The voice on the other end of the line sounded very sweet but tentative. “Hello, I’m calling about a column you wrote a while back about people who help clean out homes,” the woman said, “I have some stuff to remove, and I need help.”
I asked specifically what kind of “stuff” was involved because I have worked with several suppliers who do this kind of work and know that some specialize in evaluating and selling things of value, while others just dispose of junk.
My caller wavered a bit in answering, saying that her daughter had already removed much of the clutter, but it was too heavy a job and she now needed professional help. When she acknowledged that she had “a problem,” I knew what the problem was.
Hoarding is a subject I considered writing about several times, particularly when I have encountered it in my work as a realtor, but I’ve always pulled back, feeling that it was too intrusive into the lives of its victims to explore it further.
Recently I changed my mind when a neighbor of mine died from a fire in her home and it was reported that the firefighters had difficulty reaching her on the second level of her home because the entire interior was filled with furnishings and trash “from the floor to the ceiling.”
The fire had started, it was determined, from a faulty extension cord, but I wonder whether hoarding contributed to the tragedy. Actually it’s not an uncommon occurrence that hoarders die in their own prisons of trash.
At what point do homeowners progress from having a cluttered home to one that becomes dangerous because of the condition known as hoarding? And what causes the condition in the first place?
Researches at the Mayo Clinic say that it’s not entirely clear, but currently it is considered a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Interestingly, the condition is more likely to affect people who have a family history of hoarding, so genetics or the environment in which they grow up may be triggering factors. In fact, my caller said that she was relieved that none of her children had inherited the problem.
Hoarding sometimes goes undetected from the outside world for years, usually being discovered only upon the hoarder’s death.
My first exposure to it was through a listing of an estate sale where the lawyer who was a close friend of the deceased had to start unloading the materials at the front door to open it. It was only a 1700 square foot house, but it took three dumpsters to rid the house of its trove of trash.
That same lawyer was left to deal with another estate with a similar problem but this time most of the collected items were of value. My supplier Jennifer Gurihian, a professional in organization and clearance, was called in to evaluate the collectibles which were sold through tag sales, on e-Bay, Craigslist and at a consignment shop.
The condition of hoarding was brought to the attention of the public most famously by the case of the Collyer Brothers in New York City. They had both died in their brownstone within days of each other in 1947. One brother had died of an illness and, in his attempt to reach him, the other was crushed to death by one of his own booby-traps of tons of bundled newspapers that had been set to protect their possessions from intruders.
When the authorities arrived, upon a complaint about the stench of decaying bodies emanating from the house, they found the Collyers’ home filled with over 130 tons of hoarded materials, including countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, 25,000 books, 14 pianos, many other musical instruments, a collection of guns, and such disparate items as dressmaking dummies, an army of bowling balls, the folding top of a horse drawn carriage, and human organs pickled in jars (one of the brothers had been a physician).
When I re-contacted my caller to ask if there was anything further I could do to help, she shared with me her history of dealing with the problem. I was glad to hear that she had been aware of her condition for some years and has worked to address it.
As her first stab at recovery years ago, she attended a workshop at the Y in the Bronx and learned some of the basics of clearing out obsessively collected items from the home. Since then, she has attended other seminars and has read articles about it.
“The first thing I learned was to dedicate a certain amount of time to organizing each day. It had to be at least 15 minutes, but not more than two hours at any one time because it is a very stressful and tiring process. Then, it’s all about decisions and some of them are very emotional.
“We are taught that possessions should be organized into three piles: things to keep, things to get rid of, and a third pile for ‘maybe.’ Another part of the decision process is to determine whether the things are useful, sentimental or ornamental,” she said.
When I asked how she would classify where the problem stood with her right now, she said, “Well, it’s much like a diet. Sometimes you do well with it and other times you relapse into old habits. Right now, it’s serious, but I’m not panicked. I’m doing something about it.”
Because lives can be lost through hoarding, it’s probably best if any of us encounters it to try to provide some kind of intervention, either by researching agencies in our area that deal with it, or approaching the person’s friends, family or neighbors to help.
And as hard as it might seem to do, if the situation is dangerous enough to warrant it, it may be necessary to contact local authorities or public health officials to protect the lives of people who suffer from this behavior and use the home as its repository.
Bill Primavera is a licensed residential and commercial Realtor® ( affiliated with Coldwell Banker, and a lifestyles journalist who writes regularly as The Home Guru. For questions or comments about the housing market, or selling or buying a home, email him at bill@PrimaveraRealEstate.com or he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.