DOROTHYtheORGANIZER talks Bedbugs! Hoarding Tips Too.

Bed Bug Supplement – The Clutter Conundrum

How to deal with clients’ overwhelming amount of stuff, and why you might not have to.

Tips for handling extreme clutter situations from the producer of “Hoarders.”PMPs aren’t hired to help people cull their clutter, but they can’t ignore the stuff either. Treatment success depends on effective site preparation, and clutter management is an essential part of that.In extreme situations, tenants even may be dealing with psychological issues that make parting with items especially difficult. What’s a PMP to do?Dorothy Breininger, president of Delphi Center For Organization www.CenterForOrganization.com

DOROTHYtheORGANIZER Featured In Pest Control Tech. Magazine

in Los Angeles and a producer and featured expert on the A&E TV Show “Hoarders,” advised using a five-point scale to gauge a client’s clutter situation before stepping foot in the residence.

PMPs or property managers should ask people which sentence best describes their home:

  1. There is no build-up of items, papers, etc., and it’s easy to access all the areas of the home.
  2. Some places have items ankle high.
  3. Some rooms have items knee high.
  4. Some areas have items waist high and it’s tough to get through these spaces.
  5. Some areas have items chest high and it’s very difficult to get through these spaces.

This measurement tool doesn’t accuse anyone of being a hoarder or clutter-er, said Breininger, and will help PMPs decide what steps to recommend before showing up for inspection or treatment, or whether they even want to get involved in the job.

Generally, tenants without clutter are capable of following prep instructions, whether in printed form or video, such as those on Bedbug.com. If the person is elderly, ill or disabled or has ankle-high clutter or more, she advises PMPs and property managers to call a professional organizer to sort things out and work with the person to develop an organization strategy. Organizers can be found by ZIP code on www.NAPO.net (National Association of Professional Organizers) and www.ChallengingDisorganization.org (Institute for Challenging Disorganization).

People don’t take kindly to being told something’s wrong with their behavior or their stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re a PMP, organizer or the law, you’ll likely encounter some resistance, said Breininger. Tell the tenant you’re not asking her to throw anything away, and you want her to be able to keep everything, but it needs to be decontaminated and she needs a strategy for organization going forward, she said. “It’s a tough space to be in.”

START A DIALOGUE. Handing off a sheet of preparation instructions won’t always be effective. “That’s a one-way communication with no feedback.”

The higher people rank on the scale, the more attached they are to the clutter, cautioned Breininger. When items reach waist high, “it is a hoarding situation.” This mental health problem affects people of all ages, socioeconomic and education levels.

Often hoarders cannot afford to pay the bill for pest management, and they will never be prepared for pest control to come in and treat. “It’s not the kind of client you want to get.”

The show Hoarders receives thousands of applications a week and deals with worst-case scenarios. In episode four from Season two, a family is forced to sleep outdoors due to hoarding made worse by bed bug and flea infestations.

Barry Beck, chief operating officer of Assured Environments in New York City, gets two to four hoarder/illness calls a month for its bed bug preparation service. Getting the site ready is “overwhelming to them, but it’s not overwhelming to our crews.”

On these extreme calls, Beck’s teams mostly work with property managers, who already have removed tenants. But on a recent job, both manager and tenant were present, with the manager telling the crew one thing and the tenant telling it another. “It finally worked out with the manager’s perseverance,” said Beck. “It’s not easy for anyone.”

Besides contact information for professional organizers and 800/Got-Junk, Breininger advised keeping the number of a hoarding therapist handy. Unless a therapist is on board, property managers will face the exact situation in six to 18 months. “It’s better for them to do the eviction sooner than later,” Breininger advised. Hoarding is a fire trap and public health issue, and in multi-unit housing “you’re impacting the entire building.”

Hoarding subjects a person to having a higher incidence of bed bugs, especially if items are taken off the street, said Jeff White, entomologist at BedBug Central/Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville, N.J. “The behavior goes with the bug.” However, he reminded, this behavior is the exception and he feels in most situations the focus on clutter is “slightly over-magnified.” — Anne Nagro

Anyone doing bed bug work knows how difficult treatment is when a residence is filled to the rafters. Clutter makes gaining access difficult, provides harborage for the tenacious pests and can limit traditional control success.

“Most of us are hoarders to some extent,” admitted Larry Pinto of Pinto & Associates and publisher of Techletter.com. From the overly accessorized to the unhealthy pack rat, we keep things that hold memories or someday could be useful. Often people have no way to de-clutter without throwing things out, and getting them to do this can be a real challenge.
Clutter occurs in all income brackets and may be particularly American, said Dr. Dini Miller of Virginia Tech. At a Southeast Asian pest management conference she showed attendees photos of a highly cluttered apartment and no one had ever seen anything like it. When asking pest management professionals in the United States the same question, every hand went up.

Some — particularly the elderly, ill and disabled — are physically unable to perform the demanding tasks involved in prep work.

Regardless, traditional bed bug treatment is “dead in the water” without cooperation, said Pinto, who added heat treatment may be the PMP’s only option.

To address this, some professionals are taking a low-prep approach to treating mild infestations. Others are turning to bed bug preparation services or adding this service to their repertoire.

Less Prep = More Control. To prepare a site for bed bug treatment, many professionals require tenants to empty closets and dressers, pull furniture away from walls and flip up mattresses. Not BedBug Central/Cooper Pest Solutions.

“We have tenants leave everything where it is,” said Entomologist Jeff White. “All we want them to do is clean their apartment or home.”

Otherwise, people scatter the pests. You enter the apartment and see a pile of items in the living room, and all that stuff came from under the bed. With tenants doing prep work. pest management professionals can lose control of the infestation, White explained.

It’s also “cruel and unusual punishment,” he said. Laundering everything in your home just because there might be a bed bug somewhere takes a lot of time, effort and money. Plus, “it never gets done anyway!”

In low-level infestations, “clutter really shouldn’t come into play because the bed bugs theoretically shouldn’t be in the clutter yet.” Taking a limited approach to prep has “worked very well for us,” said White.

But with moderate- or high-level infestations, which make up about 30 percent of bed bug jobs, he said, clutter can stand in the way of success.

The Heavy Lifting. That’s why some pest management professionals are hiring outside services like Prep 4 Bed Bugs in Bronx, N.Y.

The company helps tenants rid and dispose of clutter, vacuums, steam cleans, moves furniture away from walls, removes outlet plate covers, wipes down surfaces, encases mattresses, and moves clothing to a warehouse where it’s treated in a heat chamber and stored until the residence gets the all clear. The company recently heat-treated and stored a customer’s 6,000 books.

This allows pest management professionals to focus on treatment, said CEO and founder Yasmine Hecker. “We make their job really easy,”  he said.

Some pest management companies use the service regularly; others use it when faced with difficult infestations, significant clutter, hoarding, or elderly or disabled tenants. Hecker recalled one job for a customer with multiple sclerosis whose apartment was so badly infested her team was “scooping cups of bed bugs off his bed.”

A former real estate management executive for an 1,800-unit luxury apartment in Manhattan, Hecker found elderly residents couldn’t do the required prep work, and pest control companies wouldn’t guarantee service without it. She started Prep 4 Bed Bugs three years ago.

Preparation is “a process and it’s a physical process; it’s arduous. The elderly or disabled can’t do it,” she explained.

Jobs are priced by the hour or job depending on the circumstances. Hecker’s minimum is $500 and includes one week of storage.

Opportunity to Grow Revenue. Pest management professionals see prep service as an opportunity to increase revenue. If you can fit it into your business model, prep service increases the treatment success rate and provides another income stream, said Pinto. “Who in this day and age wants to turn that away?”

Stern Environmental Group in Secaucus, N.J., started its Bed Bug Concierge service five years ago, said Senior Account Executive Brian Spada.

Fear of the pests was preventing clients and tenants from adhering to the company’s prep guidelines. It was costing time because technicians ended up prepping, said Spada.

The concierge service “helps 10-fold” by preventing cross contamination, eliminating guesswork and helping ensure confidentiality. “We’ve have better kill results,” reported Spada.

Assured Environments in New York City started a bed bug preparation division in March. “We’re very specific the way we want apartments prepared,” said Chief Operating Officer Barry Beck, “because we know with a properly prepared apartment, we can be 100 percent effective.”

Clients usually want to get bed bug treatment started right away, but they can’t prepare the site that fast. “We can send the crew right away” and relieve clients’ stress, said Beck. One-stop shopping makes it easy, he added.

The service has resulted in lower bed bug treatment prices at Stern Environmental, said Spada. Concierge service is priced by the job. Technicians are billed hourly and spend less time at the site. “We’re able to pass that savings on to the client.”

It “definitely has helped our business grow” and differentiates Stern from competitors, said Spada. “It’s a pretty easy sell.”

More Prep Services? Before bed bugs became so widespread, technicians often did the prep work. Many still do, but time-intensive jobs often can become unprofitable. “You might as well get paid to do it and do it right,” said Spada.

Overhead is relatively low to add on prep service, but smaller firms may need to hire personnel. Finding people who want to do the work could be a challenge, said Pinto. Of course, bed bug sanitation training is essential.

The service, whether an add-on or via an outside contractor, is a convenience for people unable or unwilling to do it themselves and also appeals to affluent customers who can afford to hire the work out.

It’s a “good answer” for property managers struggling with infestations, added Pinto. Threatening tenants with withholding treatment or fines if they don’t prepare doesn’t work and opens the door to legal problems. “Maybe spending more to get the prep will help solve this problem and help achieve a higher rate of success,” he said.

Prep service is growing in cities like New York and Philadelphia. Hecker estimates eight firms — including independent prep companies and pest management firms — offer the service in her market.

It’s hard to predict if it will pick up nationwide. “Everything about bed bugs is so unpredictable, except they keep getting worse,” said Pinto.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be reached at anagro@giemedia.com.

For Dorothy Breininger’s DVD on Hoarding, visit www.SavingOurParents.com

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