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Nightmare Scenario: Your Neighbor Is a Hoarder

scrap wood in front yard of hoarding house
An old clunker in the neighbor’s yard could be a sign of bigger problems, whether you’re a buyer or a seller.

Truth talk: Who among us hasn’t binge-watched a Hoarders marathon? There’s something strangely comforting about peeking into homes far, far more askew than our own. If that means shrieking and covering our eyes during the occasional rat colony sighting, so be it.

But having a hoarder for a neighbor is a whole other affair. As a seller, buyer, or new homeowner, there’s a legitimate dark side to living within yards of a compulsive collector. For starters, your neighbor’s hoarding house can be a huge fire hazard. Rotting trash can attract rodents and insects. And hoarding usually has a mental health component, which can make neighborly negotiations difficult.

So with visions of 5,000 hoarded porcelain dolls still dancing in your head, keep these things in mind before you find yourself living Grey Gardens–adjacent.

What is a hoarder, exactly?

Let’s be clear: An inability to clear out the garage does not a hoarder make. For years, hoarding was understood to be a form of OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research surrounding the disease has evolved, however, and the American Psychiatric Association now recognizes compulsive hoarding as its own mental disorder.

The symptoms are familiar enough to anyone with a Netflix account and a free Saturday afternoon: a deep inability to part with even the most worthless-seeming objects (hello, four broken VCRs and five TV remotes!), often coupled with a shopping obsession (hello, Costco canned foods!). End result: an unusable living space — and one that can have an effect on your home’s value.

So how is this your problem?

Basically, it isn’t until it is. At its most benign, your neighbor’s hoarding situation means that clutter has overflowed into the public space, making the front lawn an embarrassing eyesore for every house party you throw.

But it can get much worse than that. Food refuse can attract rats, ants, roaches, and squirrels that can then meander over to your house for dessert. Stacks of newspapers are obvious fire hazards that significantly increase the chances of your own home getting caught in a downdraft. And then there are the overtly lawful issues — the public health and hygiene violations that could plant a legal black eye on your otherwise issue-free neighborhood. We’re not even going to touch the smells that can emanate from an animal hoarder’s home.

What’s your recourse as a seller?

If you’ve suddenly found yourself living next to a junk-pile wasteland — and you’re planning to list your home for sale — what do you do? The first course of action is to knock on your neighbor’s door and ask politely if they can tidy up the exterior of their home.

But consider the case of Edmund Trebus, a notoriously untidy character who eventually ended up in the BBC documentary A Life of Grime. Unrepentant about his propensity for clutter, he had a habit of telling his neighbors to “stick it up your chuffer!” (What’s a “chuffer”? Who knows?)

So be prepared: Outside reinforcements are your best bet. You can begin by gathering your neighbors and collectively (and politely and cheerfully!) offering to clean up the front yard for free. If you’re rebuffed, the next step is to contact the local authorities to see about code and public health violations (let folks come to your own home to record odors and take photos). Find a local nonprofit that deals with hoarders, and see if your city has a 311 line to report nonemergency problems. If time is of the essence, you can call your elected officials and the local TV stations; just keep in mind that a dug-in hoarder is one of the most difficult bad-neighbor behaviors to deal with.

What to do as a buyer?

You settle into your dream home. You spent the first few days luxuriating in your first bona fide backyard. And then you start to turn up your nose at the indescribable odor emanating from next door and wonder how you could’ve missed it during the open house, private showings, and all those home inspection visits — this is not the scenario you were counting on when you plunked down six figures for your new place.

So what should you keep an eye out for as a shopper? Front yard clutter is the obvious red flag; even a single large-scale item such as an abandoned car can signal trouble. If you spot a neglected exterior, look closely to see if objects are piled high against the windows. Search local records for any complaints; if you’re buying into a co-op, ask to see the monthly minutes from the board meetings.

Think you can avoid a hoarding house by buying into a wealthy neighborhood? On the contrary: Some of history’s most notorious hoarders came from high-society backgrounds. (Want proof? A quick Google search for “Collyer mansion” should give you what you seek.)

Have you lived next door to a hoarder? How did it affect your decision to buy and your ability to sell? Share your experiences in the comments below!