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 garages, closets, dirty dens, even your computer’s hard drive.

To take a look at out how organizers work and who would (or wouldn’t) benefit from their services, we asked five Checkbook staffers to try out professional neat freaks on each of their very different projects, ranging from a wreck of a family room to a space-challenged clothes closet to a mountain of mail. They share their experiences in the articles that follow. Below, we provide advice on how to choose and hire an organizer.

We found that consultants offer a wide range of work styles. Some are hands-on, coming in and tossing and stacking stuff alongside their clients; others just survey the mess and suggest improvements. Surprisingly, although we expected organizers to recommend purchasing expensive materials and furniture to stuff everything into, they barely mentioned buying bins, boxes, and hooks; most projects simply involved corralling and throwing out stuff.

We were shocked by differences in fees charged by organizers we contacted. One wanted a $3,000 retainer to straighten out a small clothes closet.

Overall, our most disorganized staffers saw the most benefit from calling in a pro; each said they’d hire help again. 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.

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

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. Click here for dozens of ideas on how to get rid of unwanted stuff.

But if you’ve got a messy attic/junk-filled garage/stuffed closet you’ve avoided dealing with, you might get a lot out of spending a few hours with a pro. Our test-case staffers found it was valuable to have a stranger’s unbiased opinion; some friendly, informed guidance; and another pair of hands. Downsizing seniors and persons 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.
  • Who is your typical client? Some pros specialize in helping kids or older adults; others focus on closets and clothes clean-outs.
  • Have you completed training? Some organizers have completed 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 education courses before joining. Many of its members become CPOs (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? Some pros work solo, but most work 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 you can DIY the work you can save money by finding one who provides a list of tasks.
  • 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.
  • Will I work directly with you (the business owner), or will you assign me to an employee? Because this is a highly personalized service, it’s best to communicate directly with the person who will come in. A good rapport with your organizer will make the sometimes-awkward process of going through your mess easier.
  • What do you charge? Some organizers charge by the hour, others by the project. 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 in writing specifics on fees and, if possible, an estimate for your job. Expect to pay anywhere from $80 to $140 an hour, though some organizers offer packages; say, a closet clean-out for $250 or a garage sorting for $350. If you’re already relatively organized, a small kitchen organizing session might run you $200; a full house effort for a downsizing senior might cost more than $1,000.
  • Can you provide me with a written contract? They’re not too 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, an estimate of the number of hours to complete your project, how the company calculates charges, and an estimated price.
  • What’s your cancellation policy? Some charge a cancellation fee if you cancel within 24- to 48-hours of an appointment.
  • 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.