Written By: Janice Williams, Broker | Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES) Senior Vice President - Sales | Sotheby's International Realty Canada
I had a recent experience dealing with a 'Hoarder House' during the COVID outbreak. It was, by far, one of the worst cases I had seen.
I was called in to assist a middle-aged gentleman whom we will refer to as "Jeff," to protect his identity.* Jeff lived with his mother his entire life and inherited the home upon her passing. From that moment, he began displaying traits of hoarding. Over time, his own health began deteriorating and he could no longer keep up with the bills.
When I arrived for the appointment, which was in a desirable neighborhood, the outside of the house looked mildly neglected. The car in the driveway had four flat tires. It had sat there for so long that it had sunk into the driveway and was covered in thick tree sap.
My contact, who had befriended Jeff, met me out front. Jeff opened the interior door and spoke to us through the screen. He looked hunched over, frail and generally unwell. I remember being shocked to learn that we were close to the same age.
Jeff finally unlocked the door to allow us in and inspect the house. There was barely any room to walk. The walls were so dirty, it was impossible to determine the actual paint color. Each room was filled with random items, some unopened, and the home was littered with garbage. Even though we were masked, the smell that permeated the home was putrid. The kitchen and bathrooms were packed, filthy and full of mold caused by water damage. They looked barely usable. The sinks and counter space were jammed with items.
The bedrooms were piled high with possessions with no place to sleep. In his late mother's bedroom, it looked as though the excrement from her passing had not been cleaned up after she was removed from the home.
There was no doubt in my mind that Jeff's home was a 'Hoarder House'.
WHAT IS HOARDING?
The Mayo Clinic defines Hoarding as follows:
Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.
Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Countertops, sinks, stoves, desks, stairways and virtually all other surfaces are usually piled with stuff. And when there's no more room inside, the clutter may spread to the garage, vehicles, yard and other storage facilities.
Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. In some cases, hoarding may not have much impact on your life, while in other cases it seriously affects your functioning on a daily basis.
A REALTOR'S RESPONSIBILITY
It was evident that Jeff was clearly in distress and an easy target for being taken advantage of by bad actors. With no family to look out for him, Jeff was in a very vulnerable position. It was obvious to me that his survival would depend on the money from the sale.
Selling a 'Hoarding House' is very complicated, even for the most seasoned Realtor. The first challenge for Realtors is to correctly identify a hoarding situation. Immediately recognizing the severity of Jeff's situation, I called my manager and detailed what I had observed.
As Realtors, our ethical obligation is to determine what is above our scope of work and if professional intervention is required. This could include, but is not limited to, professionals in the mental health, legal, medical, clean-up, or animal control fields.
A seller with an untreated hoarding disorder may experience distress at the thought of getting rid of their items and may be resistant to getting help. They may think they don't have an issue.
Since Realtors are mandated to protect a client's best interests, this unique situation presents several questions to consider before engaging:
- How would a Realtor prepare a house for sale i.e. decluttering, staging, repairs, photos, cleaning, etc. knowing the above?
- How would showings work?
- Are there concerns that the homeowner is not mentally competent and unable to sign a legal contract?
- Is the house insured for liability?
- Are there patent or latent issues such as water damage or structural damage?
- Will there be inspections or repairs done in advance of listing? Who will pay for them?
- When the house sells, where will the homeowner go? Who will take care of them?
- Will they stay in the house while still for sale?
- Would a potential buyer have issues securing a mortgage with a lender, if the lender knew the home was a 'Hoarder House'?
- Are there pest infestations in the house (mice, cockroaches, racoons, bed bugs)?
- Are there contaminated, flammable or biohazardous materials inside or outside of the property?
- Are there pets being kept on the property?
- Are there are outstanding orders or notices from the city?
These are only a few examples and by no means, an exhaustive list of questions. Ignoring the warning signs and moving ahead without doing your due diligence, is not only exploitative, it may be viewed as negligence on your part, among other things, should something go wrong.
REAL ESTATE BUSINESS BROKERS ACT, 2002
In Ontario, the provincial government writes the rules that real estate salespeople, brokers and brokerages must follow, and RECO enforces those rules on the government’s behalf. The Code of Ethics (under REBBA, 2002) outlines relatable clauses to this situation:
3. Fairness, honesty, etc. A registrant shall treat every person the registrant deals with in the course of a trade in real estate fairly, honestly and with integrity. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 3.
4. Best interests A registrant shall promote and protect the best interests of the registrant’s clients. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 4.
5. Conscientious and competent service, etc. A registrant shall provide conscientious service to the registrant’s clients and customers and shall demonstrate reasonable knowledge, skill, judgment and competence in providing those services. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 5.
6. Providing opinions, etc.(1) A registrant shall demonstrate reasonable knowledge, skill, judgment and competence in providing opinions, advice or information to any person in respect of a trade in real estate. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 6 (1).
(2) Without limiting the generality of subsection (1) or section 5,
(a) a brokerage shall not provide an opinion or advice about the value of real estate to any person unless the opinion or advice is provided on behalf of the brokerage by a broker or salesperson who has education or experience related to the valuation of real estate; and
(b) a broker or salesperson shall not provide an opinion or advice about the value of real estate to any person unless the broker or salesperson has education or experience related to the valuation of real estate. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 6 (2).
8. Services from others (1) A registrant shall advise a client or customer to obtain services from another person if the registrant is not able to provide the services with reasonable knowledge, skill, judgment and competence or is not authorized by law to provide the services. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 8 (1).
(2) A registrant shall not discourage a client or customer from seeking a particular kind of service if the registrant is not able to provide the service with reasonable knowledge, skill, judgment and competence or is not authorized by law to provide the service. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 8 (2).
21. Material facts (1) A broker or salesperson who has a client in respect of the acquisition or disposition of a particular interest in real estate shall take reasonable steps to determine the material facts relating to the acquisition or disposition and, at the earliest practicable opportunity, shall disclose the material facts to the client. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 21 (1).
(2) A broker or salesperson who has a customer in respect of the acquisition or disposition of a particular interest in real estate shall, at the earliest practicable opportunity, disclose to the customer the material facts relating to the acquisition or disposition that are known by or ought to be known by the broker or salesperson. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 21 (2).
38. Error, misrepresentation, fraud, etc. A registrant shall use the registrant’s best efforts to prevent error, misrepresentation, fraud or any unethical practice in respect of a trade in real estate. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 38.
39. Unprofessional conduct, etc. A registrant shall not, in the course of trading in real estate, engage in any act or omission that, having regard to all of the circumstances, would reasonably be regarded as disgraceful, dishonorable, unprofessional or unbecoming a registrant. O. Reg. 580/05, s. 39.
In Jeff's situation, his behavior, appearance and living conditions made it indisputable that he was in need of professional help that was out of my scope of expertise. He was referred to a mental health professional whose team of experts specialized in hoarding cases. I stepped back and awaited further instruction. Sadly, weeks later, I learned that Jeff had suddenly passed away.
The lesson here is this:
- Understand your limitations as a real estate professional.
- Do your due diligence.
- Get professional advice whenever possible.
- Talk to your Office Manager or Broker of Record and always keep them apprised of the situation.
When there are no family or friends in the picture, an intervention from a real estate professional may be the catalyst for a vulnerable individual to get the help they need.
Hoarding is a mental health concern, as well as a legal, health, and safety concern. It’s estimated that between 1.5%-6% of the Canadian population has a hoarding problem. Without treatment and intervention, both the behavior and living conditions will deteriorate. If you know someone affected by hoarding, contact the Toronto Hoarding Network
*The names of some individuals have been changed to respect their privacy.