The entire process of listing and selling your home, even under the best of circumstances, can be traumatic. For the moment, do not focus on moving, which can be such an ordeal that some homeowners will not even consider it until there is no other alternative. Opening one’s home to strangers, first to a real estate agent, next to the public – which can include nosy neighbors – and finally, to inspectors and bank appraisers, can be pretty intimidating.
Enter the real estate agent: nonjudgmental, objective, solution-oriented, armed with comparable sales and pricing strategy, a fresh outlook and above all, optimism and tact. Even the most carefully tended and maintained apartment or house is bound to have a stained carpet, some mildew in a bathroom, a messy closet or a cracked ceiling, making sellers feel vulnerable and exposed.
When a home conceals secrets, like a basement, attic or garage packed with junk or debris, sellers may fear being judged or criticized for excessive possessions or disorder. Taken to extremes, some homes are so filled with furnishings, debris, pets and junk items that the owner feels they cannot cope with selling, which will ultimately entail organizing, decluttering, packing and moving.
Collecting As a Hobby
Homeowners are defined by their surroundings and they personalize them to suit their needs and tastes. They may dedicate a spare bedroom to sewing or scrapbooking, or turn a basement into a model train layout, complete with topography, towns and multiple tracks. At this basic level, which is best defined as a hobby or a collection, no apparent harm or damage is in evidence. Collectors with a carefully curated and beautifully displayed collection, whether it’s books, dolls, china teacups or Elvis memorabilia, are proud to show their belongings and share information, stories and provenance of each item.
Collecting, when controlled and organized, presents no danger to one’s health and does not overwhelm a living space to the point where only a tiny pathway is left for walking or where there is so much excessive and unused material and paraphernalia that everyday living is jeopardized. But collecting, carried to extremes without control, comes very close to hoarding.
Each sale, like each real estate agent, is different. Some agents have specialties, both listing and selling, whether it’s ranches, vacation homes, historic properties, foreclosures or even distressed properties. Realistic listing agents will “tell it like it is,” which goes a long way in getting the deal done and preventing problems as buyer’s agents and their buyers show up to the seller’s front door. No listing agent wants to deliver bad news and no seller wants to hear it. Being a “friend” and an effective sales agent are often mutually exclusive.
The Difference Between Hoarding and Collecting
How do you tell the difference between collecting and hoarding? The American Psychiatric Association defines hoarding as a psychological condition in which individuals have persistent difficulty parting with possessions due to a perceived need to save the items, whether there is a need or use for them. The Mayo Clinic, an internationally recognized private group medical practice, further explains that the hoarder may experience distress at the thought of getting rid of items. The person may keep or gather a huge number of items, regardless of their actual value. Meanwhile, a collector is “a person who collects books, paintings, stamps, shells, etc., as a hobby,” according to the Collins Dictionary.
Hoarders cross the line into accumulating quantities of things with little or no discretion, unlike the trained eye of the collector, who is able to control their need and desire to obtain more objects. A collector may trade or sell some of their collection to acquire better quality items, whereas a hoarder is only interested in quantity without discernment.
Hoarding As a Disorder
Hoarding is a relatively newly recognized disorder. In 2012, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorder Sub-Workgroup, overseen by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, recognized hoarding as a new mental health disorder. Since then, the condition has received significant scientific attention, including research and methods of treatment, as well as media coverage. The Arts and Entertainment Network has broadcast 15 seasons of the reality show “Hoarders.”
The causes of hoarding are varied. Trauma, death of a loved one, depression, ADHD or alcohol abuse may all contribute to the reason hoarding increases to excessive and uncontrollable levels. Once the urge or need to acquire belongings without boundary overtakes one’s home and affects one’s health, hoarding is full-blown.
The Five Levels of Hoarding
There is a multitude of professional industrial cleaning and organizing services that will work sites that may potentially be overrun with hoarding or are full-blown hoarding situations. The Centennial, Colorado-based Valor Technical Cleaning website lists five levels of hoarding based on their research and experience. Level one is simply the most basic and average home that may have excessive clutter, whether toys, newspapers, tools or books. This describes most homes and, in the early stages of hoarding, while the clutter is contained, you are in no danger. Levels two and three describe deteriorating hygiene (possible hoarder) and extreme disorganization (likely hoarder), respectively. The more extreme fourth and fifth levels of hoarding present rotting food, active infestations of bugs and rodents, and entire rooms, including kitchens and bathrooms, that are inaccessible and nonfunctioning. Pet hoarding entails extreme quantities of animals in a home with pet waste in evidence, is dangerous, and requires professional intervention. At stage five, human waste will be in evidence, which threatens health and safety.
Hoarding Doesn’t Discriminate
Hoarding affects everyone, even wealthy, educated, famous and talented individuals. Artist Andy Warhol, often called “The Father of Modern Art,” was a profound hoarder, with stacks of unopened mail hidden behind doors in rooms of his immaculately curated and refined New York City townhouse. Even now, after his death, Warhol’s estate maintains storage units of mail, newspapers and ephemera to be curated at a future time. Edith Bouvier Beale and her mother, cousins of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, were notorious hoarders, living in a house filled with cats and trash and infested with raccoons. Their lives were portrayed in the 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” by Albert and David Maysles, which evolved into a popular musical of the same name in 2005.
Disclaimer: The information provided here should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, and those seeking personal medical advice should consult with a licensed physician.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is, at present, the only known treatment for hoarding. There is currently no medication and no cure. The goal of the therapy is to help hoarders learn to diminish their perceived needs and desire to save and accumulate.
Hoarding can be fatal if left untreated, and one’s living situation becomes dangerous. It is a matter of degree and control, whether one is collecting useful or valuable items in an organized fashion or one randomly collects useless junk that overwhelms one’s home and prevents ordinary everyday activities.
The Real Estate Agent Listing a Hoarder’s Property
No agent should ever jeopardize their health or safety. When approaching a property you suspect may be inhabited by a hoarder, I encourage you to take precautions – such as scheduling a listing appointment during the day, when you can invite the seller to meet you on the front porch, if accessible, or in the yard. Entering a severely hoarded house may require wearing hazmat suits, gloves and masks.
Under no circumstances should the hoarder feel judged or criticized, but neither should the agent feel that their health or safety is threatened. The pitch to a hoarder, which I have used successfully, is that the house cannot be sold for the maximum price in its current condition. Just as I would engage a stager for a high-end property to show it to the best advantage, I would talk to the hoarding seller about why a cleanup, paint job and filling a dumpster or two will net the best return on investment.
Be prepared for resistance and/or pushback. Enlisting family members or mental health care professionals to accompany you on what may turn into a full-blown intervention may be helpful or may cause a complete shutdown on the seller’s part.
It may seem counterintuitive, but there are buyers for distressed properties, including hoarding cases. The key word in the listing description, I have found, is “opportunity.” Even the most dire property will have a buyer at some price, who may be a flipper looking to empty, renovate and sell. A house chock-full of hoarded items may be sold “as-is” or turnkey, with the buyer responsible for cleanout. The house will sell if the hoarder can walk away from the property without a profound sense of loss. The most important quality is for everyone involved to be realistic and remain motivated, with an eye on the goal.
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