Did the Seller Die in the House?
Buying a Home After Sellers Died in the House
If you haven't considered whether a seller has died in the house, you will now. Because when you start out to buy a home, the least likely question on your mind is whether the seller died in the house. You're much more apt to be thinking about where your furniture will fit and whether you can afford the mortgage payment, than if anybody ever died in the house. But to some home buyers, a death in the house is an insurmountable defect.
Would You Buy a House If the Sellers Died Inside?
Many home buyers will say it depends on exactly how the seller died in the house. Some types of death carry stronger messages and are more horrifying to picture, than, say, an elderly seller who succumbed to a predictable death.
- Did the seller trip down the stairs, crack open her head and instantly die on the spot?
- Did a burglar break in and surprise the seller by shooting her point-blank between the eyes in the middle of the living room?
- Was the seller ill for a long time before dying peacefully and quietly in her sleep?
- Was the home the scene of a homicide such as a wife slipping rat poison into her husband's morning coffee, then laughing in glee as he keeled over at the breakfast table?
- Perhaps the home was turned into an indoor pot farm, and drug lords kicked in the front door, spraying machine gun bullets everywhere?
Buyers of Victorian homes should realize that in the early 1900s, many people were born at home and died at home. It is likely a death could have occurred in the house over the years. Does it matter if it happened 150 years ago or do only recent deaths bother you? You can be certain that many 400-year-old homes in France, for example, could have been subjected at one point to the French Revolution and its occupants mass murdered. It probably doesn't bother the French. But Americans feel weird about such matters.
Consider how this couple handled the situation when informed that the seller died in the house. Let's call them Rosie and Robert. Robert asked whether a death had occurred in the home they were buying. His buyer's agent assured him that most listing agents would note in the agent comments of the MLS listing that a seller had died and, since there was no notation, it was unlikely.
But when the buyer's agent received the disclosures, sure enough, they contained a disclosure that the seller's 35-year-old husband had died in the upstairs' bedroom after a long battle with brain cancer. The buyers were mortified. A death in the house made a difference to Robert.
His agent offered to cancel the contract but first explained that any house Rosie and Robert might buy could carry the stigma of a death. After all, who lived in the area hundreds of years ago? Before any homes were built? Native Americans who lived on the land. Who knows what lies under layers of dirt. Nobody. Rosie and Robert decided since it wasn't the scene of a grisly murder, they would still buy the home.
Should Listing Agents Disclose if Sellers Died in the House?
Not all states require identical seller disclosures. For example, in Colorado, neither the agent nor his sellers are required to disclose if a person died in the house. But in California, if a death occurred within the past 3 years, it's considered a material fact and must be disclosed.
When a seller in Sacramento disclosed to her agent that her husband had died five years ago at home in bed, the agent suggested that even though the death happened outside of the three-year window, it was still a good idea to tell the buyers.
Sellers should use common sense. If it's a fact that you would want to know when buying a home, then you should probably disclose it.
Some classes are protected, however, such as sellers who die from A.I.D.S. In California, sellers should disclose the death if it happened within three years, but the cause of death, if due to A.I.D.S., is confidential.
On the other hand, what about a suicide? I just sold home in which the seller's mother had died from suicide by asphyxiation. We explained it as self-inflicted asphyxiation. It sounded better than the word suicide.
How Does a Death in the House Affect Price?
Take the JonBenet Ramsey house in Boulder, Colorado. This was the notorious home where the 6-year-old blonde model, whose photo was splashed across newspapers in 1996, had been strangled and bludgeoned; her body left lying lifeless in the basement for hours.
It was first acquired about a year later by a group of investors for $650,000. But it sold again shortly thereafter to the daughter of TV-evangelist Robert Schuller for more than a million dollars. The first buyers even changed the number of the house address. However, that tactic didn't help the second set of buyers. They eventually deserted the home because of the constant traffic caused by tourists and gawkers poking around.
Another stigmatized home, located in the Curtis Park neighborhood of Sacramento, languished on the market for months after a man kicked in the back door and brutally beat an 82-year-old woman. He ransacked the place and left the woman unconscious inside the house. Potential home buyers were concerned that the location of the home, which backed up to an abandoned railroad yard, was unsafe. Even though the seller survived the attack, she no longer wanted to live there. Neither did anybody else. It eventually sold for thousands less than market value.
Most people, I imagine, worry about whether a death in the home could happen to themselves. If the location of the home somehow encouraged thugs to break in, that's one thing. It might happen again. But what about the home where a guy hung himself in the closet? That's probably not ever going to happen again.
If you're thinking about selling a house in which people have died, you might also consider changing the address. Many cities provide online applications to petition for a house number change.
At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.