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Organizers: Closet and garage systems Many install-it-yourself systems are poorly designed, made of shoddy materials, and a nightmare to install
The dream of an orderly closet and a clutter-free home is very compelling. But reality intrudes: Our tests found many install-it-yourself systems are poorly designed, made of shoddy materials, and a nightmare to install. Others matched professionally installed systems for a fraction of the cost.

Home centers and box stores sell products that you can take home to organize your closet or garage. Or you can go to a store that offers design and installation services as well as products, for a price.

California Closets, the largest national brand, sells both options. But its do-it-yourself and pro-installed systems had little in common. The pro system looked and worked fine. But its DIY counterpart had parts that didnít line up and drawers that stuck or fell off their tracks.

Among the shortcomings we found in other systems: a Sauder garage workbench that wobbled, a Stanley shoe rack thatís so close to the floor that installing it is literally a knuckle-busting experience, and confusing or inadequate instructions from Craftsman, Ikea, and ClosetMaid.

These problems are especially frustrating because the majority of storage systems are installed by consumers. We spent nearly 7 hours installing the worst ones, compared with less than 1 hour for the easiest. And the quality of customer service and online help also varied. Here are the rest of our findings:

Some innovations are improvements. With a third of the nine do-it-yourself closet organizers and six garage organizers we tested, assembly and installation worked fine. Rubbermaidís closet system uses telescoping rails and shelves that eliminate the need to measure and cut shelf supports. The Container Store, which sells the Elfa organizers, will cut brackets and shelves for you after you supply your closet dimensions.

Pro vs. DIY systems. If you opt to have a pro install your closet organizer, youíll pay more--double or triple the typical $400 to $500 DIY price. But you may get useful design advice, as we did from the sales representative at California Closets. Then again, you may not. The premium for pro-installed garage systems is roughly 25 percent. But instead of advice, the GarageTek rep we dealt with offered a high-pressure sales pitch. GarageTek is the only national pro-installed garage system. Both companies tried to sell us more products than we had asked for.

Help is a mixed bag. Six of the systems we purchased, garage organizers from Sauder and Coleman and closet organizers from Schulte, Millís Pride, ClosetMaid, and Ikea, had missing or broken parts. So we tested the help you can expect to get from customer service by contacting all the companies in our tests to request a small replacement part. Most were very helpful, but Ikea and Craftsman required a copy of the receipt before they would send the part, and Schulte sent us back to the store where we bought the unit.

Some company Web sites include interactive storage-planning assistance that can help you decide what to buybefore you go shopping. On the Gladiator site, which is one of the most useful, you can drag and drop icons for cabinets, shelves, and drawers, fitting them onto a rendering of your garage layout. The Schulte, ClosetMaid, and Sauder sites also offer design ideas. California Closets has basic, general advice on its Web site, along with pitches for its custom system. Colemanís site has a printable planning grid and product details. The Stanley, Craftsman, and Ikea Web sites offer no design help for their closet products.

How to choose

Americans spent more than $2 billion in 2004 to organize their closets and garages. And you can spend hundreds or even thousands on closet and garage storage systems, depending on the materials and whether you design and install it yourself or have a professional do it. Though the best can help you fit more stuff in the same space, the worst require spending more money and time, and saddle you with more assembly problems than you may have bargained for.

Look online first. After checking our Ratings for the best systems, check the manufacturersí Web sites to see the accessories that are available; the offerings change over time. Add-ons such as shoe storage and extra drawers might make the difference in what you buy.

Decide how handy you are. If the sight of a screwdriver makes your head spin, you may want one of the highly rated professionally installed units we tested. But be prepared for a sales pitch, subtle or otherwise.

If youíre comfortable using a drill, screwdriver, and level, you can do the work yourself. The three closet organizers and three garage organizers with top scores typically fit together well, had clear assembly instructions, and required little or no cutting. See Tips for installation for advice.

Match the material to the use. Avoid garage products that use cardboard or unsealed particleboard where exposure to the elements or normal use can weaken or damage the material. Wire shelves let air circulate, but can leave lines in sweaters and delicate fabrics. So look for closet systems with solid shelves or thin boards you can put over the wire.

Find out which DIY closet organizers are best and held up in our tests. Subscribe to ConsumerReports.org for full Ratings.

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