Hoarders have another reason to get help: Being a hoarder could hinder the ability to get or keep homeowner's insurance.
The potential pitfalls in the homes of hoarders -- people who can't stop acquiring items and have a hard time getting rid of their belongings -- include fire and injury. As a result, hoarders are at a higher risk in the eyes of a home insurer, says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.
The link between hoarding and homeowner's insurance is an issue that could affect you, your family, your friends or your neighbors.
Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation, says the hidden disorder of hoarding has come to light since 1993, with more research and education about the condition. Although it's difficult to determine how many people are affected by the disorder, he says estimates of 5 million hoarders in the United States appear to be accurate.
Homeowner's insurance is important to hoarders who want to protect their belongings, but Szymanski says the condition is so debilitating that some can't set priorities and struggle with decision-making.
"They understand the value of homeowner's insurance," he says. "They can't act on it because there are too many other things that feel equally urgent to them."
Hoarders' cluttered homes often are the focal point for the condition as their stuff takes over their residences. Hoarding homeowners:
• Can't use entryways or rooms. "They can't cook in the kitchen. They can't eat at the kitchen table," Szymanski says. "The level of clutter in their house is really impairing their ability to do day-to-day functioning."
• Fill their attics to the point of potential collapse. An accumulation of boxes as well as newspapers and books -- the most commonly hoarded items -- can lead to severe stress on structural components, Worters says. The floor systems can sag, crack or even collapse, causing damage to a home and its occupants.
Getting and keeping insurance
TV shows like "Hoarders" have brought greater attention to the condition. But even when "hoarder" wasn't a frequently used term, Nicki Kopassis, an agent with Farmers Insurance in Virginia Beach, Va., remembers visiting a home where the yard was crammed with so many items that liability concerns prevented a policy from being written.
But insurers often don't know whether a person is a hoarder because the insurers' representatives usually don't inspect a home's interior before an insurance policy is written, Worters says. If the outside looks OK, a hoarder homeowner could obtain insurance, even if piles of junk fill the interior.
When homeowner's insurance policies are written or denied, or when a claim is made, no category designates the policyholder as a hoarder. But in the case of a claim, an insurance adjuster would visit the home and then notify the agent if the condition of the property is poor enough for the policy not to be renewed, Kopassis says.
"While contracts do not exclude hoarding, the policy most likely would be non-renewed, or you would pay a higher premium," Worters says.
Four reasons for risk
Here are four key reasons why hoarders are a higher risk for homeowner's insurers:
1. Fire. The accumulation of materials around the home could increase the risk of a blaze, Worters says. The top causes of fires are related to cooking, heating and electricity. In the kitchen, an accumulation of grease, food items and trash increases the potential for a fire. Paper or other flammable materials near heating systems or electrical wires boost the risk of fire, but also burn quickly, which could cause extensive damage, Worters says.
2. Liability. If a friend or family member is injured in a hoarder's home, a claim could be filed against the homeowner's policy. The possibility for injury is one of the reasons why it's common for hoarders to have their homes condemned, Szymanski says.
3. Blocked exits. Possessions that obstruct or block exits could it more difficult to escape during an emergency and more difficult for public safety personnel to enter a home. Szymanski says he recently talked with a daughter whose mother, in her 60s, recently broke her leg crawling in and out of her home through her bedroom window because too much clutter was blocking a door.
4. Poor maintenance. Hoarders are likely to ignore or delay fixing electrical or heating issues, plumbing problems and roof repairs, which can lead to a greater number of claims, Worters says. In many hoarding cases, the heating equipment no longer functions because of blocked vents or equipment. She says occupants will use kerosene or space heaters, which create an immediate fire hazard because they usually are placed amid newspapers and other combustible materials.