How to help a hoarder clean

Your knowledge of people with hoarding disorder may merely be what you’ve seen on TV, but this disorder can impact people from a variety of backgrounds, and is more than just captivating reality television. According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding disorder is a “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to have them.” In other words, a person with a hoarding disorder will compulsively gather items and store them in their home until it is packed to the ceiling.

The symptoms of the disorder range from mild to very severe, and can cause property damage and other dangerous situations for residents of the home or apartment complex.  And, if you are managing such a property, this can present a serious problem, but with careful planning and consideration, the home (or unit) can be habitable again.

Dealing With a Hoarding Problem

People with hoarding disorders are in need of help, both with the physical mess of hoarding, as well as social and mental health support. Concerned family members and friends should be sensitive to the fact that people with this disorder often don’t even recognize there’s a problem. They should be encouraged to see a doctor or therapist, because handling this the wrong way could make the situation worse.

In the meantime, piles of clutter (and sometimes even animals) can make a home unlivable because of safety and sanitation problems. Possible issues include fire (due to blocked exits or large amounts of paper and other flammable objects) as well as the danger of illness from unsanitary conditions in the kitchen and bathroom. When hoarding is discovered, it’s critical for the home to be cleaned and organized by professionals to create a safe and healthy living environment again.

Creating a Strategy

Once the person with the disorder is ready to begin clean up, it can become a tiring and stressful process. People who are involved with the cleanup project will need a strategy for cleaning the home—the best solution may involve breaking it into several, more manageable projects.

Start with the following list, which outlines several of the steps necessary for cleaning a home impacted by a hoarding situation:

  1. Assess the situation. Take a look at the overall clutter in the home and prioritize the work that needs to be done. It can be helpful to start in small places like closets and bathrooms. When one small space is cleaned out quickly, it can motivate you (and the resident) to move on to bigger, more difficult tasks.
  2. Sanitize. Some folks with hoarding disorders neglect sanitation in the bathroom and kitchen, which can lead to serious health hazards. These areas should be cleaned out and sanitized first, especially if there are areas with pet or human feces. While this is often a disgusting task, it can go rather quickly because you shouldn’t have to sift through items worth keeping. The cleanup crew should bring plastic bags, mops, face masks, rubber gloves and disposable cleaning items like sponges and wipes to deal with the cleanup.
  3. Do a major decluttering of useless objects. Some objects in the home may be useable if cleaned, but other items like old mail and newspaper may be easier to dispose of. While people with a hoarding disorder may be very attached to these “junk” items, it’s important to prioritize cleaning those out before moving on to reusable or more priceless items.
  4. Get a drop box from a waste disposal company. When it comes to getting rid of larger items, waste containers can be rented by the day at reasonable rates, depending on the time frame and size of the container. Many companies will pick up the full container and dispose of the waste once the job is done.
  5. Once the home has been cleared of waste items and sanitized, sort through the other items. Make three piles for clothing and other items, and sort them into piles of what can be used, what can be donated, and what can be sold.

Creating a clean environment for a hoarder is a healing and healthy act. It’s a great way to help a person you care about, and it can also be very rewarding for you as a property manager when the unit is rentable again.


Editor’s note: we first published this article in 2013, and it has been one of the most popular posts on our blog. It has been updated to reflect recent changes in the understanding and treatment of hoarding disorders.