Hoarders, beware: Homeowner's insurance could be pulled

Are you a hoarder? If so, your homeowner's insurance could be canceled or your rates could be raised.

Often, insurers don't know if you like to hoard because they don't inspect the home on the inside at the time the insurance is written. They just take pictures of the outside of the property and, if it looks good, write the policy. Sometimes they don't find out that someone has a problem with hoarding until a claim is filed.

At the time a claim from a hoarder is filed, the "claim would be paid according to contract," according to Dick Luedke of State Farm, and most contracts do not exclude hoarding.

So your claim would likely be paid, but then the problems could start. In severe cases, the insurance company may cancel your homeowner's coverage, and in other cases, they may raise your cost because of the increased risk of hoarding.

Why is hoarding such a risk? Here are just some of factors that can increase the risk for an insurer if you hoard:
  • You or your friends could trip over your stuff and file a claim against your homeowner's policy.
  • Trash and flammable materials that accumulate in or around your home increase the fire risk. The hoarded materials could burn quickly, causing even more damage to the home.
  • Hoarders don't tend to take care of the maintenance basics, such as fixing leaks, electrical problems, heating problems, and roof problems. All these problems can lead to claims against an insurance policy.
In addition to insurance risks, hoarding can increase rat or insect infestations. The problem involves so many different agencies that some states have formed a hoarding task force, such as one in Fairfax County, Va.

They include both health and public safety agencies, because they see the problem as both a health hazard and a public safety problem, especially if exit routes are blocked or combustible materials are collected. Some hoarders even collect human or animal waste, which can result in the property being condemned.

Compulsive hoarding and cluttering is common with several mental illnesses. The most common are obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit disorder, major depression and head trauma. Major life changes like divorce, death of a loved one, unemployment, severe illness, or the birth of a new child can also lead to having difficulty discarding household items.

You may think of yourself as a hoarder, but you could actually be a clutterer. Only a very small percentage of clutterers are truly hoarders. According to psychiatrists and psychologists, less than 1% of the population hoards. If you suspect you are a hoarder, you can only be diagnosed by a psychiatrist, but here are some key differences between hoarders and clutterers from the Landlord Association:

A hoarder cannot make rational decisions about what is useful and what is not. A key difference is that the hoarder often saves garbage or soiled items.

A hoarder obsesses about his/her stuff and is compelled to collect it. A clutterer just lets it pile up. Even if you're not a hoarder, if you let things pile up and block the ability to move around your home or get into or out of your home, you could still be an insurance risk.

A hoarder is usually unaware of anything being wrong. If someone is concerned about his/her clutter, she/he is in good shape.

A clutterer becomes overwhelmed by his/her stuff and has emotional attachments to possessions but does not save garbage. A clutterer often has some of the following symptoms: low self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions, fear of loss and failure, mild depression, belief that she/he doesn't deserve any better.

If you fill up your house or your yard with lots of junk, accumulate combustible materials (newspapers, magazines or garbage), block your exits including doors and windows, and have narrow pathways or a maze throughout your home to get around the clutter, that is a red flag.

Your insurance company may not find out until you file a claim. They'll likely pay the claim and then drop your coverage if the situation is extremely bad. They could just give you a warning and ask you to fix the problem. That depends on the state you are in and your insurer.

Rather than wait for the insurance company to act or for a major problem to arise that destroys your home, take matters into your own hands. Contact a professional to deal with your problem of hoarding or cluttering.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including Surviving a Layoff: A Week-By-Week Guide to Getting Your Life Back Together and the Complete Idiot's Guide to Personal Bankruptcy.

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