Hoarding: What's Going on With All That Stuff?

Hoarding tendencies are rampant in America. "Seventy percent of home-owning Americans cannot park cars in their garages because there's too much stuff; one in 10 has a storage unit," Sandra Stark, of the Peer-Led Hoarding Response Team at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, told Pacific Standard. All over the nation, businesses compete to serve hoarders, and more than 85 governments as of 2013 have special task forces to help hoarders whose compulsion threatens their own and the public's health and safety.

The reality shows "Hoarders" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive," both with millions of viewers, prove our fascination with this stigmatized condition. People play fast and loose with the term, although it's a long way from average slob or pack rat to the psychiatric disorder of compulsive hoarding.

Hoarders of note include artist Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy's aunt and cousin (who were the subjects of two movies, both called "Grey Gardens") and actress Delta Burke, and the most famous U.S. hoarders were brothers Homer and Langley Collyer, who died in 1947, one crushed under the weight of debris they accumulated in their Manhattan brownstone, the other of various conditions. Decades later, some firefighters still call the home of a hoarder a "Collyer mansion."

What Science Knows About Hoarding

The science behind the disorder is fairly recent, with the disorder only added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013.

Scientists have concluded that it tends to run in families, with half of hoarders diagnosed having another hoarder among blood relatives. Women tend to hoard more because of a Great Depression mentality (although many hoarders have never been economically deprived, and many are wealthy) while with men, it is more impulse acquisition and then a reluctance to dispose.

Thanks to studies using MRI scans, scientists believe hoarding is a processing disorder in the part of the brain called the bilateral anterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex. One study showed that the cingulate cortex also lights up in hoarders when presented with decisions involving personal possessions -- but not other people's stuff. Hoarders, interestingly, are often well-educated (the Collyers were both Columbia grads) but still have trouble with decision making. Getting rid of something is a decision -- and a traumatic one.

Hoarding Costs Everyone

There are clear costs to hoarding:
  • $20,000 is the minimum to clean out a Level 5 extreme hoarder requiring biohazard-suited cleaners. In San Francisco, Pacific Standard reported more than $6 million annually is spent by city agencies and landlords dealing with hoarders.
  • Six percent of U.S. house fires are attributed to hoarding conditions.
  • Sadly, there is the also the cost of care for those whose lifestyle can attract vermin and disease. Saddest of all is the emotional cost to hoarders whose shame often leads them to a solitary lifestyle without the comfort of friends and family.
Randy Frost, a Smith College psychology professor who pioneered studies on hoarding and co-authored with Gail Steketee "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things," notes the condition seems to be more prevalent in the Western world probably due to our relative wealth and acquisitiveness. That theory may also explain why the condition, which often manifests in early adulthood, doesn't become a full-blown problem until the hoarder has the wherewithal to acquire more and more.

Are You a Hoarder?

So, you may be asking yourself, am I just a disappointment to Martha Stewart or am I a true hoarder? Frost and Steketee helped develop the clutter image rating along with other self administered tests to help diagnose a possible hoarder. The clinical definition involves excess acquisition, extreme difficulty in disposing of possessions, inability to discriminate between what is valuable and what isn't (because to a hoarder everything is valuable) and -- most importantly clutter -- that is hurting a person's life.

Happily, there is help, and science is making inroads. And despite their sensationalism, reality TV shows have made more of us aware of the problem and -- maybe -- more understanding of the true costs of hoarding.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Intro to different retirement accounts

What does it mean to have a 401(k)? IRA?

View Course »

What is Inflation?

Why do prices go up?

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

How could anyone live like that if they didn't have a problem somewhere?

August 25 2014 at 11:33 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Hoarder or just slobs who don't keep their place in order. Some people just have to much stuff like if 2 households merged. The photo above is just a total mess that never gets cleaned up.

August 25 2014 at 11:11 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I know someone who I'd consider to be a hoarder and they do have other issues - depression for one. Their house is relatively small but it's loaded with knick-knacks and they continue to buy more. While their house isn't dirty, it's definitely cluttered and overwhelming. They seem to have an affinity for one particular item that you can hang on the wall - of which they have 31 of downstairs alone. And yet they've said they're always on the look-out for more of the same item.

August 25 2014 at 10:17 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


August 25 2014 at 6:01 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nick's comment

I don't know, Nick. My Mom banked with them for years and never had a problem. I tried to refinance my house a couple of years ago and was turned down by a few lenders but WFB was fantastic and came through quickly with no problems.

I think there are worse banks out there. US Bank comes to mind. I can't believe the stupid things they have done.

August 25 2014 at 10:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hoarding started after spouse died. Like it, feels secure. Spyderworks1067 got it right on the money.

August 24 2014 at 9:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Ok most of it should be tossed, but yes, some people have memories attached to certain pieces.
In that case, invest in some Sears shelving and organize it. Will create free space you didn't know you had.
Now the exception to this is art. There are people who bought paintings and sculptures in the 60s and 70s and kept the stuff which today are million dollar art collections.
Look for original one of a kind signed pieces. For sculptures if you can, have the artist sign and date them on the bottom. Keeping it all organized like a gallery on shelves and walls will go a long way to increase it's value because it becomes a collection.

August 24 2014 at 7:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment

Be on the lookout for "sleepers". What's a sleeper. It's a painting or sculpture that shows up at yard sales or flea markets or estate auctions.
The last amazing one is a small in frame painting sold at a yard sale for $4.00
Turned out is was a Renior worth $1.2 million.
Full size Renoirs start at $32 million.

August 24 2014 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

On many shopping trips I have purchased items on sale my husband asked "What do you want that for?" Turns out, everything has come in handy at one time or another, and guess who's using them?????

August 24 2014 at 12:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The hoarder I live with keeps things in boxes and box lids, piled on top of one another as high as 5 feet in some places in the condo (like in front of the den closet). Then there is the building storage unit that he's filled up and he also rents an outside storage unit that is completely filled up to the point that he says he needs a bigger one. He keeps newspapers, junk mail, old magazines, broken appliances, cans of dried-up paint... The things that are actually useful, such as cans of antifreeze are buried in boxes - he buys them, doesn't use them immediately, tosses them in a box, forgets he has them, so buys more, doesn't use them immediately...The last time I was able to go through the stuff (I have to sneak because he panics otherwise, afraid I might throw something out!) was when the cat knocked down a pile and stuff spilled out . In addition to what I call collectively "1979 Hanover shoe advertisements," I found 3 cans of antifreeze, two boxes of large plastic trash bags, one roll of large plastic trash bags, and a book that I'd been trying to find for at least a month (I had given it to him to read and then it just disappeared). At least, though, he doesn't collect unsanitary stuff. But he insists he's not a hoarder and gets very angry if I even allude to the fact that he is!

August 24 2014 at 10:11 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Judith's comment

You must really love the guy. :-)

August 24 2014 at 3:22 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

First off, I think hoarding comes from different things. I knew an old lady who was a hoarder because she grew up in the depression and her family was super poor, so she saved everything and I mean everything. Paper clips, nuts and bolts, coat hangers... You name it. and the reason was because her father used to take metal, melt it down, and make tractor parts for their farm. So she felt like the things she kept a hold of would have value in the future and save her money from buying them all over again. Sure enough, one time when I was helping her with her computer she had exactly what I needed in the basement to mount her monitor on the wall.

Then there is the lottery ticket hoarder, who thinks old stuff is worth a lot of money or will be someday... TV shows like Antiques Road Show, pawns stars, American pickers, and so on show people who found something at a garage sale that turned out to be worth $10,000. My buddy bought storage auction lockers for decades and when that TV show came out, he said the prices for lockers shot up by 1000%... Lockers he said he would get 6 months before the show for $50 were selling for $500 after everyone saw the TV show and tried to turn it into a career. All of the years of boomer telling tales of comic books they had as children turning out to be worth $5000 or old baseball cards worth as much as a Ferrari have people being stupid about crap..

What is happening is ignorance is mixing with greed... look at all the clowns that go into the pawn shops thinking that an old piece of survey equipment is worth $10,000 just because it is old. Who the hell wants a piece of survey equipment from 1840 ? No one !!... People are idiots that have no idea how supply and demand work.

Then there is my aunt... She clings to crap her deceased husband once owned. This is obviously a mental illness of some kind that manifests into a hoarding disorder. I feel like a jerk because I wrote Uncle Bob on a silver dollar and sold it to her for $50 after telling her he gave it to me for my 8th birthday. My dad died in her basement after living with her and when we went there to get his stuff, she was freaking out like someone was evicting her without any notice. It took her 6 months to get around to putting my dad's belongings into a box for me and my brother to split up. She was so deluded that she didn't know the difference between my father's belongings and her deceased husbands. I kept telling her to look at the copyright date of the stuff I wanted.

Anyway... as usual, people try to simplify and label something like hoarding into one category.. But, the reality is probably that there is a lot of different reasons for why people hoard. There is probably a psychological reason for why I am a minimalist. I tell the wife I travel light through life. I don't want the burden of having a bunch of crap to deal with. I moved around a lot as a kid and that probably branded me.

August 24 2014 at 2:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to socioeconomist1's comment

I have a buddy that saves Beatle Albums... He thinks they will always go up in value. What my friend fails to realize is that those old Beatle albums are only worth money because old ass boomers want them as a memento of their youth. So, once the boomers are dead and gone and no one is buying old Beatle albums in the ancient vinyl like it was in 1967 to remind them of the days when they mentality was forged.. No buyers are going to be trying to buy a souvenir of their own youth for those old Beatle albums to be worth anything.

I remember on a Pawn Stars episode, a guy went in to the store with some kind of cheesy Beatles concert ticket stub or something.. He wanted $15,000 for it. In the little interview in the parking lot, the dude kept saying over and over, "This is the Beatles" like he was trying to sell Jesus' Holy Grail or something.. Meanwhile, Corey and Chum Lee were asking why that guy thought so highly of the Beatles and called them the original boy band. Corey and Chum Lee aren't boomers with their brains stuck in 1969 where the man is out to get the coloreds and oppress anyone with long hair.

So once the boomers are dead and gone... so will the demand for their old crap.

Now John Lennon's hand written songs will be worth money because it is one of a kind by an artist that will be famous for a couple hundred years. Paul McCartney's bass guitar will be worth cash... But, that is historical importance associated with a major artist that changed the world that is worth a lot of money.... Not one of a 150,000,000 records with ink stains and scratches in the cover that any schmuck could have bought at a record store in Kalamazoo, MI. It will be actual items that were personally touched and held by the Beatles, not a free tshirt that came with a case of coke in 1975..

This is how collectors items work.. Comic books were worth a ton of cash because old boomers remember their comic book collections from the 1950's and flipping through the pages reminds them of being 8 years old before being an adult robbed them of their innocence..

But, hoarders aren't smart enough to understand where the value comes from in the crap they own... They automatically assume that if it is old, then it is valuable. I met an old timer who was in the first class of the Air Force search and rescue squad. He said he wished he would have kept a hold of that book he was given in the 1950's. I had been given a book that was issued to him as a textbook for that class. It wasn't the original, it was a reprint called "The Air Force Guide to Search and Rescue"... When I showed that book to the old man, he started tearing up. He knew it wasn't an original, it was paperback. But, as he cried, he said yep this is the book they gave me. He said it wasn't the exact same book but the pages were the same and the photos were the same. To that old man, that book was priceless so I gave it to him.. To him that book was his service in the 1950's with his friends and memories.

August 24 2014 at 2:45 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to socioeconomist1's comment

But the actual book wasn't worth much of anything without someone who associated it with being in the air force in the 1950's and in that first class of search and rescue. To me it was worth $20 because that is what it would cost to replace it at Barnes and Noble.

My friend is going to be pissed when all the old boomers die off and no one gives a rat's ash about the Beatles anymore. All the money he is spending right now to buy up Beatles albums is going to prove him to be a world class idiot in the end.

My friend would be smarter to buy up One Direction crap and sit on that for 30 years till all the 12 year old girls grow up and start chasing their youth..

But, there is a lot of reasons why Hoarders exist... something about having a physical item to associate with.. Whether it be my Aunt clinging to the memory of her husband so she doesn't forget him.. Or that old timer and that Air Force guide to search and rescue book... Or old boomers stuck in their 1969 mentality trying to remember what life was like before they screwed everything up.... Material crap which has no real use or historical significance is only valuable if someone has a mental disorder and uses that material item to remember their lost memories of times past or dead loved ones.

If you saw my Aunt's old, ugly plaid late 1970's couch you probably wouldn't pay two Mexicans to haul it outside and burn it... But, she would kill someone who tried to steal it because it was the last thing her husband bought before he died.

Beatles memorabilia only has value because of the huge impact John Lennon had on a bunch of brainwashed idiots.

August 24 2014 at 2:56 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down

Holy crap dude....you must be one lonely S.O.B. 3,000 character is the.maximum, not a goal.

August 24 2014 at 9:02 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down

Hoarding is now more alligned with attention deficit disorder. Hoarder plans to start things but never "gets off the ground" OR hoarder starts things but never finishes.

August 24 2014 at 1:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply