Is Listed Home a Crime Scene? How to Know Before You Buy


Would you buy serial killer Joel Rifkin's former home, where several of his victims were slain? What about the Amityville Horror house? Both homes are currently up for sale, and the idea of living in either one makes many buyers squirm and decide to look elsewhere.

Most buyers would also probably want to know that the house pictured to the left was built on the same suburban Chicago lot as the home where notorious murderer John Wayne Gacy buried 29 of his victims in the walls and crawl spaces.

Murder aside, quite a few buyers would also opt out of a home where someone died from disease, natural causes or suicide. If the idea of living in such a home churns your stomach, do you know for certain that no one has died in the home or apartment you're currently living in?

There are a few ways to find out; just don't expect to hear about them from the seller.
In most states that have formal seller-disclosure laws, sellers and their agents do not have to reveal if a death occurred in the home if you don't ask. And some states do not have to reveal it if it occurred more than a year or so ago, or if the death was due to AIDS-related complications. Seller-disclosure laws mostly focus on structural and material defects to the home, such as termites, mold and squeaky floorboards.

"In my opinion it would be better if they found out from the broker," a top Hamptons-area real estate agent, Diane Saatchi of Saunders & Assoc. told HousingWatch. Saatchi was the agent seeking renters for an infamous murder house in that area of Long Island, N.Y., a few years ago. Although she wouldn't identify which murder, it was more than likely the home of investment banker Robert Ammon, who was murdered by Daniel Pelosi, the boyfriend of his wife, Generosa Rand.

"Everyone in town knew there was a murder there -- it was the 800-pound elephant in the room -- so if you don't reveal it [the next occupants] would just say, 'Why didn't you tell us?' It is just good business to be upfront about it," she says.

In agreement is California Realtor Valerie Torelli, who has twice sold murder homes in Costa Mesa, Calif. Under California law, a seller must disclose if a murder was committed within the last three years. But she feels a duty to reveal beyond what the state mandates. "We felt that we should disclose for a much longer time-frame because of the stigma," she told HousingWatch.

Torelli's first client didn't care about the murder, which had occurred 18 months before. "There were several families that looked at it and would not consider it because of what happened there. Ultimately the property sold at full market value at the time, $729,000," she said. Her other client has renters in a murder home.

The reason some agents don't want to reveal the deaths is because, as the sellers' agents, their job is to get the home sold quickly and at the best possible price. If a murder is disclosed, the home could take 5 percent longer than comparable homes to sell, and it could price at an average of about 3 percent less, according to an analysis of 100 "psychologically impacted houses" by Wright State University professors James E. Larsen and Joseph W. Coleman.

So if an agent isn't as forthcoming as Torelli and Saatchi, or if they are even unaware because it wasn't a high-profile death, your best bet to uncover this tidbit is simply to do your homework. After all, it is "buyer beware."

Here are some tips to get you started before you sign on the dotted line:

1. Ask the Joneses. Neighbors generally would know if a home had been the scene of a grisly murder. They might also know if grandpa just passed away there and his heirs put the home on the market. So go knock on some doors and ask the neighbors things like: How's traffic in the morning? Are there lots of kids in the neighborhood? And oh, did anyone die next door?

2. Pull police records. Police precincts serving that neighborhood generally would charge you a nominal fee to give you a printout of any police calls made to a given address going back a few years. Discover whether the home was a meth lab, a constant site of domestic disputes, hit by a random burglary, or had body parts stuffed under floorboards.

3. Google the address. Sometimes you'll discover newspaper articles written about the home or incidents that occurred there. In addition to the exact address, also try searching the street and city name with the words "in the block of."

4. Check city records. Just as you might want to know if the cross street is going to be turned into a major highway, you can find out a lot from city records, such as if the plot nextdoor used to be a cemetery, or if the house was torn down and rebuilt. If it was, you should ask why. One house that was demolished was serial killer John Wayne Gacy's suburban Chicago home. After the lot sat empty for about a decade, a new home was finally built there.


If you're the seller . . .

You can do your part to help the sale, says Saatchi. For starters, refurbish parts of the home that might have been revealed a lot in the news. For example, the "Amityville Horror" house became highly recognizable because of its arched windows on a side of the house. A future owner replaced them with square ones.

Also, have someone live in the house until it's sold, she says. "People already think it's creepy that someone died there, but empty houses add another layer of spookiness." A housekeeper remained in a murder house Saatchi had listed until a new occupant was found.

And finally, do all those other things that you should be doing to sell a home anyway: "Don't have dead flowers in the house; get rid of the Kitty Litter smell; make sure there's not a dead bird on the patio. If kids have lived there, the toys and dolls should be fresh-looking, not a pathetic-looking doll. And get rid of memorabilia that could remind seekers of the deceased," she says.

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