Understanding The 5 Stages Of Hoarding

Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Published 12/09/2020

Hoarding disorders aren’t discussed often, and many people don’t view it as a real disorder, but they’re just as dangerous to someone’s quality of life as any other disorder. In fact, some studies suggest hoarding disorders affect nearly 6% of the population.

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Many people suffering from a hoarding disorder also experience other mental disorders, such as OCD and depression. They’re also more likely to be obese, live alone, and have at least one family member suffering from the disorder.

For those that don’t find the help they need, it’ll eventually affect your financial security, physical health, mental health, and relationships with others.

While most people think a hoarding disorder involves collectibles and boxes of old memories, it’s often much more than just that. People can hoard mail, newspapers, magazines, notes, journals, books, photos, clothing, containers, food, garbage, waste, and even animals.

Early detection is one of the most important parts of the healing process, which is why you must understand the different stages of hoarding. There are five hoarder levels, and they progressively worsen as you go from a ‘level 1 hoarder’ to a ‘level 5 hoarder.’

Don’t worry, we’re going to take a deep look at all the different types of hoardings, what they mean, how you can detect it, and what you can do to find the help you or someone you love needs.

Stage 1: Mild Hoarding & Urge To Collect

The first stage of a hoarding disorder is often difficult to detect because the indicators are extremely minor. Most of the indicators aren’t something you physically see inside the home, but something you notice in the individual's behavior.

As you can likely imagine, it’s this behavior that allows the hoarding disorder to worsen over time, especially if the hoarding disorder isn’t dealt with or treated properly.

Behaviors that fall under this category include excessive shopping, difficulty throwing things away or letting things go, and an overwhelming sense of anxiety when it comes time to part with certain items. It doesn’t matter if you live in a studio apartment or 6-bedroom house, you need to draw the line at some point.

As far as the house is concerned, there will be minimal clutter with a ‘level 1 hoarder,’ the entryways, stairways, and hallways are all accessible, you won’t notice any odors throughout the home, and you won’t find animal waste throughout the home (maybe in 1-2 areas).

While there isn’t much direct damage to anything here (maybe financially, if it’s due to shopping), it’ll be easier to kick the disorder when detected in the early stages (such as this one).

Stage 2: Clutter & Lack Of Cleanliness

Once someone is considered a ‘level 2 hoarder,’ you notice some of the home's characteristics and indications. The behaviors they were experiencing in the previous stage are finally affecting outside parts of their life.

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Clutter is still kept to a minimum, but it’s definitely there. It might be confined to one room, one walkway, or one blocked exit, but it’s enough for the hoarder to feel embarrassed with themselves when others catch a glimpse of it.

In addition to the clutter starting to form, there’s generally a limited amount of housekeeping happening inside the home. Floors are dirty, counters are dirty, dust is starting to form, and light mildew presents itself.

Hoarders in this stage might also have a broken appliance or utilities that aren’t working properly. It won’t be enough to completely ruin the living experience inside the home, but it would start to make other people feel uncomfortable -- especially if they were forced to live there (children).

Stage 3: Rodents & Odors Add To The Frustration

By the time someone is considered a ‘level 3 hoarder,’ the hoarding disorder is visibly affecting their lives and their home -- more than the typical person. Personal hygiene starts to become an issue, the hoarder might be struggling with their weight, and mental health is starting to diminish.

The clutter is only getting worse, and the lack of housekeeping is starting to take a toll on the home. Odors start to take over the home, rodents are making themselves at home, the home is infested with insects, multiple rooms are unusable due to clutter, multiple appliances are broken, and it’s starting to become difficult to walk around.

At this point, the ‘level 3 hoarder’ is often so embarrassed about their situation (or sick of having people judge them) that they start to distance themselves from the outside world. This has an effect on the mental health of the hoarder, as well as their ability to form healthy relationships with others.

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This is also where people start to move out if the hoarding disorder is too much to deal with. Divorces start to occur, children don’t want to live there, and families are ruined.

Stage 4: Sewage Issues & Animal Waste

A ‘level 4 hoarder’ is largely characterized by further damage to the home. Mold and mildew are starting to form throughout the home, you’ll start to notice structural damage to the home, and there might be sewage backup in one or more areas.

Animal waste is another issue in this stage, especially as rodents and insects continue to make themselves at home. Since housekeeping is a thing of the past, animal waste isn’t getting cleaned up and leads to more animal infestation. Not only that, but the food is starting to rot, especially in the kitchen.

There will be several blocked exits, there might be a few rooms with limited clutter, but the rest is unusable, and it’s extremely difficult to walk through the home. If anyone else was living there at this point, they likely keep to themselves and have their own designated area where they stay. They also likely try to leave home as much as possible.

Stage 5: Structural Damage & Loss of Utilities

A ‘level 5 hoarder’ is the most severe stage of a hoarding disorder. By now, it’s tough to live inside the home, and it might even be deemed unlivable in some extreme cases. Either way, a ‘level 5 hoarder’ needs serious help when recovering from the disorder.

While serious help is needed, that’s not to say they can’t get it. However, it’s important to understand that there will likely be severe structural damage to the home and many difficult decisions need to be made.

There might be damaged walls, fire hazards throughout the home, major clutter in every room of the home, animal waste, human waste, limited (if any) electricity, or running water. Nearly every exit is blocked. Of course, the odors would be at their worst as well.

When Is It Time To Seek Help?

As you can see from the many different hoarding categories and hoarding levels, this disorder can affect your life in a wide variety of ways. From your own quality of life to the quality of life in others, and the structural integrity of your home, your entire life changes when living with a hoarding disorder.

Simultaneously, not many people understand when it’s time to seek help, and it’s a big reason why these cases generally go undetected or not dealt with properly. To avoid that, let’s take a look at some of the warning signs to keep an eye out for when it comes to a hoarding disorder.

  • When hoarding starts to affect your quality of life, it’s time to begin seeking help or relief from the disorder. This presents itself in a loss of utilities, lack of space inside the home, financial distress, and much more.
  • If you’re having a hard time keeping your home up-to-date when it comes to code violations, then it’s time to start seeking help. Animal waste, rodent infestations, blocked exits, mold, and fire hazards are unsafe for anyone to live in.
  • If you’re facing eviction due to your hoarding disorder, then you need to seek help immediately. Anytime the hoarding starts to affect your neighbors, landlords, or roommates, it’s been taken too far.
  • Anytime the hoarding disorder starts to affect the individual's mental health or the individual’s loved ones, it’s time to seek professional help -- especially since most hoarding disorders are met with OCD, depression, and other mental disorders.

If you or someone you love is starting to experience any of the above symptoms, help is needed immediately. It doesn’t matter where they fall on the hoarding scale. The main goal at that point is to prevent it from getting any worse.

Now that you understand the different hoarding levels, you can properly start to detect it in yourself and in your loved ones. Awareness goes a long way, especially when dealing with a disorder that receives as little attention as the hoarding disorder.

Of course, we completely understand if you’re still having difficulty detecting a hoarding disorder in yourself or someone you know. To ensure everyone has access to the right resources when dealing with this disorder, we’ve created an online hoarding disorder test available to anyone that wants to take it!

At Mind Diagnostics, we take pride in helping others receive the help they need when they need it most. That’s why we’re so excited to offer this comprehensive hoarding disorder test, but we don’t stop there. We also help you find the right therapist or professional to further assist your recovery from this disorder.

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Feel free to contact us today if you have any questions or check out all the other available tests.