If you find yourself handling the buying or selling of a hoarder’s home, you might feel like you’ve landed in an episode of the reality TV show “Hoarders: Family Secrets.” Chances are, you’ll encounter many of the same issues that pop up on the program. To cope with those issues, here are 10 tips from the experts:
1. Recognize that hoarding is a disorder.
Hoarding isn’t a way of life. It’s a mental condition that affects anywhere from two to five percent of the U.S. population; in a recent survey commissioned by SpareFoot, seven percent of American adults identified themselves as hoarders.
Everything in a hoarder’s home carries emotional attachments, whether it’s a stack of old newspapers or a collection of hats, experts say.
“Something that looks like trash to the average eye may be a very important item — emotionally or financially — to the hoarder,” said Matt Paxton, one of the cleanup professionals on “Hoarders.”
2. Be compassionate.
Speak to hoarders as equals, Paxton said, and work with them closely to come up with a fair deal for both sides.
“Hoarders are good people who have experienced bad things. Do not treat someone with a hoarding disorder as a lesser person,” he said.
If you’re a real estate agent whose client is a hoarder, be honest while also being respectful and nonjudgmental, Paxton said. Here’s what you shouldn’t say to a hoarder who’s selling a home: “Do you see how messy this house is? I can’t list it.”
Here’s what you should say to a hoarder who’s selling a home: “My expert opinion tells me that we’ll need to clean up this space in order to maximize the sale price.”
3. Create a sense of optimism.
If you’re representing a hoarder who’s selling a home, assure the client that the home can be sold, said Paxton, the hoarding and extreme-cleaning expert for ServiceMaster Restore.
“If you don’t believe it, they won’t,” he said. “Treat them just like any other client.”
4. Team up with “extreme cleaning” professionals.
When dealing with a hoarder’s home, it’s best to clear out everything before it’s put on the market, said Dave Baxter, owner and CEO of Baxter Restoration, which provides restoration and remediation services in Orlando, Fla. Experts suggest tapping professionals who are well versed in “extreme cleaning.”
“You can’t know what you are really dealing with until you get all the crap out and have a look at the structure of the building to see what kind of damage has been done,” said Baxter.
Working with a team of professionals who are familiar with hoarders’ homes, rather than a typical cleaning crew, ensures there’s a high level of “compassion and understanding,” said Paxton.
“People with a true hoarding disorder cannot be pushed, threatened or cajoled into making decisions, so ideally, a professional organizer or therapist would be good to add to the team,” said Regina Lark, a Los Angeles-based professional organizer with expertise in hoarding disorder and chronic disorganization.
5. Consider storage.
Lark suggests renting a mobile storage unit or a nearby self-storage unit to temporarily store stuff if a hoarder is grappling with weeding out belongings.
6. Be realistic.
If you must list a hoarder’s home while all of the seller’s belongings are still inside, feature only a floor plan in the listing and include photos of what does look nice or can easily be fixed to look nicer, said Brad Chandler, co-founder and CEO of Express Homebuyers, a real estate investment company in Springfield, Va.
“Encourage buyers to visualize what can be done with the ‘bones’ of the property and how it could look once it is renovated,” said Chandler.
Depending on the market and the property’s value, consider paying an architect or remodeler to draw up a plan showing renovation ideas and costs, he said. Such a plan can cost between $3,000 to $5,000.
7. Brace for extensive damage.
Hoarding often evolves over the course of many years, resulting in mold, animal infestation and other structural problems. Therefore, both visible and hidden damage may be lurking inside a hoarder’s home.
“Buyers and sellers need to fully understand that they may not be able to determine the full extent of structural damage to a house or residence until after the items are removed. This is where professional companies experienced in construction and repair work, as well as cleaning and decluttering, can be particularly helpful,” Paxton said.
If a house is being sold “as is,” you might not fully understand why the price tag was so low till after the house is empty, Paxton warned.
8. Recruit home flippers.
An investor might be willing to buy a hoarder’s home “as is,” with the owner’s possessions still inside, Chandler said. An agent can host an open house for potential investors without the hoarder needing to be there. “This shields the seller from embarrassment and eliminates the need for parading buyers through, as is necessary when listing the traditional way,” he said.
9. Establish ownership.
Make sure the person living in the home actually owns the home. A hoarder’s house actually might be tied up in a trust, or a hoarder might be living there for free. “Understand the legal landscape of ownership before getting too far into a contractual relationship,” said Paxton.
10. Be time-sensitive.
When arranging appointments with a hoarder client, set specific times and call ahead a few times before those appointments, Paxton said. “Understand that timing is not a hoarder’s strength,” he said.
As for establishing goals for cleanup, set several reachable deadlines instead of one massive deadline, Paxton advised. In other words, don’t tell the hoarder: “This house must be clean by end of week.” Rather, approach it like this: “By Friday, I need you to clean up this hallway. Then by Monday, I need to be able to see this 2-foot-by-2-foot area.”
John Egan is editor in chief at SpareFoot, which operates a marketplace that helps people find and book self-storage.