Discover the Home’s Past the Seller Won’t Tell You
October 17, 2018
In the bewitching town of Salem, Mass., America’s original haunted city, we celebrate Halloween year-round. The site of the infamous Salem witch trials in the late 1600s, our rich history in the dark arts has become a tongue-in-cheek part of local life—even in real estate. Many homes here have spooky backstories or odd features that reflect the historic folklore of the area—like the one I recently toured during a broker’s open that had a hidden room reserved for black magic, complete with shrines and voodoo dolls. I’m no stranger to sensitively talking buyers and sellers through the sale of a home with bad juju.
But stigmatized properties, no matter where they’re located, aren’t always obvious. You might expect a seller or listing agent to reveal details about a home’s past that are pertinent to the sale, but they’re not always required to do so. Most states require sellers to disclose physical property defects, but a stigma—an intangible, often psychological effect—is a bit more nebulous. Many states don’t require the disclosure of a stigma, so your buyers may never know the house they bought was, say, the scene of a violent, gruesome crime until they hear it second-hand from neighbors after moving in. That can leave your clients with a serious case of buyer’s remorse, feeling uncomfortable with the place they call home.
In Massachusetts, the burden is on buyers to ask the right questions when it comes to property stigmas; it is not on sellers to disclose. Wherever you live, it’s important to know your state’s disclosure laws and help your clients research properties they’re considering purchasing. After all, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Here are specific steps you can take.
- Ask for a disclosure form early in the transaction. Get all disclosures in writing, ideally before submitting an offer. Make sure the seller includes items that were revealed in the course of conversation, whether they’re legally required to be disclosed or not. This can help your buyers get a legal review of the disclosures and come to a decision about whether to move forward with a purchase before investing too much time.
- Search the property online. When Googling an address, make sure to look at the “news” tab of the search results for articles that may have been written about the home. Information about properties designated as historic landmarks—which often have eerie or unsavory pasts—may also be found at local preservation organizations. While you’re at it, check local police records for any criminal reports that may be concerning.
- Get the neighborhood gossip. Meet the next-door neighbors and ask about their impressions of the neighborhood. If the home your client wants to buy is known as a nuisance for any reason, the neighbors likely will offer up that information.
What If You Discover a Stigma?
Don’t automatically assume your buyer will no longer be interested in the property. Hauntings and other stigmas matter more to some than others. But even rumors of paranormal activity can make some buyers second-guess moving forward with a transaction. Your job is to inform your clients of everything you’ve learned about a home and let them come to their own purchase decision. You should, however, discuss adjusting the buyer’s expectations, contingency terms, and offer price once a stigma is discovered. Ultimately, your clients need to feel they’ve gotten a good deal if they’re going to share their space with ghostly guests.
—Dana Bull, Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty
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Updated: September 18, 2020