By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Brent Moore.
Garages. Clothes lines. Swimming pools. Murders.
What do they all have in common? They’re all variables that can affect rent. The first three you can readily see, but the last? Barring bloodstains, bullet holes, or ballsy neighbors, you’ll have to figure that one out yourself. As it turns out, only about half of the states hold laws specifying what has to be disclosed in a real-estate transaction.
In fact, California is the only state with strict guidelines, and even they only require landlords to disclose information about deaths on a property if they occurred within three years of the lease signing. South Dakota and Alaska are one year, but only for murders and suicides. You can, however, ask your landlord a direct question on the subject and expect it to be answered honestly. Something like, “did people hang themselves in my garage?” would require a flat out yes or no, but without any personal details.
In the real-estate world, homes with sordid stories are referred to as “stigmatized properties,” provided their past is publicly known. While it used to be that some level of privacy might have remained intact after a tragedy, with the internet and social media being what it is, it’s probable that any property with unfortunate stories will become stigmatized. There are manuals from organizations like the National Association of Realtors (NAR) detailing just how to go about renting or selling stigmatized properties, and hundreds of articles on how these stigmas lower prices.
For example, the Jeffrey Dahmer house in Ohio sold to musician Chris Butler for an insanely low $269,000. It was the same house where the serial killer known for brutally murdering and cannibalizing 17 men and boys dwelled. Many crimes took place in his three-bedroom, 2,170 square-foot home; one case involved Dahmer killing a hitchhiker and burying the body in the backyard. Butler told MSN that he fell in love with the property and the price before the seller ultimately disclosed the tumultuous history. After Butler found out, he was “shocked” and thought, “I can’t do this,” but eventually came to terms and purchased it after all.
Recently, an anonymous source from Hoboken, New Jersey, told the Huffington Post about how a young man committed suicide within her apartment building. That unit then remains vacant several months after, an anomaly for such a popular, densely populated neighborhood. HGTV reports that the case is no shock, as stigmatized properties usually remain on the market 45 percent longer. When a new renter is found, they’ll have no way of knowing what happened in their apartment unless the community or their landlord informs them.
Murder-house mysteries are what inspired Roy Condrey to found Died In House, a database that allows users to pay a one-time fee or monthly subscription and plug in an address to see if anyone died there.
Condrey tells BTR that he owns several properties that he rents out. One day, he received a startling text from a tenant, reading, “do you know your house is haunted?” Condrey responded immediately asking her to elaborate, and while waiting for a reply, realized he didn’t know anything about the history of the house–let alone the number of fatalities. Research revealed that while no one died in that particular house, several deaths did occur in other places he owned.
“If you’re looking at a house and someone comes along and says, ‘Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub here,’ wouldn’t that impact your decision to buy or rent?” Condrey says.
He reasons that if he were the potential renter, he would care to understand the haunted history behind his new home, and that others likely feel the same.
“Our job isn’t to persuade you, just provide you with the information,” Condrey says.
Randall Bell, a socio-economist, real estate agent, and expert in appraising stigmatized properties, reports that sordid stories can depreciate property value up to 20 percent. For a buyer, that’s bad. For a renter, that could work in your favor–depending on how superstitious you are.
Superstition actually weighs heavily into this equation. People who pass on a stigmatized property despite a low price have a reason behind their decision.
”According to a poll that says 41 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, we can take a good guess at what that reason is,” says Condrey.
There’s a whole subset of stigmatized properties called “psychologically impacted” houses, meaning that supernatural occurrences were knowingly reported. Two business professors at Wright State University studied over 100 of these properties and found that they price at an average of 2.5 percent less than comparable homes.
An entire industry even sprouted up around believers. Never mind reality shows like Long Island Medium, real life ghost hunters are thriving in every state. Tony Nistico, member of the Tri-state Paranormal Society who researches ghostly activity in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, tells BTR that they mostly work upon the request of property owners. Such inspections are always for people who occupy their homes for some time–never before they decide to move in.
“Most states require you to disclose physical problems with the property, but in some states you need to reveal what is called ‘emotional defects,’” Nisitco says. “Most of the time you can keep it vague, but in the New York State Supreme Court I believe they decided sellers must inform buyers of all defects, including hauntings.”
Nistico is referring to the famous New York trial Stambovsky v. Ackley, in which the buyer sued the seller for not disclosing reports of property hauntings previously published in Reader’s Digest and written by the seller herself. The buyer was able to nullify his contract and get his down payment back, and New York instigated a disclosure law around hauntings. Basically, it states that whether or not a property is actually haunted is irrelevant. If it is publicly reported as such, the seller must inform the buyer. The standard, however, does not apply to renters.
So, yes, a stigmatized property will most likely have a lower rent–but unless you’re within the statute of limitations, or have an especially keen sense for sleuthing, you’ll probably never know it factored into the price. You could take Condrey up on his offer and go plug in your address to Died In House, but everything ultimately comes down to a fundamental question.
Do you believe in ghosts?