Back in 2007, Julia Dahl and her boyfriend, Joel Bukiewicz were informed of something unnecessary on the way to see a prospective apartment in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. “Before we get here, I should tell you that the guy who lived here before committed suicide.” – said the real estate agent.
Despite the uneasy feeling, Julia and Joel decided to see the apartment. The unit was a steal: a one-bedroom in a prewar walk-up on the southern lip of Prospect Park for $1,250. Despite the broker’s disclosure, the couple signed the lease and settled in, ironically, that Halloween. A short while later, neighbors introduced themselves, made the couple feel welcome, and talked about the former tenant, who had killed himself in the apartment a few weeks before it came on the market. “They did a good job cleaning it up,” one neighbor told the couple.
Dahl and her now-husband, Bukiewicz, lived in the cozy apartment for four years. While living in the apartment, the couple never experienced anything unusual or paranormal. What made their situation unusual, was their broker alerting them about the gruesome past of the apartment. Dahl and her husband might never have discovered the apartment’s grisly history had someone not told them about it.
In the U.S., if a home is more than a century old, chances are someone has died there. Dying did not move out of family homes and into hospitals until the early 20th century.
Tight market helps
Brokers say an apartment touched by death has become less of a deterrent, as the real estate market has become more competitive and good deals are rare.
Jonathan J. Miller, president of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel says – “When the market is very tight, these sort of things get overlooked,” Most renters or buyers won’t think twice if they stumble onto a hard-to-pass-up deal. Stigma an death surrounding an apartment fades away with time. “In a couple of years, it goes away, in terms of the stigma,” Miller said. “Especially if it’s an apartment that hasn’t been touched in 30, 40 years; they’re going to gut it no matter what.”
Prospective buyers and renters often come to the negotiating table knowing everything about an apartment or home, brokers say, having conducted their own internet searches and reviewed public records online.
In New York and elsewhere, brokers do not have to reveal if a property was the site of a death — suicide or homicide — or of a crime. These stigmatized properties are only obliged to disclose material defects: leaky pipes, termite damage, lead paint, bedbug infestations.
The only prospective renters that are more averse to the idea of living with the dead, are those of religious or cultural beliefs, said Karen S. Sonn, a real estate lawyer and founder of Sonn & Associates in Manhattan. Because of the internet, clients come to her more prepared because, an apartment’s history is easy to discover online.
“I have young, smart people who ask me everything,” she said. “They Google names. Everything’s available. When they come to me, they’re so well-informed; they know what they’re buying.”
Despite all these, the commonly asked questions are whether utilities included, is there a lien on the property, are pets allowed. Mystery and crime questions often go unasked, and so unanswered.
Must brokers disclose ghosts?
Most people would believe disclosing a property’s macabre past may seem like the ethical thing to do, and buyers or renters are likely to discover it on their own anyway, but some argue that when marketing a home, brokers should keep certain things secret.
“I think most Realtors actually think they have to disclose,” said Neil B. Garfinkel, a brokerage counsel for the Real Estate Board of New York who fields questions for its legal help line. “They can’t, they’re not supposed to at all,” he said. “The point is to make sure that the property is not stigmatized. It’s to protect the property.”
Economist and an author of “Real Estate Damages”, Randall Bell, who has consulted on the appraisals of notorious properties, like the homes of O.J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey, said a stigma can erase up to 25 percent of the value. He added, though, that as time passes and memories fade, the value eventually returns.
“My advice for brokers is to tell the truth,” Bell said. “I generally advise them to get the properties occupied. Don’t let them sit empty.”
Gawkers or wrecking balls
Unwanted attention to a property might be drawn by media reports — especially on a story covered nationally. This factor, along with simple pedestrian traffic generated by curiosity seekers can cut into home value. If a residence becomes a public showcase — like the house on Long Island that inspired the “The Amityville Horror” book and movies chronicling murders that happened there in 1974 — privacy concerns might drive away potential owners and cause the property value to plummet.
“The gawking question impacts both low- and high-profile cases, but it is more pronounced in the high-profile situations,” Bell said. His advice: “Just let it happen. Just let people get it out of their systems.”
Sometimes the value of a property is so deeply affected that the buildings are destroyed: The house where Adam Lanza murdered his mother before killing 20 children and seven adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, was acquired by the town and razed. The Hartford Courant quoted a resident as saying the home had become “a constant reminder of the evil that resided there.”
Life goes on
Though Dahl and her husband have since moved to the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn and started a family, she felt that her apartment in Windsor Terrace would have been a surefire place to meet a ghost if ghosts were real. “I never saw anything abnormal at all,” she said. “If he was a ghost, he was a friendly ghost.” She did relish the hunt for spirits whenever the opportunity presented itself: when the cat was acting weird, or she was alone in a darkened apartment and found herself standing in front of her bathroom mirror.
But nothing happened, and life moved on.