Professional organizer Susan G. Romanic declutters closets, organizes garages and turns home offices into models of efficiency. But she specializes in cleaning up a particular kind of mess, the kind caused by people who hoard.
One client, she said, was living out of his SUV because his house had become uninhabitable. Another had piled so much stuff on the dining room table - including 17 rolls of tape - that the table's feet were starting to split.
"There are some deplorable situations, right here in pretty little Columbia," she said.
But Romanic takes it all in stride. She's never turned down a case, even in situations where she can barely walk in the door because there's so much clutter blocking the way.
She tackles the mess methodically, sorting papers into boxes and files that are neatly labeled, building closet or garage organizers if necessary, donating things that aren't needed and throwing away things that can't be donated. Sometimes it takes a day or two, sometimes longer.
Hoarding, says Romanic, can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Romanic is sensitive to the reasons that people allow clutter to grow, but she's quick to point out that she's not a therapist. "We work with the stuff," she says. "We don't work with your feelings about the stuff."
Romanic is careful to protect the anonymity of her clients. Most are well-off, successful people who are embarrassed about the mess in their homes. Some clients will even meet Romanic in a coffee shop because they don't want her to see the problem until they grow to trust her.
Not all clients who come to Organized! by Romanic are lifelong hoarders. Some decide they need help before or after a major upheaval. A family member has died or moved out, a child is born, a family is getting ready to move someplace smaller. "Basically, by the time they call, they're really ready," says Romanic, 43, a small and incredibly energetic woman.
One client's husband had died, and she said it was too painful to go through his cluttered office.
She called Romanic recently because her daughter was graduating from law school, and she wanted to have a party at her home. The woman saw Romanic's ad in the phone book.
Romanic said when she first saw the office, more than half the floor was covered with boxes and papers. She divided the contents of the office into categories. Bills and financial statements were sorted by year. Another box was labeled "music to be sorted" and another was "art supplies."
In this particular case, Romanic said, she didn't throw anything away - just organized it. In other cases, though, donating things or throwing things away is a big part of the job. Romanic gets receipts for donated items so her clients can claim the tax benefits.
Sometimes, as in the case of the widow, the clients will leave her alone to do her job. Other times, they'll work alongside her, sorting and shredding as she organizes. Either way is fine with her, Romanic says.
Romanic got into the personal organizing business about six years ago, just before it really took off as an industry. She grew up in Pennsylvania in a house that was far too cluttered for her taste, she said. Her father restored antique cars and her mother was an artist, and their stuff was everywhere.
She worked her way through college doing odd jobs such as landscaping, painting and housecleaning, but really learned about organization when she became a kindergarten teacher in Virginia.
She moved to Columbia in 1989, and for 10 years worked as an editor for a psychology journal.
One beautiful October day, she was looking out the window, watching some men move boxes outside, and realized she wanted to do something else. "I thought about when I'm happy, and I thought, well, I'm happy when I'm organizing."
She had heard of professional organizers, but thought they only worked for businesses, not private individuals. Still, she got online and found the National Association of Professional Organizers. She joined that day.
She remembers March 24, 2000, clearly because that's the day she earned her first paycheck, she said. She started out charging $25 an hour, well below the market rate of $45 to $60 an hour. She learned as she went along, and her client base has grown exponentially.
Soon after she started her business, the personal organizing industry took off. Now, television shows such as TLC's Clean Sweep and HGTV's Mission: Organization focus on the joys of eliminating clutter.
Romanic figures she has seen about 1,500 clients since she started. Most clients are in Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, she said.
Romanic charges about $100 an hour for her services. She always starts with an initial consultation that takes one or two hours. During the consultation, she gives an estimate of how much time she thinks the work will take, and talks with the client about what can be thrown away and what must be saved.
Not all her customers are hoarders. Some, like the widow, simply need help getting over a hurdle. Others want advice on organizing their garages or closets. Romanic has carved out a niche for herself, earning the trust of clients who are going through difficult times.
Organized! by Romanic can be reached through www.organizedbyromanic.com or at 410-995-0435.