Home Office on a Budget

Turn your home office into a more productive and comfortable place with these simple enhancements.

March 1, 2007

Practically everyone in the real estate business has some sort of home office — ideally, a quiet place to make phone calls, jump on the Internet, and access client files.

For the space-crunched, home offices could simply be a hutch with a fold-away desktop in a living room. Others may carve out a corner of the guest bedroom, and the luckiest have an entire room of their house to devote to professional endeavors. Regardless of where you fall in the home-office spectrum, you could benefit from some easy improvements.

The best part is that you don't have to spend a lot of cash to do it. Experts in home office design and organization offer their tips for boosting productivity and comfort in your home office.

Scout out the Best Spot

Think about where your home office is located, says organizing guru Sally Allen, founder of A Place for Everything LLC in Golden, Colo. There may be a better place.

Offices are often shoved into "leftover" spaces rather than located in rooms with desirable lighting and layout, she says. When choosing a location for your home office, ask yourself: “Will I be easily distracted here? Is there ample lighting? Will I have enough room for all my equipment and files? Are there enough electrical outlets?”

The best rooms have a closet for your office supplies and enough space to comfortably fit a desk, cabinets, and any other essential equipment. If you don't have the luxury of relocating to a new room, try rearranging your furniture. Testing different layouts until you find one that feels right and allows you to move around efficiently.

Let There Be Light, Color

“Almost every home office has lousy lighting,” says design consultant Terrence Schlesinger of LightYears2.com in Kauai, Hawaii. To make your office an exception, choose a space with a window or skylight.

You’ll definitely want an overhead light or floor lamp that illuminates the entire room and a bright desk lamp. Schlesinger prefers a halogen desk lamp with an adjustable arm so light can be placed optimally for each task. Don’t forget to position your computer so the monitor is free from glare.

Another mood booster: bright paint colors. “It’s not just paint; it’s energy," says Schlesinger, who specializes in helping clients choose paint colors. "I recommend that you get away from anything traditional. Pick your favorite colors — not just one or two, but many.”

He suggests painting each wall a different shade, although he recognizes that not everyone is ready for such an adventurous approach. "I like to change colors every 90 degrees," he says. "And don’t forget about the door."

Not sure you trust your inner decorator? Luckily, there are plenty of Web sites that allow you to test out color combinations in virtual rooms. Some sites to try: Behr.com, BenjaminMoore.com and Sherwin-Williams.com.

Get Comfy

Whatever you do, don't overlook the one thing that our experts agreed is a critical component of any effective office: your chair.

“Anything is better than a chair from the kitchen table or dining room,” says Lisa Kanarek, founder of Dallas-based HomeOfficeLife. “I cringe when I see that — a good office chair doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Function matters more than appearance, she says. Look for an ergonomically correct chair that forms to your body, with adjustable seat height, tilt, and arm rests. Find deals online, but try out the chair in a store before you buy. For more guidance, check out Spine-health.com.

Relaxing or invigorating music can increase your comfort level, too, as it drowns out background noise and helps you get more done. You can install a sound system and speakers on your walls, or simply use a discreet radio. Keep a selection of your favorite CDs in an organized container next to the CD player, or hook up your iPod or MP3 player to speakers.

Organize, Organize, Organize

To get the most out of your time in the office, organization is critical. Your client files, office supplies, and personal items must be easy to find, Allen says.

Keep stationery and other office supplies neat in a closet, on shelves, or in drawers. Save money by buying in bulk, but buy only what you have room to store, Allen says. Group supplies by type so that you have only one place to look for what you need. For example, keep all the forms you use for buyers together or group all the components of your listing presentation in one drawer.

Allen says she likes to use the tops and bottoms of check-book boxes to organize her smaller office supplies on open shelving and in her top desk drawer.

If you're lacking in closet space, add a bookcase, Kanarek says. "It can organize a room so quickly.” Store office supplies in small baskets; organize professional magazines and journals that are stacked on the floor; and display "treasures" such as fancy paperweights and pen stands that clutter up your desk.

“If you feel that you must keep them, put your treasures on the bookshelf,” Allen says. Bookcases are also a great place to display awards and designations, especially important if clients visit your home office.

When it comes to filing, an effective paperflow system is far more important than fancy filing cabinets. "You want to be able to file a document or retrieve it in 30 seconds or less," Allen says. "Otherwise, papers can pile up."

Use hanging folders with tabs for your main filing categories, and use interior manila folders for individual topics. Go through your files periodically and toss papers or relocate what you no longer need at hand. You can make your files easier to use by color-coding folders by topic area or for all the files pertaining to one transaction.

On the Tech Front

If a big share of your work and communication is done online — as it is for most real estate professionals — then it’s essential to have a reliable Internet connection, Kanarek says.

You’ll save time and frustration by investing in the quickest connection available, most likely DSL, broadband, or wireless. Compare rates of local providers to make sure you’re getting the best deal. You may be able to save a few bucks by using the same company for your phone service, Internet, and cable.

Equally important is your phone messaging system, Kanarak says. When prospects and clients call your home office expect the same prompt and professional response they’d receive calling the brokerage.

Consider forwarding your business line to your cell phone so you don’t miss important calls. A remote call-forwarding service usually costs less than $40 per month. If you prefer an answering machine or voice mail on your office phone, be sure it allows you to call in for messages.

Also check your phone greeting after you record it to make sure you sound clear and there are no background noises.

Decorative Touches

Liven up your office space with a small tree, a window garden, or a collection of plants. “Plants provide many benefits, including health benefits,” Allen says. “They soften the walls, add ambience, and absorbs pollutants.” Unless you have a green thumb, choose plants that will be happy in lower light and will survive irregular watering. Pothos and philodendrons are two good choices. Or opt for artificial.

For offices with wood or tile floors, a rug will help to absorb sound and warm up the room. “You work there, and you want the space to feel comfortable,” Kanarek says. A rug also is a good way to brighten up a room and tie in the décor.

Although rugs can be very pricey, they don’t have to be. Look for deals at retailers such as Ikea, home improvement stores like Home Depot, and discounters like Wal-Mart. Add a rug pad to absorb more noise, prevent slips, and reduce the wear and tear on the rug.

Minimize Distractions

A mini-refrigerator stocked with water and healthy snacks will keep you from making trips to the kitchen, where you can be easily distracted. Mini-fridges are available in a wide price range, with many models sold for under $100. However, keeping nearby drinks and snacks may not be the best idea for procrastinators, who will choose snack time over work time, Allen warns. Also avoid having too many snacks near at hand if you’re watching your weight. It’s too easy to just grab and gulp.

Maintaining a professional office environment in a busy home isn’t easy, but it can be done if you set some ground rules. Have a meeting with your family, and explain that you need certain uninterrupted times to work at home.

“Don’t force rules on them; you have to get their buy-in for the rules to work,” Allen says. Consider setting office hours, requiring family to knock before entering, and limiting when nearby televisions or radios can be turned on.

“There’s nothing more unprofessional than being on the phone with clutter in the background — voices, television, the washer and dryer,” Allen says.

Kelly Quigley

Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.


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