Hoarding: An Investigative and Insurance Policy Challenge
A water loss in a house affected by hoarding can be a major challenge to adjusters.
Hoarding is a concern to homeowners insurance and renters insurance providers, especially when damages or problems related to hoarding are not excluded in the policy. There are several important risks associated with hoarding.
- Excessive contents storage creates a trip hazard for the insured and their guests.
- Contents obstruct pathways for egress in case of an emergency.
- Fire hazards and increased fire risk are created by accumulated paper, plastic and flammable materials.
- Accumulated organic matter creates foul and putrid odors.
- Hoarders tend to conduct limited or delayed maintenance on critical roof, plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems.
- Excessive contents obscure water losses, roof leaks and exterior moisture penetration, causing extensive and longer-term damage.
- When a water loss is discovered, differentiating between pre-existing and new damage may be difficult if not impossible.
- Excessive contents diminish ventilation, limit evaporation, encourage moisture retention and microbial growth, and support insect and rodent populations.
- Indoor air quality is impaired, creating health concerns that the insured may associate with a loss rather than with pre-existing conditions.
Investigating a Water Loss in a Hoarder's Home
Most homes experience several isolated areas of water damage over one or two decades of ownership. Homes containing excessive contents pose an additional concern because the water loss is obscured and physically difficult to find. Investigative methods using visual clues, flashlights, moisture meters and infrared cameras are rendered ineffective when potentially damaged floors and walls are inaccessible. Under these circumstances, the investigator should begin by conducting an inventory of probable areas of water release. Bathroom vanities, kitchen cabinets, refrigerators and air handling units are likely candidates because they are frequently surrounded by contents and infrequently serviced (as in many homes).
Once a source is identified, however, hoarded contents often prevent access to adjacent areas and stymie an evaluation of the damage. Furthermore, most investigators do not intend to conduct extensive moving, categorizing or organizing of contents in an effort to delineate the damage. As a result, the investigator may overestimate the impact of a release or fail to differentiate between new and pre-existing damage. This dilemma can often lead to disputes over the extent of cleaning and restoration needed.
When the losses are interpreted as covered by the policy, an insurance provider may be compelled to repair, clean or replace the affected contents. However, determining the extent of cleaning and restoration needed is often imprecise without the removal of all contents. The impact of a water loss on porous or fabric-covered materials, for example, is complicated by pre-existing air quality conditions. Oftentimes, the home has experienced a restriction in air circulation, sustained humid conditions and other circumstances that favor evaporation and dehumidification. When the operation of an air conditioning system is limited or the unit is completely turned off, the interior space becomes damp, often attaining conditions near the dew point temperature during winter months. When this occurs, the impact of a short-term event can be misinterpreted because of long-term moisture accumulation and microbial growth. Differentiating between new and old damage can quickly evolve into a debate among experts.
There are a number of techniques available to determine the duration of water loss; most require careful examination of contents, building materials and fungal populations. Home interiors that experience sustained conditions of elevated humidity can support excessive microbial growth even when they do not contain excessive contents. When hoarding occurs, it is difficult to accept that microbial growth was not initiated well before a recent water loss.
A competent restoration plan requires unimpeded access to the damaged areas of the home. Accumulated items must be removed and categorized, and often a large percentage must be discarded. This becomes a delicate issue requiring cooperation and understanding among all parties and can be particularly nettlesome in a hoarding situation. From the perspective of the insurance provider, patience and respectfulness translate to time and added expense.
Implications of the Federal Fair Housing Act
In circumstances where the insured—the hoarder—is a tenant, the property owner must address problems of hoarding carefully because, under the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), the tenant may be entitled to protection no matter how the lease agreement is drafted. Two critical elements of the FHA are whether a tenant has a handicap or disability and whether the landlord discriminated against the tenant.
The FHA makes it unlawful to discriminate in the rental of housing or to otherwise make housing unavailable to a renter because of the renter's handicap. A handicap is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person's major life activities. This definition is purposefully broad because even the perception of a handicap is enough to meet the definition of disability under FHA. Hoarding is recognized as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and, as such, could be included under federal law as a disability.
The History of Hoarding
Hoarding has been an attribute of mankind for centuries and is defined by Frost and Gross as the excessive collection of useless items of limited value and the inability to discard them. References to hoarding occur in the earliest literature—for instance, in Dante Alighieri's 14th century poem Inferno. In the poem, Dante and a guide descend through nine circles of Hell, each involving increasingly harsh punishment. As they enter the fourth circle, two armies form a circle and clash, crashing stones against each other only to retreat and taunt, "Why do you hoard?" while the other side responds, "Why do you waste?" Charles Dickens seems to define hoarding in Bleak House, where in the shop, "Everything seems to be bought and nothing sold."
Hoarding is recognized as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that afflicts between 4% and 5% of the U.S. population. Normal behavioral sequence events are recognized as early as the age of two when children develop the rituals of eating, toilet training, and dressing. By age three, nearly 80% of children develop bedtime rituals of going upstairs, brushing their teeth, getting into bed, pulling down the window shade, kissing and saying "good night." Later, children establish regular sequences or the need to arrange items "just right" to satisfy a symmetrical pattern. This stage is followed by concerns for dirt and germs and, ultimately, the necessity to collect and store items of interest.
These behaviors are normal and culminate at the age of three. The characteristics of hoarding are different and tend to increase until age six, when as many as 60% of children display this trait. The hoarding behavior is typically manifested around age 14 when the behavior is mild. By the 20s and 30s, hoarding progresses to a moderate concern, becoming more severe in the 40s and 50s. Although women develop hoarding earlier than men, hoarding occurs more often in men than women.
Policy Coverage Concerns
In addition to the concerns surrounding the investigation of a loss, hoarding may give rise to potential coverage implications based on an insured's failure to comply with the policy's post-loss obligations. Standard homeowners policies contain defenses and exclusions to coverage based on an insured's neglect, failure to protect the property or improper maintenance. If the investigation of the loss reveals that the damage was caused or exacerbated by the hoarding, it may provide sufficient evidence to defend or exclude coverage for the loss. For example, if an insured suffers a water loss but neglects to remove any of the excessive contents in the property, it could lead to microbial growth as the excessive contents diminish ventilation, limit evaporation and encourage moisture retention. When investigating such situations, it is important that the adjuster or an engineer document the damage at the time of the loss to later compare with any future damage that may have resulted from the insured's failure to remove the excessive contents.
Further, when dealing with a hoarder, it may be difficult to determine whether the loss occurred within the policy period or pre-dated the policy's inception. With the excessive contents contained in the property, a loss may not be revealed until months or years after its initial occurrence. For an insurer, the investigation of the loss by a qualified individual is critical, as are a thorough review of any prior claims and inquiry of the insured to determine a specific timeline of events related to the loss.
Ralph E. Moon, Ph.D., is with HSA Engineers and Scientists in Tampa, Fla. Gina Clausen, Esq., is with Groelle and Salmon in Wellington, Fla.
The authors would like to thank the following colleagues who provided research support and editorial comments: Cathy Wilson, John Barkey, Jeff Wilemon and Brett Davis.