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Many of us have so much stuff we can't control it and throw up our hands and let it accumulate — or hide it in drawers and closets.

A professional organizer can help you address such messes. These specialists can help clear out and clean up garages, closets, dirty dens, even your e-mail inbox and computer files.

Who are these neatniks for hire, and how should you choose one?

To examine how organizers work and who would (or maybe wouldn't) benefit from their services, nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook asked six staffers and neighbors to try out professional organizers on very different projects, ranging from a junked-up garage to a kitchen that needed a new space-saving scheme to a blind author needing help sorting piles of paperwork.

We found that pro organizers offer a wide range of work styles. Some are hands-on, tossing and stacking stuff alongside their clients; others just survey the mess and suggest improvements. Surprisingly, although we expected organizers to recommend purchasing expensive furniture, bins, boxes, hooks and other materials to cram everything into, they were conservative in recommending these purchases.

We were shocked by differences in fees charged by organizers we contacted. A few wanted large retainers and would take on projects only if our subjects agreed to pay for a minimum of eight hours or more of consulting time.

Overall, we find that people who are disorganized or messy tend to get the most benefit from bringing in a pro; tidier folks often agree organizers provide some ideas and help, but after learning tips on how to tackle their messes, they often doubt they'd shell out again for these services.

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 you might get a lot out of spending a few hours with a pro. Our test-case participants found it was valuable to have a stranger's unbiased opinion; some friendly, informed guidance; and another pair of hands. Downsizing seniors and those who suffer from hoarding disorders can certainly benefit from hiring an expert.

When contacting 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.

Who is your typical client? Some pros specialize in kitchens or with helping seniors; others focus on closets and clothing cleanouts.

Have you completed training? Many organizers belong to the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals, which requires members to take three education courses before joining. Many of its members become Certified Professional Organizers, which requires 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?

Do you offer free initial consultations? Many do. In person or via video chat is preferable to a phone call.

Will I work with you, or will you assign me to an employee? It's best to communicate directly with the person who will come in.

What do you charge? Some organizers charge by the hour, others by the project. Get in writing specifics on fees and, if possible, an estimate for your job. Expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $125 an hour, though some organizers offer packages; say, a closet cleanout for $250 or a garage sorting for $350.

Can you provide me with a contract? They're not too common in this business, but it's reasonable to ask for at least an e-mail that spells out what the consultant will and won't do, an estimate of the number of hours to complete your project, how the company calculates charges and an estimated price.

Can you provide references? Ask for contact information of customers who had projects like yours or who live near you, and ask for other limiting factors that might prevent the company from handing you its usual list of favorite clients.

Jennifer Barger is a contributing editor of Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and, a nonprofit organization supported by consumers. Until Sept. 5, Checkbook is providing access to its full organizers report to Star Tribune readers via