Almost everyone has experienced it.

You go to someone's home, look around and realize everything is perfect. Not just neat, but perfect. There is no clutter. No dust. No stuff stacked in piles. Not a single messy spoon in the sink, not a magazine left open on a table and certainly no keys or mail dropped on the counter. The tops of the books are dusted and the towels in the bathroom are folded just right.

And it's not just because guests were expected. It's always this way.

How do people get like this? How do they achieve this constant level of household perfection? Is it in the genes? Birth order?

According to California psychologist Rick Shuman and Chicago psychoanalyst Richard Meyer, the roots of compulsive neatness go back to childhood.

It's a need for control that usually comes from childhood feelings (real or perceived) of having no control at all and/or having the fear of not being able to measure up to expectations, say the two therapists.

"I would say the majority of people who are perfectionists are people who have felt a fair degree of chaos in their lives. They have felt out of control or inadequate in one way or another," says Shuman.

"They have this fantasy that if they can just reach this state of perfection, then they can protect themselves from ever being disappointed by life again."

Unrealistic or very high expectations of a child also can result in the drive toward total neatness, according to Meyer. "A kid knows from Day 1 what is expected of him," he says. "These expectations ... {can result} in children becoming overachievers, but what they usually don't do is tap into their spontaneity. They don't tend to be artists, to be in creative fields. They tend to be doctors, lawyers, businessmen."

According to five people whose perfectly neat homes are enough to spur those of us who are somewhat less-than-perfect into a frenzy of cleaning, they are the way they are because clutter drives them crazy. The five lead totally different lives and come from a variety of backgrounds; their similarity is that none of them can go to bed at night until all the dishes are done and the house picked up.

"When I was putting the toothpaste away this morning, I noticed my bottle of cologne was about 4 inches off," Barb Stasell says. "On the {bathroom} counter, there's the radio on one side, and a plant, a soap dish and the bottle of perfume on the other side. I kept looking at that bottle and thinking, 'Now why can't I just leave it there; why do I feel like I have to move it back?' I thought, 'I'm not going to move it.' But finally I couldn't stand it. I moved it back to where it belonged."

A mother of three grown children, Stasell lives in a Du Page County, Ill., town house. It's tasteful, comfortable and relaxed and reflects the fact that she is in interior design. It also is always perfectly in order.

She talks about that adage we learn from our mothers: Always wear nice, clean underwear in case you get in an accident and have to go to the hospital. "Mother always said the same thing was true about your house. Heaven forbid something should happen to you and someone would have to come into your house and it would be messy."

It's not too difficult to have neatness and order when you live alone, but it's a different story when you've got three little kids.

"Every night when they would go to bed, I would clean up. I'd start in one room, go through and pick everything up. It was terribly important to me not to have any clutter. I would clean all day Friday. There was a time when I would clean all day both Thursday and Friday. I'm talking washing baseboards, windows, dusting all the pictures, the whole thing.

"It was beyond the point of being healthy. It does get to be obsessive. I know I drove everyone nuts because I was always nagging.

"I think it was the one thing in my life I felt I had control over. Now I've learned that you're fooling yourself with the control."

She attributes part of her drive for perfection to the artistic sense that has guided her career since a divorce several years ago. "I like symmetry. I like things to be clean, simple and symmetrical. Like that bottle, it has a certain place. Balance is important."

This is how neat Dieter Sauntos is: He folds his dirty clothes before he puts them in the laundry.

"I want my dirty clothes to look neat," he says. "Everything should be neat and orderly."

Sauntos, a 40-ish bachelor who is a specialist in sophisticated office automation, has a spacious one-bedroom place, and he uses the word "fanatic" when he describes his need for cleanliness and order.

He has removed baseboards, put wiring in, then put the baseboards back. "I don't like anything showing. I have very rigid rules for myself. I can tell you if something has been moved half an inch."

He has decorated his place with the same precision he uses to keep it clean.

There are no overhead lights and no white walls. Even the kitchen is lighted by two little lamps rather than a fixture in the ceiling. "I've had every overhead light ripped out; I think they're tacky. All the lamp shades are black leather because of how that focuses the light. And I would not live with white walls; they remind me of something quick, inexpensive -- walls that have just been slapped up. When I think of home, I think of stability, something established."

It's a form of gratification, he says. "I think demanding a lot of yourself is important from a self-discipline aspect, and the gratification is fantastic. The first words out of a person's mouth when they come in here is, 'I don't believe this.' And it isn't just because of the decorating; it's because everything is just so. I work a long day, and I don't want to come home to a lot of mess and clutter."

He has been like this for as long as he can remember.

"I think I probably wore a tie when I was 2. Really, one of my first memories was having people say to my mother, 'Your son is so neat.' I never had to be told to put things away."

My sister is a complete cleaning maniac," Lucille Downing says.

"We have 10 kids in our family. The rest of us are clean but not like Diana. She gets off work, and she'll stay up all night cleaning.

"She considers the rest of us as not being normal."

The sister is Diana Harris, in her late thirties, who lives with two teen-age children. She says her sister exaggerated, but Harris acknowledges that having a clean house is a top priority.

"I have the energy and I love to be clean," she says. "I don't like anything to be dirty. I never have and I never will. Everything should be in its place. When it's not, it makes me feel real bad."

This is her regimen:

She does the baseboards with a wax, then the walls with a liquid detergent mixed with ammonia. Then everything gets dusted. The carpets are next, vacuumed, using a rug deodorizer. The headboard and mirrors in the bedrooms are cleaned with window cleaner. The uncarpeted floors are stripped with ammonia, then waxed. Lemon juice and water is used to clean the chrome on the dining room table. The oven is cleaned with oven cleaner, and the outside of the stove is done with ammonia and water. Lemon and water are used inside the refrigerator, ammonia and water on the outside. A commercial cleaner is used to shine everything up.

"Basically, that's it. It takes me about two full days to do everything," she says. "I used to do it once a week; now I've cut it down to every two weeks."

Everyone who uses the toilet is expected to use a toilet cleanser and clean it out afterward.

Teen-agers are not usually known for their tidiness, so the question is, how has she fared with her two?

"My daughter is 19. Now she lives with my sister a lot of the time. She didn't like it. All teens are messy; it's just something they go through. {Her son} is pretty clean for right now; I don't know about later on."

Harris says she thinks she inherited a cleanliness gene. "I know I had an aunt who was very, very clean; she was spotless. My mother died when I was 9, and it was up to the girls to keep the house clean. I shared a room with Lucille and I kept our room clean. I guess when she moved away, and then I was the oldest girl at home, I started doing all of it."

She smokes but doesn't see that trait as a contradiction.

"I bathe twice a day, and I use five different toothpastes. Smoking is not messy with me. No ashes fly. I put the cigarette out in an ashtray, then I dump the ashtray out and wash it. That kills the odor."

Shirley Conner, who lives with her mother and sister, says she is extremely organized because she is lazy.

"The biggest waste of time is if you have to spend time looking for something," she says. "I'm a very busy person and time is valuable. I probably would be devastated if I ever lost something, like my keys.

"There's a difference between being organized and orderliness. My sister is organized, but she has stacks of things. I have a place for my stacks. It's that one last step, to get things out of sight. Having things in sight means the job isn't finished yet."

So what happens when a person such as Conner, organized and orderly to the point of keeping her shoes categorized by color, age and use, works with a couple of people who leave big bags stuffed with stuff all over the place?

After the initial shock, she starts organizing and educating.

Conner does interior design, and, with another woman, currently is working with a couple who live in a high-rise condominium. The couple works out (as in exercise) a great deal; when Conner opened one of the closets for the first time, she was confronted with more than 100 pairs of athletic shoes.

"Then there was stuff in shopping bags -- videotapes, things like that. ... We emptied 24 bags. It was like they were living a transient life, with shopping bags. The front hall table, they would come in and put all their change, keys, mail, just load it on the table. Nothing but clutter.

"All this clutter was not part of my job, but it drove me nuts. So we brought up the fact that they didn't seem to have proper spaces for things and asked if they would like to have things organized."

The answer was yes, and Conner got to work. She redesigned the closet and whittled down the athletic shoe count from 100 to 36 pairs. She designed spaces for the contents of all the shopping bags. She got a vase for the loose change that was being thrown on the hall table, and wooden boxes with hinge tops for the other stuff.

"I wrote two pages of instructions, telling how things were planned and why. Once they saw that, it was logical. It really wasn't my place to do all this, but I felt it was ridiculous to spend all that money {on interior design} and still have all that clutter ... Now they've asked us to organize the kitchen."

Sue Hertzberg remembers that when she and her sister were kids, their father would always be right there, cleaning up the slightest little mess they made.

"If we had a Coke, he would have a cloth and wipe up whenever we put it down, even if we were putting it on a Formica counter," she says. "He even picked up after my mother. She was neat, too, but she wasn't as compulsive about it."

And now that she's grown, a working mother with a husband and two young children, 6 and 8, she knows she has some of those same compulsive tendencies.

"I think if you have the tendencies {to be a perfectionist}, they tend to be exacerbated if you're a working mother, too. Your life becomes so compartmentalized, you have to really be organized or else you'll go crazy."

She never can just come home from work and flop in front of the television.

"I clean every night after the kids go to bed. All the toys are put away, the dishes go in the dishwasher, nothing gets left out. If we go out at night and the baby-sitter doesn't clear stuff away, I come home and clean even it it's 11 or 12. Could I go to sleep if I just went to bed and left things out? I don't know, I'm not sure I've ever even tried."

She attributes the perfectionism to several possibilities: her upbringing, a need for control, being the oldest child -- "who knows what the factors are," she says. "My husband is very different; he's just the opposite. He has piles of things all over. I consider him to be creative. People who have all these ideas in their heads, somehow that fits in with having all these piles around."