Sunday, November 03, 2013

How to Clear Out a Home

Recently I helped clutter a home so it could be sold. The three bedroom terrace house had been a family home for 30 years, with the children moving out some decades before.

There were therefore decades of possession, including items left behind by the children and some items never unpacked from the move in. As children moved out, their former bedrooms filled with discarded possessions, until much of the space was unusable.

Unfortunately the home had external storage sheds, which also filled with materials. The residents dealt with this by having an additional shed built in the back-yard which also filled with materials, and then added an extra storage unit. This compulsive hoarding had caused the family distress, but it was not until the property had to be made ready to be put on the market it was decided to deal with it.

Some tips for cleaning out a hoarder's house

Keep in mind that while now listed as a mental disorder, compulsive hoarding is just an extreme form of normal human behavior. Most hoarders do not recognize that their behavior is abnormal. Julie Pruitt Barry and Jean Kampas, of the the Real Estate/Land Use and Environmental Litigation practice group suggest landlords deal with tenants who hoard by working out a staged cluttering agreement with them.

With this form of harm minimization, the clutter is removed in stages and not completely removed. However, it may not be possible for the occupant to cooperate and the best you can do is get them out of the way, so they do not impede the cleanup (and do not suffer the anxiety of seeing all their "stuff" thrown out). Try to avoid the situation, which I found myself in, arguing over the value of retaining each of hundreds of plastic food containers. Reasoning with a hoarder does not work: they want to keep everything. I found I had to destroy and take away items such as plastic food containers, otherwise these would be retrieved.

Work in Stages

Clearing a home of stuff can appear an  overwhelming task. Try to work in stages, with aims for each one. The first will be to gain access to areas of the home, clearing a path so you can see what is there and also make it safe to move around.

I found it useful to clear a path to the back wall in a room, to where the items which had not been used for a long time were located. These items are least likely to be worth keeping (as no one has been able to get near them for decades). Then I worked forward to the more recently used items.

Wear Protective Clothing

Make sure you have a covered pair of stout shoes and other protective clothing (a pair of gloves, eye protection, dust mask). Apart from the risks from the accumulated items there will be dirt, dropping from vermin and the effects of the cleaning products you use.

Take Breaks

Apart from the hard physical labor, there is the emotional effect of going through large amounts of "stuff". You need to get out and take a break regularly. At one stage I tried to lift a teapot by the handle, but found I could not as my hands hurt from tearing up cardboard boxes.

Remove the Volume

It can be very time consuming going through items to decide what is important and what is not. So concentrate on getting rid of large items first, which will quickly reduce the bulk. Surplus furniture, storage cabinets and shelving units take up space and provide somewhere for smaller items to accumulate.

I found that about 20% of the space in the home was taken up by empty, or almost empty, containers. Typically there would be a large cardboard box, containing smaller boxes, with one or two small items inside. After emptying them, I suggest collapsing the smaller boxes (or tearing them up if there is a risk the hoarder will retrieve them) and putting them in the paper recycling. Use small clear zip-lock bags to hold items of value. This way you will be able to see what you have, whereas if you put them in a box, they will become invisible again. This can become a bit like a jigsaw puzzle: you find a small electrical cable, a few plastic parts, then the mobile phone, or camera they are for.

Rather than reuse cardboard boxes I found it useful to bring in new boxes for items to be kept. This way the items to be kept would not be mixed up with the material for disposal. Clothing, bed linen and other light items can go in large boxes, but books and the like should go in smaller boxes, otherwise these are too heavy to lift.

Reuse, Recycle

It is tempting to simply throw all the material which has not been used for decades in the rubbish. But rubbish disposal costs money and there are social and environmental benefits to reuse and recycling. I found about one third of the material to be thrown out had to go to landfill, of the rest half was plastic/metal and half paper/cardboard for recycling.

You can try selling items in good condition, but the effort in doing this may not be worth the money made and it can take a long time. Also you can offer items to friends, but then may be simply causing them a storage problem.

Charities will collect items which can be used in homes of their clients, or resold in stores. However, items must be in good condition and must be something people will want to use or buy. Most charities will not take mains powered electrical items, due to the need for safety checks. Some charities may not take flat pack furniture which has been disassembled.

Make sure you flatten boxes and plastic bottle as otherwise they will take up a lot of space in the recycling. I found that many small household appliances could be dissembled with a screwdriver and hammer. The plastic case and steel can go in the recycling, whereas the motors go into landfill. In the process of disassembling small appliances I found many were clogged with fluff and dust and showed signs of overheating: a good reason not to try and reuse them.

Have a Toolkit

If you are lucky, you will find tools to help with the work in the home. But you may need to bring your own. A folding multi-tool, with a set of pliers, screwdrivers and a blade is very useful. An electric screwdriver helps with disassembling flat-pack furniture. A hammer is needed for stuck parts. A hacksaw is useful for oversize items.

Have a Cleaning Kit

Wiping down items with a damp rag is a useful way to keep the dust under control. Floors will need vacuuming and sheds sweeping. Where there have been vermin, you will want to add some bl;each or other disinfectant to the water used for moping and wiping.

Mold on walls behind items can be removed with bleach. Remember to wear rubber gloves and eye protection.

Removing Dried Blu-Tack from Walls

To remove old dried Blu-Tack from walls I found a blade from a box-cutter worked well. Just pulling the Blu-Tack was no use as this took off the paint and part of the wall (there were several walls covered floor to ceiling with hundreds of items). Instead I held the blade at 30 degrees to the wall and cut the Blu-Tack off.

Holding the blade at 90 degrees, with a damp rag underneath, I scraped a think layer of paint off. Creme cleanser then took off the remaining stain. A wash with sugar soap over hte whole wall then removed any remaining residue. On plastered brick walls, this produced a near new finish. On less solid surfaces it was necessary to repaint (using paint, rollers, brushes and overalls found in the storage shed).

Using the Local Waste Collection

If you have the time you can make use of the local waste collection services. Offer to put out your neighbor's bins and fill them with your stuff in the process. Also I found the local waste transfer station charged for general household rubbish, but paper, plastic, computer, paint and chemical recycling was free. Local councils also have occasional collections for large items.

Pay to Have the Heavy Stuff Taken Away

After you have reused and recycled what you can, there will still be more than will fit in the bin or you can cart to the transfer yourself. You can pay a company to come and take away what is left. This is not cheap, but has the advantage that someone else does the heavy lifting for you.

Shred Records and Erase Computer Media

A major part of cleaning out is deciding what records to keep and what to throw out. As well as several cubic meters of paper records and photos, I had seven computers and thousands of floppy disks, CD and DVD-ROMs to deal with.

Much of the paper records turned out to be empty space and blank pages. Removing papers from plastic sleeves and under filled ring binders made the problem much more manageable.

Photographs were a problem as there is no good way to tell an important one from not. But as with paper records, removing excessive packaging makes the problem smaller.

Paper records which could be disposed of were shredded, where they contained private information.  A medium duty crosscut shredder worked well for this (I found two clogged light duty strip shredders amongst the household items).

Very old computers turned out to be easy to deal with: if the computer would not boot, then I removed any hard disk and put the rest in for recycling (Australia now has a national computer recycling scheme). To make the old hard disks unreadable I hammered a large chisel though the disk platter.

For the four working computers dealing with the user data was an impossible problem.  It was not possible to go through the hundreds of thousands of flies to work out what might be important. So instead I transferred all files to a USB external 2TB drive and a backup on an existing 1TB drive. In a sense this is a form of digital hoarding, just delaying the problem. But this reduces the physical volume of material to be kept, from the size of several large suitcases, to pocket size.

With data copied from the hard disks, I then erased disks, using a special program to overwrite them so the data could not be recovered. These computers were then ready for reuse or recycling.

Dealing with CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs was also an impossible problem. There was no way to check the contents of hundreds of disks. Instead I recycled the jewel cases and put the disks on spindles holding 50 or 100. This reduced the volume of material to a manageable level. Curiously while some of the Jewell cases had carefully prepared labels listing the contents, all those cases were empty, making them useless.

The thousands of floppy disks were another impossible problem. Those which appeared important were kept (even though there is probably no way to read them).  Surplus hard case 3.5 inch disks I put in a vice and cut thorough  with a hacksaw, to make unreadable. I found that I could pull the magnetic media out of a 5.25 inch disk with two fingers and then feed it into the shredder, but this proved tiring after a few hundred disks. Previously I have used a tape-eraser, which also works on floppy disks, but these appear to be no longer available.

Look to Your Own Hoarding Before Criticizing Others

It is easy to criticize the behavior of others, but all of us in a consumer society are at risk of being hoarders. After the experience of clearing out many cubic metres of "stuff" I found I had a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder: going into a retail store and looking at all the items stacked for sale I had a panic reaction, thinking of how hard they would be to dispose of.

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