If you found out that someone had died in a house you were planning to rent or buy, what would you do? Go ahead and move in without a thought, or leave the possibly ghost-ridden place for some other sucker? What if it wasn't just a death, say, from accident or sickness, but a murder? Would that change your mind? What about multiple homicides?
For many people these sorts of questions aren't just fun hypothetical quandaries.They're real-life dilemmas. There are tens of thousands of murders each year and most of them occur in or near someone's home. After the police have finished their investigation and the crime scene is cleaned up, sooner or later someone new is likely to move in.
In a few high-profile cases, an entire house where crimes occurred may be torn down, as happened when kidnapper Ariel Castro's Cleveland home -- where he held three girls captive for nearly a decade -- was demolished in 2013.
In many older cities and towns across the country and around the world, it is a statistical likelihood that almost any home or building built before the 1940s is probably associated with someone's death at some point. This is especially true for many extended families who housed several generations under one roof.
In the real estate business, these are often called "stigmatized" properties because a social stigma is attached to the house or location. Beliefs about ghosts and the dead have been influenced by pop culture, such as the 1982 horror film "Poltergeist," in which a family is haunted and attacked by spirits of the dead buried under their new home.
A Missouri woman who recently rented a home was shocked to find out that it had been previously lived in by a serial killer. According to a story by KMOV-TV, the home is "a typical North County ranch house on a tree-lined street. Catrina McGhaw signed the lease without worry. Her section 8 voucher covered $810 in rent. Until a family member told McGhaw to check out a cold case documentary about serial killers airing on the A&E Network. McGhaw is living in the same Ferguson, Missouri house serial killer Maury Travis used as a torture chamber. The landlord even gave her the dining room table; the same one from the crime scene photos."
Mr. Travis's mother, who owns the home, claims she disclosed the home's bloody history to her renter, though McGhaw is pretty sure she would have remembered someone mentioning torture murders. McGhaw, who suggested that an evil spirit or ghosts might lurk in the basement, is moving out at the end of the month.
The fact is that in many places a renter or seller is not legally required to notify anyone about a house's gory history unless it relates to a material defect. Last year, a Pennsylvania court ruled that homeowners and real estate agents are not required to disclose to potential buyers if killings took place there years earlier.
The decision stemmed from a Delaware woman who bought a home only to later discover that a murder-suicide had occurred there a year earlier. She claimed that she never would have bought the home had she known of the deaths and that her home's tarnished reputation amounted to a material defect akin to a leaky roof or broken furnace. The judges disagreed.
While some people would refuse to live in a place where a murder had been committed (or ghosts were reputed to dwell), others are eager to move in. Many real estate agents say they have clients who are eager to live in a haunted home.
An ABC News story notes that
"There are buyers out there that think it's cool to own a home that may have ghosts,' real estate agent Cindi Hagley told ABC News' '20/20.' Based in California, Hagley runs Past Life Homes, specializing in the selling of so-called 'stigmatized properties,' and that includes haunted houses. 'Right now we are in a seller's market in almost all of northern California,' Hagley said. 'You can have a dead body swinging from the chandelier, and I'm still going to have ten offers on the phone.' Hagley said plenty of houses for sale come with supposed tenants of the supernatural type, who have allegedly lived there for hundreds of years.... Even after telling potential buyers that the house is haunted, Hagley said many are still interested. 'Some don't care. Some expect a huge discount,' said Hagley. A Realtor.com survey found that 62 percent of Americans would consider buying a haunted house, while 35 percent think they've lived in a haunted house."
If you are trying to sell a "stigmatized" home, there are creative ways to deal with the issue. Last year singer Olivia Newton-John had a priest perform an exorcism on a Florida home she had listed for sale. A contractor had killed himself in the home, and Newton-John was concerned about the social and spiritual stigma associated with the residence.
The exorcism was used to assure potential buyers that the place is not cursed or haunted. Whether you want a haunted house—or want to avoid one -- the advice is always the same: caveat emptor.