Friday, November 27, 2009

Go potty

I am currently in the process of planning the garden layout for the terrace. I don't have a lawn space for a garden, but the terrace opens up many possibilities.

So I am drawing up lists for medicinal herbs like basil and other useful ones like aloe vera, while I want just two flowering varieties, hibiscus and white lily.

When you decide to start your own square of garden, first clear out the designated area. If there is already some soil left over from the previous owner's efforts, clear all of it off if you're thinking of using the same soil bed. Soil left unwatered for a long while has close to no nutritive value for the plants, so remove all of it. Lay in soil thus - one layer of soil, then whatever manure you want to put in, then the top layer of soil. Do not pack the soil in too tight.

Every plant's root system is different, hence seeds may have to be planted either deep or not that much. Take an expert's help when planting seeds. Alternatively, head to the nearest nursery for advice and raw materials. They can tell you which plants to begin with depending on the current season, which plants require what kind of maintenance, how much space each plant needs, what not to plant next to each other, and so on.

If you're planning on getting pots, like I am, the task is quite easy. But be very careful when selecting the plants - most are already potted or ready to plant, and while you may be entranced by the purple hue of one flower or the fragrance of another, most flowering varieties do not yield any flowers after the first bloom. You might want to do some research on taking care of the plants you buy, as regards pest-proofing them and feeding them the best nutrients.

If you want plants inside the house, opt for a fuss-free creeper such as a money plant, or a small variety of pine, which looks simply fantastic in a nice planter box in the living room. For the kitchen window sill, opt for small pots with such plants that yield curry leaves or carrots or even tomatoes. Hardy plants are a must in the kitchen because the heat and the masalas from cooking will kill off most others.

For the bedroom, go for a fragrant variety of plant, but ensure that you arrange to keep it out of the window when you hit the sack at night. Not a good idea to have a plant in close proximity to the bed.

If you have a baby in the house or a toddler who typically puts his hands in everything, place all cacti on a higher shelf.

Have you made a square of green in your home? I'd love to hear how you did it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How green is your home?

I don’t mean green just by means of the numbers of potted plants, though that is important as well. Let’s talk a bit about using electricity and water to as minimum a level as possible, apart from efficient garbage disposal, pest control and similar without using too many chemicals.

When you select a new house, first study the wind patterns. Throw open all the windows and note the wind direction and velocity. If you’re one of the many who’ve selected a house in a building hemmed in by other buildings, chances are you won’t have much to say with respect to views and wind. Hence, whatever breeze floats in should be maximised to give you the utmost in comfort and usability.

If you’ve purchased a flat, you can easily make a few adjustments such as reducing the width of a particular window which lets in the most air. There is a principle called Venturi Effect, in which a narrow opening placed in the direction of a gust or a moderately strong breeze, causes a pressure situation at the opening itself, hence causing the incoming breeze to gush in with force. The point is not the force of the wind, but that the Venturi Effect causes more breeze to come in due to the pressure build-up.

Here’s a tip: in place of opening the shutters to the widest, try sliding your window shutter leaving only a slit open. If you have wooden shutters, try tying them together leaving only a narrow slit open in between. This last is a better deal for those living on rent and who can’t modify the structure in any way.

Alternatively, try fitting a simple screen comprising a wooden frame and a thin cotton cloth. This is used in some cultures living in hot cultures and where cooling breezes are hard to come by. Simply use this screen by periodically spraying the cloth with water; do not make it dripping wet, moisten it. When any breeze ventures in, the wet screen keeps dust particles out and cools the breeze when it comes in, so do enjoy clearer air from this particular window.

Pest-control is the best option to begin with. Try this when the house is totally empty, or just before you move stuff into your wardrobes and cabinets. If you’re moving stuff from a previous place that may have been infested with pests, wait to call the pest control person till after all the stuff is put into shelves and cupboards. This way, you’ll ensure that any new arrivals are dealt with at the earliest.

Once the pest control is done, and depending on what kind you got done, the house should be free of pests for at least three months. In the meantime, get rid of mosquitoes and flies by burning neem agarbattis in a strategic corner of the room every evening. Close all the windows and doors and switch the fan on when you do this, so that the smoke permeates every surface. Flies can be gotten rid of by soaking neem leaves in a plate of water, especially at the dinner table.

Once a week, spray the insides of your cabinets with a bug spray, to remove all breeding sites.

Electricity usage:
These are basics, but please follow them through. Do not forget to switch off appliances the moment you leave the room, use hot water geysers only till such time that you need that much hot water, and do not leave your computers on forever. The appliances taking up the most power are computers, geysers, microwave ovens and such.

If the house is your own, you could install dimmers for your light switches. A great idea to save power is to install CFLs instead of the usual light bulbs. They last longer and cut down on consumption.

Water usage:
In the light of the recent water cuts imposed on the city, it is more than a crime to waste even a drop of water. Storing water is also illegal, but that is the only way we can get through the day if we get water only for a few hours every day.

Some high-end building constructions install household taps with in-built sensors so that water wastage is minimised. Other ways of saving on water is to use waste water well. Dishwater can safely be used for watering plants, since the chemicals in detergents are broken down in the soil. The same applies to water left over from soaking clothes in soapy water. Alternatively, reuse stale water in the toilet or for a cold bucket bath.

Try not to wash your car, kitchen surfaces, bathroom tiles etc. with running water. Instead, spray the surface with a spray bottle, wet a big sponge and pour a few drops of liquid detergent on it. Use the sponge to clean the surface and wipe off the soap with a dry cloth. If there is a film of soap left behind, wipe off the same with a newspaper.

Yes, they’re not very nice, but do have bucket baths, not shower ones.

They’re not just pretty, they’re pretty useful. Put up such medicinal types like basil and kadipatta so that you can brew the same in your food and when making cough medicines. Put a small plant in the kitchen window so that it purifies the air a bit when you cook. Try not to have plants in the bedroom window if your bed is very close by – you should not be breathing in the CO2 coming out of the plants at night.

When you’re looking for manure for your plants, include the leftover parts of vegetables that you cut but cannot use, such as the stalks and rotted parts. Put these in the middle layer of the soil. Also, tea water and water left from soaking meat are good for watering plants.

Air purifying:
There’s no real need for airconditioners, unless you have very little ventilation available. But apart from fans and ACs, you can purify the air available to you by means of incense sticks. Also try keeping a bowl of potpourri. Like I said before, use neem agarbattis and also dhoop sticks – they keep mosquitoes away and purify the air. Even a neem water spray around the house once a day will keep the air pure.

What are your good ideas on the subject? Do write back with your suggestions.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Service with a smile

Right. You’ve just moved in. Next is what?

Next is, apart from putting the house together from scratch, to get essential services from external sources put together at the earliest.

You’ll need your usual newspapers delivered. You’ll require a daily supply of milk. You’ll have to alert the trash man to ring your doorbell every time he passes on his rounds. You’ll need a guy to iron your clothes, somebody to get you the groceries home if you can’t carry them yourself, even a maid servant if you’re not used to doing the household chores yourself.

For my part, I don’t need the maid and the grocery man, but we do need the others. So the very first morning in the new house, the husband and I went out exploring.

Maybe it was the fact that we’d had a cold night following an evening of intense activity brought about by shifting our stuff in one go. Maybe it was the general welcoming vibe from the new place. Maybe it was the fact that despite the mess and the many hours of impending cleaning, I was with the man I love the most in my life and we were heading out to explore the new neighbourhood together.

We went about looking for chai and breakfast. As a piece of fair warning, let me try and talk you out of partaking of breakfast at a zhunka-bhakar Kendra. Thanks to some curious cooking, we got basundi for chai and rocks for idlis. The sambar left us as cold as it was when served. But we laughed and promised to go someplace else the next day. From where we stood, we spied a tapri a fair distance away doing brisk business with breakfast items. Shelving that for the moment, we went to the newspaper guy just next to the zhunka-bhakar guy, and the newspaper stall guy turned out to be the newspaper vendor for the building we currently live in. So the paper issue was solved.

I don’t rely on milk delivered to my doorstep, mostly because I don’t fancy waking up early and groping about for the milk packet. I simply buy Milk tetrapacks. For those who don’t, I would suggest ringing the doorbell of the most approachable neighbour and asking him/her if they would do you a big favour and tell the milkman to ring your doorbell the next morning. In the meantime, stock up on extra milk packets in case the milkman forgets to call on you.

You might need to fix such things as the gas connection and cable TV. Simply enlist your neighbour’s help for the latter and call up the gas agency helpline for the former. If you’re using gas cylinders, you’ll just need to change your address. If you’re depending on Mahanagar Gas, god help you (and I’m being polite). A good idea would be to call their helpline as soon as you decide to shift because they take about 10 days to address your complaint. The wait is long if you need a new connection installed in a building that already has a gas connection. Before they arrive, they will call you but will try and get out of coming at the last minute, so a bit of wheedling is in order. When they come, get the terrace keys from the secretary or watchman, and ask a neighbour if it’s okay to use her kitchen for a brief while when the gas guys need to solder a pipe on a running flame.

The cable guy will charge you for reconnecting a previous connection, and the money thus paid is non-refundable.

Keep an eye out for the guy who irons the clothes. They generally make two trips a day, so decide the time that is most convenient for you. Fix up a schedule with him, depending on how many times a week you do your laundry.

A maid to do the dishes, sweep the floors and even help in such tasks as cutting the vegetables and cleaning out the bathroom once a week is a must if you can’t do these things yourself. Ask around in the building and gauge how much each job will cost you on an average. There is no fixed rate; in fact, the money charged for each chore will depend largely on the area you live in, how many jobs the potential maid already holds, and how many tasks you expect from her daily. Generally, you will get a maid who holds many jobs in the same building. Maids are notorious about scaring other maids trying to get a job in the area where they work.

If you have a small child, research the area for crèches or playgroups. Your job should be about half done if there are kids in the same age group already living there. You might need to arrange transport so consider a crèche that is within walking distance of your home.

In the initial two weeks, your house might be a wreck owing to everything being anywhere but where you need it. It is a good idea to enlist the help of a professional tiffin service provider to get you through meal times. Every area has a woman or a small company providing these services; the yellow pages should help you out.

Also look for places that let out carpenters, plumbers, electricians and such. Here’s a good tip: places selling sanitary bath fittings and such like generally have an in-house plumber or somebody they tie up with. Ask them for their number and let them list your home address. Also, electric and carpentry hardware stores have in-house helpers who can do such things as fixing fans and levelling the doors. Find out where these services are available.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The cleaning lady

I kid you not - a woman's work is never done. Especially if she's just finished waving the carpenters goodbye and it is time to stash stuff away.


The thing to remember when surveying the sea of bags and suitcases with a sour eye, is not to panic. Yes, it's overwhelming not knowing where to begin and the rest of it, but shush. Start by cleaning out the floors - if you've just shifted, and what's more, had carpenters, plumbers and other persons working on the premises - chances are the floors will require two sweepings and may be the same number of washings. Alternatively, you could leave the floors for last. Wear a pair of comfortable and clean slippers or shoes around the house as you set about cleaning.

If it makes better sense, start with putting the clothes, shoes, bags and kitchen utensils away. Put one type of article away at a time, and don't stop till all of the stuff in that category is put away completely. Trust me, it's a big motivator to see the clothes all put away before you start on the kitchen stuff. Setting house is nothing if not a lesson in self-motivation.

Next, dry dust/ sweep all surfaces, vertical and horizontal. Take the duster inside cabinets and in the corners of shelves, inside bathroom traps and inside lofts. Follow this with a liberal amount of pesticide spraying, if you haven't already called the pest-control guys. If you're going to pest-proof the place professionally, I would suggest doing it when the house is empty and the stuff is still inside bags.

After this, start the next stage of cleaning all surfaces with a wet duster. There is nothing more satisfying than gleaming surfaces emerging from under a wet duster. Some surfaces such as the cooking range, sink, tiles around the washbasin, the washbasin, commode, bathroom tiles and so on may require a vigorous soap bath. Use an abrasive powder such as Vim to attack stubborn stains, but protect your hands when doing so. If your skin rebels against cleaning powders, go for detergents like Pril but use a cleaning pad.

Once this is done, sit for a while with a cup of tea/ coffee/ poison of your choice.

It makes sense to start on the tough parts of the job first. Leave such minor tasks as putting detergents and other things away for the end, and include making the beds, putting up the paintings, arranging your books neatly in the book case, going out to buy potted plants and such, for much later. Small things left at the end are very therapeutic and will help you relax from the stresses of all the cleaning.

Do write in if you did things differently or if you have better ideas on setting up the house.

Next: Optimum service.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Oh, what a mess

Nobody said shifting was easy. But you could do yourself a favour and make it easier for yourself.

I've already put up a post about packing sensibly for the move. Wish I'd followed my own advice a bit more closely - due to a strange turn of events, we moved our major furniture a day earlier than planned, which means that three days after shifting into my new home, I am surrounded by a sea of plastic bags and suitcases, wondering where to get the energy to start unpacking.

So folks, plan every move meticulously. And stick to your schedule if you're sure it will save you time.

I can offer you one tip, though, and this was dad's idea. If you're hiring a tempo or a small truck to move your big stuff like beds and wardrobes, try and do so in the evening hours. Not only did we beat the sun and the heat, we also saved the neighbours the trouble of having to put up with bumps and crashes and screams while they were trying to have their afternoon siesta. Look for a suitable quiet time - I would recommend between six pm to eight pm - and try and save the number of trips from new home to old home.

Also, if you have a Godrej cupboard like we do (only yours might not be as 'special' as ours), I would recommend taking off its doors before you try to move it. Generally, mirrors mounted on to door shutters greatly add to the overall weight, so put the shutters aside if you can. Easier to carry, too.

If you have cane furniture, let it be dumped OVER everything else and not under anything, or it will only get bent out of shape. Might break, too, so watch out.

All big suitcases, plastic bags with kitchen utensils and clothes and such items can easily accompany the truck. It makes sense to send these items on also because it helps to insulate such furniture as washing machines and refrigerators from bumps in transit. Apart from your glass and melamine crockery, dump everything else in the truck.

Before you leave the old house, do a thorough final check to see if you've left anything behind. I forgot to pack many things from the kitchen, which shows you what a mess I was in. Just collect everything and keep loads of bags ready. You will also need separate big bags for garbage disposal. Trust me, once you're done, you'll have astounding levels of garbage lying around. See if any of it can go to the raddiwala, apart from newspapers. They also take plastic items, cardboard boxes and glass bottles. It makes sense to dispose off your raddi at this juncture because the money can come in handy for paying off the tempo or covering some expenses related to moving.

Once inside the new property, if you're done the shifting in the evening hours, don't scrabble to set everything in order right away. First make chai and congratulate yourself for moving. Of course, don't be a slob like me, with stuff still waiting to be opened three days after moving, but I figured, I deserve some peace to get over the trauma of moving.

Leave things for an evening, look for such basics as the tea kettle, tea cups, milk pateli and such which you will need the next morning. Also look for snacks and other breakfast stuff you might need the next day. Look for pillows and blanket, too. The only thing you should be actively doing the moment you get in, is to shift all your perishable foodstuffs back into the fridge before they're ruined beyond repair.

Order a take away, look at your house and feel happy, and go to bed. Congrats on moving.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Agree to agree

Probably the most technical aspect of striking a deal is inking the agreement copy.

If you’ve hired an agent, chances are the agreement copy is ready with him. Chances are, the agreement copy largely benefits the seller, not the buyer. Be very careful when reading the agreement. At least two careful readings are a must.

At the outset, let me say clearly that an agreement copy is a document containing matter that BOTH parties mutually agree upon. A good agreement copy will seek to protect both parties, especially if it is a licensor-licensee agreement. Ask for an email or copy of the agreement and sit with a pencil to mark out points you do not agree upon and which will need revision. Do not let the agreement go into final print unless you agree on every point. There is no space for ambiguity in an agreement. What is meant must be stated in writing, not committed verbally.

Also, some people do not make an agreement at all if they know the licensor/ seller. Bad mistake. You are putting yourself up for fraud, at the very least, and if the home owner decides to sell to someone else after striking a deal with you, you will have nothing to help you claim the money you may have already paid. So be wise, get an agreement made and signed by both parties.

Another important thing to do is to get the agreement put down on a Rs 100 stamp paper or get the document franked from a bank that offers the service. The cost for the latter would be Rs 760 (Rs 750 stamp paper + Rs 10 service charge by the bank). Ensure that the agreement has not been put down on blank sheets, it must be on stamp paper.

After this, insist on registering the document. Some people are reluctant to get the document registered because a) It costs some money and b) There is a four-month time period from the date of signing the agreement, so there is a temptation to procrastinate. Do not go by this route, get the document registered. A registered document ensures that you can avoid any legal hassles in case the other side decides to get clever, also many building societies insist on a registered document before granting a final NOC to you. The cost for the process is to be borne equally by both parties.

The Agreement itself:
- Look for any unnamed/ unexplained elements, especially if you’re renting the place. If there are mentions of licence fees being deducted and dues being subtracted from the security deposit anywhere in the agreement, study these carefully. Normally, any deductions will happen only if you damage the flat during the period of your stay, or make any alterations without permissions and so on. Deductions might also happen if you fail to pay the monthly outgoing on electricity, gas and cable connections before leaving.

- If the licensor expects you to forfeit rent amount, deposit money or anything else in case you terminate the agreement prematurely, tell them to fuck off. For your part, you are expected to give a one-month notice in writing informing the other side of your intention to leave, and with the guarantee that you will settle all bills before you go. If there is any demand for deductions over and above this, the licensor is free to take a walk.

- Normally, a licensor would like to have a window period of six months before the agreement is terminated by you. He/she might be worried about not finding another licensee quickly, but try and work around this. Ideally, if you’re giving a notice, there should be no window period.

- Clearly state, if you are renting, that the cheque for the deposit money is to be handed to you at the same time that you hand over the house keys on the last day of your stay. Allow the licensor a thorough inspection of the house but do not agree to promises that the cheque will come later. Agree to not hand over possession till the cheque is handed over.

- Some licensors have an issue with you putting your own locks on the doors. Be very firm about putting your own lock for your safety, and do not change the existing locks without permission. Some licensors insist on a duplicate key to the detachable locks you fit after moving in; tell them to sit on the building terrace and think about their lives. Also put the fear of burglary in their minds – tell them clearly that you will be compelled to name them as a suspect in case anything is stolen from the house.

- Clearly mention that while the owner has the right to inspect the property from time to time, the same cannot interfere with your right of peaceful possession. Discourage any attempts at surprise visits.

- There are cases when the licensor may leave extra furniture lying around and expect you to be okay with it. See if you can use the furniture. If you can’t, ask them to move the same or else agree to pack it and keep safely. It is not binding on you to live with such items as religious artifacts, furniture items, curtains and similar simply because the owner/ licensor cannot be arsed to take them away. Any items left behind by the seller/ licensor must be clearly stated in the schedule for fitting, fixtures and other items. This list must be checked and signed by you.

- Ideally, the broker must not expect to get paid for his services before the entire deal is sealed.

- If you’re purchasing and if the owner still has an unpaid loan amount pending, agree to transfer the amount to your name via the bank. Put the same down in the agreement clearly.

- The agreement must clearly mention your name and residential details, as well as the owner’s/ licensor’s, on the first page of the document.

- While signing, you might have to carry the following with you: passport size pics, photo ID, identification used at the workplace and similar. These are used in police verification processes.

- If there is a power of attorney angle to the deal, carefully study the POA document. The same should be notarised and registered. If the POA is going to execute the agreement with you, the document cannot be registered unless the POA deed is registered first.

- Once the agreement is signed, first take a photocopy for yourself and insist on a true copy being given to you within two days. Proceed for registration in the meantime.

- Be wary of demands for bearer cheques. Insist on a receipt if you do agree to such a request, but try and maintain all payments via account payee cheques only. A bearer cheque does not leave a trail. All receipts are to be given the moment cheques are handed over, not later.

- Clearly state that all construction and maintenance expenses are to be borne by the licensor.

Do write in if you have tips/ suggestions on what constitutes a good agreement. And if you decide to do it on your own, right from inking the copy to registering it, it’s easy and costs less, though it will take some time.

Next: Outgoings

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Keep it to a minimum

The following is for people looking to settle into a rented apartment, so all the others can come back another time.

Like I’ve said before, the husband and I are in the middle of striking a deal on a new rental place in Borivli. It’s a great house, made more so because the owner has just got it painted. However, there is not much in the house by way of existing shelves or extra cupboard space and the like, so we’ll have to do it ourselves.

Sounds easy, right? It should be, if you get it stated expressly that you will cause minimum intervention in the house by way of poking holes in the walls and tiles for paintings and cabinets and mirrors. By ‘minimum intervention’, the owners generally mean carrying out any new modification in such a way that the house can be restored at the least possible cost and effort, in the shortest time possible.

For holes in the walls, clever use of white cement is all that is generally needed. Do not puncture the walls in such a way that the paint cracks, because THAT repair will be charged to you. Also, do not go overboard putting up paintings and the like, because you will only end up defacing a lot of surfaces, which will also be charged to you. The trick is, to convince the home owner, preferably through a written note, of the stuff you will need to put as a point of necessity, such as storage shelves in the kitchen and a mirror above the wash basin.

To know exactly what you will have to do, take a clipboard and note down all the things that are not already fitted in the flat. For instance, overhead cabinets in the kitchen, or a wall mirror in the bedroom or a water geyser in the bathroom. Many houses we saw recently had no inlets or outlets provided for the washing machine and water filter, so you might consider modifying your kitchen sink tap to a two-way one. Make an itinerary and approach the owner with the same, asking for permission to make the necessary changes. Do not EVER do anything without the owner's permission. Luckily, my husband and I readily got permission from this particular home owner, but others are not always this fortunate. When we struck our first deal, the home owner expressly forbade us from making ANY changes to the house, even to drive one nail in any wall. In fact, he wanted all existing holes to be retained and actually made a list of the house in the condition he was handing it to us, room by room, which both parties signed.

In such a case, go one up. Take a camera with you when the time comes to draw up such a list, and actually make a note of such things as ‘hole in the door frame next to the safety latch’. Sounds comical? It is, but secure yourself. Make a note of every hole, crack in the paint, peeling roof in the toilet, scratch or palm print, broken appliances/ fixtures, nails driven in the wall and not removed, etc, and take photographs of each room as documentary evidence. That way, any claims made at the time of settling your deposit that “you damaged this” and “you changed that” will not arise. Also, if there are any pressing concerns, such as a portion of the paint consistently collapsing in any part of the house through external leakages and such, take pictures and notify the owner immediately.

For your sake and the owners’, try and curb your fanciful urges to have water fountains and millions of plants in every surface in a rented place. Ultimately, it pays to remember that it is not your house, though you are paying to stay there and are maintaining it daily. You’ll have to be doubly careful when it comes to cleaning and reducing damage, but that’s part of the package.

When it’s time to restore, try these tricks:
- Generally, you’ll make an agreement for 11 months. During that time, there is every likelihood of the flush conking off or the front door latch not cooperating. The fans might not work like they used to and the geyser switch may bust a spring. Get these repaired before the owner comes for the final inspection.
- If you can’t do it yourself, get a carpenter to remove your pelmets/ curtain rods, cabinets for you. Also get him to plug any holes you may have put in the walls with white cement.
- Tighten all nuts/screws on fixtures, switchboards, door latches before the final inspection.
- It is completely okay to take away light bulbs or other things you may have installed for your use if they were not provided by the owner.
- Turn off gas mains before you leave.
- It is good manners to clean the house one last time before you go. That includes cleaning the bathroom, toilets, kitchen surfaces, and in corners.
- When the house is finally vacated, the paint will look slightly shabby but that is known as ‘reasonable wear and tear’. Contest any claims that the paint looks a year older because of you.

Next: Inking the agreement copy.