A common question I’m asked when people find out that I’m an
organizer (after they ask, “Oh, so you work for the unions and
stuff?”) is, “Do you see a lot of hoarders?”
Television shows like “Hoarders: Buried Alive” show extreme
cases of pathological collecting and saving — not your average
packrat. On one episode of “Hoarders: Buried Alive,” a young man
with a hoarding disorder saved the fur shed from his dog because
throwing it out seemed to him like discarding a part of his beloved
animal. Another hoarder collected cats, thinking that she was
rescuing them but, unbeknownst to her, 37 of them had died, trapped
in the floor-to-ceiling debris in her house and garage.
I haven’t encountered a full-scale hoarder in my work, but I do
regularly see many of the personality traits (such as impulse
shopping or sentimentality) and life transitions (such as the death
of a parent or a divorce) that can create sometimes serious
organizing challenges. Such traits and transitions only lead to
true hoarding, however, if a person is pre-disposed to the
The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization offers a
levels 1-5 scale for professional organizers to recognize the
severity of a hoarding problem in a potential client. The group
recommends that organizers be particularly trained to work with
Level 3-5 clients and also that they work in concert with a mental
I work with level 1 (the average clutter-challenged person) and
level 2 (someone with more of a clutter problem) people on the
hoarding scale. A level 1 household is “normal,” with some clutter,
and is clean and livable, but perhaps with the occasional pet
odors. Even some pest evidence — a few mouse droppings or an ants
invasion — might be found in a Level 1 house.
A level 2 household might have more problems with pet and pest
damage, may have some doorways blocked by clutter and may also have
one important appliance, like a washer, dryer or refrigerator that
hasn’t worked in some time.
Levels 3, 4 and 5 continue in this mode but with floor to
ceiling clutter and things like structural damage in the home, such
as leaks or broken windows, bathrooms that are unusable, rotting
food and major pest infestations.
A person with a level 5 hoarding problem can sometimes not live
in his own home because there is nowhere to sleep and the bathroom
and kitchen are unusable.
According to Behavioral Health Central, more than 3 million
Americans suffer from hoarding disorder. For a true hoarder, it
takes consistent work with a mental health professional, assistance
from cleaning, organizing and removal services, and most
importantly, a strong motivation to change to create and maintain a
safe and orderly home.
For more information on hoarding and ways to get help, go to