How to Handle Hoarder Estate Sales

By Estate Saler

Hoarding is a serious mental disorder that manifests differently with each case. The Mayo clinic defines hoarding as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs…often creating such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter.”

One fact of conducting estate sales is holding hoarder sales. While some estate sale companies refuse to take on hoarder sales, many liquidators feel it’s a part of the job, or at least part of paying one’s dues. Estate liquidation is first and foremost a service people need, and denying all hoarder sales is a good way to lose out on potential cash, treasures, and future clients.

That said, holding an estate sale for a hoarder is not for the faint of heart. Any newbie stepping into a hoarding situation should get educated on what hoarding is. Heeding advice is also wise, especially from liquidators who have been through the hoard and lived to tell the story.

We talked to a few estate sale companies over the phone and on our Facebook Group Page at Estate Sale Company Network to find out the best tips on how to handle hoarder estate sales.

Hoarder House Estate Sale

Initial Interview

You can tell a lot from the initial consultation. Prospects can tell a lot about you, too. This is your chance to assess what type of hoarder you’re dealing with. Every hoarding situation is different, and just as various clients require different soft skills (a gentle touch, tough love, a sense of humor, a ton of patience) so does dealing with hoarders.

“Hoarding is a very unique mental illness. . . Just from my experience in all the years of doing it, and how many different hoarding situations I have had, they are all very very different.  You have your everyday filthy hoarder — you go in, there’s paper, trash, filth —  it’s a hazard.

You have the hoarder that is just actually a collector and there’s stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks, They can’t even get to it, and they don’t even know what they have,” said Dixie Haley Brewer of In Your Wildest Dreams Antiques, Consignments and Liquidations.  Brewer specializes in hoarder estate sales.

“There are people who are hoarders of good stuff — hundreds of thousands of dollars of stuff, but have no use for the stuff! So it can go from one end of the spectrum to the other,” Brewer said.

Knowing the types of questions to ask in the initial meeting is important. If you’re dealing with a mediator, executor or family member, chances are they’ll acknowledge the hoard and want to do what they can to cover costs.

In some cases, however, family members may be in denial about the hoarding situation and this could be a red flag. Use the initial consult to feel out the situation.

Some questions to ask:

  • What challenges with their stuff are they facing? How they answer this question will give you insight into their level of denial and willingness to liquidate.
  • What is their time frame? This is your opportunity to manage their expectations and explain larger sales take much longer.
  • What are their goals? Do they need to liquidate the entire house in order to move into another house? Are they being evicted? Do they need to have cash as soon as possible to pay nursing home fees? This will help you begin to devise a game plan.

Every hoard is different, so find out as much as possible to determine if you can take them on. Observe, ask questions, and get a feel for whether you’re a good fit for the job.

Payments, Fees, and Commission

The initial interview is also a good time to discuss payment. Some companies just charge a higher commission for hoarder households — anywhere from 50 to 75 percent when they normally charge 30 to 40. The higher commission takes care of the extra time, counseling, clean up and clean out under one easy price.

Other companies charge fees during the clean-up phase, and then commission goes into effect as soon as pricing and appraisal begins.

No matter what you decide, be sure your client pays for any costs of the dumpsters or junk clearing services needed, like 1-800 Got Junk, et al. Believe it or not, junk clearing services can be very expensive, and sometimes a client will call a liquidator because it’s cheaper than hiring a junk service.

Make sure you know there is value under that hoard before taking on the sale. As one estate liquidator put it: If you can’t see one thing of value on top, there’s not likely to be anything of value on bottom.

Hoarder House Kitchen

Conduct Hoarder Sales in Phases

Hoarder estate sales are not typical estate sales. This means you cannot get a hoarding situation under control in the same amount of time as you would a regular sale. Manage expectations (your client’s and your staff’s). If your client cannot work on your schedule, this may be a sign to pass on the sale.

Not only will you be (literally) wading through a lot of (literal) crap before you can begin appraisal and pricing  and setting up the estate sale, you will be also dealing with a psychological disorder that makes it difficult for people to let go of things. This adds time.

“What usually will happen is there’s boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff and bags of stuff, we don’t know what it is. So it’s like a treasure hunt. And most of the time I’ve done any hoarder house, it is an unbelievable treasure house. We may not find the gold and the jewelry, but we will find history. We will find stuff that just needs to be protected and go to the right people,” said Lynn O’Keefe who runs Lynn O’Keefe Auction Co. in Tampa and has been in the business over twenty-seven years.

Consider doing a hoarder sale in stages. Liquidator Lynn Sabia of Lynn’s Home Estate Sales in Chicago had an enormous hoarder estate with a big hoard in the yard and garage. So she got creative and held a “garden party” so she could sell off all the stuff outside before tackling the rest of the house.

“It was just old iron and broken cement things, tombstones in the yard, like old broken tombstones! Somebody dug out a wagon wheel we never even saw, and she comes rolling up with some wagon wheel in pristine condition,” said Sabia.

“It was like Dig Your Own Treasure! We were pricing on the fly — which I’d never done, but it worked out fabulous,” she said.

Remember, while spending months digging through the hoarder sale, you will most likely be conducting regular estate sales along the way so business (i.e. income) doesn’t have to stop. 

Special Clothing and Equipment 

Cleaning up a hoard is not like cleaning out a regular house, or even a packrat’s house. A hoard is generally defined as only having narrow pathways in which to walk. Papers, bags, trash, clothes, food, anything you can think of will be stacked floor to ceiling. It all depends on what type of hoard you are dealing with, how big or filthy (or valuable) it is.

You may need any of the following:

  • Face masks, respirator masks
  • Heavy blouse with sleeves
  • Work pants or jeans
  • Heavy boots with high ankles to protect them
  • Goggles to protect the eyes
  • Work gloves
  • First aid kit

During the estate sale, consider investing in vaporizers or ozone generators to neutralize odors if you can’t get all the smells out inside. Some estate sales may be too stinky to hold inside, in which case you might conduct check-out services in the driveway or front yard.

Employing Extra or Part-time Staff

Handling a hoarder sale isn’t for everyyone. If you take on one of these sales, you will definitely need extra help — and hoarder estate sale employees will especially need to be ready to get down and dirty.

Because the estate sale will be dealt with in phases, consider having shifts on rotation as your staff gets burned out along the way. The bigger the hoard, the more employees can poop out from all the poop — so plan ahead and use resources wisely.

“You have to go from the front to the back. Usually what happens is you start wearing out people.  And even though you as the owner or the partner don’t want to go in there every day, you have to go in and make sure that things are going well,” said O’Keefe.

Even with the best staff in the world, estate sale company owners need to oversee everything to supervise time, budget and labor.

Hoard of Cats

Hoarder Household Hazards

Besides the extra time and effort that goes into taking on a hoarder sale, there are several hazards to look out for.

The obvious: droppings. From mouse droppings to raccoon droppings, roach droppings, and more, you’re bound to encounter a lot of you-know-what when you’re handling a hoard. That’s why wearing the right protective gear can be so important. Droppings carry disease!

Dead animal carcasses can also be a hazard — rats and mice or even household pets. Some hoarders in fact hoard animals specifically (this would be on the worse end of the hoarding spectrum), so be aware of what you’re stepping into.

Household chemicals, whether in some cabinet or in the basement could cause potential hazards. If cans explode or break and chemicals mix, they could become toxic, explosive, or both. Be very careful when dealing with cans or bottles of chemicals and handle them separately, so they don’t accidentally mix (in the same bag or box, for example).

Other explosives. While it might sound crazy, it’s actually not uncommon for senior veterans to hold on to old war memorabilia. This means live grenades and explosives, too. Good times! (It happens more often than you think.) In the event you find live ammo, contact your local police department right away so they can detonate it properly.

Old house hazards. Old houses can often be dangerous because they haven’t been maintained. You can bet a hoarder house hasn’t been taken care of properly, so watch out for rotting floors, bugs in walls, faulty/scary lighting, gas leaks and other dangers and liabilities that can be hazards to you and your crew, but also to estate sale customers.

Moldy estate

Potential Challenges

Even if you’ve been a liquidator for a while, taking on a hoarder estate sale can be very challenging. Just the cleaning up alone is a feat. Encountering droppings and dead things is not for everyone.

Getting everything organized enough so people will actually be able to shop is another challenge altogether. Traits necessary include; a willingness to get dirty, a good eye for organization, creativity, flexibility, more than a touch of OCD, a love of doing work no one else wants to do and a need to get a job finished, no matter how long it takes.

If the estate is too much to organize, hold a “picker sale” and let shoppers dig through everything themselves. Most people enjoy this.

Never take on a sale you can’t handle.

One thing to be sure not to do is to take on a sale you’re not sure you can handle, either because of size or scope.

“There’s one thing with dirty and there’s one thing with filthy. You can have a dusty cobwebbed hoard, or you can have a filthy food rat-infested nightmare  – in the worst of sales and in the best. So it’s getting our eye tuned to that very first initial visit and listening to your intuition on the personalities that you’re dealing with,” said Brewer.

Don’t be unkind or disrespectful.

It might be hard to hold your tongue when you’re seeing cat droppings or carcasses or any number of horrifying things you might encounter at a hoarder sale, but remember. Always be respectful. What you consider a filthy hoard is their normal living conditions, so never refer to their situation as a problem.

Even if you don’t take them on as clients, they will remember if you’re rude and can ruin your reputation online or by word-of-mouth. When in doubt, smile and say as little as possible. If you can’t take the sale, simply blame it on your schedule.

Go slow and be compassionate.

While you don’t have a Ph.D in psychology, you’ve probably already noticed you have to do a bit of counseling when dealing with your estate sale clients. It’s only natural when going through stressful life situations and dealing with personal belongings that people can feel vulnerable.

Multiply that by a thousand when dealing with hoarders who have a mental condition that makes it hard to let things go. While it’s difficult, it’s not impossible – and chances are there will be a mediator present and reasons why the house needs to be liquidated.

Questions you might ask to “coax” a client to get rid of something. Remember these are meant to be asked kindly with caring intentions.

  • What’s your favorite thing in this room – why?
  • What does this mean to you?
  • Why did you have more than one of these? Why wasn’t the first one good enough?
  • What’s the story behind this? (If they don’t have one, maybe they will be more open to getting rid of the item..)
  • Giving small tasks to complete might speed up the process.
  • Use post-it notes to designate what goes

But remember! It’s not your job to convince your client to liquidate, so work it into your contract that you won’t conduct a sale where everyone does not cooperate. If you’re working with a mediator, you should be fine.

The Big Payoff

If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering why on earth you would want to spend extra time and resources on a hoarder sale. The truth is, you can make big bucks for you and your client. There’s more inventory and much of it is probably well preserved (though buried) and worth money or historical value.

While not every hoarder sale will yield big treasures, chances are there will be something of value, especially in older hoards.

Another payoff is knowing you helped a family with a huge undertaking they couldn’t have handled themselves. That’s why you got into the estate sale business in the first place — because people need people like you.

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Hoarder Estate Sale Success Stories

You never know what you’re walking into when you walk into a hoarder sale — and each has its own set of challenges and rewards. Here are a few stories shared by some of the liquidators on our website:

We did a sale for a hoarding family. You could not walk anywhere in the house without steeping on something. There were over 2500 pieces of children’s clothing most with tags on it. I called 4-5 children’s resale shops before I got someone who agreed to come and have her staff pack and take it all for $2 per piece. That made room for all the other stuff. We had at least 45 tea cups and saucers and people came from Canada to buy….Crafts galore….new dishes, art work that covered every wall in the house….we advertised like crazy and did $20,000 plus the kids clothes. —  Maureen Miller at Estate Sale Experts

We have an ozone generator so that helps greatly with any smell. Making sure you have time to adequately remove trash, clean & stage are key. The biggest one we did took months for hubby & I to stage & price but it was less than a mile from home so definitely made it easier. In 4 days total sales were just under 50k so definitely was worth it.  — Barbara Buck, Real Estate Agent

We just did one not to long ago. First thing was to get a roll-of-dumpster delivered. Next was to eliminate all the trash. We actually threw away approx. $ 6,000.00 dollars worth of expired and exploded food. Had to take up the carpet in the master bath for it was just plain disgusting All of which had to be inventoried for the courts. Then room by room we started the set up. Lots of QVC, Home Shopping network all new with tag which included clothing, sheets, blankets, handbags, 100’s of new kitchen small appliances, and then there was all the Survival food and equipment from Jim Baker, Pat Robinson, and Jewish Jesus.

The furniture, home decor, and antique oil paintings, and estate jewelry were incredible!. The sale was a high success. It took two months for set up and pricing as we were doing sales in between. The long hours and hard work was worth it. — Nancy Haley Plese 

We did a sale where,. . . [e]very room had at least 20 bags each with 4-5 DVDs inside, with receipts. Same with books. Magazines, newspapers. There had been a flood in the basement that never got cleaned properly. And the half-bath reeked – the floor was black.

We told the executor we needed a dumpster for trash. He got it. We told him a professional cleaning crew needed to clean the bathroom. He took care of it. We advised him to have the ducts cleaned to improve the smell in the house. He hired a duct cleaner. (The duct cleaner said a normal job only requires them to change filters once or twice. They had to change four times for a two bedroom ranch.) We didn’t push on the basement, but made sure most of the stuff was upstairs. It took us a few months to set it up for a proper sale. — Donovan Atkinson of Garceau Atkinson LLC.

Did one few years ago had a path from front door to bathroom and her chair in front of TV. She spent an average of 20k a month on the shopping networks had 40 K in New cookware over 2000 brand new cook books thousands in jewelry all new first day we did 6k had three full weekend sales and still gave truck loads to charity. — Bill Gager of Gager Estate and Demolition Sales

What’s your experience with hoarder households? Would you take on this kind of estate sale or do you run in the other direction? Share your story below!