flying work. (Seriously: who wants to fly when it’s 110°F out?) When the Quicken book revision was done at the end of June, I headed back to the northern Arizona property with my horse trailer and horses. In a compromise with my future wasband, we’d had a prefabricated custom wooden shed delivered to the property. While he worked at one of the many jobs he bounced between in the Phoenix area, I spent all of July at the “cabin,” fitting its walls with hard foam insulation and building an interior wall to divide the main room from the future bathroom. On weekends, my future wasband would join me, handling tasks I couldn’t do then (but can certainly do now): wiring, plumbing, cutting lumber, fitting large sheets of T111 (think plywood paneling) on walls and ceilings. Together, we turned that shed into a very cozy four-season escape in a place where the Grand Canyon was our local park. But when the work was done, it was still too hot to hang out at home. So I hopped into my 2003 Honda S2000 (which I still own), and headed out on a 19-day road trip by myself to explore points north. I visited places (and friends) in Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah, getting a real feel for a lot of the off-the-beaten-path places. I came back with a lead on a hangar home in Cascade, ID — perfect for a summer home — and even flew my future wasband up there with me to see it after I got home. (What a waste of time and money that was.)

In 2006, I made the mistake of marrying the man who would, six years later, leave me for a desperate old whore he met online. (Yes, I do realize now that the marriage was his attempt to “lock in” on the considerable financial, real estate, and business asset investments I’d been making since I had my first best-seller in 1998. But back then, I couldn’t imagine anyone I loved plotting to use family law to try to screw me over. Silly me.) I had some surgery in May and then went on a road trip with my wasband in that Honda to Napa Valley. That trip, which was the closest I’d get to a honeymoon, was probably the last fun trip we took together. Then it was back home to Wickenburg for the summer, with occasional trips to the cabin. That was also the first summer I heard about cherry drying, but my contact couldn’t guarantee me any work and I wasn’t willing to take the helicopter to Washington without some sort of guarantee of revenue.

In 2007, I worked on books, including that Quicken book again. Cherry drying was an option but again, without a guarantee of work, I wasn’t prepared to go north. But I was prepping for a seasonal lifestyle. Financially and mentally, I was ready for it. My wasband promised to join me on the road during the summer when he turned 55. In 2007, he was 51. My goal was to have enough work lined up by the time he was ready to join me to support both of us, so we could work together in the summer. Then we’d return to Arizona in the winter and he could do what he wanted to do — he’d talked about a bike shop, solar power consulting, being a flight instructor, and a few other things that interested him. Since we’d also need a place to live on the road, bought my first RV, a hybrid pull trailer that turned out to be a less than satisfactory choice. We used it at a rides event in Kingman, AZ and may have taken it on one or two other trips. In the meantime, he started learning how to fly helicopters so he wouldn’t be stuck driving the trailer all the time; when we traveled, he could reposition the helicopter and I could do the commercial flying at destinations. That was the plan. (Or at least I thought it was.)

In 2008, everything changed. My wasband bought a condo in Phoenix, closer to his job, where he began living four or five days a week. My office was in our Wickenburg home and due to the amount of computer equipment I needed to write, I stayed there with it. Between my wasband’s weekday life in Phoenix and his numerous trips to the New York area to visit his family, I didn’t spend much time with him at all. And then I got a contract for seven weeks of cherry drying work in Washington state. I left in June, making two trips to get the helicopter and RV up there by myself. I worked on my Quicken book in the trailer. My wasband joined me for a week in July. We stayed at a lakeside motel with the helicopter parked on the lawn and toured a lot of central Washington while I waited for a call out. Then he went home and I finished the season alone, making two trips to get the helicopter and RV back by myself.

Life fell into a routine from that point on, with me becoming a sort of reverse snowbird. I’d live in Wickenburg from September through May, mostly by myself, while my wasband lived in his Phoenix condo with a roommate and spent just about all of his vacation time visiting family in New York. Because his roommate was openly hostile toward me and I was still writing several books a year, I didn’t visit very often. In early June through August, I’d head to Washington alone — making two trips each way every year — for cherry drying work. I was building up a good client base, extending my season, and my flying business was finally making a decent profit. I even added winery tours and a profitable annual rides gig. In early 2010, I replaced the pull trailer with a very large and comfortable fifth wheel trailer — again, with the goal of living on the road every summer with my wasband. But in 2011, when he turned 55 and was in yet another dead-end job, he said he “wasn’t ready” to join me on the road. (It wasn’t until much later that I realized he never intended to join me, that it was just another empty promise.) That winter, I lived with him in his dark and dreary Phoenix condo, even moving my office there when he finally kicked his roommate out. Silly me: I was trying to bring us closer together. I even went to the marriage counsellor he wanted us to see.

I had my hopes up in the spring of 2012 — my fifth cherry drying season — when my wasband got what looked like might be his “dream job.” He said he could work from anywhere and that he’d join me in Washington for the summer. Finally! I began prepping the RV for his arrival with our dog. But then he called me on my birthday in June to tell me he wanted a divorce. He wanted to stay friends, he told me, as he was secretly giving my investment statements and tax returns to a lawyer to estimate his take.

What followed was the beginning of four years of insanity, with him calling friends and family members to tell them that he still loved me, changing the locks on my house and hangar, trying to lay claim to half of everything I owned, harassing me at home, sending a private investigator to spy on my future neighbors in Washington, lying and making absurd statements under oath in court, making false accusations about me trashing the house, claiming I’d hid property and money from the court, losing in the divorce decision, appealing the divorce decision, putting the house on the market without informing me or getting approval from the court, hacking into one of my old investment accounts, losing the appeal, begging the appeal judges to reconsider, and then doing everything he could to delay paying me what he owed me for the Wickenburg house that he wanted and got in the divorce. Along the way, he went through three lawyers — one of whom he neglected to pay who then put a lien on the house — drove a court-appointed Realtor and a title company person nuts, and sent me a ridiculous email threatening me with legal action that I knew would fail.

In the span of four years, he made so many often comical errors in strategy and judgement that I find it hard to believe I could ever love someone so unimaginably stupid.

Yeah, there’s definitely enough material for a book.

Anyway, the winter of 2012/2013 was the last one I spent in my Wickenburg home. When I didn’t have house guests, I was alone — at least while I was there; I traveled a lot that winter — but it really didn’t feel that different. After all, I’d been living mostly alone there since my wasband bought his condo in 2008. I spent the winter packing my belongings and discarding the things I didn’t want, waiting for the divorce trial. When the court stuff was done at the end of May 2013, I left my Wickenburg home for what I thought would be the last time, and headed north.

Real Snowbirding

The day after the divorce decree came down from the judge and I was finally free, I bought 10 acres of land in Malaga, WA, at the heart of the area where I did my cherry drying work. Over the following two years, I designed and built a home there and moved in. Ironically, my new home has all the features my wasband would have liked, from the wrap around deck with endless views to the huge garage and shop area to the limitless space for gardening. It’s perfect for me and I don’t need (or really want) to share it with anyone.

And the weather? No, it doesn’t rain all the time like it does in Seattle. Malaga (and the nearby “big city” of Wenatchee) is on the dry side of the Cascades. Annual rainfall is less than 10 inches. The weather is very similar to Prescott or Flagstaff, AZ: dry, but with four seasons. Warm and dry in the summer, sometimes reaching the low 100s for a few days with low humidity. Cold with snow in the winter, sometimes dipping into the teens at night for a few days but usually warming to the 30s or 40s during the day.

Summer is perfect, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s when I do my work there. But winter? Sure, my home is cozy and warm and the views out to the valley can be magnificent when the snow falls and the sky clears just enough to offer glimpses of brilliant blue between the clouds. But the days are short and sunlight is limited. It gets cold in December and January. And 15 years of living in Arizona taught me one thing: I like sun and warmth in the winter.

My Home with Snow
Here’s my home as it looked in late November 2015. It sure is pretty on a nice day with snow on the ground.

Late winter is not an issue. In 2013, I began doing frost work with the helicopter in central California. So I’d head south with the helicopter and RV — remember that big fifth wheel? — in late February and could stay until late April.

But early winter? The way I saw it, the winter’s “dark days” were during December and January. That’s when I really needed to head south.

It took a few years, but I finally got a routine figured out.

In January 2015, when my home was partially built, I accepted an invitation to house/dog sit for a friend in Wickenburg. That gave me an excuse to head south for two weeks in the coldest part of winter. I stayed in my friends’ comfortable guest house with my dog Penny and cared for two very large golden retrievers.

Much later that same year, as the days shortened and the air chilled, I realized that I had exactly what I needed to be a real snowbird: that big fifth wheel. Although my home was done and I was moved in, the short days were getting me down. After my annual Christmas cross-country ski trip to the Methow Valley, I packed up my rig and headed south to join some friends camped along the Colorado River south of I-10. The trip itself was a bit of an adventure — requiring me to buy a new truck along the way — but my first full-time snowbirding season was a real win. You can read about it starting here.

On the Steps of the Mobile Mansion
Here I am with Penny, on the steps of my old fifth wheel, the Mobile Mansion, last winter in Quartzsite, AZ.

I spent all of January and half of February in Arizona, in my fifth wheel and in my friends’ Wickenburg guest house. Then I moved my helicopter to the Sacramento area for frost season and made my way there with my fifth wheel by way of Valley of Fire and Death Valley. Because of engine problems, my truck and RV never quite made it to Sacramento, though — at least not in February. While the truck’s engine was replaced with a new one (under warranty, fortunately) in California, I returned home in March, prepared to fly down to Sacramento when called out. In April, I made the two trips to get the truck with RV and helicopter home.

That was last year. This year, I’ve made some equipment changes, got a reliable house sitter, and set out early on my snowbirding trip.

The big fifth wheel is gone, replaced with a slide in truck camper, the Turtleback. I’m absolutely loving the flexibility this new rig offers; learn more here. I left home the day before Thanksgiving and, after stopping at a Yakima Lance camper dealer to get a part replaced on the Turtleback’s huge sunroof, took a leisurely drive south on back roads through Oregon and Nevada. Another stop for two shows in Las Vegas and then more leisurely travel to my eventual destination: more house/dog sitting for my Wickenburg friends.

Poolside in Wickenburg
Poolside in Wickenburg where I’m house/dog sitting for some friends. I’ve got no complaints at all.

And that’s where I am now: sitting in their poolside guest house with a fresh cup of coffee beside me and three dogs snoozing after their breakfast. At 8 AM, a new friend will come by with her dogs and we’ll go for our twice-daily mile-long walk in the wash out behind the house. I’ve visited my disassembled helicopter in Chandler, seen numerous friends in the area, and even got an invitation to a pilot party on Saturday where a lot of people will be very surprised to see me.

This is only a stopping point, though. When my friends return later this month, I’m not quite sure what I’ll do. They’ve already told me I can stay as long as I want, but I’m thinking about a trip to Tucson and Tubac, which I haven’t been to in some time. And another friend was recently at White Sands in New Mexico — how far is that? Can I take a few days to visit? I’ve never been there. I’m already booked for New Years Eve at La Posada in Winslow and have a chore to attend to on the Hopi Reservation near there. And I’m definitely going to spend a good part of January along the Colorado River with my friends; I bought a new fishing pole just the other day and my kayak is ready to be offloaded when I reach our campsite. After that? Who knows?

All I know is this: my helicopter needs to be in the Sacramento area by the third week in February. So eventually I’ll be there. There’s a campground nearby on Puntah Creek where I look forward to paddling in again. And lots of wineries to explore in the nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys. And the California coast. And San Francisco. I really do love late winter in central California.

The lack of definite plans doesn’t bother me one bit. I like making things up as I go along. And if you ask me, that’s the best part of being single: being able to make decisions for yourself without having to consult or rely on what someone else tells you they want or plan to do. I don’t have to worry about anyone letting me down again.

And when the winter is over, I’ll go home. That’s what snowbirds do.

How ironic: the lifestyle I planned for all those years ago with my wasband is basically the lifestyle I have now without him. And I’m loving it even more than I thought I would.

Unpacking the “Table Linens” Box

More than just napkins and tablecloths.

I’ve had a sealed up moving box labeled “table linens” in various places in my bedroom for the past year and a half. I’ve been wanting to unpack it, but I wasn’t sure where I’d put the napkins, tablecloths, and placemats I assumed it contained. A few months ago, while cleaning up before expecting some guests, I shoved the box into my bedroom closet.

And promptly forgot about it.

Earlier this week, I finally cleared one of the shelves in my linen closet. This morning, while looking for something else in my bedroom closet, I found the box. Perfect! I thought to myself. I finally have the shelf space and can empty this box.

The first thing I found inside it, however, wasn’t table linens. It was a white Bed, Bath, and Beyond bag filled with paper-wrapped items. I pulled them out and unwrapped them one by one, remembering the day in autumn 2012 when I’d packed them.

They were a mixture of heirloom items I’d gotten as a child or adult from grandparents and some Native American folk art I’d bought on the Navajo Reservation back in the early 2000s.

The heirloom items were mostly Steiff stuffed animals — and yes, a clown (!) — that my father’s parents had given me when I was a baby. Even if they had been bought new back then — likely in Germany — they were at least 50 years old.

Heirloom Items
Some heirloom items, back on display in our new home.

There was also a dancing doll in Black Forest costume that’s almost identical to the one in this video. I remember getting that doll when I was about 10. My sister had gotten one just like it but I seem to recall that our dog tore hers up.

The Lladro figurine was one I’d bought for my mother’s mother for Christmas one year. She liked Lladro and I chose this one to remind her of all the nights I’d slept over at her house when I was a kid. When she died, my mother gave it back to me.

All of these items, due to their fragile nature, were safely tucked away in a big, glass-fronted cabinet in my old house. The cabinet had been a bookshelf in my wasband’s parents’ dining room, with dark wood shelves and lots of old books. My wasband inherited the bookshelf when his father died and it eventually made its way to our Arizona home. He replaced the wooden shelves with glass ones and added lighting — both of which really improved it. I never really did like the cabinet — it was too dark and heavy for my taste — but it did provide a great place to show off heirloom items. In addition to these things, it was also home to my Lenox china (still packed) and an original Hummel nativity set I got when my father’s parents died (and gave to my sister last year). There were some vases and crystal, too, but I left most of that behind; I was never a fan of cut crystal and since we’d gotten most of it from his family — he had an aunt who seemed to think we liked cut glass — I figured he should keep it.

The Native American folk art was more fun than meaningful and it lived on the mantel over the fireplace in my old house: a big wooden chicken and a smaller feathery rooster. I’d also picked up an ocarina and a little milk pitcher, both shaped like chickens. I used to have a sheep, but I think it was damaged and discarded. Or I may have given it away; I gave away a ton of things while I was packing.

Chickens
Folk art chickens and more.

I moved everything from the “linens” box to my new hanging wall cabinets. They fit nicely, except for the dancing doll, which is a tiny bit tall. Don’t tell anyone, but her hat is supporting the shelf above her in the photo.

It’s funny because just today I was wondering what I’d put in the cabinet to fill it. Last week, I sent my collection of Katsina figures to the shop where I bought them about 16 years ago in Arizona’s Hopiland to have them repaired and they’ll definitely get places in the cabinet. (I’ll pick them up during my travels this winter.) But until I unpacked the “linens” box, I couldn’t remember owning anything else that might fill those shelves. I figured I’d pick up more odds and ends in my travels and eventually fill them all.

Well, this is two less shelves that need filling.

As for the rest of the box’s contents, well, it was table linens. Three different sets of napkins, a few tablecloths, including a lace one, a handful of placemats, and more lace doilies than I know what to do with. Looks like I can change out my napkins with the seasons now; I have the perfect set for spring.

Best of all: another box unpacked and thrown away.

Construction: Home Automation

How I’ve embraced the Internet of Things.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

One of the best things about designing and building your own home is the ability to include features that are fully customized for your own individual needs. I built my home with home automation in mind, but what I still find surprising as I look back on what I’ve done is how easy it is to retrofit a home with automation features.

I thought it was time for me share some of what I’ve learned while setting up the home automation features of my home. This is not intended to provide readers with everything they need to know to set up their own system. Instead, it’s an overview of what I’ve done and why and what it’s cost me. As you’ll discover, it’s neither difficult nor expensive to get started.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re looking for a “buyer’s guide” or detailed analysis of what’s available or even step-by-step instructions for setting up a system or devices, you won’t find it here. This is just an overview of what I did and why I did it. Use it to get some ideas for your system or needs.

The System

Wink App
The main screen of the Wink app on my iPhone. Each icon represents a type of device; tap the icon to access the actual devices.

Let me start by explaining what I wanted from my home automation setup.

I was very interested in setting up certain things that could be turned on or off when I wasn’t home. For example, the very first thing I thought about was having floodlights on my deck that shined down onto the concrete driveway where I land my helicopter. Although I very rarely fly after dark, if I was out flying and got delayed until after nightfall, I wanted the ability to turn on the floodlights from my helicopter so I could clearly see where I had to land without relying on my landing lights.

So in this example, I have a few components. On one side are the actual floodlights and the light switch that turns them on and off. On the other side is the Internet and my mobile device (smartphone) that communicates with it. What I needed was something in between the two sides — a device that made it possible for my phone to talk to the light fixtures.

That’s where the home automation system comes into play. It forms a sort of bridge between devices and a smartphone. It connects those devices to the Internet so your phone can talk to them.

When I began looking into this — about two years ago now — there were already quite a few options. There are even more now. I needed a system that met the following requirements:

  • Affordable. I’m not rich and I don’t want to pump a bunch of money into a system — especially one that might be out of date in a few short years.
  • Well supported. I wanted a system that had been around for a while, seemed to have good customer service, and looked as if it would be around for a while longer. That ruled out any brand new providers or ones that didn’t seem to add many new devices.
  • Wide variety of devices. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being able to connect the most things to the system? Well, I didn’t need a lot of things, but I did need certain types of things.

I also discovered that different systems used different communication protocols. For example, Wink, which is the one I wound up with, supports ZigBee and Z-Wave enabled devices. So any device that supports these two protocols should work with Wink. But a device that doesn’t support them might not be supported by Wink. I really can’t explain it any better than that. (And you can learn the difference between these two protocols here.) My advice: make sure the devices you want to use are supported by the system you select before you install a system. While there’s nothing stopping you from having multiple systems, wouldn’t you rather have just one?

Wink Hub
The original Wink Hub connects wirelessly to my network.

I chose Wink because it met all my criteria and was available for sale in Home Depot, which is where I bought almost everything to complete the living space in my home. Wink offered two (now three) main communication devices: the Hub, which is a sort of router with no visible interface, and the Relay, which is a touchscreen device you’d mount on the wall. The Hub was cheaper and I really didn’t see the benefit of a touchscreen, especially when I’d likely use my phone to interact with the system. There are now two different hubs, but I don’t see enough benefit in the new version (Hub 2) to make it worth upgrading. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)

I should make one thing clear: some devices require the Hub (or Relay) while others don’t. For example, my Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors require the Hub but my Ring video doorbell does not.

Once the whole thing is set up, you add devices to the Wink app. You can then control them in a variety of ways as I discuss here.

The Floodlights

Remember my example with the floodlights on my deck and driveway? That’s actually the first component I installed.

I wired the light fixtures like any other fixtures: two fixtures each having two bulbs with their wires coming together to one switch. These were standard Home Depot fixtures and floodlight bulbs; nothing special.

Leviton Smart Switch
This light switch looks like any other Decora switch, but it does not toggle.

What’s special was the wall switch. I bought a Leviton DZS15-1BZ Decora switch. (All my living space light switches are Decora style.) The back side of the switch is a lot bulkier than a regular light switch, but that’s because it has wifi capabilities built into it. It connects to the wires like any other light switch so I didn’t have any trouble installing it. I should mention here that I can switch it out any time I like — or add other ones just like it. My point: you can retrofit to add this at any time.

Once it was wired up and I’d set up my Wink hub, I followed the instructions in the Wink app on my phone to add the switch as a device. Voila! A light switch I could turn on or off or monitor from anywhere I had an Internet connection. Yes, including my helicopter in flight. I used it not long after installation when I returned from a charter flight after nightfall. It was very cool to see my deck lights turn on as I was flying across the river to my home.

And yes, it works like a wall switch, too, although it doesn’t toggle. Tap to turn it on, tap to turn it off.

Door Sensors

Security, for Peace of Mind

Reading about my the security features of my home automation system, you might get the idea that I’m paranoid. Am I? I’d like to think that I’m not. I’d like to think that I’m just interested in keeping an eye on things, especially when I’m not home.

During my off season, which is seven months out of the year, I travel quite a bit. Even two of the months I’m “working,” I’m based part of that time in California. So although I have a very reliable house-sitter (with a Doberman!) and neighbors who keep an eye on things during my long trips away from home, the house is empty almost as much as it’s occupied. While crime is not an issue where I live, it is somewhat remote. (My city-dwelling friends would argue that I live in the middle of nowhere.) It just seems to make sense to install features to keep an eye on things when I can’t be around to watch them myself.

Another thing I set up very early on were the door sensors. I bought four Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors, which are now marketed as Quirky Tripper Smart Security Trigger. These are two-piece units that you can place on doors or windows.

I used them on doors. One piece goes on the door itself and the other piece goes on the door frame so it lines up with the other piece when the door is closed. They don’t have to touch. When the door is opened, the sensor triggers. I set this up so it would send me an alert on my phone any time the door opened. I can also check the app from anywhere to see if the door is open or closed. Each door has a name, so I always know which one was opened.

Obviously, I did this for security reasons. I’m the only person who lives here. If a door opens and I didn’t open it, I want to know about it.

Motion Sensors

Motion Sensor
I use motion sensors like this to monitor activity around my shop and garage.

My security setup also includes motion sensors. I use the GoControl Z-Wave PIT Motion Detector, which has a built-in temperature sensor.

Like the door sensors, the motion sensor also works with Wink and will alert me when it senses motion. It’s very sensitive — it can pick up my 7-pound dog, Penny, and has, in the past, sensed a mouse.

Thermostat

Thermostat
This is the one I have. It was installed about a year and half ago; they have a lot more spiffy looking ones now, but I can’t imagine that they offer more features.

When the HVAC guys got around to finishing up my heat pump system — that gives me what we used to call “central air” as well as heat — I made sure they installed a wifi enabled Honeywell thermostat. This thermostat is programmable with up to four time periods a day and up to seven different programs a week. Since my life is not “scheduled,” I have it set up for the same programming each day and fine-tune it when I’m around or leave.

Like the other items I’ve listed so far, this one works with my Wink app. But it also has its own app that can be used independently of Wink. I’ve played around with both and have decided that I prefer the Honeywell app, so that’s what I use.

Thermostat
Adjust the thermostat while still lounging in bed? Check.

Because it’s wifi enabled, I can control it from anywhere with an Internet connection. So yes, I can adjust the thermostat while I’m still lying in bed. But I can also adjust it from SeaTac, when I want to bring the heat (or air conditioning) back to a comfortable temperature before I get home from a trip. Likewise, I can set it to a more economical temperature while I’m away, if I forgot to adjust it before leaving. And I can check the temperature at any time to make sure the system is working right. It has alert capabilities, too, as you might imagine, but I don’t use them.

Smart Plugs

Because not all lights or appliances have wall switches, there are smart plugs. A smart plug is a wifi enabled outlet that you can plug into any outlet. You then plug an appliance into it — a lamp, a coffee maker, a neon sign — and turn that item on. When the plug is turned on, it sends power to the appliance and it goes on.

Smart Plug
Smart plugs like this one make it easy to automate any device.

I bought iHome Smart Plugs to play with this feature. The first one I set up was to be able to turn on a neon sign I bought in Quartzite last year. I hung the sign on the rail for my loft, far out of reach. With the signed plugged into the smart plug, I can turn it on from my phone. What’s really cool, however, is that these smart plugs also work with Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, so I can turn the light on or off with a voice command. (It’s a real hit when I have friends over for dinner or drinks.)


Frivolous? Guilty.

I also used one of these to help circulate air in my loft. Because two of my HVAC vents are up on my loft, the warm (or cool) air sometimes gets “stuck” up there, especially on very warm or very cold days. I set up a fan and attached it to one of these smart plugs, then set up a schedule for the plug to turn on in the morning and turn off in the evening. This made it possible to get the air circulation I wanted without having to climb the ladder to the loft to turn the fan on or off.

So yes, the plug, when used with my Wink system, can be programmed to turn on or off at any time. And that schedule can be overridden at any time. From any place. Kind of cool, no?

Video Doorbell

One of the toughest things I had to do when wiring my home was to find and install a hardwired doorbell. Why? Because people apparently don’t use hardwired doorbells anymore. They seem to prefer wireless ones that have a push button outside and a door chime somewhere inside. But I wanted a wired one and I finally found the basic one I wanted. And then I had to figure out how to get the silly thing properly installed so I had electrical power on the wall outside my front door. (Hint: when you switch the wires, the doorbell rings continuously.)

Ring Doorbell
It was not easy mounting this on a corrugated metal surface, but I managed and it isn’t going anywhere without my building attached.

Why did I want power there? Because I knew that at some time in the future, I was going to install a video doorbell. It took a while to find the one I wanted, but I eventually wound up with a Ring doorbell. This is a really cool device. It combines the features of a regular doorbell — push the button and the chime I’d already installed chimes — with a video camera, intercom system, and motion sensor. Basically, if someone drives (or walks) up to my home, I get an alert. I can then use the video camera to see who it is and start a conversation with them — even if they don’t ring the bell.

And it really does work! I recently answered the door and chatted with the person standing there — who I could see — while I was driving my truck in town.

Although Ring can connect to Wink, it’s much better when used with its own app, which lets you configure it and interact with it. And this is the only device I pay a subscription for: I signed up for the cloud recording feature so that every time Ring senses motion, a video clip is automatically stored on Ring’s server for future reference. (Needless to say, I have many recordings of me letting Penny the Tiny Dog out to do her business.

The Router

Right around this time, I started having trouble with my Internet connection.

I get all my television service via Internet streaming with Roku. After installing Ring, I noticed that television shows would often get interrupted and need to reconnect to continue streaming. It was very annoying.

Rural Fiber Rocks
Rural fiber rocks.

At first, I didn’t make the connection between the Ring installation and the Roku problem. I did a speed check and saw that I still had the wicked fast Internet service I always had. After restarting the router and anything else I could think of and the problem not going away, I figured that the junky router my ISP had provided had simply gone bad. So I did the lazy web thing and got on Facebook to ask my friends if they could recommend a router. During the conversation that ensued, I got a router education and discovered that several of the devices I was installing — the Wink hub, Ring, the thermostat, the cameras (see below) — were talking directly to my router, along with my desktop computer, laptop, iPads, iPhone, and Roku. The router couldn’t handle the traffic and was partially shutting down when I watched TV.

ASUS Router
The ASUS router I bought to replace my crappy ISP-provided one. Wow! What a difference!

My friend Tom, who is extremely knowledgeable about these things, recommended a specific model of ASUS router. It was well over $200 — a lot more than I wanted to spend on a router. But I understood that I needed more capacity and I also now understood how much each model could handle. So I settled on an ASUS RT-AC66U Dual Band router. This would give me a 2.4GHz network like I already had plus a 5GHz network and even a guest network. I set it up with the home automation devices on the 2.4GHz network and my other devices, including the Roku, on the 5GHz network. And I plugged my desktop mac directly into one of its four Ethernet ports, thus removing it entirely from the wifi network. (I don’t know why I didn’t do that in when I set up my old router; they’re sitting right next to each other.)

What I like about this router is how easy it is to set up and monitor connected devices. While I assume my old router had some of this capability, this one just seems to make it more obvious. And it handles my current load — about 20 devices — with ease. No more Roku streaming problems!

Garage Doors

My home has four car garages, each with its own door. When I wired the garage, I included outlets over each garage bay for the future installation of garage door openers. But because I didn’t need garage door openers, I didn’t get them installed right away.

I finally got around to it this past June. The installer offered me three options ranging from $325/door to $425/door. (Do the math on four doors: ouch!) All three options were for LiftMaster doors — that’s the professionally installed version of Chamberlain.

Internet Gateway
Smaller than a deck of cards, this device plugs right into my router and makes my garage doors accessible from my iPhone.

I did some research and learned that although all three options were wifi enabled, the most expensive one (model 8550W) had a built-in “router” of sorts and was all ready to be connected to the LiftMaster app. But the other two models could be added to the app with the purchase of a single small device called an Internet gateway. The differences between those two models was chain (noisy) vs. belt (quieter) drive. As I told the installer, if my garage door opens and I’m not the one opening it, I want to hear it. So I went with the cheapest of the three models (model 8365) and spent an extra $50 for the Internet gateway, which I installed myself by simply plugging it into a wall socket and my new router.

LiftMaster
The LiftMaster app shows a status screen for each garage door, which I can name. Tap the picture of the garage door to open or close it. (Looks like my Honda is being neglected again.)

(And no, I was not about to install the garage door openers myself, even to save a few hundred bucks. There really is a limit to my DIY skills.)

I absolutely love my smart garage doors. I can open or close them from anywhere, check the status (is a specific door open or closed?), get an alert when one opens, and even set up a robot to check the status of the doors at a specific time of day and automatically close them all — in case I forget to close them myself. Of course, they all do have the usual remote controls — one for each vehicle that lives there — and a central control area just inside the door that leads from my entrance vestibule to my garage. And there’s even a keypad outside one of the doors that, when the proper code is entered, will open a specific door or close them all.

The only thing that would make the setup any better is if the garage door openers washed the cars while they were sitting idle in the garage.

Smoke/CO Detectors

When I first started working on the inside of my living space, I was excited to buy a pair of Kidde Wink-compatible smoke detectors. To me, this was the best of all worlds: a system of smoke/carbon monoxide detectors that would “talk” to each other and alert me about hazards no matter where I was.

Trouble was, the smoke detectors were battery operated and they didn’t have a hardwired version. The building code requires hardwired smoke detectors. So I had to buy the old fashioned kind and install those to meet building codes.

Once I got my Certificate of Occupancy, however, I could make changes. I didn’t remove the approved smoke detectors. Why would I? They were already bought, paid for, and installed. Instead, I just added the two smoke detectors to my home: one in the garage (where I honestly think everyone should have one) and one up on my loft. I then connected them to each other wirelessly and tested them. Not only did they both go off, but they gave me the alert I was hoping to get on my phone.

Smart Bulbs

Smart Bulb
GE Link smart bulbs put wifi into the base of a light bulb.

My most recent automation acquisition was a pair of GE Link light bulbs. These are energy saving LED lightbulbs that are wifi enabled. They can be added to my Wink app like the smart plugs or light switches.

The benefit of using a smart bulb instead of connecting the light fixture to a smart plug is that you can easily control the bulb manually. If you use a smart plug between the wall and the lamp, if the plug is disabled, there’s no power to the lamp. With a smart bulb, there’s always power to the lamp; it’s the switch on the lamp or the bulb itself that controls whether there’s light.

Like the smart switches, smart bulbs can be controlled with the app or on a schedule. They make it very easy to set up light timers on any kind of light.

Interconnectivity

One thing I didn’t mention here is that devices accessible through my Wink system can talk to each other and work together. This is done through the creation of “robots.”

For example, I can have a robot that monitors my Ring doorbell between sunset and sunrise and turns on my deck light if it senses motion. (I already have the deck light monitoring when I come home so it turns on the light when I pull into my driveway.)

While an example like this is great, Wink doesn’t have the ability to set times for an activity to end after a robot started it. So if it did turn on the deck light, it would stay on until either I turned it off or another robot did. I’ve put in a feature request to Wink to add timer-based functionality — for example, turn the light on for 15 minutes.

Cameras

I didn’t talk about my live video cameras, mostly because I don’t consider them part of my home automation system and they don’t work with Wink or any other system. I have three different cameras (not including the one in Ring and my weather cam), one of which was installed before my home was built! I keep trying new ones but don’t seem to find one I really like. At this point, I have enough of them. They provide additional security and a way to keep an eye on my home when I’m not around.

Suppose I’m on a day trip out of town somewhere and I get a motion sensor alert. I can use the cameras to see whether there’s someone around who shouldn’t be. If there is, I can use one of the cameras to talk to that person if I want to.

Tip of the Iceberg

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as capabilities are concerned. There are automatic watering systems, sensors for all kinds of things, even a device that tells you when it’s time to buy eggs.

And I’m sure I’ll be expanding my little system as time goes on — although I can keep track of my egg supply without a computer.

Have you set up any home automation at your place? If so, please do take a few moments to share your experience or advice with readers. My experience is limited to what’s here. You can add value to this post by sharing what you know with others.

Construction: The Windowsills

Something a little different for a different kind of home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I’ve been living in my new home for about a year and a half now and although I’ve had my Certificate of Occupancy since this past spring, I’m still not quite done with the finishing touches. The windowsills were one of the projects I recently finished. I documented my work with video as I finished up.

The Backstory

Most people have their homes built by builders who are managed by a general contractors. At the end of the project, the general contractor hands over a set of keys to a finished home. For my home, I was the general contractor. Whatever I didn’t hire someone else to do, I had to do myself. While this saved me a bunch of money, what’s better is that it gave me an opportunity to add custom design elements that most general contractors couldn’t be bothered with. My windowsills are a very good example of this.

My building is a “pole building” built with post and beam construction. That means the building’s frame literally hangs on a series of thick, pressure-treated 6×8 or 8×8 posts. When the framers came to frame the inside of my living space, I had two options: frame just the inside walls and allow those wooden posts to appear on inside walls or frame the entire living space so the drywall would hide those posts. The posts weren’t very attractive, so I chose to hide them. This means that they had to frame a secondary wall inside the outer wall, creating a relatively wide space between the inner and outer walls. This was great for insulation purposes — I could fit much thicker insulation in that wall than was required by building codes. But it also left deep wells at each window.

Framed Windows
This photo was shot back on December 29, 2014 when I was working on interior wiring. It’s a pretty good illustration of how the framers framed my interior walls inside my building shell. This is my living room; my TV is currently in that corner.

Insulated Wall
This is one of my living room windows after the insulation was put in place in mid January 2015.

When the drywall guys came, I had two choices. I could have them drywall the entire window well, including the bottom part, or I could leave the bottom part unframed and install wooden windowsills later on. I thought back to my old home, which used the first method for its relatively shallow window wells. When windows were left open in the rain or windows leaked — which was a problem with one window not long after we bought the home — the drywall windowsill was damaged and required a professional drywall guy to patch. I wanted to avoid that, so I went with installing wooden window sills later on. I should mention that my four clearstory windows, which are high on my south-facing walls, do have finished drywall window sills. But they’re rarely opened so I’m not worried about damage.

Drywalled and Painted
Here’s one of my living room windows on February 15, 2015, not long after being drywalled and painted. (If you’re interested in seeing what the drywall work looked like as it was being done, be sure to check out the walkthrough video in this blog post. And this blog post includes a video of my kitchen, after installation but before the windowsills were installed.)

So this was what I was left with. Ugly, huh?

The Solution

My first attempt at wooden windowsills used 1×10 and 1×12 lumber that I cut to fit. This turned out to be a difficult job, mostly because the framer (and the dry wall guy) hadn’t created uniformly sized or shaped window wells. Getting the wood to fit perfectly and look good was a nightmare and, as you might expect, I procrastinated about getting the job done. When I finally did it, it looked like crap — at least in my opinion. I started regretting the wooden windowsill decision.

First attempt at a windowsill
This is my first attempt at a windowsill back in March 2015 — it’s the original one in my office area. There were no right angles in the window wells, making cutting the wood to fit perfectly nearly impossible.

Time went on. I cut wooden planks to fit most of the window wells as best as I could. I didn’t like the way it looked, but it looked a lot better than nothing at all.

More time passed. Lots of time. My friend Don built a custom wood cap out of driftwood logs for my stairwell that got rave reviews from everyone who saw it. I asked him to build some furniture for my living room: end tables, a TV table, and a coffee table. He used reclaimed wood and left natural edges. He finished everything with tung oil. They looked great; you can see them in a video in this blog post. He told me about some logs he’d had planed into planks. I talked to him about my windowsills. He asked me how many planks I needed. I told him eight — one for each of my great room windows. He came by one day and delivered 8 raw planks of wood.That was sometime in the autumn of 2015; I don’t know the exact date because I don’t have a photo of the delivered stack of wood, which lay across a pair of sawhorses in my garage. For months.

The trouble was, I didn’t know what to do with the wood. So when Don asked me this past summer how the project was going, I told him I was waiting for his help. So he set a date in July and when that date rolled around, we got to work.

The Job

Don did the first two windowsills for me, start to finish, while I watched and learned.

Wood Plank
A typical wood plank. We began working it by closing up cracks, then cutting off a live edge for the back of the windowsill, trimming its length, and shaping its front edge.

Repaired crack
One of the cracks after gluing it. After scraping away the solid foam and sanding it, the crack disappeared.

The process began with repairing cracks in each piece of wood. The wood had arrived wet and had been stacked horizontally on sawhorses with each row of planks separated by some scrap lumber so they could dry. Cracks along the grain had formed in some of the logs. Don wasn’t concerned. He’d already developed a workable solution for this problem, which he encountered quite often. We wet down both sides of the crack, filled it with Gorilla Glue, and then used clamps to close up and hold the cracks together. Overnight, the glue would set, leaving orangish solidified foam on the outside, That would be scraped away and sanded down with the plank later in the process.

Then we needed to match a wood plank to a window. The planks were all longer than they needed to be, but they came in two basic widths. The wide ones needed to be used for the five north-facing windows while the narrower ones could be used for the east-facing windows, which weren’t quite as deep. We had to pick which side should be the top and which edge should be on the outside, facing the room.

Then Don made a template out of cardboard pieces for a specific window. This had the exact length, including the weird angles, and the depth, including the outer edge. We’d bring that downstairs and he’d lay it on the chosen plank, outline where he needed to cut. Then, using a circular saw, he’d cut off one live edge of the wood to form a straight back edge. He’d also trim the length of the plank and then, using the circular saw and a handsaw, cut the shape of the front with an overhang past the edge of the windowsill area.

Then we’d go back upstairs to see if it fit. And back downstairs to make some adjustments. And back upstairs to see if it fit. Repeat as necessary. When Don was satisfied, we came back downstairs to finish the live edge. That required using a special cutting tool to carve away the bark and shape the exposed edge of the wood. This is where it got artistic and Don did a fine job (as I expected). Finally, he used an orbital sander to sand the top and outer edges of the plank.

When it was just the way he wanted it, we brought it back upstairs, fit it into place one more time to be sure, and then removed it. Rather than use screws or pegs to affix it into place, he took out his trusty Gorilla Glue and spray bottle, moistened the wood, applied glue to both the unfinished windowsill area and the bottom side of the new windowsill, and slipped it back into place. We used a combinations of rags for padding and lengths of wood to hold the windowsills down until the glue could cure — at least 12 hours.

Don did two of these that first day. I paid close attention. He came back the next day and did the rough cuts for a few more, leaving all the finish work to me. A week later, he dd the last two. I paid him for the wood and his time. The rest was up to me.

Two Windowsills
This photo shows two of my windowsills. The one on the left was completely finished and installed by Don. All it needed was to be oiled. The one on the right is cut to size but not finished. I had to carve out the live edge (removing the bark) and sand it down before gluing it into place.

With the window framing exposed again — we’d taken off my makeshift windowsills — I was motivated to finish up. So although I had a bunch of other stuff going on — including the end of cherry season and a vacation in my new truck camper — I went to work at it and eventually got it all finished up. Along the way, I shot some video clips of the work I had to do. I put them all together in this video, so folks could get an idea of what had to be done. It’s a little long, but it covers all the steps I took.

By the way, I’m finding that creating and saving these videos in my blog is a great way for me (and others) to look back on the progress I’ve made in building my home. As I wrote this blog post, I stopped to watch some of the videos I linked to here. It was not only great tp see things partially done again, but interesting to hear my narration of plans — some of which changed over time. What a great way to document the evolution of this challenging and lengthy project!

Home Tour, 8-Oct-16

Another look at my work-in-progress home.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I had a friend I hadn’t seen for about a year come over for dinner on Saturday night. It was a good thing he came. I had a few little projects that I’d been putting off for two long — the trim around my bathroom door being the biggest one — and knowing he was coming motivated me to finish them. It also motivated me to clean the place up and throw away a lot of the junk that had been accumulating. I am the queen of clutter and I’m really working hard to control it.

My Red Sofa
I get very serious when I clean. I even took out the leather cleaner and wiped down my living room sofa.

Once my home was all spiffed up, I figured I’d take the opportunity to do a quick video tour. I’ve been videoing various parts of my new home construction and it’s kind of neat to go back through my archive and see where I was at various points.

My living space is about 95% done at this point. I have my Certificate of Occupancy — I got it last spring — so there’s nothing left to get inspected. There are three big finishing projects, though:

  • Build a ladder to my loft. I already have all the wood and hardware. I just have to stop procrastinating and get the job done.
  • Finish the tile around my shower stall. Again, I have most of the materials I need. I just absolutely detest working with tile. So I procrastinate.
  • Paint and trim the stairs. I’m going with paint because it’s durable and cheap. But I still have to sand the steps, paint them, and then add trim along the sides.

I also have some “baseboard” trim work to do. I’m using quarter round to keep it simple. There’s not much left to do. I might knock it off Monday afternoon.

Anyway, here’s the video. Enjoy.

Construction: The Garage Shelves

It was a mess. Now it’s not.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

I need to start by reminding readers that I have a very large garage. The 60 x 48 footprint is split into a four car garage (24 x 48), a double-wide RV garage (24 x 48), and a shop/general storage area (12 x 48). If you’re doing math, that’s 2880 square feet.

Of garage.

Woody Says
My friend Woody wrote this on my big white board during my moving party back in 2014. He wasn’t kidding.

The great thing about a big garage is that there’s plenty of space to store stuff. The bad thing about a big garage is that there’s plenty of space to store stuff.

I’m doing what I can to keep the garage organized, but even though most things have their place, that place isn’t exactly neat and orderly.

It Started with the Bungee Cords

The other day, I decided to clean up and sort out my bungee cords and ratchet tie downs — you wouldn’t believe how many I have because even I’m having trouble believing it.

I’d been racking my brains on a solution that would enable me to hang them neatly in order of size in a place that was out of the way. That’s when I remembered the curtain rods. When I lived in my Arizona house, I’d bought a few really nice ones. I wasn’t about to leave them behind — not even with shrimp stuffed in them (look it up) — so I packed them. Of course, I don’t have curtains on my windows here so I don’t need curtain rods. They remained wrapped up in bubble wrap in a corner of the garage.

Bungees
Some of my bungees and tie downs and ropes after putting up the curtain rod. I found a bunch more here, there, and everywhere the next day. The horizontal wooden beams are called girts, by the way. I live in a post & beam building. Beyond the vapor barrier is the metal exterior of my building. The car garage is not insulated.

I unwrapped the living room rod and grabbed a bungee cord. Sure enough, its hook fit neatly over the narrow black rod. A half hour later, the rod was hung on one of the girts in my Jeep garage — each garage bay is assigned a vehicle; the Jeep is in the first bay — and I was taking great joy in arranging my bungee cords and ratchet tie-downs. And ropes and straps.

The Shelves Came Next

I started thinking about how stupid it was to have all that dead space right below the bungee cords. How about a couple of shelves?

Big Shelves
This was the first set of shelves I built for the garage. (Tiny dog for scale.) They’re free-standing and very heavy duty. And just plain heavy. I made two more shorter sets and a workbench with two shelves based on the same design. The RV garage/shop is insulated.

I should mention here that I’ve created shelves elsewhere in my garage. The biggest project was a set 8 feet long and 8 feet tall made of 5/8 plywood and 2 x4 lumber. It was quite a chore to build them, which I did with them lying down on the floor. When I tried to stand them up, I couldn’t. I had to wait for a friend to come by and lure him down into the garage — which was about as difficult as it sounds. (Men love my garage.)

I had limited space in the car garages, though. After all, I had to fit the cars in. Each garage bay is about 12 feet wide. There aren’t any walls between them — it’s one big open space. I knew I could fit shelves that were about 12 inches deep. (The big ones are 24 inches deep.) And I realized that I could build them in place, right against the wall, using the tops of the girts as supports for the shelves. That would save another inch and a half because each shelf could go right up against the exterior metal walls.

So I went to Home Depot and bought a sheet of about 1/2 inch plywood. While I was there, I saw a really nice piece of sanded 1/2 inch plywood that was in the cull pile because of a nasty scratch in one corner. But 70% off? A $35 sheet of wood for $10? No brainer! I brought both pieces over to the big wood cutter and got a Home Depot guy to cut each of them into 8 foot x 1 foot strips. Then I picked up a few 2x4s, along with some very nice 2×3 cull pieces and a long 2×4 cull piece. I don’t see anything wrong with using cull lumber to build shelves in a garage.

Did I mention that I also returned a bunch of lumber I’d bought about a year before but never used? The return completely covered the cost of the new lumber, as well as some additional screws and other supplies I needed in my shop. I threw everything into the back of the pickup, hung a red flag on the long 2×4, ran a few errands, and went home to make dinner with a friend.

The next morning, I really should have tended to my bees, but my truck was blocking my quad and I figured it would be best for me to offload the lumber and move the truck. Or maybe just offload the lumber and build the shelves to get the lumber completely out of the way.

So I did.

Let me explain a little bit about how a post and beam building — or pole building — is constructed. They start by digging holes in the ground and planting vertical posts. My building is made with a combination of 6×6 and 6×8 pressure treated posts. Then they nail the girts in horizontally, 24 inches on center. Next, they put the roof trusses atop the posts. They add rafters to finish framing out the roof. They cover that with insulation or a vapor barrier or both and then screw on the metal skin. They pour the concrete slab last — if the building has one (mine does). If you’re interested in seeing my building built in a time-lapse movie, be sure to check out this blog post.

The posts are usually 12 feet apart. In the bungee cord area, however, the distance between the door to my stairwell and the first post was only 7 feet. The reason: the front door and entrance vestibule is also on that wall. So the shelves needed to be just 7 feet long.

I dragged the saw horses my friend Bob had made me — they’re taller than standard sawhorses and much nicer to use — to the driveway outside the garage door, which I opened. I used my circular saw to make the cuts; later, I used my miter saw and table saw to get cleaner cuts when needed. And bit by bit I assembled the pieces I needed to build a short set of shelves with just a top and bottom shelf. The bottom shelf needed two cut outs — one for an electrical outlet (long story) and the other for the pipe for the outside hose bib. I got to use my new 1-1/2-inch hole saw, which I’d actually bought for a beehive project.

Bungee wall with shelves
Here’s my bungee cord wall with the new shelves. I arranged all the tools I used for the project on the shelves.

I had to make a few blocks out of scrap wood to support various components of the shelves as I assembled them and screwed them together. I drilled pilot holes — I always do a neater job when there’s a hole predrilled for a screw. I used two 2×2 lengths that had been sitting around forever for the front horizontal shelf supports. These were small shelves so they didn’t need to be very heavy duty.

When I was done, I realized that I also needed a center vertical support. So I used a piece of scrap wood leftover from my windowsill project. Done.

And Then More Shelves

The truck wasn’t empty yet. I still had plenty of wood. I also had a really messy wall at the front of that garage bay. And time.

Old ShelvesHere’s the old shelves with a bunch of car stuff on them. This whole area looks like crap here — and this was after I’d moved some trim wood stored there.

A long time ago, I’d bought a very heavy duty bookshelf for my books. I have a lot of books. I don’t remember if this shelf was from my New Jersey home or if I got it for the office I had at my condo in Wickenburg for a while. In any case, it eventually made its way to my Wickenburg hangar where I stored a lot of stuff on it. When I moved from Wickenburg to an East Wenatchee hangar and eventually to my new home in Malaga, the shelves came with me. I’d put them in the front of that garage bay and was using it to store miscellaneous auto-related stuff.

But it looked like crap.

I texted a friend of mine who has rental properties. Want an old bookshelf in decent condition? I sent a picture. Sure, she answered. Send a man with a truck, I told her. (She’d also taken my old Sony Trinitron off my hands.)

I took all the things off the shelves and used a hand truck to move the shelves over to a spot between Bay 2 (Honda S2000) and Bay 3 (Ford truck). Hopefully, the man with the truck will come within a few days. I swept. And then I got to work.

Four shelves, no shelf cutting needed because 8 feet was fine. I ripped two 2x4s on my table saw and used them for horizontal supports for the front of the shelves. Then I cut 2 2x4s to 79 inches and started piecing all of it together.

Penny and Sheep
I had to crop the heck out of this cell phone photo. My truck mirror is on the right.

And that’s when Penny started barking like a little nut. I went out to investigate. She was halfway down the driveway at a standoff with a bighorn sheep. After some more barking, she spooked it and it bounded off. And then a dozen of its friends shot out of my side yard after it. There had been a whole herd of them less than 100 yards from where I was working and I didn’t even know it.

I took a break for lunch. I saw the sheep again later. They got very close. I got photos. But I’ll save that for another blog post.

I eventually got back to work. Again, I had to cut supports as I mounted each shelf. But once I got the hang of it, it went very quickly. I was done within an hour.

I put away my tools and set about organizing car and motorcycle-related stuff on the new shelves. I found a garage door opener for my old house. I found the stock mats that had come with my old Ford F350. (It had custom rubber mats so these were brand new; I photographed them and put them on Craig’s List.) I walked around my whole garage, looking for anything remotely car or motorcycle related and moved it to the shelves. I still had lots of space to fill.

I had some extra wall space between the shelves and the garage door. I measured a crate I had in my shop and moved it into position. I cut a piece of wood to give it a sold top. Then I moved my gas cans and spare propane bottle onto it. It made sense to keep stuff like that near the door where it could be quickly removed.

I found a few more bungee cords and put them away.

I spent some time admiring my handiwork. I might be the Queen of Clutter, but it isn’t by choice. If everything has a place, everything can be put away. The trick is finding a place for everything. Now I have a place for my car stuff.

Finished Garage Shelves
These shelves look a lot nicer than the mess I had there before.

Up Next

Before I called it quits for the day and went upstairs to get cleaned up, I took a look at the wall in Bay 4. That’s where my little boat and motorcycle live. It’s a big mess and could really use some shelves. I’m thinking it might be a good place to organize all of my extra beekeeping equipment.

Looks like I’ll be hitting Home Depot for more lumber again.

Footnote

After writing this and posting it and then re-reading it online, I started thinking about all the work I’d done to build these shelves — and to do all the other things I’ve done as part of the construction of my home. A lot of it is difficult, challenging work that requires me to use my brains as well as my physical strength to get a project done. A lot of people would shy away from work like this and either hire someone else to do it or not do it at all. I know this from experience; so many projects at my Arizona house just didn’t get done. Or got done the way a contractor did them — which might not be the way it should have been done to meet needs.

Doing things like this myself is a task and a challenge I really look forward to. I don’t have a regular job that requires me to show up at an office or sit at a desk and make calls all day. My time is infinitely flexible. I could spend it sleeping all day or watching television or just goofing off. Yet many days, I choose to spend my time working hard on projects like this. The way I see it, there are four benefits:

  • I get the thing done and get the benefits of that. In this case, I’ve got a bunch of neat, new storage spaces where I used to have a wall with a lot of stuff piled up on it.
  • I save money on what it would have cost to hire someone to do the job. It’s a lot cheaper for me to spend a few hours on a project like this than to pay a carpenter to do it. It’s not like I don’t have the time.
  • I learn new techniques, often through trial and error. The things I learn can be applied to other projects. The way I see it, if I can’t learn something every day, why bother getting out of bed?
  • I get an amazing feeling of satisfaction every time I look at something I created with my own hands. My home is full of things like this. Read my construction posts to see what I’ve done; I’m proud of every single project I finished.

The people who think I’m doing these things because I’m cheap or bored are completely missing the point. They likely haven’t taken on projects like these, projects that can meet a specific need and give them so much satisfaction for every minute of effort put into them. It’s not difficult if you think it through and have the right materials and tools. Dare I say it? It’s fun.

Try it sometime and see for yourself.