Do Unto Others

It was actually the second time I had been to the property.  The first was one week prior.  The homeowner had met me at the door and informed me that she could not let me in that day.  There was not more explanation than that.  Strange, but oh well.


My office set up another appointment and I was back, seven days later, at the same door.  After I knocked, she opened the door, came outside, and promptly closed the door behind her.  Now, it was just her and I on the front porch.  Again, a little strange, but I have seen crazier things.  “I can’t let you in,” she began, “until I warn you.”appraiser Hoarders


Oh boy, here it comes, I thought.


“Do you know that show on TV about the hoarders?”   


I nodded, apprehensively, that I did.


“Well, I have come to the devastating conclusion that that is me.  I am one of those hoarders.”  


I could tell she was embarrassed and just beside herself with what to do.  On the one hand, she wanted the loan and that required allowing an appraiser to tour her home.  On  the other hand, she was terribly humiliated by having me there.  I assured her that I had been doing this gig for 20 years and had seen it all.  She had nothing to be worried about.  


Honestly, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on the inside.  There were stacks of garbage in every room.  There was a small pathway that led from the Lazy-Boy in the front room to the kitchen, back to the bathroom, and finally to a bed.  There was so much junk in this house that it was impossible to get around well.  There was cat feces littering the floor, moldy food on the countertops, and the smell was something indescribable.  


The poor lady followed me around apologizing for everything I was seeing and experiencing.  I kept reassuring her that it was okay, but the “I am sorry’s,” and “please forgive me’s” just kept coming.  Finally, near the end of the inspection, I stopped what I was doing, turned to her, looked her in the eyes and said, “My dear, you do not need to apologize.  Your home is your home.  I am simply a real estate appraiser who is here doing my job.  I make no judgement on you or your circumstances.  I learned a very long time ago that I am in no place to judge another’s heart or situation.  I do not know you.  I don’t have any idea what experiences you have had, and frankly, I it is none of my business.  My business is to walk through your home, make some notes, take a few pictures, and be on my way.  I do not and will not judge you.”  


That is all it took.  Her body relaxed.  Her tone of voice changed, and we spoke no more of her home’s condition from there on.  Instead, we had a pleasant conversation about her husband who had passed on a few years earlier.  I did not gain a new friend.  I probably will never see her or interact with her again, but we had a new understanding.

It is easy, as appraisers, to get so involved in racing from one appointment to another to forget that we are not just professionals; we are human beings.  Furthermore, we are intruding on people’s personal space.  We are in their most private and intimate areas; their homes.  It is already a difficult place for most people to be in.  When we make that short time with them together memorable, it might just make someone else’s day.  

24 thoughts on “Do Unto Others”

  1. Pingback: Do Unto Others - Appraisal Buzz

    1. Excellently worded comments to the homeowner, Dustin. When setting an appointment I always mention that personal property has nothing to do with value and then I’m looking for the condition of the kitchen bathroom flooring Etc. Most of the time that appeases them, but there is once in awhile, when a borrower refuses to let me photograph aspects of the house. Thank you for your dignified comment, I might just copy you next time. –sonja, san jose, ca

  2. How do you deal with situations where you have the double-edged sword of professional privacy and what may be a legal obligation of reporting situations, such as the one you spoke of, to DHS and/or the SPCA?

    1. Research, observe and report, analyze its effect on value, provide an opinion. I have discovered in my years a few of these types of home. I approach then the same way.

    2. I feel no obligation ever to report anything to SPCA. I’m just an appraiser. If I see something drastic such as child abuse, that’s one thing. But I’m not concerned about any cats living in their feces. There are bigger dogs to fry, pun intended.

    3. Tom, we have all had similar cases. If not hoarders, other atypical conditions. I HAVE to report the conditions observed OBJECTIVELY and without editorial opinions to my client. I then have to evaluate and report the impact on value and marketability. If it is a reasonably correctable condition, then I can estimate a cost to cure; or adjust for as is.

      I am not a code enforcement officer. I am not employed by DHS/DCFS or SPCA. Nor do I have an overwhelming compulsion to stick my nose into other people’s private business. I am ALSO bound by USPAP confidentiality requirements NOT to disclose non public private information. While some cities actually have personnel that will assist (repeat, ASSIST) such homeowners; most do not. To subject someone to the full force of a punitive legal system when they already clearly have emotional or mental issues that result in the hoarding in the first place, is just added cruelty. Enforced mental health care is an abysmal failure in America today. Dustin’s comments about NOT judging the person are spot on. We have not walked in their shoes and we were NOT HIRED to judge them!

      When you see a homeless person walking a dog tied to a rope, do you turn them into SPCA? The only exceptions to not reporting in my opinion would be definite unmistakable signs of physical abuse of another human being. Animal crap on the floor is not cruelty to animals. Beating a dog up or chaining them outside starving with no food or water would be; though junk yard dogs are often kept hungry on purpose. Most people can tell the difference between real abuse that must be reported, and subjective “perceived abuse by liberal do-gooder standards” which can actually result in far more serious harm to children when DCFS becomes involved.

      IF you absolutely MUST ‘get involved’ why not be honest and ask the person if they have ever tried to get a little assistance in resolving the issue? If they seem receptive but are afraid of city code violation fines, etc., then if you care SO much, why not offer to pay to have hauler-handymen come carry away all the debris? My rationale is that unless you care so much that you would personally be willing to pay to help a fellow human being get back on track, that you probably also don’t care enough to really need to report it.

      Human beings are not as civilized as many would have us think. Having animals in the house in some countries IS typical. Their droppings are not necessarily cruelty, though sanitation is certainly questionable. I once did a duplex that was bootlegged into four units. Tub poured directly to the dirt underneath. Im not sure where toilet went to. Disclosure DID kill the loan, but if I ALSO reported it to the city, the Asian refugee and her five children that had already suffered under Pol Pot, would have been homeless. By the way, the rest of the interior was spotless and well cleaned by the tenant. The tenant lived there because it was all she could afford. Period.

  3. Tonia Muckenthaler

    We are human, it is hard to not feel empathy for people and their situations, as we should. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I had almost the exact same situation. It was a fathers house that had passed away and his son kept apologizing for the condition of the house. Paths to the recliner, refrigerator, TV, bathroom and bed. There were stacks of magazines, mail, news papers and record albums everywhere. His wife passed away 8 years ago and her clothes were still in the closet. The father had lived through the Depression. However, the son said that “this wasn’t the worst part”, I couldn’t imagine what more could be worse. He said that his father used to put $10 and $20 bills in between magazine and news paper pages “just in case”. He has to go through every book, magazine and news paper in the house before cleaning it out. That was 9 years ago. I’m not sure if he’s done yet!

  5. That’s funny I just went to a property this week same condition I contacted the lender and they cancelled the loan I just charged a trip fee because it was an FHA loan and unable to see enough of the house with weeds up to the roof to be able to give a good explanation and final value to the property the lender just cancelled it I felt sorry for the lady but the smell was overwhelming.

  6. “I was unable to determine the condition of the carpets because they were substantially covered with personal property. I was unable to examine the lower half of the walls for the same reason. Kitchen appliances could not be assessed for operability and condition because access was obstructed by personal property.

  7. In terms of appraisal, hoarders are the extreme reminder of something I try to remember on every inspection, it can be unnerving to have a stranger come through your personal space; which is true no matter how a person keeps it. Hoarders in my experience, without exception, always say “I’m working to get rid of this stuff”. Funny though, when it comes to apologies, I get more apologies when the homes are so clean and tidy that barely a pen can be found out of place. I’ve had a few of the extreme hoarder cases, where the stuff is stacked to the ceilings in each and every possible room with only a thin pathway leading around the house. For the most part, it is easy to use an assumption in a report that the areas behind the stuff are in good order (which they probably are considering they are protected by belongings). For FHA where the appraiser is also verifying certain property conditions, it gets a bit trickier. The one FHA I had ended up getting canceled by the lender after I told them I would not be able to write the report without the assumption.

    All sorts of varying degrees of hoarders. Are they any more “sick” than the person that obsesses over a speck of dust instead of nurturing their family relationships? I think we all have our “sicknesses” and what is taboo or not is reflective of the times. In your case Dustin where the person is living in garbage and feces, I think that rises to the level of being a health hazard to the occupant (and visitors) and a security issue to the lender. Its one thing to not be able to let go of a dress, its another thing to not be able to let go of poop. Contacting social services is a tough call. Is it more caring to be respectful of privacy and personal rights or is it more caring to instigate the help that the person will never instigate for themselves?

    1. Always a tough call. Do they have family? It is almost NEVER better to call city / county agencies because they take the bureaucrats heavy hand approach. (1) Establish that health and safety hazard exists (legal action); (2) They issue cease and desist or compliance orders subject to fines, etc. (3) The hoarders “best friend” (cat or dog) may be taken away because it has no license or proof of shots. That may push them over the edge. (4) The city may issue condemnation orders. (5) YOU may get sued! You entered the house for the sole purpose of appraising the property, then “betrayed” the owners trust and privacy. Back in the days when we were allowed to talk about churches or recognize needs they fulfilled, one could contact a local church and possibly arrange for help, but not anymore. Beware of “do-gooders”. They do what they do to make themselves feel good (or possibly superior) regardless of the impact they have on others.

  8. I had one like this on a refinance. Once the underwriter saw the pictures, she required that the house be cleaned up!. I tried to get out of doing the final inspection but had to go back and retake the interior photos! The house was cleaned up, probably for the first time in years.

  9. PS. I read your post again. I would contact social services as the human thing to do. If I was a really good human being myself (which I am not sure I always am, but certainly have my moments) I might offer to help clean the place out too.

  10. I have encountered an identical situation. I was very careful and thoughtful when composing my narrative and taking photographs.. I included commentary like “appraiser was unable to view floor coverings or observe/test appliances and fixtures due to personal items”. Actually, it was trash, animal feces, and dirty clothes. As tubs and showers were piled several feet high with dirty clothes and trash, I was unable to observe much of the bathroom. The dishwasher was in pieces and the kitchen sink had 3 feet of soiled dishes. The extra bedroom was actually a litter box for cats. As the floor coverings, appliances, bathroom fixtures were either worn out, broken, or at the end of their economic life, I felt that the homes condition impaired its functional utility, hence the C5 rating. This created a significant issue for the borrower who responded with the typical “incompetent appraiser” rhetoric. I received several abusive phone calls claiming discrimination of the mentally ill from the borrower and fielded several additional requests for comments and clarifications. If you encounter a home in similar condition, I would politely decline the assignment.

  11. You can not report because you are giving out private information. Privacy includes the homeowner. They know their circumstances and the underwriter that made the person clean the house was the best option. They clean, you do not give out personal private information, and all things turn out better. This was explained to me when I was going to report to the County of San Diego. Funny on the 2nd one I did for an estate appraisal, the son had to worn me not to go to the middle of the upstairs room as I might fall through the floor. !0′ ceiling below in a 1910 Victorian. It is just part of the job sometimes.

  12. In my 40 years of appraising I have seen lots of homes with poor housekeeping of many levels of tidiness, including some hoarder homes. If there was a child or elderly person in the hoarder home Dustin described, I would report it to the appropriate agency. I make assumptions about condition that I cannot see. I typically assuming the home needs new floor coverings and interior paint, the condition without all the stuff. If it is FHA and you cannot access appliances, for example, it would be different. I don’t know FHA policies on hoarders and very messy homes. The lender/underwriter would have to make the decision if enough was visible to proceed with the loan. What I really don’t like is appraisers making disparaging remarks about untidy homes, of all levels of messiness. You are inside their homes and should respect the occupants.

    1. I agree with Ann, and love learning from her years of experience! Every hoarder’s home I’ve ever appraised has had some brief description and assumption stating that the majority of the living area is not visible from a physical walk through (or inspection, or observation, or whatever other phrase you choose to use). The point is, we are to some degree ‘inspectors’ for the lending institution, and due to the vast extent of personal items and debris from floor to ceiling throughout the house, we cannot properly perform that inspection/observation. I too make assumptions about wall coverings and floor coverings.

  13. Good story, Dustin. For much of that story, I thought you were talking about me like you’d been spying on me during one of my inspections. 🙂 I think anyone doing this for a decent amount of time (I’m in my 15th year) has seen a hoarder’s house or two. I think you handled this situation perfectly, and we would all do well to remember not to judge another. Heaven knows I wouldn’t want people judging me and my life without knowing all the facts and circumstances I’ve faced and the challenges and trials I’ve gone through. We’re all a product of those experiences, so we would all do well to remember that before passing judgment.

    1. Dustin and Jacob said it all. It’s easy to Judge others, but not yourself. Unless you have been in their shoes, move on
      to the next inspection. Report what? leave the poor lady alone!

  14. No offense to any homeowner with this sort of issue, but I would not even enter a house with this extreme an issue. I would kindly explain this to the homeowner and notify the lender and decline the assignment, simple as that. As far as any animal cruelty or neglect sort of issues you damn right I’m notifying the SPCA or local Humane Society. That person’s “privacy” ends where any sort of animal or child neglect or cruelty issue is concerned.

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