Monday, October 01, 2007

Getting Into the Closet: A Price Comparison

One of the most satisfying home-improvement projects I've ever done was to install customized shelving and poles in my closets. In my old studio, I only had one closet-- it was a wonderful closet with built-in shelves and double-hung hanging rods, but it just barely held everything I needed to put in it. When I moved into my new apartment, I was looking forward to having not one, not two, not three, but four (!) good-sized closets, but once I had unpacked, those closets didn't seem to have any extra room left in them. My new closets only had a single hanging rod each, with one shelf above. It was kind of amazing to realize how much more efficiently my old closet used its space!

Storage space relates to personal finance in a couple of ways. In some respects, a lack of storage space can save you money, as having no place to put things really discourages you from buying new ones. But on the other hand, having very efficient storage space can save you money, as it will allow you to feel content living in a smaller, and therefore cheaper, overall home. I also think having adequate storage space for clothes helps keep them nicer-- fewer wrinkles, therefore less frequent dry cleaning.

For me, it's important to be able to put things away. I like to have a neat and organized home, and when my clothes and shoes and other belongings are put away tidily, I feel like I can be more efficient in how I use my time, because I'm not running around searching for things or forgetting to pay bills because I can't find them, etc. So with all that in mind, I knew I really wanted to do something about my closets, and started shopping around for a solution.

First I checked to see if Consumer Reports had reviewed closet systems. They gave Rubbermaid Configurations the highest overall score for price and quality. Elfa was #2, and Schulte Freedom Rail was #3. According to CR, Schulte was more expensive than Elfa, but I did not find that to be the case at all. California Closets was also rated highly by Consumer Reports for their professionally installed systems, but the prices are much higher, more than twice as much as Elfa or Schulte or Rubbermaid. California Closets also makes a DIY version, but it was rated much lower for quality and ease of assembly. Ikea got the lowest ratings for quality and assembly, and surprisingly, was nowhere near being the cheapest.

So did I buy the Rubbermaid shelves? Maybe I should have, but I was doing a lot of shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond and encountered the Schulte Freedom Rail brand there. Frankly, BB&B offered delivery and were very helpful with tips as to how to plan everything out and assemble it. I had considered them before looking at the CR ratings, but when I saw that they had scored well, that is what I decided to go with when I went back to the store.
To make your own decision, Consumer Reports suggests going to the manufacturer's websites first to check out the various options and accessories offered. Also, read the assembly instructions carefully before you buy, to make sure you have the needed skills and tools. Also, measure your space very carefully. See how the standard size pieces will fit your desired layout, and if you need to have things cut to custom sizes, remeasure, and then remeasure again to be sure you got it right, as once cut, the pieces aren't returnable.

Here's my thoughts on the brands I looked at in stores:

Schulte Freedom Rail
They sell these at Bed, Bath and Beyond. At first I was a little leery of the way everything is mounted, but after looking at the CR ratings, I decided to go for it. A nice man in the store gave us a demonstration of how easy they were to install, and they really were a piece of cake-- I tackled the project while my mom was visiting, thinking it might be good to have an extra pair of hands, but I didn't end up needing her help at all. You just have to level the rail at the right height, mark and drill the holes, pop some anchors in, and then screw the rail in place. Then you just hang the uprights on the rails and click your shelves and hanging rods into place. The most difficult thing about it was popping the closet rods into the brackets that hold them up, as they were a bit tight. Actually the other difficult thing was that I had ignored my own advice above, and measured incorrectly-- both of my rail pieces ended up being too long! I cut one down to size with my hacksaw, but that was hard work. For the second one, I waited until my uncle could come over with a power saw!
A couple months after installing one of these closets, I decided I would prefer to have the hanging space to the left of the shelves rather than vice-versa. And the great thing about this system was that after I took out all my clothes, it was no trouble at all to rearrange the layout. If I moved, I could easily take the pieces with me and reinstall them in a new closet.

Sample prices:
12 x 24 shelf $5.99
Mounting hardware $2.49
12" shelf bracket $2.99
24" top rail $4.99
48" upright $6.99
12 x 36 shelf $9.99

ClosetMaid Shelf-Trak
I bought some of these shelves at Lowe's for a small area where I just wanted a couple of shelves. At first glance, I thought they'd be almost identical to the Freedom Rail system, but they weren't, quite. The anchors they come with are harder to use, as you can't just plug them into the wall before you put the rail up. It was very awkward having to position the rail and hold it there while poking all the anchors into the holes before sinking any of the screws in, especially since I didn't have anyone helping me. I wouldn't buy this brand again, but for this one small project it was fine, and the cost was comparable to that of the Freedom Rail shelves.

Sample prices:
3' shelf kit (includes shelf and 2 brackets) $16.08 ea
Top rail 40" $4.98
Mounting hardware $3.04
30" uprights $4.60 ea

Though I haven't actually used Elfa, from looking at the pieces on display at The Container Store, it seemed pretty much identical to the much cheaper Freedom Rail brand.

Sample prices:
32" top rail $12.99
Mounting hardware $4.99
36" hanging standards $9.99 ea
12 x 24 shelf $8.99
12 x 36 shelf $12.99
12" shelf bracket $4.99

The one thing you have to be careful about is to make sure you get the right number of pieces of everything, and plan very carefully, especially if you are going to have anything cut to a custom length, as that renders the pieces non-returnable. And it's a good idea to add everything up beforehand-- all those little $4.99s and $5.99s can add up to hundreds of dollars before you know it! I put a combination of full-height and double-hung hanger space and shelving in two approx. 5' closets, plus two other small shelving units, and in total, I spent almost $500, not counting delivery fees (those long rails and uprights are a bit awkward for the subway, or even a regular taxi). But after finishing everything and finally being able to put away all the stuff that had been cluttering my apartment since I moved, I consider that $500 well spent!

So now the question might be whether I'll spend more money on clothes now that I actually have enough space for them! I don't think I will. I actually did another big purge of stuff destined for the Salvation Army after loading up my new closets. The other thing about these closet systems is that they look so pretty, they kind of encourage you to thin out your wardrobe to try to get it to look more like the beautifully monochromatic, streamlined, identically-hangered ensembles you see in the Elfa ads!


beth said...

Very interesting, thanks for posting this. Did you have to find studs in your walls for this project? Or is the idea that the rail distributes the weight?

Dawn said...

I'm trying to toss stuff OUT OF the closet, not add more to it.... If I have to organize it into boxes and shelves, than I have to much and it must be purged.

But then that is me.

Josh said...

I just have a couple of ikea armoirs, but I have definitely considered doing something like Closetmaid. Now that you've done this extraordinary piece of reporting, I know how much easier some systems are than others. Thanks for that!

Madame X said...

The Freedom Rail and Closet Maid systems I used don't require you to hit studs. It's probably even better if you do hit a stud on one or two holes, but you hang the rail with anchors every foot, so the idea is that the weight is distributed, I guess. I have a fair amount of stuff on my shelves and hanging poles, and so far it seems rock solid!

MEG said...

I purchased the Elfa system last year and am SO glad I did! I love it, and it truly adds value to my condo by making the closet an attractive and effecient storage space.

I brought my closet measurements to the Container Store and a "designer" guided me through a computer model where I could add, move, and rearrange any variation of rods, shelves, and drawers. It was so cool! Then they collected all the things for me that I needed. It was only about $600 for the whole she-bang (and my closet is larger than average, though not a walk-in).

What I love is that I can rearrange it anytime and pretty easily as far as moving/adding drawers and shelves. Plus all the Container Store stuff is designed to fit in the Elfa System: boxes, bags, shoe-holders, etc. So I can go buy one shelf or a few more storage containers anytime (even years later).

Anonymous said...

We went with Elfa shelving a couple of years ago and were quite glad that we did it. The Container Store has sales twice a year (or so) that are roughly 30% off everything. You may find that very helpful if you go that route.

frugal zeitgeist said...

The prior owner of my apartment, God love him, put his own custom closets in the bedroom. They're double-deckers (top rail and bottom rail), along with a slide-out compartment between the closets that has shelves that I use for sweaters and jeans. There's also one neat acoutrement that's the envy of all my friends: a very narrow, vertical, slide-out set of shelves for storing shoes.

I love that guy.

Anonymous said...

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. said...

Hi! Thank you for this information. We recently remodeled our basement and are putting in a closet for my son, from scratch. Do you know if the Schulte Freedom Rail system is compatible with something like the rubber maid system? Like, the pieces that fit into to wall mount pieces.

Anonymous said...

I'll second that! FreedomRail has so many more options (bracket lengths, colors, accessories/boxes/racks/etc.) They're also cheaper, and use heavier steel, so are sturdier.

The ONLY thing holding me back is there are no dealers in the area - so what if I need just *one* more bracket? I don't want to pay $8 S/H for a $3 bracket. But I also don't want to over-order. If the "other guys" products are interchangeable (at least the brackets), then I'm all in on FreedomRail.

Someone have 2 different systems, and can try this out?


Anonymous said...

I'll second that! FreedomRail has so many more options (bracket lengths, colors, accessories/boxes/racks/etc.) They're also cheaper, and use heavier steel, so are sturdier.

The ONLY thing holding me back is there are no dealers in the area - so what if I need just *one* more bracket? I don't want to pay $8 S/H for a $3 bracket. But I also don't want to over-order. If the "other guys" products are interchangeable (at least the brackets), then I'm all in on FreedomRail.

FYI, I called the manufacturer, and their brackets *do* fit the ClosetMaid standards that are already installed in my house. I also bought one of the Elfa brackets, and those fit the ClosetMaid standards. I'm doing wood on top, so I don't know if the wire shelving part is interchangeable.

BTW, very nice customer support from the FreedomRail people.

Good luck!