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If The Walls Could Speak: Would You Buy this House?

Buying or selling a house when it has an unfortunate history.....would you want to know?

The majority of the time that someone is buying a house, it's an exciting albeit occasionally overwhelming experience. Decisions about locations, school districts, styles of homes, and most importantly, budget all come into play.  Emotion often overrides logic, and having a solid and neutral party guide the ship is extremely helpful. Now and then, a particularly inquisitive buyer will pop up a question, usually at the most random times (like, oh, walking up the basement stairs) of "did anyone die in this house?" Talk about adding to the emotional barometer of the experience if the answer happens to be, "yes."

Often enough, the question of "why is this house for sale" comes up, even though it is in essence, irrelevant. Whether it's simply because a seller is relocating due to work, they just need a bigger house because of lifestyle changes such as an older family member moving in or a new baby, they are downsizing and want to retire to go sell seashells on the sea shore, or in more unfortunate circumstances, possibly they need to move due to a divorce, job loss, or illness. In even far less common yet equally real instances, the house may be for sale for tragic reasons such as an untimely passing of one of the household members whether it be illness or even more unsettling, a murder or suicide. That arises the often-debated question: shouldn't that be disclosed? 

The answer: yes and no.  

Yes if asked directly in relation to a homicide/suicide and answered to the best of the agent's knowledge, no, if not asked. In 1998 in Massachusetts, Governor Paul Cellucci signed H. 2099, "An Act Relative to the Disclosure of Information in Real Estate Transactions."  This act covers the protection of HIV-status of a previous occupant (or conversely, the non-existence of HIV), which does not need to be disclosed as that disrespects the individual's privacy.  It also covers whether or not a tragedy such as a suicide or a homicide need to be brought up.  

To quote the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS (MAR), which can be viewed on:  "http://www.marealtor.com/content/stigmatizedproperty.htm, "Due to the passage of this new legislation the answer to these types of questions is now clear, absent a specific inquiry about the incident by the prospective purchaser, there is no duty for the broker to either investigate or affirmatively disclose murders, suicides, allegations of ghosts or other potential stigmas. However, unlike the situation with HIV issues described above, if a consumer does ask, however, the licensee must answer the question regarding the stigma honestly and to the best of their knowledge."

This is a question that has concerned both real estate agents and REALTORS(r) alike for years.  From a seller's perspective, they recognize that the stigma may cause a potential buyer to shy (or sprint) away from buying or even looking at their house if the buyers were to know that their house has been the scene of a crime or tragedy, even though the house itself is not to blame and may otherwise be just the house that the buyer wanted.  

It is the opinion of many that it dimininshes the market value and may be the talk of the neighborhood where the new kids on the block get taunted later for having lived in "that house." Not the best way to be welcomed into a new area and town, admittedly. So sellers may want this fact to not be immediately disclosed and hope for the best that no one figures it out or that over time, it will be the story of the month but later forgotten as a distant memory as other current events take its place. Sometimes so much time has passed that even agents or people in town have to wonder if that was "the" house or not, and as with any story, usually by then major details can get skewed as the tale grows on down the line.

Sometimes, the more national or worldwide-known cases such as that of the late JonBenet Ramsey, that house was sold for in 1996 for $650,000 about a year after her death.  It supposedly sold not much longer after that to someone for $1,000,000, and they eventually deserted the house due to the overwhelming lack of privacy, tourists, and gawkers that came with buying a house with a sensational story.

Although I have, to the best of my knowledge, not listed nor sold a house that has been the scene of a horrific tragedy, I know many agents who have. One in particular sold a house in a Greater Boston neighborhood back prior to the enactment of this legislation, and they were the agent for a family moving in from out of state. Since some time had passed from the incident, it wasn't immediately top-of-mind that this house was a murder scene in the past. However, the new sellers had instructed their agent not to disclose it (which may have been the case to be able to do at that time), and when it surfaced as these things tend to do, both the buyers' agent and the family were less than thrilled with the lack of the sellers' agent and sellers themselves not being forthcoming. They ultimately withdrew from their purchase. Another house in Greater Boston where a well-publicized and horrific murder occured was sold multiple times, once even privately, and each time that it was discovered about the history of the previous owners, it was sold for less than what typical market value would have been at that time.  

Now if there were known physical defects to that (or any) house that the respective agents were aware of but did not disclose, that's an entirely different story. That has to do with the house, so therefore, that is relevant.

In New England in particular, our houses have been around for hundreds of years. It was commonplace that people were both born and died at home, and even in more recent years, some with terminal illness have wanted to spend their last days in their own home.   We cannot expect that every house has not had its share of stories.  As it relates to sudden deaths, the circumstances surrounding it may vary, too. Was it a true accident?  Was it the result of a burgular?  Was it an unfortunate domestic situation? 

This is why in some cultures, buying a brand new or new-as-possible house ranks highly on their criteria. For example, those who follow Vastu will know that buying a house with no negative history at all is very important for them and this kind of disclosure would be imperative for their comfort, and obtaining and keeping the trust level of your clientele if that is a criteria you know to be important for them is equally important. This is just one of their many criteria which I personally find very interesting and will be covered in future writings.

There always being the devil's advocate in the crowd, whenever I've been asked socially if this situation has arisen for me, there has been at least one or two who have said, "Oh, I'd want to know, and I'd still buy it!"   Some say it wouldn't be ideal, but if they liked the house enough and everything else made sense for them, they may still buy it regardless; they just wouldn't want to be blindsided and to make their own decision. 

Who knows whether they really would or not, but there's always at least one in the crowd...

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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