How can you tell if someone you love is a hoarder? The quick answer is when clutter starts to interfere with daily life in an unsafe way. Say your mother keeps old newspapers and paper bags for recycling. That’s fine, as long as she periodically gets them where they need to go. But if you drop by one day and find a big pile of paper leaning on a space heater where it’s now a fire hazard, that’s a red flag. It may be an early symptom of hoarding.

Hoarding is an official protected mental disorder, a compulsive urge to acquire things and the inability to get rid of them. And it can worsen. “Without intercession mild hoarding becomes more severe; it’s just a matter of time,” says clinical psychologist Suzanne Chabaud, PhD, who wrote the foreword to my book, The Secret Lives of Hoarders: True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter.

My “5 Levels of Hoarding” take into consideration both the person and their stuff. It’s not a tool used by mental-health professionals, but it can help you identify the severity of a loved one’s hoarding problem, a crucial first step if you hope to help them. Here’s a condensed version.

Hoarding Level 1

At this point, the resident may not be recognizable as a hoarder. The problem is not the volume of clutter but rather the problematic behavioral patterns—trouble parting with items, habitual shopping, collecting as a hobby—that may be developing. 

State of house

  • clutter is visible but not excessive
  • all doors and stairways accessible
  • surfaces typically clean and sanitary

State of resident

  • healthy, clean, well-nourished
  • participates in some hobbies and personal interests
  • may experience mild anxiety due to clutter
  • still willing to invite friends and family into house

Hoarding Level 2

Subtle clues suggest that someone is losing the ability to control clutter. You’ll see less attention to housekeeping. They start to withdraw from family and friends and try to make themselves feel better by acquiring more things. This is a crucial level of hoarding, marking the start of a potential downward spiral. 

State of house

  • one room might become a dumping ground
  • an exit might be blocked
  • might find dirty dishes piling up, surfaces that need dusting, strong pet odors

State of resident

  • signs of embarrassment over clutter
  • anxiety increases and may be accompanied by depression

Hoarding Level 3

Hoarding becomes obvious to visitors at this level. Clutter begins taking its toll on both house and resident. Kitchens often lose their functionality, leading to reliance on fast-food takeout and microwave meals. Job performance may suffer. From this stage on, residents typically become less and less willing to accept cleaning help.

State of house

  • halls and stairways crowded with clutter
  • may be piles of clutter and dirty dishes in kitchen, with fast food packaging piling up
  • may find pet stains and fleas in carpets
  • electrical outlets often blocked, resulting in a tangle of extension cords and plugs (we call this “lasagna.”)
  • indoor items sometimes moved outside

State of resident

  • may neglect personal hygiene—bathing and shaving less, leaving hair unkempt
  • may exhibit lethargy, often with rapid weight gain from worsening diet
  • often becomes defensive, even surly, when confronted about hoarding

Hoarding Level 4

At this stage, the house becomes a danger due to blocked exits, poorly stored chemicals and piles of paper and other combustibles. The resident often retreats to a tiny livable space, sometimes called a “cockpit.” Pets die, run away or multiply in back rooms.

State of house

  • may see structural damage to house—floors and ceilings sagging, unrepaired water damage
  • may see mold, mildew, cobwebs
  • kitchen no longer functional, major appliances broken or inaccessible
  • some odd storage patterns—clothes hangers on curtain rods, important documents in the oven

State of resident

  • personal hygiene, as well as physical and mental health decline sharply
  • may stop bathing altogether
  • often becomes preoccupied with past memories or unrealistic future plans

Hoarding Level 5

This level is hoarding’s rock bottom. Resident may rarely leave home or struggle to get up each day. Meals are limited to soda, fast food and stale bread. By this point, family members have probably tried—and failed—to intervene.

State of house

  • major structural damage to house
  • severe mold, bugs, rodents
  • piles everywhere, with entire sections of the house blocked
  • utilities may no longer be functional

State of resident

  • depression has reached dangerous lows
  • daily basics—eating, sleeping, personal hygiene—become a struggle
  • may urinate and defecate in bottles, buckets or on floor

We find that many of our clients think their parents are hoarders, but true hoarding isn’t necessarily defined by how much stuff someone keeps. Hoarding can progress from Level 1 to Level 5 quickly. If your loved one is a hoarder, understanding where they are on this behavior spectrum is the first step toward being able to help.

 

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At Wayforth we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.