Meet the Spring-Cleaning, Anti-Clutter Pros

Meet the Spring-Cleaning, Anti-Clutter Pros

By Tracy Moran


Because why not get a little therapy with your spring cleaning?

By Tracy Moran

“My huge desk was completely out of control,” Dana Humphrey says, referring to the paperwork piling up around her a few years ago. So the New York marketing consultant did what an increasing number of folks are doing: She turned to a professional to help get her sorted out. 

Western homes are awash in everything from receipts to Home Shopping Network “treasures,” and the increasing realization that we’re reaching for too much, too often — some clinically so — has given rise to a new career of professional organizing. These declutterers replace mayhem with order, organizing everything from photos to pantries and even tackling suicide cleanup (OK, only a few do the latter). TV shows about getting organized and dealing with hoarding have boosted awareness that help exists, and national associations have been created in the U.S., the U.K, Australia, Japan and Holland — to name just a few — all reflecting that consumerism and its resultant clutter are becoming global concerns.

The best declutterers aren’t merely well organized, they’re also great listeners who like helping others. 

The problem seems to be everywhere, because “it’s never been so easy to acquire stuff at an affordable price,” says Cory Chalmers, president and CEO of Steri-Clean. Thanks to Amazon, garage sales and QVC, everywhere we turn there are “salespeople telling us … how much we need something and how we can’t live without it,” Chalmers says. And this “buy now” culture is hitting at a time when daily life is requiring more from us in both our personal and professional lives, says Ellen Delap, a certified professional organizer based in Houston — meaning we all have more stuff but less time to sort it out.

Enter groups such as the National Association of Professional Organizers, which offers training and accreditation for those looking to clean up like a pro. Though NAPO has been around for years, it has seen membership numbers increase by 1,000 annually for each of the past three years, with about half of its members joining since 2012. The organizers themselves say their businesses have been growing of late thanks to greater awareness and rising need. Lesley Spellman, of Manchester, England–based the Clutter Fairy, says her business has increased by 20 percent annually; she’s also involved with Britain’s national organization, the Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers, which has seen its membership nearly double in the past five years to 160 members today.

The rising profession is drawing folks from all walks of life and proving lucrative for former stay-at-home moms and former lawyers alike. Experts say the best declutterers aren’t merely well organized, they’re also great listeners who like helping others. This lends well to former nurses, paramedics and teachers, and while the associations say many of their members have university degrees, it is a loosely regulated profession that requires no schooling. “This particular industry has nothing to do with education,” Chalmers says, noting how personality and an ability to build client trust are key.

Many who contact declutterers are going through painful transitions, from divorce and illness to a death in the family. The organizing project is “an emotional and physical journey people go through, and we need to be able to support them through that,” Spellman emphasizes. An entrepreneurial spirit also helps, as marketing can be tricky for those just getting started. Social media and gaining momentum by word-of-mouth are key, with the first year of business proving the most difficult. Year three, professionals report, tends to be the turning point when many expand and take on employees. 

But there is a dark side: People going through painful changes can be difficult to deal with, and helping hoarders — often done in tandem with mental health professionals — can be trying. And while many declutterers earn a decent living (upward of $70,000 a year), some earn as little as $30,000. 

Humphrey found a professional who rose to the challenge, and she now employs a system to ensure her apartment doesn’t get overrun again: If something new comes in, something old gets tossed. “If you could see my apartment five years ago versus today,” she says, “you would think a different person lived here.”