- Luke Eastman
When professional home organizer Eileen Dugan was living in Fairfield, Conn., she never had to define what she did for a living. But it's a different story when she's talking to prospective clients in Vermont.
"I don't have to explain home staging. I don't have to explain moving help ... But a lot of times, people have said, 'Is it possible for you to clean out a basement?'" said Dugan, a Montpelier resident. "I say, 'Yes, that's totally what I do.'"
But awareness of the organizing profession could be growing locally. Thanks to a fast-paced real estate market in which thousands of people are coming and going — and to the enormous popularity of organizing gurus such as Marie Kondo — makeovers are happening in Vermont's basements, attics and spaces in between. And organizers are helping.
Emily Bissonnette of Middlebury started her organizing business, Your Joyful Life, in 2019 — the name is a reference to Kondo, who has created a small media empire called KonMari out of her tidying tips and theories. Her 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, inspired a Netflix reality series and an international wave of self-reflection about what to keep and what to cast off. Kondo is known for instructing her acolytes to ask themselves whether an item cluttering their space — be it a shirt, a book or pretty much anything else — sparks joy.
If it doesn't, Kondo recommends thanking the item and bidding it farewell.
A former school administrator, Bissonnette completed a KonMari certification course in New York City. There, she took seminars from master consultants and attended a keynote speech by Kondo herself.
Professional organizers such as Bissonnette are busy these days as Vermont changes and grows. Many of them say Vermonters are just catching on to the idea that someone can help them use their space more effectively or take away items they don't want anymore.
For those who haven't used such services, "it's hard to understand how someone is going to come in and actually be able to work with them in a way they're comfortable with," said Dugan, whose business is called Changing Spaces. "I lighten the load, and when someone can see that right off, they're surprised."
According to Bissonnette, the job requires empathy and a deep understanding of the reasons people hang on to stuff they don't need.
"The piece we focused the most on in the training was: How do you support people in working through their complicated relationships with their possessions, on getting clear on what matters the most?" Bissonnette said. "How do I define my values? What makes me most happy? What does that feel like?"
For some clients, decluttering feels like a tremendous relief.
- Caleb Kenna
- Professional organizer Emily Bissonnette in Middlebury
"Nobody really knows what to do with their items," said Peter O'Brien, owner of Estate Sales and Consignments in Colchester. An antiques and collectibles dealer who has been in the business for 30 years, O'Brien works with organizers who are helping people declutter their homes or move out altogether, sometimes after several decades in the same place.
He thinks that older people need more help from professionals than they used to because their kids are less willing, or less able, to take on the job of helping their parents redistribute a lifetime's worth of stuff.
Families are smaller than they used to be, making it less likely that offspring will be around to lay claim to furniture or keepsakes — much less handle the whole move.
"The children that grow up here generally live out of state now in order to work," O'Brien said. Often, he observed, they don't even return for the move or after a parent has passed away; they just pay for the disposal of items. He worked on an estate sale at which a daughter wanted just one book from her parents' belongings.
Finding a new home for unwanted items is a skill in itself. It's expensive to throw things out, and many of the people in the moving and organizing businesses would rather see items go to someone who needs them than send them to the landfill.
Tammy Browning of Montpelier, who started her business, Lighter Moves, with a friend in early 2020, sells what she can for her clients and gives a lot away. Lighter Moves was created to help seniors move out of homes, in some cases after many decades in a large house. The neighborhood message board Front Porch Forum has been a boon to the company whenever there's free stuff to share.
"Old magazines, we just put them on Front Porch Forum, and people want them," Browning said. "Even if they're a little bit moldy, they want them. We have people in our area who want any old stereo equipment, old camera stuff, half-empty bottles of cleaning supplies. If we put it out for free, people take it."
Organizers' fees vary. Browning charges $45 an hour, while other organizers might charge $160 for a three-hour session.
Dugan said 80 percent of the people who hire her are women. Some have used her business for years to keep their homes in order. Every once in a while, a therapist refers someone to her for decluttering. She offers life coaching, too.
"People and their stuff — it's very sensitive," Dugan said, adding that reality shows such as "Hoarders" don't help.
"After that show, they are not letting anyone in because of embarrassment," Dugan said.
Organizers don't just get homes in order. Four years ago, an electrician hired organizer Ellen Gurwitz of Shelburne business De-clutter Me! to help get his truck in order. The two worked together some of the time, and then, while he took some phone calls, she sorted equipment and tools so that they would be easy to find. She also made some recommendations on ladder storage.
A couple of months later, she saw his truck on Shelburne Road and pulled up so she could look through the window.
"It still looked good," she said.
As skilled organization has gained traction in the last few years, so has the concept of self-forgiveness, which is championed as a mental health tool in do-it-yourself books and apps. To reach a point of acceptance when it comes to clutter, it's crucial to set up some boundaries against the perfectly curated homes that are ubiquitous on social media.
That teaching is something Renata Watts, an organizer in Thetford, consciously brings to every job. Watts, who started her company, Reveal, in 2018 and also attended KonMari training, said there's no denying that perfect order at home feels good. But the reality of a full life — complete with jobs, hobbies, children or pets — makes it nearly impossible to achieve.
"It's a standard that nobody can live up to," Watts said of the exquisite interiors on social media that can spark guilt, not joy. "It creates this feast for the eyes, but in real life it can be very demoralizing."
Watts' goal is to coach her clients to find order, and peace, in their surroundings in a way that they can reasonably achieve. Things don't have to be perfect.
"I want to take away the burden from my clients — not give them new, unreasonable standards to live up to," she said.