Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I live next to a neighbor who hoards. The junk literally overflows from his house. We as neighbors have pitched in to clear out his front yard and add some plantings, but he then just started parking on the lawn. His hovel is going to make selling our home much harder. I am wondering if there’s any recourse. Both the city and county say it’s the other’s responsibility. What can be done?
— Kate S.
Obsessive-compulsive therapy, for starters. But I’m guessing we’re talking about options for you and the rest of the neighborhood, not your adjacent hoarder. It is worthwhile to note, however, that such hoarders often suffer from a mental disorder and tend to revert to old ways if not treated, regardless of how often people clean for them.
Sadly, it’s common for various agencies to pass the buck on enforcement because such situations are typically thankless and tough to rectify, plus hoarders rarely allow them access to their properties.
First, there’s a chance that you can get the hoarder to agree — no doubt reluctantly — to let a neighborhood team declutter inside and out, though you’ll no doubt discover a massive task at hand. I suggest that if you do volunteer to clean (again!), it should only be on eyesore areas visible from the exterior.
If you are rebuffed by the hoarder, then try contacting your local code-enforcement department (again!) though this time offer to let the inspector onto your property to take pictures of the neighbor’s place. If there are other neighborhood complainants, that solidifies the case. If the neighbor is breaking one or more property safety codes, then that’s additional impetus. In most jurisdictions, owners must allow unfettered access for first responders and keep clear at least a 3-foot-wide swath to windows and doors. All that clutter is fire fodder, too. An in-depth analysis of fires in Melbourne, Australia, showed that, while hoarding-related house fires accounted for less than 1 percent of fires, they produced almost a quarter of all fire-related fatalities.
If there are sanitary issues, your complaint might be best addressed to the health department. Endless piles of stuff tend to attract rodents, roaches and stray animals and are legitimate threats to neighborhood health. That agency might give the owner a time frame to come into compliance. If the hoarder fails to do it, he can be fined, or better yet, made to vacate while cleaning crews are brought in at the owner’s expense.
If you feel that local area agencies are going into “stall” or “ignore” mode on this, you could always try a “make a stink” strategy. Contact your city council member or city manager about city inaction and if neither responds, then contact area newspapers and TV stations. Talk with a few of your neighbor allies first to see if they’ll agree to interviews if the press comes. Public officials might then have to force action.
Or as a long shot, try contacting the popular TLC show “Hoarding: Buried Alive” with your neighbor’s contact info as well as yours. For additional insight, read the book “Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding,” by David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee.
You are right that selling your home will be a bigger challenge with such a neighbor. If practical, time the completion of any remedial action with your home’s debut on the market. Another concern is disclosure. Some seller disclosure forms include a space for listing any “neighborhood noise or nuisances.” Whether you need to come clean about the untidy neighbor, so to speak, is a matter of debate and ethics. Hopefully you have an agent who can help you finesse all this.
Ask the adviser
To ask a question of the Real Estate Adviser, go to the “Ask the Experts” page and select “Buying, selling a home” as the topic. Read more Real Estate Adviser columns and more stories about mortgages.