Do you have a friend or family member who has a hard time getting rid of items in their home? Is it getting increasingly more difficult for them to move around inside their home? It may be time to jump in and help to declutter the home of the hoarder.
Hoarding is often not something that a person planned but it becomes overwhelming to get rid of items that they may deem as important or will be needed someday. And it just builds and builds from there. Making it hard to move around the home and function from day-to-day.
Remember that working in the home of somebody who hoards items, is not the same as clearing a bit of clutter. There is a lot of emotional stress attached to each item. And therefore will need to be tackled differently than the average home.
Keeping reading below for 13 decluttering tips for hoarders. Begin the process of helping them remove items from their home and bring it back to a safe, welcoming space.
When has it moved beyond regular clutter to being a hoarder?
Clutter is common in most households. It tends to happen in the most frequently used areas of the home such as the kitchen, laundry room, or the bedroom.
This could be mail accumulating on the countertop or the pile of laundry in the corner of the bedroom. But for the most part, the rest of the home is easy to move around in and it wouldn’t take too much effort to clean up the clutter.
Hoarding is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the compulsion to continually accumulate a variety of items that are often considered useless or worthless by others accompanied by an inability to discard the items without great distress.”
Hoarding often results in the home being so full of items that it could become a health concern. Sometimes to the extent that items are piled from floor to ceiling! Making items at the bottom completely soiled and damaged.
It can be hard to understand how somebody can hold onto so many items that are soiled, damaged, or just no longer used. However, this is a real stress point for people who are dealing with a hoarding disorder. It is not as simple as taking the items to a donation center or the garbage.
This post will not go into the psychology behind a hoarding disorder. But this article by Psychiatry Advisor digs into why people hold onto items, how hoarders are diagnosed and treatment options.
#1: How to start decluttering a hoarder house
Depending on the severity of the hoarding, it may be difficult to move around the home at all. So in this case either start at the front or the back door and work your way into the home.
If you are able to move around the home, start in the room that has the least amount of work to do.
Normally it would be suggested to start in the most frequently used room, with the idea that many items can be moved out of the home and create more space.
However, when working with somebody who is hoarding items, it will be way too overwhelming to tackle large areas. So it is really important to start small. Understand that they will need more time and thought when deciding what items they are okay getting rid of.
This is going to be a long process. Don’t expect to move through items quickly or be able to accomplish everything in a day or a weekend. It may take months to get through everything and that is okay.
Unless they have been given orders to clean up or they will be evicted. Then some tough love and professional help will be required.
As you are clearing out items, move them onto a sheet in the yard for now. Don’t take everything out all at once.
Select an area in the home that you are going to work on for that day and only move items from that area to the sheet. So that you will be able to get through everything and not have to leave items outside overnight.
#2: Move onto items that are clearly garbage
This is still hard for hoarders because while the items are damaged or have no use. They still put some value on the item. So it is sometimes difficult to help a hoarder understand why it just needs to go in the garbage.
Damaged items, soiled paper, and food products left sitting out on the counter is the best place to start. Depending on the severity of the hoarding, you may also find that items at the bottom of the piles are damp and moldy and should be taken out of the home as soon as possible.
Items on the top of the pile were often either purchased recently or are used more often, so move those items to a sheet out in the yard to go through a bit later. Then you can easily get to the soiled items, which will allow you to quickly pick up those and throw them away.
Make sure to wear gloves and a mask for the safe removal of these items if they are badly soiled.
#3: Go through expired products
Expired products could be expired medication, expired makeup, or food that has gone bad. Anything that has either passed the expiry date listed on the container or that is clearly no longer edible or usable.
Expired items don’t usually have the same emotional connection to them for hoarders. So this can be a quick win. At this point, only go through items that you can easily get to.
As areas clear out throughout the process, then products that are hidden behind closed cabinet doors can be sorted through.
It is possible that this homeowner is taking expired medication because they are not checking dates, which could be making them very sick. So this is an important task to take on for them.
All expired medication should be taken to the pharmacy to dispose of properly. Expired food can go right in the garbage.
#4: Determine what specific items seem to build-up
Does this person like to buy lots of clothes or excess Christmas decor? If they are hoarding specific items and maybe like to go shopping at yard sales often to find these “gems”, it is important to tackle these items.
Find the specific items that they seem to collect and begin going through these items. By putting all of these items together, which may be out on a sheet in the yard, it will help the homeowner to see how much they really have.
They will need help understanding that they could get rid of at least half of the items and still be able to live comfortably. This will help to get a decent amount of items out of the house so that there is more room to move around and work on everything else.
It is important to mention that some people enjoy collecting items like baseball cards, stamps, coins and more.
This is different from hoarding items. It is perfectly fine to collect these types of items as a hobby, but later in the process, these items will need to be organized in a way that it is not spilling into the rest of the home.
For other items, use a similar process. Put any like items together that you can find. Choose the items that are in the best shape as a suggestion to keep.
If the homeowner has a deep desire to keep an item that isn’t in great shape (maybe it was given to them by a friend), put that item aside to deal with later.
#5: How to declutter the kitchen
First see if there is anything in the kitchen that belongs somewhere else in the home. If there isn’t room to move those items to the proper room, move them to the sheet on the yard for now.
Get rid of any food that is out on the counter, which could be moldy and attracting mice, ants, etc. Even this can be a struggle for somebody with a hoarding disorder, but explain that the food is no longer safe to eat and will make them sick.
Also, go through the fridge and freezer at this time to get rid of any food that is growing mold or dripping onto other food.
Sometimes the fridge will be in such bad shape that pretty much everything will have to be thrown out and the fridge disinfected.
The pantry or cabinet where they keep their dry foods can be looked through later in the process, as it is less likely to have expired and unsafe food and you may have a hard time even getting to that cabinet.
Now go through all non-food items that are piling up in the kitchen. Anything that is in the cupboards is fine to stay in there for now. Just try to help declutter items that are visible when entering the room.
If there are dirty dishes, those are the dishes that actually get used. If the home is really cluttered and dirty, wait to wash the dishes until the home is in better shape.
The kitchen is a spot where people will often drop their mail and it can quickly pile up. Collect any mail or paperwork to sort through later.
#6: Evaluate and declutter the family room
The family room often collects items such as DVD’s, books, blankets, maybe toys if there are young children in the home. Again, only worry about the items that are overflowing in the family room. Not items that are actually put away in cabinets or shelving units.
Start with items that are in really bad shape. This may be soiled or ripped books or blankets that are beyond repair.
The homeowner may have a connection to these items, so make sure that they are involved in the process of deciding what to get rid of.
For damaged books, suggest that they either repurchase the book at a later date or if they are comfortable reading on a tablet, they could use a program like Kindle for reading that book again. Take a picture of the book for them, so that they have an inventory of which books were discarded.
Blankets are tough because they may have been handmade by a loved one and they don’t want to let go of it because of who made it for them.
However, anything that is now unusable is not worth keeping and could make them sick. Set any blankets aside that could still be washed and used.
Any other blankets, take pictures of them. Help the homeowner understand that the person who made the blanket would not want them to keep it if it was making them sick.
If the person who made the item is still living, they may be able to make another one, which would make it easier to let go of the old one.
For all other items, try to group like things together and see if there are any items that are either duplicates or similar enough that the homeowner can see that it isn’t necessary to keep all of them.
#7: Clear out the bedroom(s)
If the homeowner is hoarding clothes, don’t worry at this point about the clothes that are in the closet or in their dressers.
Focus on the clothes that have been left all over the room(s). If they have a lot of dirty clothes, collect all of those clothes and either take them home with you or to a laundromat to wash.
Make sure that the homeowner understands that you will be washing the clothing and then returning them. They may worry that the clothes will just be donated.
So let them know that you understand they wear these clothes and love them, and that you will be returning them to be put away once the home is decluttered.
The next clothing to tackle is any that still have tags on them and were never put away. Since the homeowner bought the clothes and never felt the need to put them on, ask why they haven’t worn the clothing and how long they have owned them.
If there is any hesitation at all about wearing the clothing someday, help them see that the clothes are still in great shape and will be greatly appreciated by somebody else who will wear them.
The remaining clothing, go through and find all tops that are the same colour, style and type.
If they have 30 pairs of jeans that all look pretty similar, pick out the jeans that will definitely fit them and that are in the best shape and then explain that keeping a few pairs of jeans will create more space for their best clothing.
If they can see these items side by side, it may help them understand that they already have similar clothing items and don’t need to hold onto as much.
Other bedroom items:
Focus on the main area in the bedroom before the closet. If there are other items piled up in the room, try to get as many similar items together as you can.
You may come across many items that don’t belong in the bedrooms and were just put there when the other rooms became so full of stuff.
If the homeowner wants to keep certain items but they belong somewhere else in the home, label a box with the room that the items should go into and set it aside.
There may even be extra furniture in these rooms that are just taking up space but are not being used.
For hoarders who enjoy shopping at yard sales, it is very common that they will purchase furniture that still seems to be in good condition. The price is often too hard to pass up, but they may not even have space for it.
If it is something that they picked up from a yard sale and there is no emotional connection.
It may be easier for them to see that the item has no value to them. But would have more value to somebody who could actually use the item. Removing these larger items will help create a bigger space to work in the home.
#8: Work on decluttering the basement
If the home has a basement, this is a spot that even organized people tend to store random items. So there may not be a clear idea about what they store there. Go room by room, space by space, and see what they seem to be collecting there.
Basements are often damp, to begin with. So anything that has been under piles of items is likely soiled and should be thrown out. Make sure that the homeowner has given permission to throw out these items.
Again, if there are clearly duplicates or more of items, these are easy to start with. Try to remove at least half of these items.
Consider also if there are tools, or crafting products, for example, are these items that the homeowner will use? They may have a shop where they used to use the tools. But if they couldn’t even get to the basement, they likely haven’t been used for a long time.
#9: Tackle items stored in the hoarder’s garage
If they have a garage, this is another area where things often got tossed and forgotten. Since these items are technically outside anyway, set aside a day to only work on the garage and get everything out and onto the lawn or driveway.
Begin putting any large yard items back into the garage (unless they have a shed where these tools could go).
Next, get some bins to begin sorting items that are similar and in good shape. Once sorted, those can go back into the garage.
Anything that is damaged should be thrown away. If there is anything sentimental, put those into a box labeled sentimental to deal with later.
For everything else, the homeowner may need to take some time to go through each item and give it some thought whether they are okay getting rid of it.
They may need some help determining if they will ever truly use the item again. Explain to them that another family could be using the items right now and make their life easier.
#10: Work through the hoarder’s paperwork
All of the paperwork should already be together from the kitchen, but if you were able to find any other paperwork as you worked through the home, add that to the pile. Then determine what can be shredded.
Since decluttering the home is already a time-consuming process. Consider hiring a company that can do the shredding for the homeowner.
Chances are, there will be many envelopes that haven’t even been opened. Ask the homeowner if they are okay with you opening the mail. Then you can help determine if it is something that still needs action or can be thrown away.
Any obvious recycling, such as flyers, can immediately be put into the recycling bin. Newspapers and magazines can be a really tough thing for hoarders to get rid of. They feel that there may be information that they may need to read again.
With the internet, it is usually possible to get this information again. Offer your assistance in helping search for the information in the future, if needed.
If there is mail that requires action, such as a late payment. This should be put in a safe location for the homeowner to deal with. They may need help organizing these documents and setting up payment.
#11: Sentimental items & items of value
It’s possible that the hoarder may feel that all items are sentimental. But this generally includes items such as; photos, jewelry, items that were passed onto this person from a deceased family member or friend, a valuable item, etc…
Most of these items don’t actually have to be donated. But they will need to be sorted through to find anything that is damaged.
For photos that have been soiled or damaged, determine the damage. If they are so badly damaged that it’s not even clear what is in the image. There is no value to keeping these pictures.
If the image is still mostly okay, either copy them onto different photo paper in order to salvage them. Or consider taking a picture of each photo so that the owner can get them printed again or store digitally. Then the originals can be thrown away.
They may also have collector items that may have some value to them. If they truly enjoy collecting coins, or stamps, figurines. This may be something that will bring them joy long-term. And once the home is cleaned up, space can be created for this hobby.
If there are items that the homeowner is only keeping because they feel it will be worth a lot of money someday. Consider bringing in an expert who can assign values to the items.
It may be easier to let go of items when the homeowner realizes that they have no value.
#12: Start the process of donating items
Make sure that the homeowner is fully involved in this process. There are a lot of emotional stresses that come along with getting rid of items. So be careful not to overstep your boundaries.
When items have been approved to donate, first make sure that the items are safe to donate. If there is a moldy smell or clear mold on the item, they should be thrown away.
For everything else, make sure you have lots of boxes to safely pack the items into and begin loading them into your car.
Plan to take a trip to the donation center every day for at least the first week of the process. It is important not to keep items available to the homeowner to potentially go through again. Because they will want to bring items back into the home, which will defeat the purpose of this whole process.
#13: Begin putting everything in its place
Hopefully, at this point, the home is in a state where there is room to move around and items can be put into the rooms they belong in.
At this time, it is important not to stress as much about exactly where items should go. Put them in the place that seems to make sense for now and then it can be re-evaluated later.
Finally, now that you can get to the countertops and the floors, give everything a good disinfecting clean including the walls, vacuum and mop the floors and clean the bathroom(s).
The home should look acceptable at this point. At a later date, the homeowner may need help getting a great organizing system into place.
This can be a very emotional process for both the homeowner and yourself. Take time and don’t push them too much. Unless there is an urgency, such as an eviction notice if they don’t clean up the home.
Understand that the home is not going to be perfect at the end. It will still need a lot of help to clean up even after it has been fully decluttered. But making it a healthier place to live will have huge benefits long term!
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