When an adjuster or restoration contractor unknowingly walksinto a claim involving a hoarding situation, the immediate responsetends to be, “Oh no.” Hoarding claims are more complex becausemerely entering the home can be a challenge; there are asignificant amount of contents involved along with unknownrisks.

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It may be hard to tell from the outside of a home that hoardingwill be an issue. The curtains might be closed and there may be acollection of items in the backyard, but usually it is apparent themoment someone steps into the house. A number of television showsdepict how these individuals live, what they collect and theirinability to part with their belongings.

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Frequently, items are stacked haphazardly from floor to ceilingor just piled in a room until it is impossible to enter the spacesafely. There will be a mixture of items that most would considertrash – used boxes and bags, old newspapers and magazines, junkmail and the like – mixed in with clothes, shoes, knick-knacks,books and other objects. Since no one can enter the rooms, it'sdifficult to know what's actually in them and if there are anyproblems adjusters should anticipate with the claim.

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While collectors take care of their belongings, display themproudly and understand their value, hoarders frequently want tokeep everything regardless of whether or not it has any intrinsicvalue.

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Hoarding claims involve a number of challenges – some areobvious and some will become apparent during the course of the homeinspection. Here are five things you should know about people whohoard and the environment in which they live.

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Hoarding interior
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Photo courtesy of CRDN.

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1. What causes a person to become a hoarder?

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According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America,hoarding behavior may present on its own or be a symptom of otherunderlying conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD),attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) and depression.Frequently, hoarding tendencies will appear early in life, butsince parents can often control the level of clutter in a child'sroom, it may not be as apparent until the person reaches his or hermid-20s or 30s.

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Individuals who hoard may exhibit a number of differentbehaviors such as an inability to throw away possessions,indecisiveness about what to keep or throw away, severe anxietywhen attempting to discard items or when people touch theirbelongings and an obsessive fear of running out of an item. Thereare also functional impairments that can affect personalrelationships and create financial difficulties, health issues andan extreme loss of living space.

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“Understanding the emotional impact on the insured andnavigating proper disposal authorizations are key to a successfulproject,” explains Steve Lowry, director of emergency services andmitigation for Jenkins Restorations in Sterling, Virginia.“Emotional attachment to the property is a huge part of theissue.”

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Jenkins hoarding photo

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Photo courtesy of JenkinsRestorations.

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2. What are some of the dangers involved in a hoardingclaim?

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Hoarding creates a number of health and safety issues for theoccupants and raises coverage issues for insurers. There are tripand fall hazards, fire hazards, the presence of rodents andreptiles, as well as an inability to identify any leaks orstructural issues with a property since so much of the area ishidden and inaccessible.

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Cory Chalmers, a featured expert on A&E's “Hoarders”television show and an expert in hoarding and biohazards says thathomes of hoarders are more likely to “have losses created by fire,floods and mold. The lack of maintenance in hoarders' homes is themain culprit, but is compounded by the use of space heaters,portable cooking devices and other temporary fixes tomalfunctioning home appliances.” He says that the typical hoarderis frequently “too ashamed and afraid to call a repairman to fixbroken items in the home, so they ultimately grow into majorproblems.”

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For restoration contractors, hoarding claims can be very tricky.From an environmental standpoint, there can be a wide variety ofbiohazards such as animal waste, human waste, mold and trash. “It'svery hard to breathe in these types of homes,” says MichaelPelonero, director of Enservio's service on-site team.

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He described a situation where a technician found a nest ofwater moccasins in a home under tons of contents. “You find thingsyou're not expecting like dead animals, wild animals, birds,squirrels, raccoons. You may even find something alive.”

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CRDN hoarding 2
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Close-up view of a living room space.Photo courtesy of CRDN.

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3. How does hoarding affect insurance coverage?

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“There are a few challenges when insuring a hoarder,” explainsAnna Bryant of State Farm Insurance. “First, it is rare that weidentify a person is a hoarder when reviewing a new policyapplication. There is typically no interior home survey, so wewould only know of a hoarding situation if it's visible from theoutside of the house.”

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“Once the property is insured, the claim process for a largeaccumulation of damaged contents can be challenging,” continuesBryant. “Typically speaking, hoarders do not want to have theirproperty discarded, even in cases of severe damage. The valuationof damaged property requires all of the items to be inventoried andrestored, when possible. Often, large amounts of contents need tobe removed from the property to complete the repairs.”

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The policy limits will also affect what is repaired or replacedafter a loss. “Generally, the decision to repair or replace an itemdepends on the type and amount of damage sustained and whether ornot the item can be repaired/cleaned or needs to be replaced,”explains Bryant. “The standard for determining repair versusreplace is no different than that of non-hoarding claims. Thisprocess may include the use of experts to determine if the propertycan be restored or needs replacement.”

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“Some carriers have limited coverage such as no replacementvalue or actual cash value on articles that are outdated orobsolete and stored and not being used,” says Toby Bell, anindependent adjuster and the principal of Professional ClaimsService, Inc. Articles not maintained in good or working conditionmay also be excluded from replacement.

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Jenkins bathroom - before

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Here is a bathroom before it wascleaned and restored. Photo courtesy of Jenkins Restorations.

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4. What are some of the challenges of working withhoarders?

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Costs for a hoarding claim can escalate quickly if controlsaren't put into place and some decisions aren't made at the outset.Sometimes the insurer is aware that it is a hoarding claim and cangive the restoration firm notice that the claim will take severaldays. For the restorer, the challenge is to work with the insurerand the customer so the best outcome is achieved for allinvolved.

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“Most hoarders are very protective of their belongings and theyclaim they know where everything is,” explains Glenn Allison, acontents sales estimator with BELFOR Property Restoration.“Sometimes it's an extremely emotional and grieving process to seethem 'part' with their belongings, even if it's just to becleaned.”

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Chalmers advises keeping the customer comfortable and buildingher trust because that will make it easier to work with her. “Thesame is true for gaining access to the area where the covered lossexists. If we just want to throw all of the contents away to reachthe covered loss, we will traumatize our client and they will fireus on the spot. It is imperative that we work alongside the clientto sort the clutter into categories they are comfortable with.Keeping the client in control or at least feeling like they are isa necessary evil, but one that will pay off for you and yourteam.”

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Pelonero says they have to approach the loss almost like apsychologist. They have to establish their boundaries up front sothey can make sure not to cross them. He says the insurer doesn'twant them to count trash, but the customer sees things like buttonsand clothespins as valuable, so the challenge is figuring out whatdoes or does not have real value.

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Sometimes returning items to the home can be difficult becausethe owner may not remember what her belongings looked like beforethey were buried under other items or may think things are missingbecause they weren't returned to their original place. Taking aphoto inventory of items can prove invaluable in these cases.

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Jenkins Bathroom - after
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A bathroom after it has been cleanedand repaired. Photo courtesy of Jenkins Restorations.

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5. What should professionals keep in mind when working in ahoarding situation?

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It will be important to show respect for the individual andconcern for his or her safety. Creating a bond of trust iscritical.

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When speaking with the owner, listen to how she describes herbelongings and use similar language when referring to them. Avoidreferring to items as junk, trash or hoarding.

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Try to focus on the safety issues such as fire or fall hazardsand avalanche conditions.

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Show empathy and let the owner know you understand your presencemay be upsetting, but that some kind of change is necessary inorder to address the situation.

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Additional information on hoarding is available from theInternationalOCD Foundation, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and the National Fire Protection Association.

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