When Ceci Garrett’s mother slipped and fell at her home in Washington, DC, the walls of her secret world came crashing down.

“Once the paramedics broke in and saw the full-blown squalor with no running water, they knew she was a hoarder,” Garrett recalled.

Within days, Garrett received notice that her mother’s home insurance had been canceled. The reason? The home’s electrical box wasn’t up to code.

“Which was funny because the same company had insured her for 20 years, and that was the same breaker box the house had when she bought it,” Garrett said.

To read the results of SpareFoot’s survey about hoarding, visit blog.sparefoot.com/7925-sparefoot-survey-about-hoarding.

Out of Sight

Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, MA, and co-author of “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” said there’s a good reason that home insurers rarely cancel or even know about hoarders.

“If there’s a leak in the roof, people with a hoarding disorder won’t call anyone, because that’s what they’re afraid of,” Smith said. “You see people with hoarding disorders often living without usable appliances because they don’t want to call anyone to replace or fix them.”

To read our interview with Randy Frost, visit blog.sparefoot.com/6790-interview-with-randy-frost-about-hoarding.

Randy Frost
Hoarding specialist Randy Frost says hoarders guard their secret.

Garrett hired Matt Paxton’s Clutter Cleaner crew from Richmond, VA, to clean up the mess, which turned into a 2009 episode of cable TV’s “Hoarders.” (“We were the first poop house,” she noted). Then she moved her mother into assisted living in Spokane, WA, where Garrett now directs Lightening the Load, a faith-based support group for hoarders and their families.

Hazards at Home

Insurers are aware that an estimated 10 million to 14 million Americans, or roughly 1 in 20 of us, have hoarding tendencies. They also know that hoarding homes present numerous health and safety hazards, including:

  • Fire from makeshift portable heating and cooking devices, as well as flammable clutter.
  • Mold from leaking roofs and pipes.
  • Increased trip-and-fall risks.
  • Biohazards from human and animal waste and accumulated garbage.
  • Insect or animal infestation.
Matt Paxton
Matt Paxton says hoarding behavior doesn’t pop up overnight.

But because hoarding disorder grows gradually, home insurers often are the last to learn of it—oftentimes on the evening news.

“You don’t start off as a hoarder. It happens over time, 10 or 20 years or more,” Paxton said. “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t insure hoarders!’ Well, no—you insure good, hardworking people, and then something bad happens to them and that’s when they become hoarders.”

To read our interview with Matt Paxton, visit blog.sparefoot.com/6192-interview-with-hoarders-star-matt-paxton.

Renewal vs. Cancellation

In Paxton’s experience, hoarders need not fear that their home insurer won’t pay for a loss that’s clearly covered by their policy. Insurers “can’t bend the laws,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll agree to renew the policy, or that the policy will cover the costs of inventorying, moving, cleaning, replacing or returning hoarded belongings.

Scott Conguisti, assistant vice president of claims for insurance brokerage HUB International, gets the call when a field adjuster discovers any sort of problem. If that problem is hoarding, he knows it’s likely to require more time both to clear a path to repair the damage and deal with out-of-control household contents.

Ceci Garrett
Ceci Garrett (right) founded a group to help hoarders like her mother (center).

“In a 2,500-square-foot home, you have a pretty good expectation of what’s going to be in there, but if you have the same size home with contents that would fill a 10,000-square-foot house, that involves a different process,” he said. “Just the labor cost alone of removing or cleaning the sheer number of belongings can exceed their coverage limit.”

Congiusti enlists the homeowner’s relatives and friends to help confront the decision that every hoarder dreads: deciding what stays and what goes. Some insurers even spring for a dumpster to help whittle down the belongings.

Risky Business?

Are hoarders too risky to insure? Not in Congiusti’s book.

“It’s no different than any other risk where an insurer might say this is riskier than they wanted. If, through the claims process, they’re able to resolve this contents issue, I really think there’s a compelling case to keep them as a client at that point,” he said. “The easy solution is to non-renew the whole account, but if this situation really triggers that wake-up moment, then we might no longer have a situation. Maybe this can be corrected.”

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Jay MacDonald