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The Collyer Brothers and Cluttering Vs. Hoarding

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Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

By Bill Primavera

Just recently when I referred to the Collyer brothers with a young couple, I was surprised to find that they were unaware of the reference.

For anyone else who hasn’t heard of that famous name associated with hoarding in the home, it was an historic case dating to 1947 involving the deaths of two eccentric brothers who lost their lives as the result of hoarding in their mansion at Fifth Avenue and 128th Street in Manhattan.

The obsessive duo had collected and hoarded books, furniture, musical instruments and myriad other items, with booby traps set up in corridors and doorways to ensnare intruders. Ultimately, those booby traps contributed to their own demise. When their home was emptied after their deaths, more than 140 tons of items were removed.

It has been many years since I encountered a genuine case of hoarding. Early in my real estate career, I encountered what had to be one of the most severe cases in Westchester. It was truly bizarre, where the collected junk extended beyond the house into the front and back yards, which had been encircled with chain-link fencing. There was just a very narrow path through the front yard leading to the front door and, once the door was pushed open, a visitor could only stand and look beyond the accumulated piles of junk into the rooms. There were also cats and dogs in the house, which were not properly tended to, so the smell was unbearable.

To my amazement, the house, which was priced well below market value, sold quickly and a brave soul, a contractor, tackled the job and turned the disaster into a winning starter home. It was put on the market for rental, and I knew the family that lived there quite happily as its first residents.

It may seem an extreme statement to say that lives can be lost through hoarding, but indeed it happened not long ago in my hometown. A fire broke out in a house and firefighters were unable to access a bedroom because the hallway was blocked with hoarded belongings. The homeowner perished.

I raise this topic because of an ad I from Bill Pope of Spotless Cleaning, whom I had once hired for carpet cleaning. In the ad, he noted that he had added de-cluttering, including from hoarding, to his mix of services.

“In the past few years, I’ve seen maybe 10 cases of extreme hoarding in this area,” Pope said, “but more and more, we have customers coming to us, asking for help in de-cluttering and organizing. One of our people, my wife actually, visits clients on a regular basis to help them cope with organizing things and letting go.”

And therein lies the difference, according to psychologists, between hoarders and those who clutter. Hoarders can’t let go of things, but those who clutter can let go if they set up a routine.

The Popes seem to be experts on organization. Their website,, contains information on organizing the home. The first advisory is to start with a small success, adjusting the big (cluttered) picture downward to focus on one small, solvable problem like clearing a single drawer or de-cluttering a shelf that has been nagging at you.

One small success can bring motivation for the long haul.

Interestingly, Pope relates clutter tolerance to a fever cycle, much like the flu. Sometimes the cluttered household will become intolerable, prompting a fiery but ultimately short-lived anti-cluttering effort.

“Just as clutter arises gradually, over time, it must be fought gradually and over time,” he said. “It requires building new habits, applying new organizational methods and creating new household routines.  The clutter cure takes time and can’t be shortened.

“It’s like the fable of the tortoise and the hare,” Pope continued, “slow and steady wins the de-clutter race.”

I am so happy that I can pass on this information about support for those who have a problem. I remember many years ago when I first started writing this column, I received an anonymous call from a woman who sounded desperate, saying she was aware that she needed help in this area. At the time, there was scant information I could give her for consultation.

For those who may be having issues with clutter or hoarding, give Spotless Cleaning Systems a call for a consultation at 914-225-6449.

While Bill Primavera, The Home Guru, enjoys a career as a writer and publicist, he is a Realtor® with William Raveis Real Estate, specializing in upper Westchester and Putnam Counties.  To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.




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