Appraisers see the results of a hoarder’s life, often in dramatic fashion. A recent estate appraisal brought me to a great looking colonial house in New England. It had the exterior appearance that salivated my glands as an expert valuator of American Federal furniture and early 19th century accessories. The only problem was getting in the front door since a large dumpster had been parked there, in the process of being filled to the brim with objects too numerous and unrecognizable to mention.
Apparently, we weren’t first on the scene. The executor had hired three or four friends to plow their way through the front hallway and create a path through the canyons of chattels that had piled up over decades of “collecting.” This appeared to be no ordinary mess, but a rather controlled accumulation of pretty good items including Chinese export porcelain, rare books, and thousands of framed American prints from Currier and Ives to John James Audubon.
Our task was to attempt to inventory and appraise the entire personal property for the intended use of filing an IRS Form 706 (the value of a decedent’s personal property at the time of death). This was significant since the estate had sizeable other assets and would undoubtedly be subject to estate tax.
The effort was compounded by the fact that the deceased had created such crowded conditions in the house that he could no longer live there. (The kitchen was almost impossible to reach.) He had proceeded to rent a room at a local motel and used the house as a storage facility. The problem became worse when he discovered that his motel room was filling up and there was little room to move around. So, he rented another room and just moved his toiletries one door over. This pattern was repeated until he was paying for 4 rooms, domiciled to the last one.
Since some of the items he bought were big, bulky, or just wouldn’t fit anywhere, he did rent a storage facility, temperature controlled and of the highest standard, but that also became too small, however, and the pattern continued with him renting 3 units. In addition, a tractor trailer (minus the tractor) became available to store books-everything from dime novels to rare first edition works of high quality.
Our job was intense, intriguing, and interesting. It involved numerous staff appraisers, an unusual custom-made spreadsheet inventory, and months of both on-site and office research and analysis.
This is not the “normal” hoarding situation, however. Most hoarders collect or can’t force themselves to throw away common, useless articles, items usually destined for the trash bin. I had one case where the bathrooms-both upstairs and down, were unable to be used because the deceased had stored empty cat food tuna fish tins and pairs of brand new hunting socks. Fortunately, they were not in the same bathroom. The empty tins had been thrown into the bathtub and had mounded at least five-foot high, cascading to the floor, making it impossible to reach, let alone use the commode. The other bathtub had hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of new gray heavy socks with the red bands at top. (Don’t know why and never figured it out.) A psychiatrist’s nightmare!
Another case dealt with many years ago was when I was an auctioneer. The deceased had indeed never thrown anything away. There were cupboards and cabinets full of household items, many of no value. However, we found a huge ball of tied cord, obviously created by tying ends of loose string together for future use. In another cabinet we found a shoebox, neatly labeled as follows: “string too short to save.”
The Germans have a name for hoarding. It’s called Plyuschkinhamster. It is a combination of the words “Plyuschkin” and “hamstern.” Apparently, the Russian equivalent for “hoarding disorder” is called the “Plyuschkin syndrome” based on a character created in a Russian novel by Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Plyuschkin is a miserable and lonely rich landowner who rejects human companionship but collects useless material. The animal most associated with hoarding in Germany is not the pack rat, a term we use regularly in English, but the hamster (hampstern). The meaning of hampstern is “to hoard.”
The American Psychiatric Association has now given this condition its own official diagnosis with the name Hoarding Disorder.
I am not a psychiatrist. I do not intend to offer professional advice as to its origin, causes, or treatment, but I am someone who has seen the results and must deal with putting an ordered conclusion and value to the property that has been amassed. Therefore, I feel confident suggesting some tips for those who might be dealing with such situations, particularly as executor, guardian, or attorney.
1. Immediately hire someone familiar with the hoarding syndrome who can determine at the outset whether there is a likelihood of hidden treasures amid the clutter. There are certain key ingredients in the type of material hoarded and these appraisers are familiar with them. One can tell whether there’s a chance of heirlooms, toys from early childhood, or rare comic books. One knows to visualize what would normally be in the house and then induce what has been added. (Sometimes the original furnishings can’t even be seen due to piles of stuff thrown on top.)
Things are often not where you think they should be. For example, people who like to hide money hide it in wild places. I’ve found money taped to the backs of plates hanging on the wall and in the back of old metal file cabinets stuffed with obsolete and messy files. It’s not where “normal” people hide money on television shows.
The appraisers may indicate that the property has little or no value and do not need an itemized valuation. Their task may be short and their opinions can back up any decisions made about liquidation or disposal. (This may be handy if the case is ever brought to court by belated surfacing heirs or relatives.)
2. The appraisers should provide guidance in terms of what can be immediately discarded and what should be maintained for future examination. They may suggest renting dumpsters and throwing out all paperware, empty household containers, and cardboard boxes. They may also determine that some of the “junk” has a scrap or salvage value and assist in converting it to cash. (Even cardboard has a value.)
We once cleaned out a house that required numerous dumpsters. The basement was filled to the ceiling with obvious trash. My people were told to be careful and look for the unknown. They filled three dumpsters and had nothing much to salvage, except a grotesque stoneware face jug, something that would have automatically been thrown over the top, probably with a laugh. We sold it at auction for over $12,000, with many national bidders.
3. Although any good appraiser will take numerous photographs, the executor or guardian should take many more. In fact, that’s the first bit of advice I would give: immediately take as many photographs as possible-even if it doesn’t seem worthwhile and even if an appraiser is being called. Document all actions-both in writing and with video proof.
4. Set aside any personal items or family mementos, even if thought to have no value. Heirs and relatives may see some sentiment, even if it has no monetary value. You may wish to store these items longer than seems necessary. One never knows when someone might turn up.
5. A good appraiser can provide an appraisal that conforms to IRS Regulations20.2031-1b, but also meets the needs of the client. Not everything needs to be itemized and not everything needs three pages of comparable sales to justify the value. Common sense and reasonableness are good touchstones and the IRS implores both, particularly if the estate is not monumental.
6. Do not sell items to a dealer, auctioneer, friend, or relative until an appraiser has examined the property. If nothing else, ask the appraiser to provide an initial walk-thru evaluation, indicating whether the property has any value potential and what type of work should be done. The appraiser should indicate a scope of work necessary to meet the needs. They may even provide options to assist in the overall disposal, liquidation, and settlement.
7. Do not hire an appraiser who wants to buy, sell, or dispose of the property. You want an unbiased opinion from someone who has no conflicts of interest in their agenda. Many appraisers work with auctioneers, collectors, and clean-out people, but have them provide a referral or ask for the names of more than one firm. Do one step at a time. The first is valuation.
Appraisers are warned that valuation services provided by them as professionals fall under the category of appraisal practice. As such they must conform to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice as promulgated by The Appraisal Foundation. Ask to see if they comply with that standard and have taken the latest updates (a two-year cycle of updates is required).