Hoarding: How to navigate selling a home

Hoarding is a topic that we often shy away from in the real estate industry. Often called challenging disorganization or chronic disorganization, hoarding is a mental health disorder that impacts 2-4% of people worldwide. 

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Hoarding Disorder (HD) is a mental health disorder where people have difficulty getting rid of possessions that are no longer useful. While most people go through periods during which they have trouble getting rid of things — for example, after the death of a loved one or when moving out of a childhood home — HD sufferers have difficulty parting with possessions all the time. Attempting to get rid of their things causes HD sufferers to feel significant distress, including when concerned loved ones try to get rid of possessions on their behalf.

For individuals with HD, the difficulty with getting rid of things causes their living spaces to become so cluttered that they are nearly unusable.  Without help, HD can interfere with daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, personal hygiene, and/or sleeping. Extreme clutter can lead to eviction, increased risk for fire, and impaired access to emergency services. In addition, HD can lead to poor sanitation and cause serious conflict with families and communities. (source: IOCDF

I have had the opportunity to assist several families with selling their home who were impacted by Hoarding Disorder. On first glance at our initial listing appointment, the task seemed daunting. For one specific client, there was only a very clear path through the home, with mountainous piles to the left and right of the path, throughout the home. Stacks of boxes teetered precariously on the shelves and the kitchen table was covered in a pile of spice containers. Empty glass jars decorated the edges of each room and a remarkable tower of record albums greeted me at the front door. 

At a second client's home, it wasn't so obvious at first glance that it was a hoarding situation, until I opened bedroom doors to take a look at the size and layout. Where you might assume you'd find a bed, a nightstand and a dresser, instead were somewhere between 10-20 clothing racks, crammed pack with dresses and ball gowns! This was the case in all of the four bedrooms and in one, there was a collection of over 300 hats, the homeowner told me.

 Typically at a listing appointment, I leave the sellers with a small to-do list with items such as:

  • plant colorful flowers around your mailbox
  • repair the back door latch
  • repaint the orange bedroom to a more neutral shade

However, in a home with residents who have accumulated massive amounts of personal belongings, the to do list can feel overwhelming. The first step is to understand that it's a complex situation and compassion and understanding is in order. The second step is to look carefully at the situation and determine what other resources might need to be suggested to the homeowners.

RESOURCES

A search for your local hoarding association will turn up organizations you can reach out to. In Omaha, Nebraska the Hoarding Task Force is a good choice, and in the Northern Virginia area, the Loudoun County government site has plenty of resources as well.

ACTION PLAN

Understand that this will not be a quick fix. It is not as simple as simply hiring a removal company to purge the home of the belongings. In my experience, the best solution for my clients was to hire a compassionate professional organizer to come in, assess the situation and with grace and kindness, help the homeowners work through isolating their most prized possessions in order to pack for the their next home. 

What this looked like in practice was a methodical process of working through one room at a time, removing obvious items that needed to be disposed of, isolating personal items and memorabilia, and sorting any items that could be sold or intentionally gifted. Using a "don't pick it up twice" mantra, this step can be long but yields immediate results. 

When items have been identified as sellable or have a destination in mind, it's important to have a means for those items to be transported on the spot. Whether this is your own vehicle or an organization that will send a truck, plan ahead and coordinate their arrival.

In many cases, the homeowners will feel an immense amount of stress when dealing with the separation from their belongings. Do not rush the process, or encourage the homeowners to not be so attached to their things. Suggesting that items could be better utilized if donated often is a win-win situation. Items such as books, records, and collectibles can be gifted to a nearby home for aging adults, or a homeless shelter. If the belongings can be used for good, it often softens the feeling of separation for the homeowner. 

Large furniture items can be collected by Habitat for Humanity ReSTORE or other similar organizations. Clothing items - if in good shape - will be happily welcomed by career service organizations such as those helping transitioning veterans, or individuals breaking a cycle of homelessness.

GETTING HELP

It is wise to research allies before you are faced with a hoarding situation. Traditional moving companies, temporary storage companies such as Pod or ZippyShell, professional organizers and junk removal companies top the list. 

A secondary list that can be helpful might include companies willing to donate cardboard boxes. If you cannot find free cardboard boxes, consider suggesting rented packing crates from a company like Blue Cow in Nebraska or Lend-A-Box in Northern Virginia. 

COMMUNICATION AND COMPASSION

It is important to understand that hoarding disorder does not necessarily render an individual incapable of making sound decisions. Be mindful in your language, be gentle yet firm with your hopeful timeline and always inject compassion into your conversations.