What to do about a hoarding neighbor

Can your next door neighbor drag down the value of your house?
Did you know? Compulsive hoarding tendencies  affect an estimated 2 percent to 5 percent of adults.

Back in 2010, A&E’s reality show Hoarders featured a Kaneohe family, whose house was a veritable maze of stuff—from old papers to toys to baskets and everything else imaginable, or not.

We’ve all seen houses with stuff in the front yard, in the carport, in the garage, in the backyard. The auntie up the street whose yard looks like nothing has been thrown away for years, the neighbor next door in the apartment complex, who you see slip guiltily into his apartment, barely able to open the front door for all the stuff packed up against it.

So when does hoarding go past being a personal tidiness issue and become a larger problem from real estate and community safety perspectives?

“It becomes apparent when you talk to the homeowners,” says Michael Borger, owner of Big Rock Investments, a Honolulu company that buys homes directly from owners. Borger notes that properties belonging to hoarders are layered in items accumulated over two or three decades and that the owners often display an emotional attachment to their possessions.

You might not be a hoarder yourself, but can hoarding neighbors drive down the value of your real estate? It’s possible. Nationally, Appraisal Research Inc. president Joe Magdziarz puts the hit at 5 percent to 10 percent, depending on the magnitude of the mess.

Although Borger says a single cluttered home might not have a huge effect on its neighbors, he says the presence of several such properties in a neighborhood means he “won’t purchase at all” in the area.

Is there anything you can do about it? Thankfully, yes.

If you live in a condominium, chances are the bylaws of the condo association will have a thing or two to say about the tidiness of apartments. Hoarding can pose safety threats by blocking access for emergency services, and most condominiums do include provisions in their governing documents that forbid owners from unreasonably increasing the risk of fire or other hazards. Some boards even have the power to enter a unit for “bona fide purposes” if either the health or safety of the community appears to be at risk.

The City and Council of Honolulu is also on your side—in April 2013, the Council unanimously passed Bill 3, Relating to the Disposal of Weeds, Garbage, Trash and Waste from Property. The bill inflicts harsh penalties on property owners who fail to maintain their properties, causing both safety and health issues, by raising the maximum fine for cluttered eyesores from $1,000 to $5,000 per day.

Councilmember Stanley Chang, who introduced the bill, says the maximum fine applies to cases of extreme accumulation that have “a large impact on the community” and have drawn formal complaints from neighbors.

“After multiple warnings, you will not have corrected the situation,” Chang says, referring to property owners who must have received initial, nonbinding warnings from city workers before being assessed fines.

The accumulation of too much stuff, besides creating an eyesore, can violate other provisions of the City and County’s Housing Code, which stipulates that each house must have a passageway no less than three feet wide leading to a public street.

Afraid your neighbors are posing a risk? Call the City and County of Honolulu’s Building Code Compliance and Inspection Department at 768-8128 to report them.