As a real estate agent with nearly two decades of experience, I’ve had the privilege of working with many families who needed to empty and sell the home of departed parents or other loved ones. In most of these situations, it’s common to see basements filled to the rafters with boxes, old golf clubs and unused tools. It’s not unusual to find kitchen cabinets jammed with too many pots and pans or dresser drawers filled to the brim with clothing that hasn’t been worn in ages.
In other words, most of these scenarios are cramped, but nothing like the desperate, depressing cases you see in episodes of reality television shows.
These are not hoarders. They’re folks who lived long, full lives and held onto the evidence as a way of honoring the memories.
But either way, real estate agents do see a whole lot of “stuff.” Far more stuff than anyone really needs.
In addition to the challenge of clearing out my own parents’ home – see Clutter Therapy – I have waded through homes with hundreds of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1947 (in pristine condition, I might add). I have seen massive collections of paperback books by authors who crank out eight stories a year; not signed hard copies by Wallace Stegner or Pat Conroy, but five-dollar novellas from everyday romance novelists.
Unfortunately, my real estate partner and I also once represented a seller who could only be classified as a legitimate hoarder – a lovely woman in her 40’s who dressed beautifully with well-coifed hair and perfect makeup.
On our first appointment, we walked into a two-bedroom condominium to find magazines and newspapers stacked in five-foot piles throughout every room with narrow pathways created to provide access to the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. No filth. No odors. Just piles and piles of paper products.
As kindly as possible, we explained to her that the condo would show a bit better if there was more room for buyers to walk around. We suggested she sort through the piles and perhaps move some of these stacks into the garage if she was unable to discard them.
She looked at us as if we were from another planet and speaking some alien language, explaining that she had spent weeks cleaning her home to prepare it for sale. In reality, she simply couldn’t “see” the clutter we identified the minute we walked in the door.
If you’re a real estate agent, you already know exactly what we did next. We thanked her for hiring us and told her we’d have it on the market in ten days!
There is a certain freedom in representing a hoarder’s property. For instance, there’s no reason to discuss having the property staged. Nor do you need to suggest the hardwood floors be buffed or stained. We just had the marketing pictures taken the next day by a photographer with a truly magic touch. Then we put our sale signs in the yard and scheduled an open house for the weekend.
With our brochures in hand, we greeted 25-30 interested buyers, and when we closed the door behind us after our open house, you could hear the collective sigh of relief. We agreed we both needed a glass of wine to discuss next steps and discovered a charming bar down the street from our listing. After ordering, we agreed that the turnout had been better than expected, and defined a different marketing strategy to get this challenging property in contract.
Relaxing a bit and laughing about how even the most creative agent couldn’t possibly make this condo look less cluttered, I heard my cell phone ring. The voice on the other end said their client had fallen in love with “the quaint condo with all those wonderful personal items scattered about.”
Their buyer wanted to make an offer and hoped our seller would consider it as soon as possible. Without a moment of hesitation, we said “yes” and our seller readily accepted that offer the next day.
And an obvious lesson was learned: One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. One person’s idea of clutter is another person’s idea of perfect.
Of course, not all stories of hoarding end this happily. I have met several other prospective clients living in homes far less clean or organized as this one, and experienced far less favorable results.
Years ago, I went to meet a woman who, with the help of her sister, was ready to sell her property. She didn’t invite me to sit down – there was no place to do so – but the conversation didn’t take long.
Having assessed both the property and the situation, I tried to present recommendations as honestly but tactfully as I could. I explained how much the home would likely be worth if we put it on the market in the next two weeks, but warned that it had to be cleaned and cleared of all her collected items.
Her reply was as honest as my presentation. She could not possibly imagine getting rid of her stuff. When her sister said she would gladly help give away or throw away all of the magazines and the newspapers, the seller began to weep and I knew that was my cue to let her be.
If you have people in your life who seem to be hoarding more than just mementos, a number of organizations are eager to help. Hoarders Anonymous and Anxiety & Depression Association of America are just two of them and they can all give you far better advice than I on how to help those who are struggling.
But I will offer this: Be kind. Start small. Share support. The more security you can offer your loved ones, the more likely they may be to loosen their grip on material anchors.
“At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that’s why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.” – Nicole Krauss, The History of Love