Stigmatized Properties: Haunted Houses?

When my wife was a child, she used to visit a friend who lived in an older home where years before a young man had committed suicide. Though the whole neighbourhood knew about the death, my wife’s young friend and his family seemed to be have been unaware of the violent incident.

Some buyers might refuse to purchase a home in which this kind of event has occurred, fearing that murders and suicides leave some kind of psychic imprint on a home. Though the knowledge that someone died in the home of course does not change the physical building in any way, it may change a subsequent owner’s perception and enjoyment of the home. In the real estate market, such homes fall into a very broad category known as stigmatized properties.

Stigmatizing events may make it difficult to sell a home and may even force the owner to sell at less than normal market value. What constitutes a stigmatizing event, though, is highly subjective and to a large extent a matter of one’s personal perception and beliefs. Knowing that the previous owner died peacefully in the home, for example, might not disturb potential home buyers in the same way that a murder or suicide might.

In many North American jurisdictions, home sellers aren’t required to inform potential buyers that a death took place on the property. California’s disclosure laws, however, are particularly clear. The state’s legislation requires that all deaths that occurred in a home during the last three years prior to its sale must be disclosed. Three years, though, is only a short period when one considers, for example, the long and potentially dark history that may be associated with a Victorian-era home.

Alberta’s provincial legislation is less stringent than that of California, and doesn’t require sellers or real estate agents—unless they’re specifically asked—to inform prospective buyers about a death that occurred on a property. Owners, on the other hand, may hesitate to share information about a home’s history, as the disclosure of potentially stigmatizing events might force the property to sell for less than market value.

According to Bonnie Wegerich, president of the Calgary Real Estate Board, “Routinely realtors would not likely ask if someone had died in a home unless they had heard about something in the news or heard from a neighbour. In the event where a person was murdered in the home, the family often tells the realtor so that there is no surprise to the buyer. But that is not required by law.”

Realtors might, however, ask questions about estate sales. “If a realtor sees that a home is an estate sale, then the realtor will get the information from the listing realtor. The listing realtor will ask about the history as well. For some (buyers) a person passing away in a house may not be an issue if it was from natural causes. If this is a concern for a buyer,” suggests Wegerich, “they need to let their realtor know so that they can ask the right questions.

“Personally I am not aware of any homes where a buyer bought a stigmatized property and found out after the fact . . . I do know that once it is a firm sale they would need to talk to their lawyer if that is important to them. But,” warns Wegerich “ultimately they are in a valid contract.”

“There is no legal requirement to disclose a death unless asked,” confirms Andrea Snow of the Edmonton Real Estate Board. “Caveat emptor (buyer beware). Of course the buyer’s agent will discuss the buyer’s needs, wants, and concerns to ensure (that he or she) understands what’s important to the buyer.

“Whether the death is natural or not, the neighbours will undoubtedly know and share with the new owners,” suggests Snow, “so it is the seller’s decision on whether to disclose up front.” Nevertheless, like Wegerich, she is not aware of any instances in which buyers complained that they had not been informed of a death on a property, only to learn about it after purchasing a home.

Prominent Edmonton real estate agent Don Sutton, however, was involved with one sale in which the seller had been unaware of a stigmatizing event in the home’s history. “The buyer discovered it through talking to one of the neighbours. Although the conditions were removed . . . the seller gave the buyer his deposit back. The property sold to someone else shortly after that.

“Good advice for any buyer with these concerns,” adds Sutton, “would be talk to the neighbours. There is always someone on the block who knows everything.”

For home buyers concerned about the history of a home, the message is clear: ask! Ask the agent, ask the seller, ask the people next door.

For some people, however, It’s not simply the knowledge of past events That’s disturbing. Sometimes, the buyer may feel that, as a result of a death on the property, his or her material, solid, tangible asset is subject to something immaterial, ethereal, and somewhat intangible. In other words, they might believe that the house is actually haunted by the spirit of the deceased. In fact, a reputation for being haunted is another issue that may stigmatize a property.

Although a seller’s failure to disclose information about stigmatizing events could lead to a lawsuit, proving that one has unwittingly purchased a haunted house may be difficult—though not impossible. In a famous case in Nyack, New York, a couple placed a deposit on a property only to learn afterward that the house had a reputation for being haunted. According to the Illinois Business Law Journal, the New York Supreme Court ruled that, as the alleged haunting had in fact been publicized by the sellers, the house was “as a matter of law” considered to be haunted. The buyers successfully recovered their deposit.

Sutton reports that in 34 years in the business, he has never heard of any haunted houses in the Edmonton real estate market. He has, however, dealt with a stigmatized property as the listing agent for a home belonging to a murdered drug dealer. Potential buyers didn’t seem worried about the spirit of the deceased causing any trouble. Instead, they were concerned about possible visits from the drug dealer’s former clients who may not have known about their supplier’s death.

Still, many people are fearful that spirits of the dead do indeed linger in homes. It has long been the perception, according to Owen Davies, author of The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, that hauntings were often associated with places where someone had died. Prior to our era of extensive medical interventions (in which many people breathe their last in hospitals), most died in their homes, frequently in the bedroom. According to Davies, a University of Hertfordshire social historian, this room in particular was often considered the focus of ghostly activity. A ghost might appear at the foot of the bed or rudely awaken a sleeper by violently pulling the covers off.

Davies also cites historical instances in which hauntings had an impact upon a home’s resale value. Sometimes ghosts even rendered houses completely uninhabitable: in 19th century London, several homes thought to be haunted were simply left derelict.

In any case, people who have an active interest in studying ghosts tend to report experiences that are generally more subtle than those portrayed in popular and sensationalistic films like The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist. British ghost hunter and television personality Jason Karl assures his readers that ghosts actually tend to be benign. In his book Jason Karl’s Great Ghost Hunt: A Spectral Journey Through Britain’s Haunted Realms, he does however indicate that some malevolent spirits may physically assault people, and that pop celebrity Sting was driven from his haunted London mansion by a knife-hurling supernatural entity. The ghost hunter nevertheless reports there are “no recorded incidents of ghosts killing anyone.”

Ghosts are, according to Karl, “for the most part harmless—simply a reminder of the past that in some cases becomes a rightful member of the household.” In other words, don’t worry if you seem to be sharing your home with the spirit of a former resident.

But “a rightful member of the household?” Believe it or not, there are people who seem to have no problem living with ghosts.

“I definitely enjoy living with the right spirits,” confirms Morgan Knudsen, who happens to live with the spirit of a cat she calls Horatio. Knudsen is the cofounder of EntitySeeker, which she established with Stephanie Wertz. The organization is involved with paranormal research and investigations, so Knudsen obviously knows a thing or two about dealing with spirits. ?It can be a great experience and they can be great company. I’m definitely not alone in that either—our investigator, Matt, lives with two (spirits) that are always very busy around the house being that one of them actually built the home when he was alive.”

And for people who believe they are being victimized by unwelcome spirits in the home, EntitySeeker can offer help. “Our program, Teaching The Living,” reports Knudsen, “is a brand new way of thinking in the field. we’re really proud we’ve had so much success with it.”

Explains Knudsen, “we are all spirits (with physical or non-physical bodies) and we interact with each other—therefore, we can influence how one treats us and vice versa. Lots of spirits stay for the location, absolutely, including some of the negative ones. Some love their home and want to see it go to someone positive or they had good memories there.”

According to Knudsen, it is not only the spirits of people who died in the home that can take up residence. “Negative entities who are extremely possessive (something that causes them often to act aggressively) will (also) be drawn to locations.”

“In a haunted location,” warns Knudsen, “spirits will figure out quick what their relationship with you will be like (as we do with the living) and often conduct themselves accordingly. If they break a glass wanting you to leave the room and you run away, you’ve just sent the message that if they break something, they can make you leave.”

From Knudsen, however, one gets the impression that ghosts do not routinely break glass or throw knives, but instead make their presence known through other means. “Each type of haunting comes with different warning signs, but noises that are unaccounted for, movement of objects, smells that don’t correspond with the area (and) voices are signs that something might be up.”

Rather than attempting to banish or exorcise spirits, EntitySeeker teaches people how their behaviours and attitudes affect their relationship with the spiritual world. “We teach people to begin to create and inspire the behaviour they want, and stand up (against) what they do not want,” explains Knudsen. “Often, when we get a haunting that is dangerous or a negative spirit has intruded, It’s not usually ‘why,’ but ‘why not.’  Those kinds of entities often follow upset, vulnerable, chaotic situations or places where the energy (due to past or current events) has been that way. We teach balance rather than ‘fighting against,’ because anything you ‘fight against,’ gets worse. If you are balanced emotionally, mentally, physically, and energetically within yourself and your environment, negative entities have nothing to play with.”

EntitySeeker gets many requests to investigate haunting situations, but don’t assume that Knudsen and her colleagues blame spirits for every unusual situation they encounter. “Many natural explanations can account for strange happenings, including electromagnetic fields, the age of the home, medical illness, etc… the list goes on. We do extensive interviews with family and witnesses, ensuring consistency in stories, medical facts, drug use, etc. The equipment we use is to monitor the environment, trying to assess the situation and get as much on film as possible for an objective look.”

Though Knudsen and her colleagues are armed with modern technology and employ a modern psychological perspective (she in fact makes reference to Dr. Phil), they are part of a very long tradition in which the spirits of the dead are believed to haunt the living. Their investigations may, to a large extent, be seen as an effort to explore the impact that a home’s former residents have upon the present. Like the potential buyer enquiring about a home’s history, they are attempting to discover certain aspects of the building’s past.

“To be haunted by a ghost is to be haunted by the past,” writes John Potts, Associate Professor in Media at Sydney, Australia’s Macquarie University. But the manner in which one may be “haunted” can take many forms. Some people believe that the investigations of ghost hunters, delving into energy fields, bumps in the night, and disembodied voices demonstrate that the spirits of the dead are with us. That world may appear to be in stark contrast with the realm of real estate sales that focuses on square footage, location, and modern upgrades. Nevertheless, is the real estate industry’s concept of stigmatized properties—in which past events leaving no physical affect on a home can result in lawsuits and influence real property value—really so far removed from the notion of haunted houses? The spectre of stigmatized houses and the investigations of ghost hunters each seem to suggest that the lives, and especially the deaths, of a home’s former residents may indeed have an effect upon the living.

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