HOUSEKEEPING Let pros clean up your clutter

When messes get out of hand, company can sort trash from treasure.
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- The mess in the garage started innocently enough: a few unpacked boxes and some lamps from our move two years ago.
No worries. Straighten it out later.
But "later" never came.
Instead, the boxes multiplied. Christmas 2003 never got put away. Leftover newspapers never made it to the recycle bin. The junk mixed with the Goodwill-bound junque, reaching staggering proportions.
"We will never get through this," I said to my husband, Bob. "It's time to bring in the professionals."
In these days when we outsource everything from dog walking to gift wrapping, hiring professional organizers to clean out a garage makes perfect sense to me.
All for about the cost of getting a tree pruned. And with no significant back pain or other injuries from lifting and lugging.
"You hired people to do what?" my son-in-law asked.
"You want to spend a weekend doing it with me?" I replied.
"On the other hand, thanks," he said.
Everything in its place
We got economy of scale when we hired Penny Lambright, owner of Clutter Cleaners.
In 41/2 hours, our garage was picked up, packed up and swept clean.
The Christmas stuff and other boxes of memorabilia were stored in overhead rafters.
The gardening tools were all in one place. So was the housecleaning equipment.
Cupboards were designated as a pantry, for extra dishes, for kitchen appliances and so on. The cost was $450 for three professionals who not only did the dirty work, but also hauled one truckload to the dump and another to Goodwill. They even got us a receipt for tax donations.
All Bob and I had to do was decide ahead of time what type of cupboards or bookshelves we wanted. And on the day of the cleanup, we had to finally decide what to do with stuff we had been carrying around for years, like boxes of slides and high-school textbooks.
"You have to be ready to make tough decisions," Lambright said over the phone when I booked her services. "We're going to ask you to take a hard look at the stuff you keep in the garage."
But when she arrived with her team Doug Neighbors and Chris Dumas she revised her comments:
"Oh, this is an easy job," she said, eyeballing my mess.
Much of Lambright's work is done with seniors, including preparing homes for estate sales and cleaning up clutter that violates city codes.
Hoarding is a particular problem with older people, she said, especially the Depression generation that never wants to throw anything away.
Case in point: A few weeks ago, Lambright and her team found a 1970s Mercedes-Benz sedan buried under 30 years of old newspapers.
The owner had pulled the car into the garage, refusing to pay the cost of a new part. He just kept piling papers around the vehicle and no one in the family knew it was there.
"We spent about five days at that garage and we filled three large Dumpsters," she said.
No wonder my clutter looked as easy as cake by comparison.
Objective eyes
Hiring professionals has some real advantages, Lambright believes.
"We don't have any history with your stuff," she said. "We try to look for things of value, make sure we sort them out, and we ask you to make the decisions on papers and other memorabilia."
Lambright charges $40 an hour for one professional, $70 for two and $100 for three.
When cleaning up for code enforcement -- which often means dealing with rodents, cockroaches or other vermin -- the fee is $120 an hour for one person and $80 for each additional person.
"We need to wear masks and gloves and we have different expenses," she explains.
Sorting through
We didn't have vermin. We just had old photographs and two extra coffee pots, bookcases we weren't using and fireplace tools we didn't need.
"You were going to use this when?" Lambright asked me, pointing to some congealed Halloween candy.
As the team dragged stuff out of the garage, people driving by would stop their cars and ask if we were having a sale.
I sat in a chair going through boxes, consolidating, tossing and saving.
"Now for this, you need to do your homework," Lambright said. "Give yourself 15 minutes a day to go through this stuff. No more. Eventually, it will get done."
Mess management
She organized Clutter Cleaners in 1999 after a long career as an administrator working in various industries.
Organization has always been her thing, Lambright said.
"At an early age, I realized my penchant to take control of matters and began realigning my world to become more harmonious," she said. "This is a gift ... the idea stemmed into creating a business out of my talents of managing people and clutter."
Her job, she says, is not to get rid of everything but to introduce comfort and decrease stress.
"But I can't change your habits," she said.
"Me cleaning up your mess doesn't mean you won't create another one."
Ah, yes, but this time I'm starting from scratch. Should take me four or five years to reach a critical mess-mass again.

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