How to Deal with a “Packrat”

One thing I hear from a lot of my clients is that they have a messy house, but it isn’t their fault.  They are fairly neat and organized themselves, but they have the misfortune to live with someone who is a “collector”, a “packrat” or maybe even someone with mild hoarding tendencies.  This can cause serious strain to the relationship – sometimes on a daily basis.  

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Side note: If you are dealing with a legitimate hoarder personality, you probably need to get some professional help involved.  This is a serious mental condition that cannot be cured with bandaid solutions from the Internet.  

We lived across the street from a fairly serious hoarder for many years and I always felt so sorry for her.  She was a very nice lady, but spent nearly every waking moment arranging and rearranging her treasures, (mostly broken items from garage sales and thrift stores).  The sad part was that even though she eventually lost her home over hoarding issues, it didn’t seem to me that she ever got any pleasure from the things she had.  I knew her for about 20-something years and I never saw her have a truly happy moment.

But in this case, we are talking about a garden variety case of packrat-itis or someone who likes to collect large quantities of certain items.  For my husband, it was model train stuff.  In our previous house, he had probably two 10 X 12 rooms completely devoted to his train collection, his enormous layout, and associated supplies.  He also had train pictures and other memorabilia scattered throughout the house.  I wouldn’t have minded so much, but his interest in it was verging on lukewarm, at best.  He might get them out and actually do something with it like every other month, and I wasn’t OK with such a large chunk of our living space being devoted to something that he wasn’t spending time with at least every week or so.  

So, how DO you deal with a situation like this?  Well, part of it is just having some honest conversations about it.  And by that, I DON’T mean fighting, or arguing about it, or criticizing him for his choices.  Instead, you need to find a time when you can have a respectful conversation about his wants and needs, vs. your wants and needs.  Most of the time people are pretty reasonable if you come to them with a ideas on how you can be fair to both of you.  

In our case, my point was that I didn’t feel it was fair that we were devoting about 20% of our available space to his hobby that he didn’t use very often, while my stamping hobby which I did do all the time, only had about 5% of the available space.  He agreed (a little reluctantly) that it wasn’t a very fair situation. 

So, I threw out a little bait – something that he really wanted – a big screen TV.  I didn’t particularly want one and we didn’t have the money for it, but we agreed that if he was willing to sell a portion (not all) of his train collection, he would be able to use it to buy his TV and put it in the place his layout had been.

“You respect his (or her) desire to collect these items, but you get them to agree to reasonable limits

The important points were that I didn’t insist he give up his entire collection, I gave him the incentive of an item he really wanted, and I didn’t get all huffy and demanding.  Instead, I appealed to his sense of fairness and asked for him to work with me on creating a reasonable solution.  It’s all about compromise and reasonable concessions.  We put an ad on Craigslist and in about a week, two guys with trucks showed up and carted off the whole layout, along with a sizable portion of the train collection.  That one transaction netted him about 3/4 of the money for the TV, and I ran some Ebay auctions for some other train stuff to help him get the rest of it.  

Then when we were planning to move into a new larger house the following year, we had some further negotiations on how to allocate our new space.  I would have one entire spare bedroom for my stamping business and my monthly classes (with paying customers), but I would keep all my stamp-related items contained in that single room.  And he would have an entire section of the basement for his memorabilia with large closets to hold his remaining train collection.  He agreed that anything that didn’t fit into his designated space would have to go.  

I think that is a key point with a collector.  You respect his (or her) desire to collect these items, but you get them to agree to reasonable limits.  If they want to collect magazines, they can keep as many as will fit on this shelf.  Or if it’s frogs or pigs or whatever, they can have enough to fill up this display area.  They may not turn the whole house into their little hog heaven.  They have to respect the fact that non-frog lovers live in the house too, and that they deserve room to display items that reflect their own personality. 

It’s generally best to allow a collector to make those decisions for themselves.  The one thing you should NEVER do is try to force them into a decision by packing their stuff up and removing it without their knowledge or permission.  That is extremely disrespectful and damaging to the relationship.  How would you like it if someone came in and threw out all your favorite clothes, or arbitrarily jettisoned half the food in your pantry?  You would be furious and would probably waste no time (or money!) in replacing it. 

“The one thing you should NEVER do is try to force them into a decision by packing their stuff up and removing it without their knowledge or permission”

However, if you do find your collector is dragging their feet on the weed-out process after you have already agreed to it, then you have some passive-aggressive behavior going on.  The best way to deal with that kind of behavior is head-on.  You set a firm date (giving them a reasonable amount of time) and let them know if they don’t honor their agreement by that date, that you will carefully pack up the items yourself and move them to a storage area like a garage or storage shed.  You aren’t getting rid of the items in a permanent way, but you are reclaiming the space that was agreed upon.  

If the collector does request your help in organizing their treasured items, be gentle.  Don’t wade into it wrinkling up your nose and making snide comments about “this old junk”.  Help them find the treasures by asking them to pick out their top 10 items that they value the most.  Then set up a place of honor to display these items.  They will appreciate the gestures and might be more willing to get rid of some of the less treasured items.  It’s a process and you want to give them lots of credit for any positive steps they are taking to improve the situation.  

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  1. Yes, this can be a tricky situation, Adrian. I find most of my clients who are part of a couple have one person who is more likely to hold onto stuff, and one who prefers to shed stuff. All these things are negotiated, and that is a key point you are making. Also, if you are struggling to negotiate, another option is to call in a professional organizer who can sort of help to arbitrate. I so agree with your point about not throwing someone else’s belongings away. That is very hurtful and can’t end well!

    • Yes Seana – I agree. I had a couple I was working with that was in this situation and it was really uncomfortable. I was able to ease them through the situation, but it felt a little precarious. But absolutely, throwing someone else’s belongings away is really hurtful and will be remembered for a long time.

  2. Good points – my husband has a great sentimental attachment to things which I do not share. I have to respect that his things mean something to him even though they do not have any particular value to me.

    • That’s a great attitude to have. Hopefully he is showing his appreciation by keeping his “collection” in good order and out from underfoot.

  3. I’ve never been a pack rat, but right before I married my second husband and we were merging houses, he decided to “purge” some of my stuff. I should have known right then and there of things to come. We live and learn! Great advice in this piece! Stopping by from SITS. :)

  4. Oh I am the someone who cant let go! Our place is full of most of my stuff and a tiny fraction of it belongs to my husband. Agh. I take after my dad..he is a packrat too. Sometimes I get on a roll with getting rid of stuff but some things I just cant part with. My tub of Sacramento Kings stuff. Baby Beanies. Childhood items. Oye

    • Hi Stace! You might want to check out my post It is tough for these spouses. Hopefully you can clear out a little “oasis” for him, so he can have a spot in the house where he can be comfortable. As for the STUFF – keep the “treasures” that have true meaning for you but keep it in one contained area and out of sight. Maybe keep *some* of it for the memories and release the rest. Then minimize your investment in other clutter categories that don’t have as much of meaning for you. Your husband might not say much but inwardly, he will appreciate the effort!

  5. Boy, I live with someone who can’t let go…. Four weeks ago the basement flooded, it was the best thing to happen to us. In order to get the basement he wants, he now has to de-clutter, yea ME!!!!!!! We start this weekend with a little at a time!!!! I am so excited!!!

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