CLEAN FREAKS

For seven years, Heeman and Jenny Wong had a simple home-organization system. "When a room got really bad, we'd shut the door so no one could see it," says Heeman, 39, a mechanical engineer for Lockheed-Martin and husband of Jenny, a software designer and self-described clutter bug. But when their 17-month-old son, Joshua, started walking, they reached a crisis point. Finally, a relative persuaded them to appear on "Clean Sweep," one of cable TV's hot new home-organizing shows.

The Wongs were more than ready last month when the cameras started rolling and three burly crew members dragged cartons of jumbled belongings out of the master bedroom and the home office. The show's home organizer helped the couple pare down their belongings while the interior designer came up with chic storage solutions for the stuff they kept. A decorative-spoon collection made the cut, but Heeman's 10-year-old pay stubs got tossed. A playpen full of Jenny's worn T shirts, old wedding centerpieces and a bright yellow headpiece from a chicken costume were put aside for a yard sale. "There's so much we need to learn about keeping it all in order," says Jenny.

Like the Wongs, millions of Americans are finally coming clean about a dirty little secret: their homes are a mess. And as the outside world grows ever more chaotic, they're desperately seeking ways to enforce some order at home. Every week, 10 million viewers tune in to shows like TLC's "Clean Sweep," Style Network's "Clean House" and HGTV's "Mission: Organization" to watch a modern-day morality play: ordinary couples transforming their cluttered rooms into sleek, efficient living spaces. Women who used to read articles touting the latest diet tips and exercise routines now pore over articles about organizing the glove compartment in their SUV. While circulation at most women's magazines has declined, readership at four-year-old Real Simple, a monthly dedicated to the orderly life, has increased from 400,000 to a whopping 1.5 million. The magazine's best-selling cover: the ultimate closet organizer: 16 real-life solutions.

Recovering pack rats are willing to pay top dollar for a tidy solution. The number of professional organizers--who charge between $50 and $200 an hour--has grown from 1,000 in 1998 to more than 2,400 in 2004. Home-storage products have become a $4.36 billion industry, with sales of objects like wire shelving and acrylic Q-tip holders up a prodigious 10 percent a year since 1998.

How did our homes become overrun by a thicket of mismatched socks, lost Legos and loose DVDs? Blame it on an unwieldy convergence of trends. After a long day at work, most women don't have time to straighten out the linen closet. Although men report doing more housework than in the past, two-career couples still don't keep house as their mothers did. Even families with a stay-at-home spouse have trouble getting organized, because they're buying too much and throwing away too little. Decades of unprecedented prosperity, coupled with relentless advertising and cheaply produced goods from abroad, have created a perfect storm of overconsumption. "Back in our grandparents' day," says Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, "people didn't have 25 pairs of black pants, 30 ivory blouses and 30 pairs of shoes. There are just too many choices."

For many people, the clutter is so out of control that it has begun to eat up a resource even more precious than disposable income: time. Houses have gotten bigger: in 1970 the average new single-family house measured 1,400 square feet; today it's around 2,300. But that's still not enough space for the ever-expanding detritus of daily life. According to a study conducted by a Boston marketing firm, the average American burns 55 minutes a day--roughly 12 weeks a year--looking for things they know they own but can't find.

Buying sprees spawn more buying--for equipment to store all this stuff. Signe Yberg, 31, a hip East Village stylist, visits the Container Store in the Chelsea section of New York City twice a month. "When the store first opened, I was here every week," she says. An inveterate collector, Yberg, who is childless, gets vintage kids' clothes and used footwear from eBay. When her clothes collection threatened to overtake her apartment, she got plastic barrels to store it. On one recent trip, she bought a shopping-cartful of plastic boxes for her 100-plus pairs of vintage shoes and boots. She says that bringing order to chaos--even chaos of her own making--"gives me a little high." The Container Store's vice president of marketing, Casey Priest, says it's no coincidence that sales have been strong since 9/11. "Our customers want to get control," says Priest. "And when they can't control the world around them, they turn to the things they can control," like sorting their sock drawer.

In the long run, of course, TV shows, slick magazines and pricey Portofino leather storage boxes are really just a quick fix and can't replace old-fashioned elbow grease. Cheryl Mendelson, author of the best-selling homemaking compendium "Home Comforts," cautions against what she calls "organizing porn." Forget the fantasy. Cutting through clutter, she says, "isn't a consumer activity or a spectator sport." And a one-time cleanup won't solve the problem--any more than a crash diet will cure lifelong bad eating habits. Keeping an orderly house requires constant vigilance. "You have to develop good, efficient habits," says Mendelson, "in order to maintain the foundations for a comfortable life."

Back in California, it took the "Clean Sweep" team a full two days to overhaul the Wongs' master bedroom and home office. During the big "reveal," the couple was appropriately dazzled. The awkward stack of electronic equipment in the office had been tucked neatly into a customized two-person desk. Upstairs, the haphazard pile of bedtime reading was lined up in order of size on the Wongs' sleek new cube nightstands. But later, as the crew packed up to leave, the couple looked dismayed. The two rooms turned out great, but Heeman wonders just how long it will last. "It seems like so much work to keep it clean," he frets. Does "Clean Sweep" ever make return visits? Behind closed doors, he's got a few more rooms that could use some help.