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To unclutter their garages, some are willing to pay big

Angela Aloi used to begin a tour of her family's new dream house on Long Island the same way as any other proud suburban homeowner.

She would guide her visitors to the icons of affluence adorning her colonial-style home: the two-story foyer, the granite kitchen counters and stainless steel appliances, the cedar deck and slate patio. But when she reached the family room - just past the big screen TV and marble bar - she would quickly pivot, using her body to seal off the door to the garage as if she were a human deadbolt.

"No one was going to see that mess if I could help it," she said. "It was a landfill. Christmas decorations, bikes, clothes, Little League equipment, box after box of junk. And six hammers, because every time we needed one we'd have to buy a new one because we couldn't find the others. I'd tell my husband, "That garage is the sign of a sick, sick mind.' "

But late last year, Aloi, her husband and their three children finally managed to conquer their family dumping ground and turn it into the latest suburban status symbol, the designer garage.

The indoor landfill was replaced by bright floors made of durable, easy-to-clean plastic tiles and a clutter-free matrix of plastic storage bins. The arrangement is so tidy that there is room for the family SUV and enough space for a pantry, lawn and garden supplies, sporting equipment, tools and even a weight bench.

Hoping to avert an onslaught of relentless renovation jokes, the Alois have avoided telling neighbors that they spent $8,000 to have a professional organizer perform the makeover.

But they might be surprised at the sympathetic response: Suburban homeowners are so full of angst, guilt, despair and frustration over their bulging garages that they spent $800-million on garage organizing products last year, double the amount spent in 2000, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts. Alleviating that garage guilt could easily cost $12,000 per job.

The amount of money spent on garage makeovers is expected to rise by 10 percent a year for the rest of the decade, making garage organizing one of the fastest growing segments of the home improvement market.

The National Association of Professional Organizers estimates that more than 500 organizing businesses specialize in garages, twice as many as in 2000. But for those who want to tackle the job themselves, there is an assortment of new storage systems that make your grandfather's pegboard seem absolutely Paleolithic.

"In the '80s, it was California Closets," said Bill West, author of Your Garagenous Zone: Innovative Ideas for the Garage, one of a half-dozen books on the subject of messy garages. "But today, garages are where it's all happening."

In some ways, its odd that suburban homeowners would be turning to garage feng shui just now. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the size of the average new house built in the United States increased by more than 50 percent between 1970 and 2004, even as the size of the average family grew smaller. Internet sites like eBay were supposed to help homeowners turn their clutter into cash by feeding the habits of pack rats across globe. Even garages themselves have grown: 83 percent of all new homes built in 2004 had two- or three-car garages, double the number in 1970.

At the Costa home in Shrewsbury, N.J., the decision to spend $12,000 on an intervention for their wayward garage was born of equal parts exasperation and shame. Barbara Costa and her family had packed so much into their garage that their cars would frequently get scratched by garbage cans and bicycle handle bars. To make matters worse, their next door neighbor's garage was a portrait of orderliness.

"You could eat off the floor over there," Costa said. "He's a fanatic about it."

There are no reliable numbers to determine how many overhauled garages manage to stave off the inexorable tide of possessions over the long run. But the National Association of Professional Organizers Web site offers a provocative bit of encouragement, citing a survey taken by the Ikea furniture company in 2001 that inexplicably asserted that 31 percent of respondents got more satisfaction from cleaning a closet than having sex.

Barry Izsak, the association's president, said that while some consumers can be reluctant to pay for professional help, which can run upward of $200 an hour, he rarely hears complaints from garage owners who take the plunge.

Izsak said that the problem that leads most garages down the path to sloth is a lack of clear vision. The garage is one of the few rooms used by everyone in a family, and often the largest in the house, but all that unstructured space turns into a catch-all. "People keep all this worthless junk, 5-foot piles of National Geographics being eaten by mice and colonized by silver fish," Izsak said.

"It's just plain weird," he said.

Peter Walsh, a psychologist who earned the job description of celebrity organizer as host of the cable television program Clean Sweep for four seasons, has expanded his focus from treating the symptoms of clutter to pondering its causes.

"There's an orgy of consumption going on in this country," said Walsh, who later this year will release a book titled It's All Too Much, about the psychology of clutter. Walsh acknowledges that he is a lonely voice calling for a new era of American asceticism.

"This is the Supersize-Me society," he said. "So it's going to take a while."