Is your house hopelessly cluttered? Are you desperate for help cleaning out a relative’s house? Do you have to move a dozen things before you can reach that spice you need in your kitchen cabinets? Need help managing paperwork?

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.

Calling in a professional organizer can help you address such messes. These specialists can help clear out and clean up garages, closets, dirty dens, even your email inbox and computer files. So 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, we asked six staffers and friends-of-Checkbook to try out professional neat freaks on each of their very different projects, ranging from a junked-up garage to a kitchen that needed a new space-saving scheme to a designer needing pics indexed for a digital project to a blind author needing help sorting piles of paperwork. In the articles that follow, our guinea pigs share their experiences and takeaways.

We found that pro organizers 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 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 those 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. 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 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 definitely can benefit from hiring an expert.

If you’re dealing with a crowded or messy closet, we have specific advice for that.

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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?

Some organizers have completed coursework in productivity coaching, chronic disorganization, or interior design. Many organizers belong to the National Association of Productivity & 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 with you, 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 junk 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 $75 to $125 an hour, though some organizers offer packages; say, a closet cleanout 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 thousands.

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 with 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.