(jeangill/Getty Images)

Is your den a disaster? Is your closet so crammed that you can’t find pants and shoes that match? If you’re like many Americans, you have so much stuff that you can’t control it. So you just throw up your hands and let it accumulate.

It might be time to call in a professional organizer. These specialists can help clear out and clean up junky garages, stuffed closets, dirty dens and even your computer’s hard drive.

To explore how organizers work and who would (or wouldn’t) benefit from their services, several Washington Consumers’ Checkbook staffers hired professional neat freaks to assist with their very different projects, which included a wreck of a family room, a space-challenged clothes closet and a mountain of mail. They were shocked by the differences in fees that organizers charged. One company required a $3,000 retainer, even if all that was desired was a closet redo.

Not surprisingly, the two most disorganized Checkbook staffers gained the most from calling in a pro; both said they’d hire help again. Our tidier bunch generally agreed that organizers had some good ideas on bringing order to a house, but they doubted they’d shell out again for these services.

Our editorial director, an admitted slob, hired an organizer to help straighten out her messy attic, and she found the process helpful in tidying up the space, tossing out items and brokering peace with her husband, who also kept hoards of things in the room. During a three-hour session, the organizer assisted the couple as they got rid of things (three unused down comforters, as well as a bunch of old state jazz band tapes from the 1980s, digitized before they hit the recycler). When the organizer left, the pair had space for a home office. One of the biggest things they learned: Holding on to too many sentimental items can crowd your mind and your house; e.g., it’s better to keep just a few of Grandma’s teacups rather than the whole set.

A Checkbook researcher with a toy- and book-strewn family room found that her professional organizer inspired her to sort and toss things, and leading by example helped her kids follow suit. One of her biggest takeaways: Get rid of or deal with larger stuff first, say, extra furniture or sporting equipment, because this leaves more space for dealing with what’s left behind.


A Checkbook researcher’s family room before going under a professional organizer’s scrutiny. (Gayle Krughoff/Washington Consumers' Checkbook)

The family room after decluttering. (Gayle Krughoff/Washington Consumers' Checkbook)

Checkbook’s research director hired a devotee of the KonMari Method (basically, trash anything that doesn’t “spark joy”) to sort through her family’s reams of paperwork. With the organizer, she went through every drawer and cleared every counter. They grouped papers by category (financial, kid art, medical), determining which could be shredded and which should be kept, finally filing what was left into neat folders. The staffer thought the advice was good, particularly the suggestion to curate children’s art, saving only a few drawings or finger paintings and photographing the rest. Still, she wouldn’t hire an organizer again, as she felt capable of doing future projects on her own.

Another staffer wanted relief from her stuffed bedroom closet. But after reaching out to several organizers, she was surprised by the prices and ideas she was getting. One pro said he would work only on her whole house, even though she just needed closet help. Another wanted $400 just to come look at the mess, then would charge more if she wanted him to do the work. In the end, the staffer went to the Container Store, where she got fast help designing a shelves-and-rods system. It cost her $400, including installation. Her observation? If you’ve got one space — a closet, a kitchen pantry — that’s a wreck because it’s not well planned, you may need new shelves and storage systems, not an organizer.

Surprisingly, although Checkbook expected organizers to recommend buying expensive materials and furniture to stuff everything into, they barely mentioned buying bins, boxes and hooks; most projects involved corralling and throwing stuff away.

Tips for picking an organizer

Start by assessing whether you really need to enlist an organizer. If you suspect you need help, then you probably do. If you are relatively neat, you can probably save money by tackling the work yourself.

But if you’ve got a real mess on your hands, you might get a lot out of spending a few hours with a pro. Our test-case staffers found that it was valuable to have a stranger’s unbiased opinion, some friendly, informed guidance and another pair of hands. Downsizing seniors and people who suffer from hoarding disorders can also benefit from hiring an expert.

When contacting prospective organizers, ask them:

What kinds of projects do you specialize in? Although many organizers are generalists, able to sort through and clean up closets, kitchens, garages, etc., others focus on helping downsizers, scanning photos and other memorabilia, assisting hoarders and more.

Have you completed training? Some organizers have gone through coursework in productivity coaching, chronic disorganization or interior design. Many ­organizers belong to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO), which requires members to take three courses before joining. Many of its members become CPOs (certified professional organizers), which requires 1,500 hours of documented professional experience or related education. Although NAPO’s certification program seems well conceived and well managed, know that many good organizers don’t bother seeking credentials.

What’s your approach to tackling projects? Ask prospective organizers what their typical work sessions are like. Some pros work solo, but most pitch in alongside clients. Still others come in and give you a list of things to do (ugh, homework) and come back a few weeks later to check in and assist. If you’re a real slob, hire a hands-on organizer, but if you’re confident that you can DIY the work, you can save money by finding an organizer who provides a to-do list.

Do you offer free initial consultations? Many organizers offer free phone consultations with potential clients, but it’s better if you arrange a free drop-by to get an initial evaluation and cost estimate.

What do you charge? Some organizers charge by the hour, others by the project. We found that some services ask for big retainers — don’t pay them unless you’ve already tried out the company and know you’ll like the results. Get specifics on fees and, if possible, an estimate for your job in writing. Expect to pay between $80 and $140 an hour, though some organizers offer packages, such as a closet clean-out for $250 or a garage sorting for $350. If you’re already relatively organized, a small kitchen tidying session might run you $200; a full-house effort for a downsizing senior might cost more than $1,000.

Can you provide a written contract? Written contracts are not common in this business, but it’s reasonable to ask for at least an email that spells out what the consultant will and won’t do and what you’ll pay for it.

Can you provide references? Ask for the names and contact information of customers who had projects similar to yours or who live near you to prevent the company from handing you its usual list of favorite customers (or friends posing as past clients). But keep in mind that many organizers’ clients desire confidentiality.

The Washington Post is partnering with Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit consumer group with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Checkbook is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can get full access to Checkbook’s ratings and advice for free until March 15 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/organizers.