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Originally published Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 4:21 PM

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You know you’re a hoarder when ...

Professional organizer Penny Catterall answers questions about getting your stuff organized

The Washington Post

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Professional organizer Penny Catterall answered questions recently on The Washington Post’s Home Front chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: Is there a tipping point you’ve encountered with clients who are probably on the verge of becoming hoarders?

A: The Institute for Challenging Disorganization actually puts out a very useful clutter-hoarding scale, which you can download for free from its website. It’s meant for professionals, but you get an idea of where clutter starts turning into hoarding.

Q: I’ve always read this rule of decluttering: “If you haven’t used it in a year, toss it.” I have so many things that were purchased for very occasional needs that, according to that advice, I should throw out.

However, when I’ve done that, I’ve ended up needing it (a year later, say) and am frustrated that I threw it away and had to buy it again! If I had a bigger budget, it wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but I hate spending money on things twice. Thoughts?

A: I find this is a pretty common issue. There are a few things that you use that cost quite a bit, like a Dutch oven, fondue pot and so on, that you might want to hang on to so you don’t have to buy them again. But think about the last time you really used it: If it was several years ago, let it go.

If it is really something you use every year or so, store it in a lesser-accessed part of your home where it won’t take up space used by items used on a more frequent basis. There is a website called NeighborGoods ( where you can sign up to lend to and borrow from people in your neighborhood. I love this idea of sharing!

Q: I’m trying to get my 8- and 11-year-old kids into good habits, but they resist at every turn. I was hoping that redecorating their rooms would get them to have more pride in their spaces, but they still don’t keep them clean. Help!

A: One of the most important things about teaching kids to be organized is to model good habits yourself. If you put things away when you are done with them, if you only buy things you need and love and have a place to put them, then they learn by example.

It also helps to explain to them why it’s important for their rooms to be organized. Explain that it’s not just for the sake of being organized, but so they can find things more easily in the morning when they are rushing out to school, or get their homework done faster in the evenings.

Q: I have a hard time with paper. I pay what I can online but keep large files of receipts and bills. Is it worth it to scan these in? Is there a system you’d recommend? I wonder if it’s legal to use a scanned document for tax purposes.

A: It is legal to use scanned receipts and other backup documents for tax purposes. A great scanner for this purpose is the Fujitsu ScanSnap. The S1100 model can fit in a large handbag and works interchangeably with both PCs and Macs, which is one of the reasons I love it so much.

The important thing to remember is that once the documents are scanned and the paper shredded, keep a backup in the cloud or on a thumb drive so you’re safe if your hard drive crashes.

Q: How do you become a professional organizer? Is there a certification process or an association that I should begin with? How would I advertise my services? Any advice would be most helpful.

A: I started out by joining the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), which is a fantastic resource and community for anyone wanting to get into this business.

NAPO National offers many different professional organizer-education teleclasses on everything from starting a professional organizing business to working with chronically disorganized clients.

Word-of-mouth among family, friends and neighbors is a great way to get started with hands on organizing. Good luck!

Q: Do you ever encounter a person who thinks a cluttered house is better than a neat one? My experience is that this person thinks the clutter makes a “house look lived in.” Any suggestions for useful response? I am not talking about a hoarder, exactly.

A: That’s a very interesting question. I would say that there is a difference between cluttered and disorganized. If someone has a cluttered house, but they have no problem finding things in it, have a smoothly running system for processing mail, bills, etc., and the clutter is not impeding their life in any way, then I would say that is fine.

However, if there are so many things in the house that they can’t find their keys to get out the door in the morning, or they have so many clothes in the closet that they can’t find anything to actually wear, or the important mail is getting lost under piles of junk, then my response would be that the clutter is preventing them from leading the life they want to live.

Q: The master closet in my 1958 split level is a reach in, and I have to share it with my husband. I store out-of-season clothes in another closet, but I still can’t seem to make the closet work for me, particularly for shoe and purse storage. Do you have any advice?

A: One of my favorite products for purse storage is the Container Store’s 8-Pocket Handbag File. It is very inexpensive and a great way to store your purses so you can see them. I store my shoes in clear shoe boxes, also from the Container Store, with a label on the outside describing the shoe.

I do keep my out-of-season shoes on the highest shelf of my closet where they are out of the way and stack them three boxes high. If you don’t have the room, you might want to store them in with your out-of-season clothes in the other closet as well.



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