Anyone out there live in a haunted house? It might seem like a silly question, but as home sales pick up you should know there are laws against selling a house without full disclosure.
A seller is required to reveal a number of things about his or her home. Like the condition of roof shingles or whether they have had issues with termites, persistent leaks or radon gas. Now, in a growing number of states, the seller must also report suspected poltergeist problems.
Think you’ve seen ghosts in the hallway? Do objects in the home mysteriously move from place to place, or have you seen furniture levitating off the floor? How about hearing odd and spooky noises in the dead of night?
I know, who wants to admit to total strangers (let alone a real estate agent) that they think their house is haunted? But there is case law on the books about the issue, and if the buyer suddenly gets freaked out about spirit shenanigans in their newly purchased home, they could decide to go to court to try to get their money back.
The professionals in real estate call these houses “stigmatized properties,” and about half of all states have laws regulating their sales, according to the National Association of Realtors. The history of these places can include murders and suicides to people with certain diseases who died in the home. Worrisome histories can cause buyers to shy away for fear the place might be haunted. And the Association of Realtors says it happens more often than you’d think.
The most documented case of buyer’s remorse occurred in 1990 in the village of Nyack, N.Y. Patrice and Jeffrey Stambovsky decided to buy a big, beautiful $650,000 Victorian home nestled near the Hudson River. They plunked down $32,500 as a deposit. Helen Ackley, the owner of the four-bedroom, two-bathroom property had decided to retire to Florida, and when she put up the house for sale she failed to inform the buyers about her ghostly tenants. Neither did her real estate agent.
To be fair, Ackley had openly talked about the benevolent spirits who had occupied space with her family over the years. The information was out there. The elderly woman had described her ghost’s activities in detail — how they left gifts around the house, once helped her decide what color to paint a room and shook her bed each morning to awaken her — to the local newspaper. In fact, Ackley’s story of poltergeists appeared three times in the paper between 1977 and 1989. She had also given a detailed interview for an article in Reader’s Digest. The home was even featured as part of a walking tour of “haunted houses” in Nyack.
After a local resident met the visiting Stambovskys and said, “Oh, you’re buying the haunted house?” the couple wanted to back out of the deal. They lived 30 miles south in New York City and had no knowledge of the folklore about the house. The couple did not appear at the signing, which meant they forfeited their down payment, but they were no longer obligated to buy the house. Ackley, in no hurry to get to Florida, would not cancel the sale or return the buyer’s money, so they all headed to court.
The case took a while to resolve. The Stambovskys lost the first round after a lower court ruled it was their obligation to research the history of the home before committing to buy. But the New York State Court of Appeals ultimately ruled in the couple’s favor. The point of the story is, of course, that it is far better to be upfront about suspected paranormal activity in your home than to keep it a secret. You could be tied up in court for years!
Some states have a long list of stigmas that must be reported. They range from violent deaths, suicides and sex crimes to drug activity — specifically drug manufacturing at the location, since the chemicals used could seep into the walls or foundation.
In California, for example, a seller is bound to answer the buyer’s question about any deaths that occurred in the home. Illinois statutes state that since ghosts would not have an effect on the “physical condition” of the home, they do not need to be disclosed. In New Jersey, on the other hand, real estate agents and sellers are specifically required to disclose “psychological impairments” inherent in a property — and, yes, that includes the fact that it purports to be haunted. The same holds in Hawaii, where the culture of spirituality and respect for the land requires full paranormal disclosure.
In the last Gallup poll that asked the question, “Do you believe that houses can be haunted?” 37 percent of Americans said yes. Thirty-two percent agreed that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations. So take heart — if you tell a potential buyer your place comes with unexplainable cold spots, creaky nighttime sounds and floating apparitions, you might not shock them at all. Some buyers are actively looking for just such properties.
Back in the day, the magician The Amazing Kreskin was interested in buying the Ackley house. But then a team of paranormal investigators reported that the ghosts inside the old Victorian told them it wasn’t much fun haunting the house without Helen Ackley in it. Someone else bought it — fully aware of its controversial history — and there have been no more public reports of hauntings ever since.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.