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5 Stages of Hoarding Disorder

Hoarding disorder causes the people who have it to obsessively accumulate and cling to personal belongings. Their excessive collection can often grow to the point of overrunning their homes.

Many of the items in a hoarder’s collection might be broken, soiled, or otherwise unusable. Yet, despite the functionality of the items they accumulate, hoarders will suffer from an extreme difficulty parting ways with their things.

The extreme distress that hoarders experience at the thought of getting rid of something is known as disposophobia.

Mental illnesses such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, dementia, and PTSD can sometimes result in the poor decision making skills that contribute to the strong impulses to collect and inability to throw items in the collection away.

Compulsive collecting and disposophobia are often coping mechanisms for hoarders who are struggling with larger, more complex issues than just the clutter itself.

For some, their mental state can deteriorate to a point where they do not possess the decision making skills required to prioritize what to keep and what to discard. In the most severe cases, hoarders can suffer from extreme depression and live isolated in total squalor.

Is a Messy House Sign of Hoarding?

Some people might have more clutter than others, or struggle to remember to throw out old receipts and wrappers until they have built up. While this is an indicator that you might be a little messier than others, it does not necessarily make you a hoarder. Hoarding is a much deeper, more complex problem than being a little messy.

Knowing the difference between a messy home and a hoarder home is crucial for identifying potential issues, and resolving current struggles. Although to the untrained eye a messy and untidy living space might all look, the same, clutter, collecting, and hoarding are all inherently different.

Occasionally accumulating a little junk, or being disorganized and causing a small, unsightly mess is a normal behavior. Clutter might build up a mess in a part of the home, but otherwise the home is generally safe and functional, and nothing is out of place. So while there might be a large pile of laundry in the corner, there is not a stockpile of old DVDs being stored in the kitchen sink. Another major difference between clutter and hoarding is the ability to recognize it.

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For example, someone with mild amounts of clutter in their home might be unbothered by it or unmotivated to clean it up, but they know that the cluttered area is a bit messy.

5 stages of hoarding char

Hoarders, on the other hand, tend to have clutter blindness, and will adapt to their environment so well that not only are they not troubled by it, they won’t even recognize the problem. A collection is another form of accumulated personal items, however unlike clutter or hoarding the collection will be neatly arranged.

The intentional display of collected goods will instill feelings of pride in the owner, and they will usually want to show it off to others.

Collections are well organized groupings of things that are cared for by their owners based on their perceived value. True collectors put time and effort into their findings, and are very calculated about their next acquisition.

Hoarders compulsively collect, generally out of fear, and are unable to or have extreme difficulty controlling their urges. The things a hoarder accumulates will be left in a chaotic disarray, and might even get buried completely under the large masses of clutter. Despite being completely unusable, hoarders will feel extreme distress towards discarding anything. Unlike a collector, a hoarder will try to hide their belongings from view either out of embarrassment for their living situation, or to protect their items from being taken.

5 Major Signs of Hoarding

Together, clutter and collecting do not necessarily make a recipe for hoarding. Perhaps somebody enjoys collecting old magazines, but they lack the organization skills to keep a neat collection. A small amount of disorganization is normal, the tipping point is when the collection or lack of organization begins to overrun the person’s life and home. Understanding the 5 signs of hoarding helps our experts identify solutions, and they will help you identify a hoarding disorder so you can get the hoarding cleanup help you need.
1. Obsession. While many healthy people can enjoy collecting as a hobby, hoarders will exhibit an uncontrollable urge to acquire new things. This compulsive collecting can stem from trauma, or fear for survival. It can also result from something known as Physical Replacement, which is when someone projects their self esteem onto their personal belongings.

2. Disorganization.  We all get a little cluttered from time to time, but even pack rats with a lot of things will still know where all of their stuff is and be able to access it. Hoarders do not have this ability. Their clutter will be in complete chaos, with no rhyme or reason to the way things are arranged, and they will neither know where their things are, or be able to get to them easily.

3. Indecisiveness. The kind of indecisiveness hoarders experience is not the same as not knowing what to order for dinner tonight. Hoarders often lack the problem solving and decision making skills to prioritize the things they own. Because of this, hoarders will often become avoidant or combative when having to make a choice that will affect their belongings.
4. Disposophobia. An extreme unwillingness to discard things is known as disposophobia, and it is a top indicator of a hoarding disorder. This can result in the hoarder feeling extreme anxiety when having to choose between keeping something or getting rid of it, even when broken or expired. If not kept in check, disposophobia can pose serious health risks later down the road.
5. Isolation. Whether out of embarrassment, or a fear of letting others take control over their stockpiles, extreme hoarders tend to live in isolation. In severe cases the social isolation can be a result of Diogenes Syndrome, which is a form of depression that causes the sufferer to experience an extreme distrust of others, live in squalor, and cease self-care.



5 Levels of Hoarding

The defining characteristic for hoarding is when the obsessive, compulsive behavior causes the person to make unhealthy, irrational decisions, and experiences large amounts of stress when discarding anything. Often the distress of throwing things away will cause the hoarder to cling to their belongings even when they are unusable, claiming that they will repair them in the future, but they never do.

Although some people will casually refer to themselves as hoarders because their closets might be a little overstuffed, the truth is hoarding is a much more extreme psychological condition. In the worst of cases, hoarders can be living in squalor, under incredibly hazardous conditions. Once you understand the 5 levels of hoarding, you will be able to create a plan tailored to your loved one’s needs just like our highly trained professionals do every day in the field.

Hoarding Level One

Level One Hoarding can be hard to identify. At this stage the clutter is minimal, and the house is still accessible.

Odors will not be noticeable at this level of hoarding. There is a low risk factor to the hoarder’s physical health, however the mental health of the person is a key identifier. Even without the clutter, an obsessive need to collect is still a sign of hoarding.

Hoarding Level Two

Clutter and odors at Level Two Hoarding will still be fairly low. However, this level of hoarding might include new issues such as overflowing garbage can, piles of dirty plates or expired food, and animal waste on the floor. There might also be signs of a rodent infestation forming. The risk here is still slightly low, but higher than a Level One hoard.

Hoarding Level Three

Level Three Hoarding will have many of the same symptoms as Level Two, except odors will begin to be noticeable. Clutter will also start to build up outside of the home. At least one room, such as the bedroom or bathroom, will also be unusable at this point. The piles of objects and clothing, together with the spills and unsanitary conditions will begin to pose a health hazard in this stage.

Hoarding Level Four

As each stage builds upon the last, the symptoms become incredibly severe Hoarding Level Four. Intense odors, overwhelming stockpiles of clutter, and animal feces have all accumulated to an enormous degree. Exits to the home will become blocked off, preventing emergency services from safely entering. Bug infestations are likely to be introduced in this stage as well. Level four poses an extremely high health risk.

Hoarding Level Five

The worst hoarding conditions occur in Level Five. Pet capacity will exceed the legal limit. Homes will sustain structural damage, and become extremely hazardous. Hoarders in this category may collect their urine into bottles that do not get discarded, and human feces will accumulate on the floor. Hoarders at this level often find themselves in severe legal trouble, from animal abuse charges to facing eviction.

5 Stages of Hoarding Chart

When to Get Help for Hoarding

A hoarding clean up can be a big job, and it’s not as simple as throwing things away and deep cleaning. While you should always be there to support your loved ones, there will be times when you need professional help.

The Hoarders911 Hoarding Cleaning Service is designed to include a solution for any and everything. Knowing when to make the call can help save you and your loved one from the harsher consequences of a hoarding disorder.

  • Quality of Life. If the clutter amassed by the hoarder has begun to affect their quality of life, calling in a professional can help turn the place around quickly. The reduced quality of life can result in bills being unpaid, injuries from falls, or unsanitary and hazardous conditions. Whatever the issue is, a professional will provide you with a solution to get back on track.
  • Issues with Code Enforcement. Extreme cases of hoarding can result in neighbors becoming affected by rodent infestations, or clutter spilling over onto their property in which case a complaint will be filed. Not being in compliance can cost hundreds of dollars a day. A professional will clean things up on a tough deadline to help prevent hefty fines from causing financial trouble
  • Facing Eviction. For fear of losing the home losing its value, or becoming condemned, property management might choose to evict a hoarder if the situation is not corrected swiftly. In these cases, the cleanup might be too big to do alone. Hiring a professional will help streamline an otherwise overwhelming job, and help to prevent the hoarder from losing their home.
  • Home is Inaccessible. Clutter from hoarding can blog off entrances to the home, or even entire rooms. In cases such as this, dangerous or even fatal accidents such as falls can occur. Emergency services might not be able to access the home when they need to. Getting a professional cleanup crew can quickly turn the home into a safe space once again.
  • Mental Illness. Because hoarding can be a symptom of depression, anxiety, or OCD, cleanup can be complicated. Therapy might be needed. If not done properly, the hoarder might impulsively acquire new things after everything has been discarded. Hoarding help professionals work with the hoarder to improve their habits and reduce the likelihood of hoarding in the future.


At any level, what differentiates a hoarding situation from just mere clutter is whether or not it affects the ability for the person to function in a normal, safe, and healthy way. For example, the hoarder home may be so stockpiled with various things that pieces of furniture or even entire rooms might become blocked off and unable to be used. While there is hope to help hoarders recover, it often requires a comprehensive approach and some professional help. 

Understanding hoarding disorder itself, as well as taking the effort to understand the hoarder you are helping as an individual is essential to any solution. Whether you devise a plan of action on your own, or call in a professional for assistance, being able to identify the hoarding level is an important part of developing a plan that will deliver real results.