I’ve personally come across a hoarder’s home four times in my real estate career. Three chose to list and sell their home with me, and the other never listed with anyone—to this day, the home sits vacant and full of stuff the homeowner once collected and thought of as treasures. This was about seven years ago, but I still recall as if it were yesterday the difficulty she and I had walking through the home.
What’s the difference between a hoarder and a packrat?
A person with hoarding disorder, sometimes referred to as a hoarder, has an extreme difficulty throwing items away. This might include items that are perceived to have deep sentimental value, items that are perceived to be needed for practical reasons, or items that the hoarder simply can’t part with for unknown reasons. These behaviors are sometimes associated with other conditions, such as depression, PTSD, anxiety or OCD.
Statistics show that the condition affects up to 5 percent of the population. You may have heard about it on the A&E show “Hoarders,” which documents the struggles of those who hoard as they attempt to undergo the cleanup process.
Not every home full of stuff is the home of a hoarder. I had a recent experience in which the owner of a home (it was a rental property for some 20+ years that she had inherited) believed the deceased tenant had been a hoarder. This inspired me to research hoarding, learn about the disorder, and write this blog post. Some folks are simply packrats, which is very different from a hoarder. There is a big difference between the tendency to hold onto things, and a true psychological condition. These disorders are often characterized by completely disruptive behaviors that prevent a normal lifestyle from taking place. For example, many hoarders will allow so much trash and unused items to accumulate inside and around the building that it becomes impossible to move around normally. The situation builds upon itself as the accumulated items prevent regular cleaning, and the increased buildup of dirt and grime often contributes to the depression of the hoarder. Over time, the building becomes a prison, and the situation often greatly affects other loved ones or children who have no choice but to also reside there.
Like most disorders, this condition can range from mild to severe. I can’t say I’ve personally seen the difference in the accumulation of possessions between someone who has been diagnosed as severe vs mild but my research points to every case being different, and that not all symptoms are present in every case. There are however some consistencies:
- Anxiety, depression or other extreme distress at the idea of parting with old possessions or even garbage.
- An intense tendency to procrastinate and trouble managing day-to-day activities, staying on top of bills or making it to work.
- Trouble making decisions and low self-esteem, which go hand-in-hand.
- Limited social interaction due to the difficulties hoarding can cause, such as being unable to have people over or struggling to leave the house.
Hoarding is a condition that affects friends and family, as well
All of these factors can work together to create a tough situation for a loved one who is trying to help a relative with a hoarding problem. If you’re in this difficult position, you might be wondering what you should do, especially if your relative needs to clean the house out to move. Since hoarders tend to let mail build up and procrastinate going through it, they often get behind on mortgage payments. If their homes go into foreclosure, loved ones are left with the difficult task of helping them prepare to leave. This was the case in all three homes I sold that were lived in by someone with a hoarding disorder.
There’s no doubt these behaviors can destroy an entire family. They have many negative effects that you might not expect. It goes far beyond poor living conditions. A 2007 study carried out by researchers from Legacy Healing found that children who grow up in cluttered households experience increased stress levels and difficult social lives, and have a harder time getting along with their families.
All of this also affects extended family members who live elsewhere. In a way, this is one of the most difficult positions to be in, because as a loved one who lives elsewhere, you’ll be even more helpless. If it comes time for the hoarder to sell the property and move, family are often faced with what seems like an insurmountable task.
The first step in helping a relative or friend with this problem is letting them know you’re aware there’s a problem. You might have already done this. If you haven’t, sitting your loved one down to have a gentle conversation is a good idea. It’s important to note that dealing with a hoarder requires a lot of patience and tenderness. This isn’t the time for “tough love.” Psychology Today warns that you must be very patient when dealing with a hoarder. Even if the person realizes they have a problem, they won’t be able to change overnight. Efforts to go through the property and throw everything away will likely be met with a great deal of resistance. It won’t make sense to you, but try to keep in the mindset that to the hoarder, the piles of trash and unused items bring comfort. It will take time and therapeutic efforts for them to change. Treat and talk to them like anybody else but be mindful of the confusion and pain they are in.
Steps to help someone who hoards prepare to move
Here are some things you can do to help your friend or loved one prepare their home for selling.
- Get Educated on the Disorder
Reading this article is a start! If you’re not already familiar with the condition, it’s a good idea to sit down and spend some time researching before you try to help. I’m so glad I took the time to research and read.
- Understand the Reality
The desire to change is crucial for a hoarder. It’s certainly possible to recover from this condition, but it will require a great deal of motivation and self-work. When attempting to help a loved one with this problem, many people focus on the physical aspects of the cleanup job and not the emotional aspects of the condition. Even if you manage to get their home cleaned up, it will likely return to its chaotic state within a short amount of time without a true internal change. They will need lots of hand holding!
- Handle the Dangers
It’s possible your loved one is living in a situation that’s dangerous to themselves or others. For example, perhaps they are keeping an unsafe number of pets. The growth of hazardous mold is another potential danger. If you think your loved one or others in the household might be in immediate danger, action needs to be taken. Providing a place for them to temporarily stay during the cleanup process is an option. One of the homes I was in had hundreds of exposed diabetic syringes on the floor where the home owner and guests could easily step on them.
- Hire Help
It’s a good idea to hire help for the actual cleanup process. Even when hoarders seem to finally be ready to make a change, they will likely have a hard time parting with their possessions. It can be difficult to provide emotional support for your loved one while engaged in the tiring cleanup process, so having extra hands on deck can be very helpful. It’s common for fights to break out while working through this, and the cleanup team can be busy at work as you handle the necessary discussions. Speaking from experience, it’s best to hire a cleanup crew with experience dealing with hoarders. The last thing your loved one needs is harsh words from an insensitive crew member who doesn’t understand the weight of the situation.
- Provide Support
This condition is like alcoholism in some ways. You can go through your loved one’s home and help them throw away all their bottles, but unless they’re truly ready to stop drinking, they will simply go out and get more. It’s similar with the hoarder. Aftercare is required to stop the hoarder from falling back into the same pattern. Cognitive behavioral therapy is recommended.
It can also be helpful to get your loved one involved in new activities while they’re working in therapy. Helpful as it is to see a therapist, it’s often something they will only do one or two days a week. This leaves the rest of the week to be tempted back into the old cycle. You can help by providing a break in your loved one’s normal routine. Suggesting a movie, lunch or even a short walk outside the house can do a lot to improve someone’s mood. Isolation leads to depression, so the more you can stop in and see them, the better.
If you would like more information on services to help with this condition, please contact me today at (559) 708-8768. That’s my direct cell phone number. You can call me on it, or email me at Jason@fresyes.com. I’m happy to share all the research and resources I’ve found.
Note: This post was originally published on Dec. 8, 2016 and has been modified/updated.