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How to Clean a Hoarders House

A cleaner in protective gear sorting through items in a hoarder's house with labeled boxes for 'Keep,' 'Donate,' 'Trash,' and 'Recycle.' The room shows progress from cluttered to tidy, with soft natural light creating a hopeful atmosphere.

Cleaning a hoarder’s house is laborious, and hoarding services is hard work. It’s not the same as a standard deep cleaning. We’re talking about a task that a cleaning company or maid service would walk away from the moment they enter the home.

We’ve heard it before, “We hired a cleaning company to help with my mom’s house, but the moment they stepped inside, they just shook their heads and left. ‘This is not a safe environment for our team,’ they said. I was shocked. So, I called several other cleaners, but they all said that the mess was too much for them. Please, I’m desperate. Can you help?!?”

Cleaning a hoarder’s house requires kindness, consideration, a well-thought-out plan, and some seriously thick skin.

But the end result—helping a struggling mom and their overwhelmed family regain control—is worth every bit of the grind.

There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing life return to someone’s eyes when they realize they have a fresh start. They say the spirit isn’t tangible, and ghosts don’t exist, but I can assure you the burdens hoarding victims carry are real and very visible. You can actually see the weight lift from their shoulders; the way they hold themselves changes.

Why such emotion? After all, isn’t this just a super heavy-duty clean?

Understanding Hoarding Disorder

Hoarding is more than just a clutter issue. It’s a mental health disorder that can have profound implications for individual and their loved ones.

We won’t get into the details, but hoarding impacts roughly 2-6% of the Canadian population. It’s not as prevalent as some other common mental disorders like anxiety or depression, but right here in Hamilton, there are an estimated 15,740 to 47,220 individuals who may experience hoarding during their lifetime.

A therapist talking to an overwhelmed individual in a cluttered room who is dealing with hoarding disorder.

Let’s put that into perspective.

Statistics Canada reports that the average Canadian has roughly 10 close connections. This means hoarding could impact an estimated 157,400 to 472,200 Hamiltonians through their relationships. The higher end of this data suggests that more than half of our residents are indirectly affected.

Preparing for the Hoarding Cleanup

Remember, hoarding isn’t a voluntary choice like collecting baseball cards or stamps; it’s a diagnosable disorder that demands understanding and empathy. Given the significant impact hoarding can have, it’s important to approach cleanup services with the right mindset.

A group, including family members and professional cleaners, putting on protective gear like gloves, masks, and coveralls. They are gathered around a table with cleaning supplies, tools, and a first aid kit in a cluttered room.

Whether you’re a family member, friend, or a professional cleaner, cleaning out a hoarder’s home requires a well-thought-out plan that prioritizes safety as your number one priority. Think about it:

  • You need the right tools, protective gear and supplies.
  • Are there pests, pets or feces on the premises?
  • What’s hazardous, and what is regular junk removal?
  • What are we going to keep, and what about donations or recycling?

There’s a lot to consider.

Whether you’re a family member, a friend, or a company that supports hoarders, this guide will help you learn how to clean a hoarders house.

Ready to roll up your sleeves and tackle an extreme clean? Let’s tackle this together!

Deal With Hoarding Safely

Before starting to clean a hoarder’s house, we need to think about safety. The hoarder’s home is an unfamiliar space that doesn’t always follow organizational logic. Here are some common hoarding hazards that you should seriously consider:

Pests and Animal Hazards

Depending on the stage of hoarding you’re dealing with, be prepared for animals and pests (rats, raccoons, cockroaches, to name a few)—even some still living amongst the items in the home. Their feces may contain all types of diseases and can be a severe health risk.

  • Wear heavy-duty protective gloves to avoid direct contact with animal waste.
  • Consider a respirator mask, so you’re not inhaling anything gross.
  • Obviously, contact a pest company or animal control if you’re feeling uncomfortable with the situation.
  • ALWAYS have a first aid kit around.

Sharp Objects and Hidden Dangers

You’ll also want to be cautious of sharp objects like knives, broken glass, razors, scissors, and even nails or tacks that could be literally anywhere.

  • Keep sturdy gloves on to protect your hands.
  • Choose long sleeves and pants.
  • Use a flashlight to inspect dark areas (never reach into dark holes)
  • Wear a sturdy pair of closed-toe shoes. Ideally, steel-toed.

Tripping and Falling Hazards

Cluttered spaces are a trap of hidden obstacles that might cause you to trip or fall. Stacks of books and boxes can also topple over, so be aware of where you’re walking.

  • Try your best to familiarize yourself with the area before you start wondering through and clear your path before moving larger items–basically, make sure that you have a safe route.
  • You can also see a step ladder to reach higher spots.
  • Open windows and curtains to keep your space well-lit.

Airborne and Respiratory Hazards

Mould, dust, and other icky airborne particles might be floating around. Other harmful substances like asbestos and animal dander can aggravate anyone with allergies or asthma.

  • Use a dust mask or respirator to avoid inhaling dust, mould spores, or other airborne particles.
  • Again, keeping windows open and running fans for good ventilation is critical.
  • Wear protective goggles or construction safety glasses.

Phew! That’s a lot to think about. But safety is just that important. Here are a few more super-critical reminders:

  • Contacting a licensed asbestos abatement pro is a good idea if you suspect asbestos.
  • Always, always, keep a first aid kit handy in case of any minor cuts or scrapes.
  • Investing in an on-site gravity-fed portable eyewash station is also a good idea and by no means overkill.

With safety out of the way, we’ll next put a thoughtful plan in place for how to clean out a hoarders house. So read on,

Formulate a Cleaning Strategy

Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” That’s sound advice coming from a pretty good planner, who founded several libraries and all.

Now, let’s channel our inner Franklin and discuss some steps to clean a hoarder’s house effectively.

A cleaning team gathered around a table with a floor plan of a hoarder's house, discussing and planning the cleanup. The table is filled with tools, gloves, and cleaning supplies. The room has clutter in the background, but the focus is on the team's strategy session.

Step 1: Start with an Inspection

You will want to begin by understanding what you’re getting into, literally, by physically inspecting the severity level of the hoarding. This will help you estimate the time and resources needed for the clean-up. By no means is it a race, but efficiency matters, and it’s a good idea to be thorough and respectful the hoarder’s home.

Step 2: Plan Each Room

Next, decide on the order of the rooms you need to clean.

Huge tip: if you can, clean the bathrooms first! Why?

Nobody wants to be working all day without a bathroom on site. This is extreme cleaning, not extreme camping.

Cleaning a Hoarders Bathroom

Bathrooms are often smaller, quick-win spaces (it will probably take less than an hour to empty a bathroom), and most of the stuff in there can be tossed out; think half-empty shampoo bottles, makeup, hair brushes—things like that.

There will most likely be some medications in there, though, so it’s best to have a box to put them in. Just, please, don’t flush medicine down the toilet or sink; it pollutes our water supply. Take it to your local pharmacist for proper disposal.

You might also come across unopened or expired medications. If you do, you can drop them off at any pharmacy. Additionally, there are some medication return programs available in Hamilton.

Set Up a Break Area

Next, try to clean an area where you can break or eat lunch. Ideally, you can recharge and get a breath of fresh air outside, but this is Southern Ontario, and it can be the dead of winter.

Start with Small Areas

As already mentioned, small wins matter. For example, you could start with a linen or coat closet, pantry, or patio. This helps to boost morale and positive vibes, “Getting that spot cleared felt like hitting a home run! Let’s keep swinging for the fences!”

Step 3: Delegate Tasks

If you have a team, allocate groups to specific rooms. This is an absolute must for several reasons:

  • Efficiency: Teams can work more quickly with clear, micro goals in place.
  • Focus: Things get done better and more quickly when teams can concentrate on one area at a time.
  • Safety (again): It’s much less likely that people will trip over each other or get distracted.
  • Accountability: No one will ever ask, “Hey, who was supposed to take out this box?” because everyone already knows what they should be doing.
  • Team morale: It’s not a race, but some friendly competition is always a good way to pass the time.
  • Managing equipment: One group can use the vacuum first and then pass it on to the next team.
  • Specialization and preference: There’s no shortage of work, and people can choose what they feel like doing. Also, when people have a choice, they often choose tasks that they are particularly good at.

Step 4: Establish Staging Areas

Organization is super important and will keep everything humming along. Set up project areas (like the kitchen or living room) and establish different zones: one for general garbage near a door, another for stuff to keep, and another for donations.

Sorting and Categorizing

You can also leverage the wonderful work of author Sandra Felton. In her book How Not to Be a Messie: The Ultimate Guide for the Neatness Challenged, she established The Mount Vernon Method of decluttering.

Basically, use your zones to further sort items. For instance, have a separate dump spot for hazardous waste that can’t go into your regular trash pile (chemicals, paints, etc.). One way to really hone in on this is to use the four-pile system:

  1. Keep: Items that will be kept because they are actually used. Consider whether you would use them in your home on a regular basis.
  2. Donate: The “maybe/possibly/someday” items and any items you plan to donate fall here. Do yourself a favour and register at Intuit’s ItsDeductible to track donations. Donations add up fast.
  3. Trash: This is an easy one. Broken or seemingly useless stuff all goes here.
  4. Recycle: Hamilton has a few Community Recycling Centres (CRC. Use them. Dropping off recyclable items is free.
Quick Tips for Sorting Items

Use the One-Year Rule: Many hoarding services follow a philosophy that if you haven’t used, needed, or bothered to look for something in more than a year… it goes—plain and simple.

Start hoarding cleanup with items that have the least sentiment value, like outdated newspapers and magazines.

Try to stay on task and organized with a timer, breaking up the work into achievable, smaller tasks.

Don’t forget to keep already completed rooms tidy and even close them off so that they don’t start to get cluttered again. No redoing work!

Be aware of what you’re tossing and keeping, but be especially sensitive to certain documents (unpaid bills, medical records, wills, etc.) that might be hiding somewhere.

Keep in mind that this is not a routine spring cleaning—it’s a complex extreme cleaning job that needs careful planning.

When to Consider a Professional Declutter Service

“The house is a nightmare. There are old photographs and letters everywhere. We’re just so overwhelmed with deciding on what to keep and what to get rid of. I thought we could handle this, but the stress is just too much for us.”

A distressed family standing in a cluttered living room, overwhelmed by the mess, with a professional declutter service worker in uniform discussing with them, holding a clipboard with a checklist. This family is in abvious need of professional hoarding servcies.

If you feel like this, it’s time to get professional help. There are also several other reasons that people call us to ask for professional hoarding assistance:

  1. Health risks: If the home has any hazardous materials, mould, or infestations.
  2. Physically too much: When the physical demands of cleaning are too much for you or your family to handle.
  3. Emotions are running high: Oftentimes, our novice cleaners are helping loved ones with hoarding. Sometimes, the emotional burden is too heavy or leads to conflict.
  4. Not enough time: Extreme cleaning isn’t a breeze, and sometimes, we simply don’t have the time to do it.
  5. Don’t have the tools: Don’t have a HAZMAT suit? You’re most definitely not the only one. Enough said.
  6. Need for speed: “I just need this done, fast.” and organized for a move or sale. We get it.
  7. Mental health: Everyone deserves compassionate and professional support. When trying to part with items, hoarders need more support than ever.

Don’t hesitate to seek professional hoarding help if it all just seems too much. Everyone needs help sometimes, and no one should ever feel ashamed to ask. 

The Journey After Hoarding Intervention

Support from family, friends, and even experts can make a big difference in a hoarder’s rate of recovery. Encourage them, recommend support groups or pursue therapy, and celebrate their progress, no matter how small.

And remember, the goal is not just to clean a house; it’s to help Hamiltonians lead healthier and happier lives when they need it.