What Landlords and Tenants Need to Know About Hoarding vs Clutter

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What Landlords and Tenants Need to Know About Hoarding vs Clutter
Let’s talk about clutter and hoarding. Although there are inherent hazards and concerns, the topic is often glossed over or not addressed.  

There are similarities between the sentimental collector, the packrat or clutter bug, and the messy and disorganized. However, hoarding can include any and all of these categories to an extreme.  

From personal experience, getting the facts about hoarding then working with renters, understanding and the right attitude goes a long way. Read on for some insight and helpful tips when either helping a tenant or getting help if you struggle with clutter or hoarding. 

Clutter vs. Hoarding

Managing a mobile home park with renters and owner-occupied homes, I noticed on one of my first walkabouts a home with dozens of outdoor plants in disarray and various stages of care. Among those were an extreme amount of empty pots, lawn decor, and gardening tools and supplies. Someone would be hard-pressed to make their way through the maze. 

Not many days later I noticed a vehicle parked in front of the home nearly full of belongings and debris. The final clue was a walkabout to check that all holiday decor had been taken down and that window blinds and curtains met with community guidelines. Not only was that renter out of compliance on both, one curtain had slipped and I could see boxes and items stacked to the ceiling. 

Now, these three observations didn’t necessarily mean the renter was struggling with hoarding, but they were good indications it was at least headed in that direction.  

It’s important when you first suspect hoarding not to jump to conclusions or make quick judgments; and we’ll go into why that’s important in a minute. For now, knowing some signs of hoarding like the examples above can help you decide on an action plan.  

Signs of Hoarding

Many of these signs by themselves could be a cause for concern. However, when combined and in extreme conditions, you likely have someone struggling with hoarding. 

  • Overwhelming smells
  • Over the pet limit, accumulated pet waste, and stains
  • Walkways and rooms are challenging to navigate  
  • Visible mold and mildew 
  • Evidence of and/or neighbor complaints of pests
  • Tenant restricts or denies landlord and vendors access to the home, garage, storage 
  • Too many items outdoors
  • Unreported broken appliances and features
  • Vehicle interior full of personal items and debris
  • Getting pushback and justifications for cleanup requests
  • Not willing to cooperate with cleanup efforts

Signs of a Messy Disorganized Home

If you see the following signs, it could be that the tenant is experiencing difficulties with keeping up on housework or has other things going on in their lives. Stress can often disrupt our normal patterns. Many are struggling to balance working from home, homeschooling their children, and managing best they can through these difficult times so organization and clutter haven’t been a priority.  

  • Slight smell
  • Personal items stacked on tables, counters, and furniture
  • More than a few loads worth of unwashed laundry
  • More than one day worth of dirty dishes
  • Dust, stains, and other cleaning tasks undone
  • A tenant may be shy and apologetic about the clutter but still allows easy access to the rental
  • Willing to cooperate with cleanup efforts without pushback and justification
  • Follow through on clean up requests.

What can a landlord do when they suspect hoarding? 

One – Start with Empathy

You recognize the signs of hoarding and want to protect your investment; a wise move. But how you address your concern is vitally important. For that, it’s good to know what causes hoarding and what’s behind that behavior. 

Someone who is disorganized and messy or a pack rat may be dealing with being overwhelmed or stressed. They can reason and make decisions on limits and cleanup. But a hoarder would find it difficult without help and support to make those changes, set limits, or manage the cleanup alone. They are, in fact, dealing with a mental health issue as classified in the American Psychiatric Association DMS-5 manual.

Regardless of the amount of clutter from messy to hoarding, compassion and patience are key in getting cooperation and being an advocate and support for those struggling. 

Two – Remember the Fair Housing Act

Because hoarding is a mental disorder; it’s vitally important to approach the situation carefully. Hoarding is protected as a disability under the Fair Housing Act. As such, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suggests taking a collaborative intervention approach to tenant hoarding

Three – Establish a Thorough Lease Cleanliness Clause

Update your lease to include a cleanliness clause if it’s lacking. Be sure to check your state guidelines and have an attorney review any lease changes and addendums before use. 

Set expectations in your lease when creating your cleanliness clause. Be detailed about garbage collection and removal, pet concerns, mold and mildew prevention, fire hazards, routine cleaning tasks, etc. 

Having this well defined will help you send out appropriate violation notices after inspections. A vague lease could make it more difficult if a situation becomes a court battle. 

Four – Document Efforts

In the same vein, there may be a need to follow through with an eviction, and having all things well documented can be very helpful. Types of things to document: 

  • Lease violations notices 
  • Inspection reports and pictures
  • All communications to and from the tenant 
  • History of helpful attempts
  • Direct or indirect (newsletters) offers of community assistance: yard cleanup, junk removal, free dumpsters, community yard sales 

Five – Reach Out to Outside Support

Although eviction might be an option, after you’ve exhausted your efforts without evidence of change, there are a few other options to try. Although a tenant might not appreciate the tough-love approach it may become necessary to make the hard decision to call the health department, fire department, adult protective services, or other agencies to get outside support for your efforts to help the hoarding tenant. 

Note to Tenants:

Just as the landlord needs to protect their investment, they also care about their tenants. If you are a renter and your landlord has suggested you make efforts to declutter and clean, remember that it is for your best interest. They are looking out for your health and safety as well as keeping you safe from fire hazards, pest infestations, and mold and mildew issues. 

Difficult as it is, no matter where on the tidy spectrum you land, now is a good time to take a look at your environment and decide if it is serving your best interests and life purpose. It’s not always easy to find a starting point so it may help if you focus first on those items of disarray related to health, safety, fire, and pests such as:

  • Unblock doorways and clear walking paths
  • Gather and remove garbage
  • Do a deep clean in areas prone to mold and mildew
  • Spring clean kitchen and remove piles that may attract pests

Getting help could be as simple as watching inspiring videos or reading articles to improve your home like these: 

Fall Decluttering for Renters
Messies Anonymous | The Organizer Lady
Tenant Tips for Pest Infestations in a Rental
Best Way to Organize Your Apartment
Home and Office Cleaning Tips for a Safe Environment
How to Get Rid of Bad Smells in Your Apartment

But… 

If it goes beyond being disorganized and messy, don’t wait to seek help. You are not alone, many before you have struggled with hoarding but found compassionate help — you are worthy of that same type of support and care.   

Hoarding Resources 

International OCD Foundation | Hoarding Resource Directory and Information
https://hoarding.iocdf.org

American Psychiatric Association | Help With Hoarding Disorder
https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/hoarding-disorder

Nationwide Hoarding Cleanup Directory, Resources, and Support
https://hoardingcleanup.com/national_resources

The End of the Story

It didn’t happen overnight but the story above ended well for all parties involved. It took empathy (offering help and services) coupled with a focus on their mental health needs (time and patience) and balanced with good property management protocols (notifications and documentation). 

Hoarding can create a health and safety hazard that needs to be addressed to protect your investment. But because hoarders are in a constant battle within themselves, they need a compassionate approach to find healing.


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