How to Clean a Hoarder’s Home
What hoarding is and isn’t - There are a lot of misconceptions about hoarding. Many people think that hoarding is a choice. In fact, it’s no more of a choice than OCD or depression. Hoarding is a mental disorder that normally starts in one’s teen years and develops over time. It normally is based in a traumatic event. Death of a loved one, molestation or abuse, or a major catastrophic event can all be the starting point of hoarding. It’s very often that hoarding is an attempt to compensate for loss.
The dangers in a hoarder’s mess – Usually, there is more than simply “stuff” in a hoard. Often, there are rodents and/or reptiles, insects and more. Mold and mildews are another major concern. It’s important to make sure that you are prepared for this type of infestation.
Animal hoarders - A special case - People who hoard animals are a special case. If there are lots of animals on-site, you will need the local animal control officer, someplace to take the animals, and will need to someone to help clean up the feces and biohazards. In short, don’t try to clean up an animal hoarding house yourself.
Keeping your sanity - If the hoarder is personal to you or if you’re in mourning at the loss of this person, be sure to take care of your own mental health first. If you don’t think you can handle doing the clean-up, get professional help. If the hoarder has passed away, it might be much easier since there is no one to negotiate with. If however, they are still alive, the hardest part of the clean-up might be dealing with the hoarder themselves.
Hiring a professional - It can be much easier to simply allow a professional clean-up firm to come in and handle all of the dirty work. For example, at HoardingHelpers based in Chicago, we have the equipment, trucks and safety gear to make the clean-up easier and safer. Our team can do all of the cleanup and you can simply enjoy the end result. There are companies similar to ours around the country.
The list of what you might need
This is a list of things that you might need to safely and effectively clean up a hoard. Again, it’s important to note that an animal hoard and an extreme biohazard hoard needs to be handled by professionals.
Protective masks - simple painting masks might not be enough; you might need high quality safety masks instead
Protective coveralls - you can buy cotton coveralls, but there are also synthetic coveralls that can protect from moisture and contaminants (Tyvek brand)
Trash cans - wheels on the bottom can be useful if the ground is flat
Dumpster - you will need to estimate how much waste you might have to remove
Disinfectant spray - Lysol is fine, but you might need some industrial strength products
Cleansers - You will need all types of cleaners for porous and nonporous surfaces
Carpet cleaner - A steam carpet cleaner can work wonders in getting rid smells
Shop Vac - a wet-dry vacuum will make clean up much easier
Flashlights - there are likely to be lots of dark corners
Fire extinguisher - you don’t want to get caught in hoard without a way to put out a fire
Bug and wasp sprays - there are likely to be lots of bugs in the hoard and house
First aid kit - if someone gets a minor injury, this will help
Vaccinations - this might seem extreme, but preparation is always smart
Handling the Hoarder
In many cases, cleaning up a hoard happens after the hoarder has passed away. While it’s never a hoarder’s intention to leave a huge mess behind for loved ones, that’s often the only time that a hoarder can give up their hoard.
If the hoarder is still alive, there are a few things that you will likely need to do.
Get professional help - Even if a hoarder goes into a cleanup enthusiastic, they can lose steam quickly once things are being discarded. This isn’t a rational response, but it’s often the only response that they can offer. A psychologist, a therapist, or a hoarding specialist can often bear the brunt of this part of the work. Sometimes, the hoarder will become combative and insulting. It’s not unheard of for them to become physically combative. Have a professional around who is able to help you handle the hoarder.
Enlist other family members - Having other family members around can give both you and the hoarder a bit of peace of mind. They can not only help with the clean-up, but provide a buffer that the hoarder can bounce off of. It’s important that they understand the challenges ahead, so you need to share this article and other information with them.
Negotiating with the hoarder - It can be difficult to get the hoarder to give up things as they are removed from the home. Things that might be harmful, like food and waste, are simply not negotiable. If there are items that can be reclaimed, let the hoarder choose the one or few that are most important to them. If you can donate them, let them understand that the items will have a new life for someone else to enjoy. It’s important for there to be guidelines for everyone.
Contract with the helpers - A written contract of the expectations of hoarder and what is acceptable for the helpers will go a long way to mitigating the amount of fighting. Everyone should have a copy of the contract, especially the hoarder. Be honest with them at the beginning that this will be very emotional and might be difficult, but it needs to be done. The contract represents the guidelines for them and everyone else to abide by as the work is getting done. The contract should state how many of any given item they can keep or how many out of a single box they can keep. It should talk about not being allowed to churn, meaning move things from one part of the house to the next. It should also make it clear what the end goal is, whether that’s to have a clean house or just one that passes a city inspection should be made clear.
Opening the door
The beginning of the work is most important. It starts by making sure that everyone has their assignments and that you get the right parts completed in order.
Clear the doors first - In case of a fire, you don’t want someone going to a door that can’t be opened. All of the doors and windows should be cleared first before anyone is allowed deeper into the house.
Remove items gently - There is a tendency for helpers to really get into what they're doing and forget that even the trash is precious in the hoarder’s mind. Take the time to remove everything as gently as possible and be careful not to upset the hoarder.
The bathroom - You'll need the bathroom. Not only as a place to use for its intended purpose, but you will need the bathtub to wash things out in, etc. There’s also a tendency that it can become a place where waste, human waste, will accumulate and rooting floors and broken pipes can be found. If you are going to run into a biohazard, it’s best to get to it early.
Biohazards are very special cases that need to be taken care of properly. There is a tendency for people to want to handle this on their own, but don’t. Getting extremely ill from biohazards is unpleasant and potentially lethal.
Getting professional help - At HoardingHelpers, we often get called in when someone discovers a massive biohazard in the house. We arrive with all of the necessary equipment and find that the helpers have already tried to clean it up themselves. While this is noble, just don’t. Not only are these hazards to your health, but, depending on the type of biohazard, it has to be disposed of in a specific way.
Staying safe - As soon as the biohazard is discovered, vacate the house. Everyone needs to stay out until it’s cleaned up. Very often, as soon as you lifted something to discover the biohazard, the contamination has been exposed. Take everyone out, including the hoarder and what for the professionals to arrive.
Types of biohazards - There are several types of biohazards that can be found in hoards, each is dangerous for its own reasons.
Animal waste - This is particularly true of animal hoarders. There might be dozens of litter boxes and piles of feces all over. There is also the hazards and unpleasantness of urine that can be soaked into the floors and walls. It’s important that the house is checked thoroughly for rotting and contamination from animal urine. One of the major sources of animal wastes in not from pets, but from invaders, like pigeons, bats, or rats. These animals also require an exterminator to remove them and a contractor to prevent them from getting back in.
Human waste - Sometimes, when hoarders have blocked their way into the bathroom, they will use plastic shopping bags and bottles for their own waste. This is often piles in a corner or in the bathroom itself. Embarrassment is one of the major reasons that hoarders don’t get help. If they are hoarding and the toilet breaks, they are unlikely to call for help as they don’t want anyone to see what their home looks like.
Rotting foods - A refrigerator that has been allowed to rot, a freezer that’s broken, and cabinets in which food has been allowed to mold or be eaten by vermin all represent a biohazard. The concerns of insects and rodents in the mess are always a problem, but the diseases that can grow on the food or the feces deposited by animal diners can make one sick. For those of us who have encountered rotting food before, it’s important to know that this is another level of food rot.
Mold - Mold grows even in clean homes. In a hoarder's home, mold can grow undetected everywhere. After you have unveiled a wall or a floor covered with mold, it’s time to bring in a professional. Many contractors will claim that they can do mold mitigation, but it’s rarely as simple as bleach and new paint. Bring in a professional at mitigation so that the mold is eliminated from every level of the walls and wood. Otherwise, you’ll only have fixed the parts that you can see.
Animal carcasses - Animal hoarders will often have animal carcasses that are uncovered as the work proceeds. Very often, they are dried and desiccated. If you only find a few, they can be discarded with the trash, but if you find dozens or more, you need someone to come in and remove them. This is also important if the deceased is relatively fresh. Even pets should be treated as wild animals, both alive and dead. Often, animal hoarders will not have trained or cared for their pets. Cats will often go feral right in the house as long as food can be found and they are protected from the weather.
All of these biohazards can make people ill or get you in trouble with the authorities if you don’t handle them properly. Bring in a professional cleaning company to make sure that everyone is safe and that the waste is handled correctly.
Helpers are the key to getting a hoard cleaned up easily. If you’ve hired a company, it’s always good to be nice to them, but they are getting paid. If you have a team of volunteers, there are a few simple reminders that can make the day go more nicely.
Equipment - Make sure everyone has the equipment that they need. From gloves to masks to coveralls, everyone should have everything they need to stay safe. As the leader, it’s important that you make sure that that happens.
Offering assistance and breaks - There are lots of people who will power through the day, but make sure that you team takes breaks. In fact, buying everyone snacks and lunch can make things go better. Coffee in the morning and water all day are the best ways to keep tempers down. Thirsty or under-caffeinated people can have bad days.
Thank everyone - No matter when they leave or how long they were able to help, make sure that everyone gets a personal thank you. Stop what you’re doing to look them in the eye and thank them. Cleaning up a hoard is unpleasant and hard work. Let them know that you appreciate them.
Task list and assignments - Make sure that everyone has an assignment and a work space. Play to their strengths. If someone is physically stronger, let them do the shoveling and lifting. If someone is a good sorter, let them help the hoarder go through the items. If you send people into clean, make sure that they know what parts of the house are their responsibilities. It’s easier to stay focused if you have a specific area to get done, rather than just opening the door and saying, “Have at it.”
Finally, we’re ready to talk about the actual clean up. Every clean-up is different, but here are some general guidelines for cleaning up the space.
Open up exits - As we said earlier, this is a safety issue. The doors need to be clear enough to get out of in case there’s a fire or an emergency. This is the first thing that gets done and you, as the leader, need to personally verify that it’s done correctly before continuing.
Set up a staging area - This is going to be the area where the hoarder and the volunteers will sort out everything. You will likely want a tent for protection from rain and sun. There are a number of items that you will need in this space:
Boxes and bins
Trash cans and bags
Trash and debris area - There will obviously be a trash and debris area. This needs to be close enough to be convenient. Talk to the company you rent the dumpster from to see what they recommend. They’ll help you find the right place.
If the dumpster is getting full, call them when it’s about 3/4 full. They can come out and replace it without interrupting your flow.
You might need a ground cover in the trash area, especially if you’re working on grass. This will keep garbage from getting caught in the lawn and being thrown by a lawnmower later.
You need a recycling area for electronics and electrical items. You can’t just throw them in the dumpster. Set aside a space so that those items are recycled separately.
Sorting area - The sorting area will have a bunch of different new homes for everything. There are four major categories of items: keep, trash, recycle and donate. You might find that there are lots of great items to donate and keep out of the landfill.
Trash - This will be garbage cans and bags.
Keep - This area should be small. There is a psychological effect when a space is full that it makes us feel like we have a lot, even when it’s less than we might think. It’s the same reason to eat off of smaller plates.
Recycle - This will be, as stated above, electronics, then cans, bottles, paper, etc. Your local trash company or municipality will tell you exactly what you can recycle.
Donations - Donating items is often a great way for hoarders to feel better about the items they are getting rid of. The item isn’t destroyed; it’s got a new life and is being used by someone who needs it. Divide the donations by place. Some charities will only take certain types of donations. Also, arrange to have the donations picked up. Many charities will send a truck if you have enough for them.
Special items - There are some items that need to be handled differently.
Paints solvents, fuels, etc. - Dangerous chemicals can’t go into landfills. Find out how they can be handled by either the trash company or by you at the landfill.
Medicines - Medicines should not simply be flushed down the toilet; they can contaminate the water supply. Find out where there is a surplus drug drop off. Often it’s at the police station or local health clinic. If you find illegal drugs, call the police and let them come get them. They will handle it and you shouldn’t have any hassles.
Moving items - You will likely want an inside team and an outside team. The inside teams simply sorts garbage from items that need to be reviewed. They carry everything out. The outside team will sort the items, make decisions about where things go, and put it all away. It’s often easier to have runners that will move things from the inside to the outside. They can carry trash cans, sorting items, etc., letting the inside team focus on keeping things flowing and the outside team sorting everything out.
Bathroom - As a reminder, do the bathroom first. Your crew will need it and this is the place you’re most likely to find rotting, damage, or a biohazard.
Now that the stuff is out
Once you’ve removed all of the debris, you can clean the house. Here are some guidelines:
Use disinfectants - The Lysol family of products is great, unless you’re dealing with a professional company. You can spray, wipe and disinfect. Use bleach gently; it can get overwhelming. If you use bleach, don’t use ammonia and vice versa.
Mop floors - Mopping floors can be a great way to make the house look and smell great. They will often require a lot of work. You might need to scrub them before you can mop them.
Clean carpets - If the carpet can be salvaged, you will want to steam clean it and leave it smelling nice. Be sure to try to dry it before you leave by opening windows or turning on fans.
Wash windows - All your hard work will be for nothing if you can’t see it. Clean windows and screens so that the sun can get in. A sunny house is good for the brain and will help the hoarders stave off depression.
Clean vents and HVAC elements - Often, hoarders have had the air ducts covered for so long that they haven’t been using them. Be sure to clean them well and have a furnace company come in and inspect the ductwork. They can clean it so that when you turn it on, it doesn’t make another mess. Also a furnace that has sat idle for a long time is a fire hazard. If there’s baseboard heat, take the fronts off and vacuum them well.
Wash curtains - Even in our own houses we often forget how much dust can collect on curtains. Take them down and wash them. Then you can rehang them and the house will feel much cleaner.
Organizing the house
It will be helpful to start an organization system before you leave the house. This might come later, but pla
nning it will help. Shelves, bins and boxes, and closet organizers will make it easier for the hoarder to maintain the space. Bring clothes hangers, shoe racks, etc. to make it easier for everything to have a place. Once the places are filled, the hoarder know that they have to get rid of something to get a new thing.
A minor but important item
Replace the light bulbs. Often, they are burned out, but they are also likely to be dirty. Replacing the light bulbs can make the house brighter. A brighter house is harder to make a mess of.
You did it
This is a lot of work. That’s why companies like ours, HoardingHelpers in Chicago, exist. Nonetheless, if you try to tackle this monumental task you have our respect. Be safe, go slow, and remember, hoarding isn’t a choice; it’s a powerful psychological disorder that took years to grow and will take years to get rid of.
If you need any help or have questions, we’re always here for you, no matter where you are. Our phone numbers are 773-865-3172 or 872-239-4197 or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck and take care.