Is your den a disaster? Is your closet so crammed you can’t find your favorite pants/shoes that match? If you’re like many Americans, you have so much stuff 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 junked-up garages, stuffed closets, dirty dens, even your computer’s hard drive. Inquirer readers can access all of Checkbook’s advice and ratings of local service providers, including personal organizing services, for free until Sept. 30.

To explore how organizers work and who would benefit from their services, several Checkbook staffers tried out professional neat freaks on each of their projects, ranging from a wreck of a family room to a space-challenged clothes closet to a mountain of mail. They were shocked by differences in fees charged by organizers they contacted. One wanted a $3,000 retainer to straighten out a small clothes closet.

It’s not surprising that the two most disorganized Checkbook staffers saw the most benefit from calling in a pro; they said they’d hire help again. But our tidier bunch generally agreed that organizers had some good ideas and tips on bringing order to the house, but they doubted they’d shell out again for these services.

One of our staffers hired an organizer to help her straighten out her messy attic and found the process helpful in both tidying up the space, tossing out items, and brokering peace with her husband, who also kept hordes of things in the room. After a three-hour session, they had a mostly neat room and 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 this leading by example helped her kids to 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.

Our tidier bunch generally agreed their organizers provided some ideas and benefits, but after learning tips on how to tackle their messes, they doubted they’d shell out again for these services. Another staffer hired a devotee of the Japanese KonMari Method (trash anything that doesn’t “spark joy") to sort through her family’s reams of paperwork. They went through every drawer and cleared every counter, grouped papers by category (financial, kid art, medical), and decided which could be shredded and which should be kept, finally filing what was left into neat folders. The staffer believed that the help and advice she got was good, but she wouldn’t hire an organizer again.

Another Checkbook staffer wanted relief from her overstuffed bedroom closet. But, after reaching out to several local organizers, she was surprised by the prices and ideas she was getting. One pro wanted a $3,000 retainer fee just to come see the project. In the end, the staffer went to the Container Store, where she got fast help designing a shelves-and-rods system. Her cost was $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 out, you may need new shelves and storage systems, not an organizer.

Tips for hiring an organizer

Start by assessing whether you really need to enlist an organizer. As is the case with most life challenges, if you suspect you need help, then you probably do. If you are relatively neat, you probably can save money and hassle 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. Checkbook’s 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 definitely can benefit from hiring an expert.

When contacting prospective organizers, ask:

  • What kinds of projects do you specialize in? While 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, or assisting hoarders.
  • Have you completed training? Some organizers have gone through coursework in productivity coaching, chronic disorganization, or interior design. Many belong to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, which requires members to take three education courses before joining. Many of its members become Certified Professional Organizers, which requires a total of 1,500 hours of documented professional experience or related education. While 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? What are your typical work sessions like? If you’re a real slob, hire a hands-on organizer, but if you’re confident you can DIY the work you can save money by finding one who provides a to-do list.
  • Do you offer free initial consultations?
  • What do you charge? We found that some services even ask for big retainers. Don’t pay them unless you’ve already tried out the company and know you’ll like it. Get specifics on fees and, if possible, an estimate for your job in writing. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $125 an hour.
  • Can you provide references? Ask for names and contact info for customers who had projects similar to yours, who live near you, or other limiting factors that might 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.

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook is a nonprofit organization that rates service providers to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by individual members and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.